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.

3 thoughts on “Supporting Digital Problem Solving

  1. I think this is so true. Finding digital answers is complex (beyond the simplistic and definitive who, what, where). So little of our traditional learning, however, is complex. What examples can be given of non-digital problem solving that is this complex that will help us build an analogy that will help us think differently about skill development?


    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Lisa!
      I’ve wondered about similarities between digital and non-digital problem solving. I think the “Information Seeking” side of the table might be more ripe for analogies. So far the most analogous example I’ve thought of from the non-digital world was writing research papers, at least as I learned the process in middle and high school. It involved looking at multiple sources, consulting a card catalog at the library to find relevant information (although that soon changed to a digital catalog), and selecting the relevant information to write on note cards and eventually include in the paper. Even that analogy oversimplifies seeking information in the digital world, though, because of the volume, diversity, and pace of change of information online. Nowadays research report writing has become so infused with digital information that the analogy probably won’t mean much to anyone who grew up in the digital world.
      The unique aspects of digital problem solving are probably congregated more on the right side of the table in the “Navigational” list. Navigating the digital world requires figuring out how to make sense out of and utilize new tools more than learning any specific tool. I was recently talking with a friend who is a manager at a small business. She told me how challenging it is training employees who want to learn a step-by-step process for accomplishing their work in the digital world. As soon as they learn a step-by-step method there is an update to the software and the step-by-step process has to be updated as well. From what I’ve see so far, the pace of change in the digital world is part of what makes it unique, defying analogies to the non-digital world.
      What are your thoughts so far on analogies between non-digital and digital problem solving?


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