The Interactive Role of Strategies, Approaches, and Purpose in Digital Problem Solving

When thinking about how people digital problem solving, our data lead us to consider the interactive roles of strategies, problem solving approaches, and the problem solver’s purpose.

  • Strategies are cognitive tools used when a problem solver doesn’t have the skills needed to easily solve a problem or complete a task online.
  • Approaches are ways a person uses strategies.

A problem solver’s approach and strategic choices are impacted by (a) environmental and sociocultural factors, (b) the problem solvers’ unique repertoire of experiences and affective concerns and (c) context/purpose for engaging in the digital problem solving event.

  • A problem solver’s purpose may be to achieve a result on an assessment task, or the application of digital problem solving in the context of real world activity. To be a, nimble problem solver, one must incorporate strategies flexibly, not just once but on a regular basis across contents and events.

Each problem solver, whether they have a wide range of experiences or a limited range of experience, will approach a problem differently and enact a strategy differently depending on context and experience.  

It is important to understand that the data show there is no one “right” way to digital problem solve. Instead, problem solvers draw on a range of experiences across contexts and at times an approach or strategy may help a problem solver achieve a goal and at other times the continued use of that approach and strategy might not be helpful.

We would love to hear how you see strategies, approaches, and purpose playing out in your work with adult learners. Please add your insights in the comments!

Go to PDX Scholar for a fuller discussion of our research.


Documenting Digital Problem Solving: Qualitative Results Strategies and Approaches for Digital Problem Solving

As part of our mixed methods research into the digital problem solving of underserved adults in a library setting, we observed 18 individuals as they actually engaged in problem solving activities.  Their online activity was recorded using screen capture software, which allowed us to view and code their actions.  We also interviewed them about their experience with digital problem solving.  The details of our methods will be shared in a future post.

This qualitative data complemented the quantitative data we collected and analyzed. Whereas the quantitative data gave us insight into the role of experience across contexts when digitally problem solving, the qualitative data gave us insights into the digital problem solving processes, approaches and strategies individuals used when engaged in digital problem solving and how they used prior experience to navigate novel environments.

Analysis of the screen capture data and interview data showed a progressively widening range of experiences and how the problem, the individual’s experience, and their affective stance toward the task influenced their digital problem solving choices.  We were able to identify the different choices more experienced and less experienced problem solvers make.  We were also able to tease out the role of context in digital problem solving.

These findings can be helpful for adult educators and librarians who are working to help adults develop digital problem solving skills. Having a sense of the role of context, experiences, as well as the different ways adults can engage in digital problem solving can help us move toward helping build our students experiences with digital problems rather than just building skills.

A comprehensive discussion of our qualitative findings is available on PDXScholar.  We invite you to read it, use it to inform your work, and let us know your thoughts!

Analyzing and Interpreting Quantitative Data from the Digital Equity in Libraries Study

One of the challenges of conducting the Digital Equity in Libraries project was finding instruments that gave us the data we needed to understand the digital problem solving skills of historically underserved adults in a library setting.  After looking at a number of instruments, the research team decided to use the Problem Solving in Technology Rich Environments (PSTRE) assessment  connected to the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) and accessed through Education and Skills Online administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

We also created a 21-item Library Use Survey that collected basic demographics, information on library use, and participant perception of the difficulty level of various library tasks.

Our quantitative data were collected in two phases and involved two sets of participants.  Our first phase of data collection occurred in the library and through the library’s newsletter and website.  Our second phase of data collection was conducted through the library’s outreach program.  A total of 450 participants took the library use survey, and 211 completed the PSTRE assessment.

Once the survey and assessment data were collected, we moved through three phases of analysis.  First we looked at the basic demographics. We then compared the two sets of participants.  We also conducted a latent class analysis that examined the underlying relationship between the two groups.

The basic demographic results can be found on page 2 of the results document.

The group comparison showed that those from the outreach community had less access to the internet from home than the phase one participants.  The participants from the outreach community also navigated across a more limited number of digital contexts when compared to the phase one participants.  A table illustrating this result can be found Table 1 of the results document.

Additional analysis (see Table 2 of the document) indicated that library website use is a strong predictor of higher PSTRE scores.

This analysis lead us to ask further questions about the nature of digital problem solving and the role of experience and working across contexts.  Our investigation into that question was addressed through qualitative data collection and analysis, which will be the subject of the next post.

For more information about our quantitative results, we invite you to download the document at PDX Scholar.

Digital Equity in Libraries Materials Available on PDXScholar

Materials developed as part of the Digital Equity in Libraries research project are now archived and available through PDXScholar.  PDXScholar is a service of the Portland State University library.  It provides public and permanent access to academic, scholarly, scientific, and creative content produced by members of the university community.

We greatly appreciate the support of the PSU librarians in making these materials available.

The materials are organized in three general areas:

Data (Results and Findings)

Digital Problem Solving Toolkit

Presentations and Publications

Digital Problem Solving: The Literacies of Navigating Life in the Digital Age

Our article exploring digital problem solving within the framework of “everyday literacies” is now available in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.  The article is part of the ongoing column edited by Jill Castek and Mike Manderino that explores issues surrounding digital and disciplinary literacies across learning contexts and disciplines within and outside of school.  We describe our work with helping vulnerable adults bridge the digital divide and advance their lifelong learning opportunities.  We invite you to read the article and post your response on this website.  Please share the article widely.

Jacobs, G.E., & Castek, J. (2018). Digital Problem Solving: The Literacies of Navigating Life in the Digital AgeJournal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy61(6), 681–685.

