Author: dlaerhub

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.

Findings from the Digital Equity in Libraries Study

After three years of collaboration with librarians from the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon, we are pleased to share the findings and outcomes of the Advancing Digital Equity in Public Libraries: Assessing Library Patrons’ Problem Solving in Technology Rich Environments research project. This project was supported by a National Leadership Grant (LG-06-14-0076-14A) from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

The purpose of the research was to examine and understand the digital problem solving processes of vulnerable adults. The research was intended to discover what digital problem solving skills individuals had, how they used those skills, and how libraries could determine how best to support these individuals as they engaged in digital problem solving.  

You can read about the study in our Executive Summary. The Executive Summary also contains links to more detail what we learned as well as a tool kit we created that librarians can use to help support the digital problem solving needs of their adult patrons.  

We encourage you to use and adapt our materials to your settings, and to share your adaptations with us and the field. We’d also love to hear from you in the comments.

Examining Adult Learners’ Digital Problem Solving in Libraries Using A Learning Typology

Last week Jill Castek of the University of Arizona and Amy Honisett of the Multnomah County Library System presented at the ProLiteracy Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  In this presentation, we shared our emerging findings around what constitutes digital problem solving and the approaches and strategies digital problem solvers use.  You can view our presentation in this pdf.  If you have any questions or comments, we’d love to hear from you.

Examining Adult Learners’ Digital Problem Solving in Libraries Using A Learning Typology. 

Upcoming ProLiteracy Conference

We are busy preparing for the ProLiteracy Conference being held September 27-30 in Minneapolis, MN.  Our workshop is on Friday, September 29 at 2:45 pm.  It’s entitled Examining Adult Learners’ Digital Problem Solving in Libraries Using A Learning Typology.  We hope to see you there, and we’ll be posting our slides on this blog for those of you not able to attend the conference this year.

Following the ProLiteracy Conference, we’ll be turning our attention to wrapping up our analysis and preparing our findings for dissemination.  Keep an eye out for those materials.  We are looking forward to sharing our findings with you hearing your insights.

Digital Health Literacy – An introduction

On August 9, 2017 we will be holding a Digital Health Literacy Convening in conjunction with the Literacy Education and Second Language Learning for Adults (LESLLA) Symposium.  People from across the country who are interested in digital health literacy will be attending this convening in person and virtually in order to discuss the future of research in digital health literacy.  We are bringing together this group of scholars because we believe that digital devices and access to the internet can serve as a vital link to health information that may ultimately contribute to an improvement in health care outcomes. As Santos, Handley, Omark, and Schillinger (2014) noted, “reducing health disparities in U.S. immigrant communities represents a complex task that will require interdisciplinary problem-solving and community partnership” (p. 89).

To help set the stage for this convening, we are using this post to share some emerging thoughts about digital health literacy. Our definition of digital health literacy is grounded in the work of Norman and Skinner (2006) and Bodie and Dutta (2008).  Norman and Skinner suggested that ehealth literacy includes basic reading and writing skills, working knowledge of using computers, a basic knowledge of science, and appreciation of the social context of how online health information is produced, transmitted, and received. Bodie and Dutta argued that it requires “a combination of context-specific and analytical skills,” the ability to use a computer, and the ability navigate the internet in order to make informed decisions about one’s health.

Our growing interest in digital health literacy is connected to the idea that health literacy in general can contribute to participation in programs aimed at health promotion, disease prevention, and screening (Rudd, 2014).  According to Rudd (2014), “there is an established link between patients’ literacy skills and health outcomes.  For example, literacy levels have been shown to have an effect on knowledge, behaviors, risk factors, morbidity, and mortality” (Chapter 2, Paragraph 2). However, there can be a mismatch between the demands of health systems and the literacy of the population, which can limit access to information, services, and care.  We suggest that improving individuals’ digital skills is one step toward removing barriers to health information.

Improving digital skills is especially important as the increased reliance on digital technology in healthcare also may lead to an increase in health disparities (Bodie & Dutta, 2008; Klecan, 2010).  This is especially apparent as health care providers have come to expect patients to come to medical appointments prepared with informed questions, that they know how to access information using all available tools, including the internet, and that they use digital tools to track compliance to care, including preventative care and medication use. (Basics of HealthIt). To date, little has been done to help healthcare providers support patients in their quest to use the digital tools now required for full engagement in healthcare (Sheon, 2017).

It is within this environment that individuals with less experience with and access to digital tools can struggle with equity of services, validity of information, access to the hardware, knowledge of how to navigate information retrieval systems, reading levels, website design, and knowledge of what is online. Part of the problem is home internet penetration rates, which were 73% in 2015 (Turner, 2016) and the fact that 36% of low-income Americans also lack a smartphone (Turner, 2016).  There is also a correlation between race/ethnicity and internet access as well as gaps marked by age and educational attainment (Turner, 2016). Access, however, is only part of the picture.  As Klecan (2010) suggested, there are those who may not be able to achieve the needed digital literacy and ehealth literacy skills because of lack of access or support; therefore, they would benefit from the presence of someone to help them access the material online and make sense of that material. What this material might look like and how it should be delivered is an area of interest to the team at Portland State.

