Encouraging Students’ Digital Problem-Solving Skills


In my post last week, just in passing, I noted that I like to know how things work. What can I say? I’m an amateur techie. That said, I think there’s genuine pedagogical value in teaching students some technical skills, as I wrote back in September.

Though I’m convinced of the value of making sure my students learn some skills in using digital tools, I encounter two difficulties. First, students don’t always see the value. Second, they often lack confidence both in their skills, and in their ability to solve any technical problems they might encounter.

My own approach to solving problems using digital tools can best be illustrated by my experience with WordPress. Having had to do some upgrades that involved editing files and uploading them via FTP, I was thrilled when it became possible to upgrade a WordPress installation with just one click. That is, I was thrilled until I actually tried to do it. I gleefully clicked on the upgrade button … and nothing happened.

I was frustrated, of course, and I wanted to know why it didn’t work. So, Google to the rescue! As it turns out, the problem had to do with my host, and was easily fixed by editing the .htaccess file at the root of my site, as explained here. (Figuring out how to make .htaccess visible so I could edit it required another Google search.)

Too many students, too often, will stop as soon as they get stuck. Admittedly, as someone pointed out to me not long ago, part of my own approach may have something to do with personality (I’m stubborn and I take it as a personal affront when I’m outsmarted by machinery or software). That said, I still think it’s important for students to be able to think through the problems they encounter in trying to use digital tools for their work. Problem-solving skills are among the important transferable skills we should be trying to help them develop.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed the “I’m stuck! Now what?!?” phenomenon. Terry Huttlenlock’s session description for Great Lakes THATCamp, “Instructional Strategies for Teaching Technology that Go Beyond ‘Button Pushing,’” deals with similar concerns.

I’m still not 100% sure of the best way to encourage students to search for solutions to problems they encounter. But here’s one thing I plan to try in one of my classes this fall, to see if it helps get students a little more comfortable with trying to figure things out. I ask my writing students to use Google Documents. Rather than taking class time for initial instruction in the use of that tool, as I did last year, I’m going to ask them to do the following:

  • Go to the Google Documents page , and watch the video that’s linked from there.
  • Set up an account, using whatever email address they’d like me to use to communicate with them during the semester.
  • Create a document, and share it with me.
  • Having done that, come to class prepared to talk about how the process went for them. Saying that they crashed and burned will be fine, as long as they’re also prepared to talk about what problems they encountered and what they tried to resolve those problems (whether or not they were successful).

For that discussion, we’ll meet in one of our computer labs (or I’ll have them bring their laptops to class, if enough of them have them). We can then have a discussion about problem-solving and how to find helpful resources, and I can pair students who were successful with those who had some difficulties, to help them get set up. My hope is that doing things this way will help students become more comfortable with Google Documents than they would if I simply explained things for them, and the processes students go through to figure things out should be applicable beyond that one particular tool.

Have you encountered similar issues as you try to introduce students to digital tools? What strategies have you tried? Let’s hear from you in the comments.

[Image by Flickr user dailylifeofmojo / Creative Commons licensed]

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