Fostering Troubleshooting Skills in Digital Learning Environments

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When my string trimmer battery failed last week, I borrowed a trimmer with a small gas engine. I had enough procedural knowledge of small engines to operate it successfully the first time. But then I had to turn it off to replenish the trim line. When I followed the starting procedure the second time the engine wouldn’t start. I used my last bit of knowledge of small engines, the functional/system knowledge that I had probably just flooded the engine, to find my way to the solution on Youtube. So I searched for <fix flooded weed whacker> and voila, I met Steve, the kind of person who is happy to help but wants to make sure to enlighten you on the theory before getting to the practice. I was in a hurry so I was tempted to skip to the end of the video to get the solution, but Steve seemed so earnestly to want me to understand the cause-and-effect relationships of the mechanical system that I humored him and watched the whole video. He used a worst case scenario to demonstrate the principle involved in how the de-flooding protocol works. Employing my new functional knowledge as well as the de-flooding procedure was a snap. It worked, I understood why, and now I can not only recognize a flooded engine, but can either fix it or eliminate it as a problem and move on to checking the spark plug. The learning experience happened because I began with a little domain and system knowledge and gained strategic and procedural knowledge (Jonassen & Hung, 2006).

When I built my first blog site, I had no idea of the relevant domain knowledge—the building block concepts and technical vocabulary involved. Nor did I possess system knowledge, a spatial sense of how the components of a blog site interact to form a system. Lacking either domain or system knowledge, I of course didn’t understand the causal relationships between the components of a blog site and its structure. So I also lacked the procedural knowledge of how a website works and the strategic knowledge of how to go about setting the system up or what kind of considerations I should have kept in mind while doing so to create the functions I wanted. In this experience, too, I used Youtube videos to try gain a sense of these four knowledge domains (Jonassen & Hung, 2006), but the videos tended to focus overwhelmingly on procedural knowledge, which was relatively meaningless to me because of my lack of domain knowledge, system knowledge, or strategic knowledge. By relying on Youtube videos, I was essentially “driving blind,” accepting procedural advice without knowing what I didn’t know, without knowing how those procedures were constructing or preventing construction of functions I would want in the future, and without knowing how to fix problems. The moral of this story is that building my first website would have resulted in a much better design and a much deeper understanding of what I had built if I had received some domain, system and strategic knowledge before being assigned a procedural task as a learning project. As instructors in synchronous and asynchronous digital learning environments, if our goals are for digital knowledge production and knowledge representation tools to support student learning, our responsibility is to provide the domain, system, and strategic knowledge support that allows students to work procedurally to build and use those technological learning tools. Maybe the small engine and information technology guys should pool their pedagogical resources.

Both of these scenarios describe what is involved with troubleshooting. Troubleshooting is a kind of problem solving that involves identifying where an error is happening in a system and correcting that fault to restore the system to functionality. It’s the aspect of technology-supported learning and technology-dependent institutions that can be the most troublesome for students and teachers, who depend on technological systems to accomplish their most essential tasks. Jonasson and Hung (2006) place troubleshooting at the midway point between structured types of problem-solving such as following algorithms to ill-structured problems such as design. For students, possessing both the self-agency involved in the ability to troubleshoot and possessing access to rapid support for more advanced troubleshooting are critical aspects of learning engagement (Drexler, 2010). College students even in the most traditional face-to-face classrooms today may be expected to learn in virtually paperless environments where the software, hardware and connectivity technologies inevitably manifest glitches that can be extraordinarily stressful for the student, perhaps a first generation or nontraditional adult learner, who may come to a sudden halt due to a faulty link or an electronic assignment dropbox that won’t accept a file. The cognitive and affective load created by courses and programs that don’t provide both instruction in troubleshooting and easily accessible support is one reason that students may not persist in online learning environments (Lehman & Conceição, 2013; Redmond, Abawi, Brown, Henderson, & Heffernan, 2018). A student’s ability to troubleshoot is not just a matter of the student’s level of technology knowledge prior to entering a course, but is a function of social and cognitive presence, which can be increased by support in learning to troubleshoot, and by the programmatic (institutional and instructional) presentation of the course and the overall experience of learning at a given institution (Thompson, Miller, & Pomykal Franz, 2013).