Thus far there are too few studies to claim a strong relationship between ehealth engagement and health status, although Stellefson et al. (2013) showed weak associations between long-term health maintenance and the use of ehealth resources.  We are intrigued, however, by Stellefson et al.’s finding that as participants in their study used health online resources, they grew more comfortable with using computers and the internet. The success of this model can be seen in the Richmond Digital Health Literacy Project (Communities in Collaboration, 2016). Our previous research has shown that as individuals gain confidence in using computers and the internet, they begin using it to meet life goals of which health information seeking is one (Jacobs et al., 2015).

Our overarching concern is that individuals who have little access to the internet and have low digital literacy skills may be less able to access health information and be active participants in their health care.  Our hypothesis is that as individuals build digital literacy skills they will be able to increase their health information seeking behaviors and build their capacity for improved engagement in their health care. Ultimately, we hope that this improvement would result in decreasing health disparities among vulnerable populations. We hope that by collaborating with others who also are interested in these questions that we can begin to build opportunities for those who have thus far been excluded from the digitization of healthcare to engage with health services and information in order to improve health outcomes and continue learning.



Basics of health IT. (2013, January 15). Retrieved from

Bodie, G. D., & Dutta, M. J. (2008). Understanding health literacy for strategic health marketing: Ehealth literacy, health disparities, and the digital divide. Health Marketing Quarterly, 25(1–2), 175–203.

Communities in Collaboration, (2016)  Summative evaluation, City of Richmond Digital Health Literacy Program.

Jacobs, G., Castek, J., Pizzolato, D., Pendell, K., Withers, E., & Reder, S. (2015). Executive Summary: Tutor-facilitated digital literacy acquisition in hard-to-serve populations, a research project.

Klecun, E. (2010). Digital literacy for health: The promise of health 2.0. International Journal of Digital Literacy and Digital Competence, 1(3), 48–57.

Norman, C. D., & Skinner, H. A. (2006). Ehealth literacy: Essential skills for consumer health in a networked world. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 8(2), e9.

Rudd, R. (2014). Public Health Literacy. In Institute of Medicine, Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice, Roundtable on Health Literacy (Eds.), Implications of Health Literacy for Public Health: Workshop Summary. Retrieved from

Santos, M. G., Handley, M. A., Omark, K., & Schillinger, D. (2014). ESL Participation as a Mechanism for Advancing Health Literacy in Immigrant Communities, Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives, 19:S2, 89-105, DOI:10.1080/10810730.2014.934935

Sheon, A. R., Bolen, S. D., Callahan, B., Shick, S., Perzynski, A. T. (2017). Addressing disparities in diabetes management through novel approaches to encourage technology adoption and use. JMIR Diabetes, 2(2), e16. DOI: 10.2196/diabetes.6751

Stellefson, M., Chaney, B., Barry, A. E., Chavarria, E., Tennant, B., Walsh-Childers, K., … Zagora, J. (2013). Web 2.0 chronic disease self-management for older adults: A systematic review. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 15(2), e35.

Turner, D. (2016). Digital denied: The impact of systemic racial discrimination on home-internet adoption. Retrieved from

Forthcoming Publications

We are excited to announce two forthcoming publications. We hope that you’ll put these on your reading list.  Once you have a chance to read these, we would love to hear your comments!

  • Learning from our community – using an assessment tool to meet patrons at the point of need. A chapter in a collection tentatively scheduled for Spring 2018 entitled Tech For All. Amy Honisett, Public Training Librarian at the Multnomah County Library, is the lead author.

Multnomah County Library is dedicated to meeting our patrons at their points of need. In order to understand the changing needs of our community, the library strives to understand how people use technology and to identify modes of support that will help patrons use of technology for enjoyment and to improve their lives. To do this, we partnered with researchers to examine adult patrons’ digital problem solving skills. This three year effort, funded by a grant from the IMLS, explored and analyzed skills, strategies and dispositions involved in digital problem solving.

  • From Digital Literacies to Digital Problem Solving: Expanding Technology-rich Learning Opportunities for Adults. Tyler Frank, Graduate Assistant at the University of Arizona and Adult Education Instructor at Pima Community College, is the lead author.  The article will be coming out later this summer in the COABE Journal (Journal of Research and Practice for Adult Literacy, Secondary, and Basic Education).
We review four articles full of suggestions and resources regarding how to move beyond an exclusive focus on digital skills to foster digital problem solving among learners. We note specific recommendations that the authors give for settings ranging from digital skills classes to classes for English language learners. All of the authors emphasized that tasks need to move beyond skill and drill toward problem solving in meaningful settings for the learners.