At VCU Academic Learning Transformation Lab, we tend to use the word “affordance” – as in the “affordances of the open web” a lot.
I’m not sure if I ever asked (or researched) what that word meant when I joined the team. Rather, like most things ubiquitous to our environments, I figured it out along the way. However, I was recently asked by a non-ALT Labber to explain “affordances” and I did, but the question was enough to trigger some research and reflection on what the term means and how it is important in the context of digital pedagogical design.
Affordances was originally coined by perceptual psychologist, James Gibson, in the late 1970s. Gibson argued that how a person perceives the environment will always lead to some action. The environment’s affordances act like clues or prompts, indicating or shaping potential pathways for the person’s action. In social constructivist terms, this is kind of like saying your family, race, class, gender, culture, and institutional affiliations shape or impact the questions you ask and the opportunities you have. However, unlike social constructivists, Gibson kept it simple and direct: to him, affordances were things that are perceived in immediate sorts of ways like buttons for pushing and knobs for turning.
Norman (1988) riffed on Gibson’s original work to suggest that affordances are actually not just characteristics of the environments, but relationships between the world and the person. While Gibson focused on the physical or “real” aspects of the affordance (The ball is round – round is an affordance), Norman argued that, while it may be important that the ball is round (an “actual affordance“) it may be just as important that the person encountering the ball has a past experience of bouncing things like balls. Bounceability is a “perceived affordance” of the ball. In this scenario, balls are for bouncing. You see a ball, you opt to bounce it. You do not necessarily consider using it as a doorstop or a means to flatten a bug or a stool (all things afforded by a ball; trust me, I know).
When I use affordances to describe digital environments, I probably am using a broader interpretation than initially described by Norman or Gibson. For example, I suspect their definitions would be limited to “click here” buttons. For me, affordances are any property that impacts the range of user experience. Think of it as a social constructivist approach to affordances.
To my mind, my public blog has certain affordances that make it more useful than a learning management system or paper-based writing. Here are some examples:
- This blog site is mine. Therefore, I control its content and when I choose to access it.
- My blog is public, meaning I have to opportunity to write for an authentic audience beyond the scope of my physical environment
- My blog allows comments, meaning I have the opportunity for social interaction & feedback.
- It’s digital which means I can delete and edit at will.
- I can tag and categorize.
- I can engage in multimodal communication.
- I can hyperlink and because it’s open, it’s easy to hyperlink to whatever I please.
It’s important to note that just because affordances are available, students do not necessarily know that they are available nor do they always choose to use them. I can choose to write a private blog post. I can turn off comments (or choose to moderate them). I can write as much as I desire without incorporating a hyperlink or an image. The point is that I would not even have those choices to consider in other types of more traditional environments. Here, it’s a choice. However, if I choose NOT to leverage the affordances of my chosen media, I might be suiting my purpose for those particular projects, but I could just as easily be writing in a spiral notebook.
But what if my failure to leverage the affordances of the open web isn’t an intentional choice, but rather a result of not knowing about (or not knowing how to use or failing to understand the impact of) the digital affordances of the open web? Much of this feeds into the idea of usefulness versus usability. And much of it relates to Norman’s idea that how people perceive an object (from past experience, for example), impacts how they choose to use it in the present.
How do we, as openly networked connected educators working in open digital spaces, overcome learners’ previous experiences in learning management systems or previous experiences with the Internet?* What if we start with this statement:
According to Universal design for learning (UDL) good designs are those which make affordances explicit.
Norman suggests there are four ways to help learners recognize and engage with new-to-them affordances.
- Follow conventional usage. Recognizing that most people will start by using new systems in the same ways as they used old systems is essential to maintaining your sanity. The more critical piece to the puzzle is helping them recognize what they are doing and helping them move beyond it. Talking about conventional usage (say, past experience in a learning management system), being explicit about the affordances of each setting, showing how they overlap and differ may be helpful strategies. The point is to BE EXPLICIT.
- Annotate affordances. Show new learners where things are on a page (such as the categories or tags options) and then write (or add video thumbnails or audio)- right there on the sample page – annotating why they should consider using this affordance or that one.
- Use a metaphor. For example, in explaining affordances to my colleague, my discussion of LMS and open web digital affordances was helped mightily by the door knob-door pull metaphor referenced at the top of the page.
- Follow a coherent conceptual model. I like to think that all my conceptual models are ridiculously coherent; regardless of your thoughts about that, I always pull out a conceptual model or two when explaining “why” the open web. Just check out this slideshow. You’ll see conceptual models everywhere.
Just some thoughts.
*For the record, sometimes we aren’t “overcoming” previous experience; rather, we are identifying and leveraging previous experience. However, that’s a different blog post.