Troubleshooting Advice from a 'Digital Colonist'

Technology Tips

Troubleshooting Advice from a 'Digital Colonist'

How to identify the severity of your computer issues and fix them.

By Ben Stern     Dec 24, 2012

Troubleshooting Advice from a 'Digital Colonist'

Technology is amazing, revolutionary, and beautiful...when it works. When it doesn’t, there are a lot of four-letter words that better describe it. At many schools, there aren’t nearly enough IT support staff to deal with all the problems that can pop up. Fear that something will go awry stops many great projects before they even begin. So how can you triage the easy problems, seek help on the medium ones, and get your IT guy’s attention on the really bad ones?

In schools and in life, I’ve identified three levels of familiarity with computers: digital natives, digital immigrants, and digital colonists. Digital natives--our students--grew up with ubiquitous technology. When technology malfunctions, they toss it aside in favor of another piece of technology. Analog options are rarely if ever considered. Yet, they are not power users. They only learn to do what their friends are doing and what serves their immediate interest. Digital natives can invert the colors on OS X with a keyboard shortcut but can’t distinguish between the address bar and search bar in Firefox. Understandably, they take technology for granted.

Most of their teachers are digital immigrants. Technology in classrooms and in life generally is a novelty. Technology is both cool and also hard to use. If it works, it’s great. If it doesn’t, analog options abound. Fixing the technology oneself is out of the question, though.

The terms “digital immigrants” and “digital natives” are not new. However, I don’t identify with either, so I offer the phrase “digital colonists.” Now in our twenties, digital colonists are those of us who remember a time before ubiquitous technology but arrived in the tech-enhanced world early. Raised on a diet of DOS, Windows 3.1 through XP, Mac OS 9, and the first iPod, we know technology to be useful and imperfect. We’ve always had to troubleshoot. Always empowered to force the computer to work for us, we’ve always considered the role of technology in everything we do. We only know technology as a land of opportunity that we arrived at quite early and have been trying to spread ever since. We are terrific troubleshooters.

The advice below comprises troubleshooting steps from a digital colonist for digital immigrants and digital natives. For different reasons, digital immigrants and natives are poor troubleshooters. If digital natives would be more patient and digital immigrants more confident, we might see technology used more effectively. Both can become power users in no time.


Easy problems are usually symptoms of a computer's quirks. Windows and OS X both behave unexpectedly at times, and a user need only be familiar with the solution to feel like a pro with either operating system. These quirks usually cause something to malfunction that normally works just fine. Computers tend to degrade gradually, not instantaneously, so anomalous behavior is actually a good sign; it's likely fixable. For example, if Microsoft Word suddenly starts putting circles instead of squares on your bulleted list or a website insists you need Java--which you know you have installed somewhere--you're dealing with software quirks.

Interestingly, digital immigrants are stopped in their tracks by these issues, while digital natives tend to resort to some other program that they know works. Digital colonists, those of us who grew up on Nokia candybar phones rather than smartphones, tend to know these tricks best. Ask someone between the ages of 20 and 30 for help here. They know computers as powerful but finicky, and they've learned these tricks over time.

If no one is around, reach out to Twitter and add the hashtag #edtech. One of us integrationists will see it and suggest a quick fix. Before you take any action, however, restart your computer. Many easy problems go away with a quick reboot.

And most important: remember the solution! The problem will likely come up again.


Medium problems are those where something is truly wrong with a piece of software or hardware but not irreparably so. Diagnosing these problems requires deep familiarity with the operating system and experience with troubleshooting it. You can develop this expertise over time, but no teacher should be expected to have such know-how already. After you've rebooted the computer and asked a "digital colonist," it's time to go to Google.

Jerry Seinfeld joked that no one wants to hear his doctor say, "Wow! What the hell is that? That was gross!" He's right. But you know doctors think that sometimes. They just don't tell you. Instead, they'll leave the room and consult their medical books and other doctors. IT people do the same thing. When we are baffled by a problem, we go to Google. From there, you'll find hundreds of forums in which other people discussed the same problem. Read a few threads and identify the most common fix. Give it a shot.

If that solution doesn't work or you don't understand exactly what the person is recommending, register for the forum and post your question. Use as detailed descriptions as you can. "My 2010 MacBook Pro shows a spinning beach ball everytime I try to log out. I am forced to hold the power button and restart."

In your descriptions, avoid tech terms unless you are 100% sure what they mean; misusing a term will lead your helpers to offer bad advice.


If a digital colonist and the generous community of IT support on-line can't fix your problem, it's time to turn on your blinking lights and sirens to get IT in your room. Although IT people will tell you to grab their attention before Step 1, we know that's unrealistic in most institutions. It simply won't get fixed because they're way understaffed. So, instead, make a list of everything you have tried. Be specific. Say that you've rebooted the machine, changed these settings, and re-installed this driver. Suggest any ideas you may have come up with along the way: "The forums suggested that it may be a driver conflict with the graphics card. I don't know what that means, but many people suggested it." You'll save your IT person time by getting them to focus on the right solution before they begin their own research.

When you reach out to them, it's important to also make clear why this is a problem for you. IT folks would love to fix everything, but if ten requests arrive at once, they have to prioritize. Saying "I have a class in 30 minutes, and YouTube videos crash my browser everytime I load them" will get them moving. Saying "YouTube won't work" is considerably less motivating.

Even the least buggy operating system, iOS, has its share of quirks. The day of a bug-free OS is now imaginable--and foreseeable--but we're not there yet. Nonetheless, you need not be intimidated by your computer. With the help of digital colonists, Twitter, Google, and a well-crafted e-mail, you can solve all of your tech problems. You will ensure that the computer is always working for you and not the other day around.

Ben Stern writes the "Because You Asked" column for EdSurge. He is also the Technology Integrationist for a middle school in New York City. Earlier in his career, he revamped his curriculum using computers and the Internet, replacing textbooks with scholarly sources and leveraging the connectivity afforded by the Internet to contextualize content. Since then, Ben has found a passion in the evolution of education through technology and works to help teachers enhance their curriculum wherever possible. You can follow him on Twitter at @EdTechBSt and read his blog at

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