How can college students in synchronous and asynchronous online environments who are technology-averse or who must learn a new technology skill to meet course requirements achieve both the autonomy and the just-in-time software and connectivity support to remain affectively and cognitively engaged with digital learning tools?

This post focuses on several pedagogical aspects of a response to this question, as well as on the way that pedagogical solutions are fundamentally connected to institutional solutions. The first considerations below involve instructor engagement and student engagement as fundamental parts of effective online (synchronous or asynchronous) pedagogy, as well as suggesting some instructional tools. Then, pedagogical design considerations will be offered for how students access troubleshooting solutions and support.

First, a caveat. ISTE Standard for Coaches 3 emphasizes the role of technology coaches in supporting effective learning environments in which teachers and students receive support in troubleshooting basic software, hardware, and connectivity problems. ISTE’s Standards for Educators similarly emphasize the role of faculty in fostering independent learning (ISTE Standard for Educators 5a). However, Lim, Zhao, Tondeur, Chai, and Tsai (2013) emphasize that the successful implementation of technology-supported learning tools also requires institutional policy with clear goals. Further, introducing a change to the technological “ecosystem” of a school or institutional culture is likely to require the much more difficult change of re-organization of the hierarchies, processes and systems of the institution: “A newly introduced innovation often requires simultaneous innovations in pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, school organization,…[and] the relationships within…the school” (p. 62).

Without such organizational changes, introduction of a new technology may negatively affect student outcomes. What this means for faculty, coaches and administrators is that supporting students in becoming self-effective online learners in terms of basic troubleshooting skills means that more needs to be done by the institution than providing announcements, widgets, or links to support lines in a student’s LMS platform. The way students are supported in using hardware, software, and technology tools needs to be integrated not just at the course level but into how the college experience is designed to empower student learning. An analogy is the way that students need to be supported in interpreting a course catalog at the point where this knowledge can become useful and empowering, not just by having a faculty advisor interpret the codes for students who opt in to registration advising or by giving students a link to registration software that makes choices for them. Similarly Lehman and Conceição’s model for motivating and retaining online students shows how student self-agency and effective pedagogy depend upon the presence of institutional support that addresses matters of student self-efficacy (2013).


Supporting Troubleshooting through Instructor Engagement, Student Engagement, and Digital Tools

Budash and Shaw (2017) note that graduate students in online learning formats have a lower persistence rate than students in traditional formats, due to both academic preparation and to the online environment. These are both factors that relate to whether or not students develop troubleshooting skills. Garrison, Anderson, & Archer’s (2000) Community of Inquiry model describes the inter-relationships between three key elements that must be present for a meaningful higher education learning experience to take place among a community of instructors and students: cognitive presence, social presence, and instructor presence. The most essential element, cognitive presence, denotes the cognitivist elements of the learning process (such as experience, questioning, pattern recognition, making and applying connections, and noting and reconciling dissonances, all aspects of cognition that are related to troubleshooting).

In this model, the overlap between cognitive presence, social presence and teaching presence creates ways to focus on developing social critical discourse through the design of the educational experience. For example, Budash and Shaw (2017) stress the role of online instructors in anticipating the needs of learners, in being present in addressing the changing needs of the online classroom, and in providing high-quality, near-immediate feedback. These behaviors are seen as essential for cultivating student engagement. Rather than using tutorials or direct instruction, Greener (2009) suggests faculty modeling of learning behaviors such as troubleshooting, as well as faculty developing a comfort level with teaching in a situation where student collaboration in live e-learning behaviors can take place.

