Critical Thinking and Digital Problem Solving: What’s the Difference?

Brian Kane is the Digital Literacy Coordinator at Literacy Volunteers of Rochester.  The Digital Literacy program at LVR provides a free drop-in service where individuals can learn basic computer skills or get assistance completing  computer-essential tasks. This service is provided by volunteers who work one-to-one with learners. Brian read our blog and asked, “What’s the difference between critical thinking and problem solving? Or, are they essentially the same thing?”   As Brian explained in his email,

I’m re-thinking completely the way Digital Literacy thinks about what we’re trying to achieve with customers, and as a consequence how we train and support volunteers. Ultimately, we want to help customers become more digitally literate (capable of using technology on their own, and learning new skills as they go).

Brian’s question and insight about an expanded view of literacy in today’s world is such a great one and required a great deal of thought, so we wanted to share our thoughts with the  DLAERHub community. Rethinking literacy learning in the digital age is what we’re engaged in too, so it’s exciting to see how these ideas are playing out in practice in different contexts.

Before turning to a discussion of digital problem solving, it might be useful to review what we mean by digital literacy.  

What is digital literacy?  There are many definitions of digital literacy available, but the one we have found ourselves using most frequently is one presented by the American Library Association:

Digital literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information.  

In an issues brief, our colleague Kathy Harris provided a concrete definition of basic digital literacy skills:

The physical ability to (1) use digital devices, (2) create and use computer files, and (3) choose appropriate digital applications for different purposes.

What is critical thinking? Critical thinking is a term commonly used in the field of education, whether one is working with children and adults. It is commonly understood as being the ability to analyze and evaluate information in order to come up with an answer or form a judgement.  This type of thinking occurs throughout our lives, online and offline, whenever we are asked to think about the information we are presented with and make a decision about it. Critical thinking is a key component of digital problem solving.

In general, we prefer to use the term digital literacies–referring to it in the plural because a composite of competencies are involved that include basic computer skills, and also the ability to navigate online interfaces and efficiently use digital and online tools, and the abilities to   engage in educational pursuits and digital networking.

What is digital problem solving? As part of our work with the Multnomah County Library on digital problem solving with library patrons, we developed a definition of digital problem solving that differentiated it from a number of related constructs such as Problem Solving in Technology Rich Environments (PSTRE), Media Literacy, Information Literacy, New Literacies of Online Reading and Research, and Digital Literacies.  

Digital Problem Solving involves the nimble use of skills, strategies, ​and mindsets required to navigate online​ in everyday contexts​, including the library, and use novel resources, tools, and interfaces in efficient and flexible ways​ to accomplish personal and professional goals.

So what’s the difference between critical thinking and digital problem solving?

We suggest that digital problem solving occurs at the intersection of critical thinking skills and basic digital literacy skills, but goes beyond both to embrace a discovery orientation, with the  the ability and willingness to be flexible and able to adapt to novel situations. This is essential in a digital world that is marked by constant evolution and change in technologies, interfaces, tools, and texts.

Digital problem solving involves learning how to learn within ever-changing digital environments.

Critical thinking is part of digital problem solving. During digital problem solving, a learner engages in critical thinking sometimes individually and at other times collaboratively, especially when examining different websites and resources and determining which ones are the most useful for solving the task at hand, and for determining which information within any given resource is relevant.

What is different about digital problem solving is that in addition to thinking critically about information, learners  also have to be able to flexibly and rapidly shift perspective and adapt their skills to novel situations.

For example, during observations of learners navigating in novel technology-rich environments , we saw people who repeatedly tried to enact the same strategy or approach again and again  when solving a digital problem, even though it didn’t work the first, second, or third time. So even if the digital resource had the right information the learner needed, they still weren’t able to solve the problem at hand because they weren’t able to make use of the resource in a meaningful or efficient way.

We hope this post provides some clarity to the issue and helps those of you in the field continue to build on your important work.  We encourage you to make comments and keep asking hard questions!

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