Although Jacobs and Castek are listed as the authors of the article, this work was a collaborative effort involving many people  We acknowledge the contributions by Cindy Gibbon, Amy Honisett, Judy Anderson, Vailey Oehlke, and Patricia Moran at Multnomah County Library and Matt Timberlake at Multnomah County IT.  We thank members of the grant’s advisory board as well as research collaborators Tyler Frank, Mei-kuang Chen, Stephen Reder, Andrew Pizzolato, and Laura Hill for their many contributions.  We also thank the Institute of Museum and Library Services who provided funding through National Leadership Grant #LG-06-14-076-14A.

Assessing Adult Digital Problem Solving: Two Tools for Libraries

One of the outcomes of the Digital Equity in Libraries research project was a set of two tools that can be used by libraries, staff, and volunteers to gain a sense of what knowledge, skills, and experiences adults bring to digital problem solving within a library setting.  These tools are based on our findings and are intended to be used in face-to face individual meetings such as a reference interview with a library patron or in small groups.

The tasks and metacognitive scaffolding prompts and protocol within the Blueprint for Designing Digital Problem Solving Tasks tool were developed and refined with the
Multnomah County Library’s website resources in mind. We encourage other libraries to
adapt the tasks and observational protocol, or to develop a new and different observational protocol inspired by the design principles offered.

The Observing Digital Problem Solving Checklist was based on our findings. Like the Blueprint, librarians should make adaptations to fit the library within which the tool will be used.

If you adapt and use either tool, please let us know what you did and how it’s working for you!

Defining Digital Problem Solving

As we moved through the data analysis phase of the Digital Equity in Libraries study, we found that what we were seeing and coming to understand differed from that which was described by concepts such as problem solving in technology-rich environments, digital literacy, information literacy, or the new literacies of reading and writing.  In our brief entitled Defining Digital Problem Solving, we explore what it means to be literate in the digital age, compare the PSTRE to our definition of digital problem solving, and explain how we came to our definition of digital problem solving.  We end by raising three questions that emerged as a result of our new understanding of what constitutes digital problem solving.

We invite you to let us know your thoughts after you read the document.  How do you see the concept of digital problem solving as informing the way you work with adult learners?  What additional questions need to be asked?  What might we be missing?

The Role of Libraries in Advancing Digital Problem Solving

On March 9th Gloria Jacobs, a member of the Digital Equity in Library research team, and her colleague, Tyler Frank, presented roundtables based on their work with the Digital Equity in Libraries (DEL) project at Dr. Patty Anders’ retirement conference, “Adolescent, Family and Community Literacy: Mobilizing Strength-based Pedagogies” at the University of Arizona. Gloria is a research associate at Portland State University and a research specialist at the University of Arizona. Gloria’s presentation was an overview of the project with a focus on libraries as important community anchor institutions that are uniquely positioned for promoting and supporting the development of digital problem solving practices among vulnerable adults.  Download the handout from her presentation.

Supporting Digital Problem Solving

This post was written by Tyler Frank, a member of the Digital Equity in Library research team.  Tyler earned his M.A. in Language, Reading, and Culture from the University of Arizona and is an Adult Basic Education Instructor at Pima Community College, Tucson, Arizona.

On March 9th Tyler and his colleague, Gloria Jacobs, presented roundtables based on their work with the Digital Equity in Libraries (DEL) project at Dr. Patty Anders’ retirement conference, “Adolescent, Family and Community Literacy: Mobilizing Strength-based Pedagogies” at the University of Arizona. Tyler’s presentation was entitled “Supporting Digital Problem Solving.” 

In the presentation I traced the growth of my understanding of digital problem solving as a member of the DEL project and considered strength-based approaches to supporting adult learners as they solve problems in the digital world.

Before I began working in the DEL project I had a simplistic, step-by-step understanding of the problem solving process and little sense of the unique aspects of problem solving in the digital world. Through the research, we noticed different choices and strategies (see “Some Digital Problem Solving Strategies & Choices” table) that helped problem solvers navigate a digital task, but those strategies and choices did not line up in a neat series of steps.

Some Digital Problem Solving Strategies & Choices

Information Seeking Navigational
Consider and clarify purpose Explore interfaces
Check and recheck progress Experiment with tools
Consider and reconsider which information is necessary Identify purpose and potential of tools and interfaces

I had always thought of a first step of problem solving as “identifying purpose”, but I saw problem solvers dive in with a general understanding of their purpose, then revisit their purpose to home in on exactly how to accomplish that clearer and clearer goal. Checking their progress forced them to keep their purpose in mind, but also forced them to keep clarifying their purpose to something more and more specific and more and more attainable. As these fluid standards became more solidified the most important information was brought into focus and less important information was ignored. What I was seeing was not a step-by-step process, but a fluidly iterative process; repetitive choices and strategies progressively built on each other as the problem solver simultaneously got closer to the target and clarified what the target exactly was. I saw problem solvers engaging in all of the strategies and choices listed in the table, but they did so in their own unique ways, cycling through them and mixing them in different proportions depending on their own goals and experience.

Given how complex this type of problem solving is, getting adult learners the support they need for their digital learning and problem solving is imperative. This calls for techniques and tools that support digital users in accomplishing their goals as they continue to develop their abilities. Helping learners build on their current practices in order to accomplish their goals means moving beyond one-size-fits-all solutions and calls into doubt computer-based skill-and-drill activities in favor of embedding digital learning and problem solving within meaningful everyday needs and supporting learners as they try, learn, practice and cycle through problem solving. Meeting the digital needs of the adult community means not just providing access to devices and internet, but also providing support for digitally problem solving around their personal, familial, civic, educational, and professional lives.

You can access Tyler’s slides from the presentation.