This type of “service orientation” includes preceding or beginning a course with surveys that assess student technology skill levels and tailoring synchronous technical support (such as live tutorial or troubleshooting sessions) or asynchronous supports such as syllabus and website links, question boards, and printed or recorded tutorials. Murphy, Rodriguez-Manzanares, and Barbour (2011) found that synchronous teaching tends to rely on teacher-centered approaches more than asynchronous teaching, which relies more on student-centered pedagogies. Thus, providing students with troubleshooting support and resources in asynchronous formats may better promote those skills. A key to proactive troubleshooting support is a pre-assessment tool such as a survey of technology skills that can allow the instructor to design and possibly differentiate the tools and instruction that are used to facilitate (or provide direct instruction in) troubleshooting (Lehman & Conceição, 2013; Murphy, Rodriguez-Manzanares, & Barbour, 2011). Such synchronous supports could include syllabus and website links to tutorials, protocols, and contact information for technical support. But Murphy, Rodriguez-Manzanares, and Barbour (2011) found that for both synchronous and asynchronous learning environments, pedagogy is more important than media.

A second pedagogical aspect of supporting students in their own hardware, software, and connectivity troubleshooting has to do with cultivating student engagement. In order to use links and share questions and answers, students need to feel that they are capable of solving problems, that their achievement of success with course projects matters to the peers and instructor within their learning community, and that this community is responsive to their questions. For example, one way to promote peer support in developing troubleshooting skills is to create an open discussion board for questions and answers about technology issues. However, students are more likely to use such a tool in an environment where social and collaborative engagement has been intentionally facilitated (Budhai & Williams, 2016).


Pedagogical and Design Considerations

Understanding why a lack of troubleshooting knowledge can feel paralyzing for students and designing pedagogical approaches to help students develop troubleshooting skills begins with an understanding of what troubleshooting is. Here, Jonasson and Hung’s (2006) articulation of troubleshooting as stemming from the four types of knowledge and skill involved is helpful; these four types of knowledge are “domain [conceptual] knowledge, system or device knowledge [that includes] visual-spatial knowledge of the system or device; procedural knowledge of how to perform tests and information-gathering activities, and strategic knowledge that guides search activities” (p. 80). An additional important consideration for teaching troubleshooting noted by Jonasson and Hung (2006) is that students who received system structure training transferred their troubleshooting training better than students who received procedural training. This is because novice troubleshooters rely on their conceptual models, whereas more experienced troubleshooters rely on personal memories of similar problems. Jonasson & Hung’s (2006) model for troubleshooting (construct problem space, identify fault systems, diagnose faults, generate and verify solutions, remember experience) is similar to the DECSAR (Define the problem; Examine the situation; consider the Causes; consider the Solution; Act and test; Review the troubleshooting) method (Ross & Orr, 2009).

Define the problem; Examine the situation; consider the Causes; consider the Solution; Act and test; Review the troubleshooting
The DECSAR Troubleshooting Method (Ross & Orr, 2009)


While these protocols were developed for formal troubleshooting instruction, simplified versions of them could be used to teach basic troubleshooting to online students. Students at Pace University designed a troubleshooting site for students and teachers that demonstrates how a series of easily navigable and visually organized pages could be organized and attached to an institution’s portal at or near a student’s first point of web access to their online learning environment(s).

Awareness of the types of knowledge involved in troubleshooting can also form the basis for the visual design of how online students are presented with access points for technical support within an LMS.

The design of an LMS course shell homepage, for example, could feature a space for troubleshooting support that, while not fully teaching troubleshooting skills, utilizes a design that invites users to adopt a troubleshooting-oriented mindset. To accomplish this, this menu of links is organized visually, rather than in list form. It is also organized according to the types of technology and support that students will need to access (Platforms, Software, Learning Support Departments, and Live Tech Support), an organizational pattern that echoes the types of knowledge involved in formal troubleshooting training. Finally, the menu indicates whether users will be directed to a tutorial or to live help.

