I'm teaching an online lab (to accompany an in-person course) to undergrads in their 3rd or 4th year of an engineering curriculum this semester. The aim of the lab is not to teach them any particular technical skills. It's only meant to supplement the content of the course by exposing them to some more advanced concepts in a hands-on way. The lab itself is the means, not the goal.
So beyond a single "orientation" lab, they don't get a whole lot of training in debugging things that go wrong in the lab, and I don't expect them to become advanced users of the lab infrastructure. They're encouraged to post questions on a course forum if they have trouble running a lab exercise, and I answer their questions there.
Having said that, some students post questions that would be closed immediately on a Stack Exchange site for lack of detail, and for good reason. Questions like:
I can't log in to the website, please help.
When I run the experiment, it gives me an error. Can somebody help me???
I can't see the results of the experiment.
with no further details. These are perfectly reasonable things to ask about, but the student hasn't even attempted to give me any details as to what went wrong. In the "real world," people that ask questions like this won't usually get help.
Since I operate the computing infrastructure for the lab, I can actually find out the specifics of what happened by checking the student's username against the server logs. So I can give them an answer even if they ask a really incomplete question (e.g., I can check the server logs and see that their experiment failed because they mistyped a command).
But I'm not sure if I should answer their questions (because I can, and I want to encourage them to ask questions if they have trouble), or if I should try to train them to ask better questions.
On the one hand: it seems like I am doing them a disservice by not teaching them how to ask for help properly.
On the other hand: students are (legitimately) frustrated when they're using infrastructure they haven't been extensively trained in, and they can't get it to work. If I try to get them to ask better questions, they'll feel like I'm being deliberately unhelpful and making them jump through hoops to get an answer to their question. (I know this because that's been their reaction the few times I tried this.) They may stop asking questions and just give up on the lab exercises.
Should I risk the actual course goal (delivering content to the students) in favor of a general educational goal (teaching them how to ask questions)?
Is there a way to train students to ask better questions without making them feel like I'm not helping them?
Just to clarify: I already provide answers to commonly asked questions, and a lot of material to help students formulate better questions before they ask. Some students ignore that material and ask very non-specific questions anyways. My question is how to address this once they've asked the question: should I walk them through the process of reformulating it before I answer? Is there a way to do so without frustrating them further?