The Role of Experience in Digital Problem Solving

Our work with digital problem solvers made clear the importance of an individual’s experience with a variety of digital tools.

The ability to use digital tools to problem solve is impacted by the socioeconomic and cultural situation of the problem solvers. For example, do they have access to both digital hardware and high speed internet? If so, is it at home or do they have to go to another location such as a library or school? Also, do the problem solvers have access to learning opportunities and support around digital problem solving?  As our previous research into digital literacy acquisition shows, experience with online tools contributes to an individual’s confidence to use those tools, so those individuals who do not have consistent and reliable access to hardware and the internet or the opportunities to learn, will be unlikely to be able to build the confidence needed to navigate the multiple online resources needed to problem solve.

In the qualitative findings report from the Digital Equity in Libraries study, we provide scenarios of problem solvers that demonstrate this point. The scenarios are not meant to be generalized to all problem solvers. Instead they are meant to illustrate the differences between more experienced and less experienced problem solvers. Because problem solving is context dependent, how individual problem solvers move through a digital problem necessarily differs. Furthermore, not all problem solvers demonstrate all behaviors and may, in fact, demonstrate a mix of behaviors from the experienced and less experienced columns.

The table below, which also appears in the qualitative findings report, encapsulates the differences we saw between more experienced problem solvers and those with less experience.

More experienced problem solvers Less experienced problem solvers
adapted to novel environments struggled within novel environments
surveyed the resources available to them tended to overlook many of the resources available or focus on the resources immediately apparent or those that are familiar to them
decided/figured out how to use resources to their best advantage once aware of resources needed support to determine how to use them
used exploration/investigation to learn new approaches were slow to examine what the resources and interfaces offer
let go of what they know (from previous experience) relied heavily on approaches they know from past experience and resist trying new approaches
figured out what does not work through trial and error were hesitant to try something different for fear of making a mistake, and they needed reassurance before trying something new

We would love to hear what you’ve seen in your work with adult digital problem solvers.  Have you seen the same types of things we documented in our work?  What other ways have you seen people approach digital problem solving?

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