Four columns for the following four types of support: Platforms, Software, Learning Support Departments, and Live Tech Support. In the Platforms column, the menu design features links to an institution-created tutorial on the web-conferencing platform and a link to a vendor supplied tutorial menu for the LMS system. In the Software column, the menu design features links to vendor-supplied tutorial menus for software products used in the course. In the Learning Support Departments column, the menu design provides links to the institution’s departments for accommodations, the tutoring center, and the library. In the Live Tech Support Column, the menu provides separate links to institutional personnel who handle portal issues, web-conferencing issues, and LMS issues.
Design for a page in an LMS system or a widget for an LMS homepage featuring a troubleshooting-friendly menu of clickable icons to link LMS users to support organized by type of knowledge (platform, software, etc.) and type of support (tutorial or live).



Budhai, S.S., & Williams, M. (2016). Teaching presence in online courses: Practical applications, co-facilitation, and technology integration. Journal of effective teaching, 16(3), 76-84. Retrieved from:

Budash, D., & Shaw, S. (2017, Fall). Persistence in an online master’s degree program: Perceptions of students and faculty. Online journal of distance learning administration, 20(3), 1-19. Retrieved from:

Drexler, W. (2010). The networked student model for construction of personal learning environments: Balancing teacher control and student autonomy. Australasian journal of educational technology26(3) 369-385.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education. Retrieved from the Athabasca University website:

Greener, S. (2009). e-Modeling – Helping learners to develop sound e-learning behaviors. Electronic journal of e-learning7(3), 265-272. Retrieved from:

Jonassen, D.H., & Hung, W. (2006, June 28). Learning to troubleshoot: A new theory-based design architecture. Educational Psychology Review, 18(1), 77-114. Retrieved from:

Lehman, R.M. & Conceição, S. (2013) Motivating and retaining online students: Research-based strategies that work, Jossey-Bass / Wiley. Retrieved from

Lim, C.-P., Zhao,Y., Tondeur, J., Chai, C.-S., & Tsai, C.-C. (2013). Bridging the gap: Technology trends and use of technology in schools. Educational Technology & Society, 16(2), 59-68.

Murphy, E., Rodriguez-Manzanares, M., & Barbour, M. (2011, July). Asynchronous and synchronous online teaching: Perspectives of Canadian high school distance education teachers. British journal of educational technology, 42(4), 583-591. Retrieved from:

Redmond, P., Abawi, L., Brown, A., Henderson, R., & Heffernan, A. (2018). An online engagement framework for higher education. Online learning, 22(1), 183-204. doi:10.24059/olj.v22i1.1175

Ross, C., & Orr, R.R. (2009, April). Teaching structured troubleshooting: Integrating a standard methodology into an information technology program. Educational Technology Research and Development, 57(2), 251-265. Retrieved from:

Thompson, N., Miller, N., & Pomykal Franz, D. (2013). Comparing online and face-to-face learning experiences for non-traditional students: A case study of three online teacher education candidates. The quarterly review of distance education, 14(4), 233-251.

Sirico, M., Silviotti, M., Yi Suh, D., & Loprieno, J. (n.d.) Computer troubleshooting for teachers and students: your one-stop location for all your school computer troubleshooting needs. Retrieved from Pace University webspace:

Steve’s Small Engine Saloon. (2017, August 18). How do I quickly unflood a trimmer using NO tools? [Video file]. Retrieved from

2 Replies to “Fostering Troubleshooting Skills in Digital Learning Environments”

  1. Stephanie, the story about you and the trimmer “hooked” me right away. I was certainly engaged and curious to read more. Using a real life situation to explain a concept such as troubleshooting and then bringing that understanding to an educational environment really made a strong impact in this post. Well done…both with the blog post and fixing the trimmer:)

  2. Stephanie, I love the introduction to your post! It was a great way to warm my brain up to the subsequent concepts. I also appreciate greatly this statement: “What this means for faculty, coaches and administrators is that supporting students in becoming self-effective online learners in terms of basic troubleshooting skills means that more needs to be done by the institution than providing announcements, widgets, or links to support lines in a student’s LMS platform.” Allowing for community building and face-to-face support is so important to building troubleshooting skills! Thank you for sharing the DESCAR model to troubleshooting, it is a great resource.

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