Web 2.0 in Education: Affordances

(Last Updated On: 31st October 2008)

NB! Web 2.0 properties are moulded by user perceptions.

The notion of the learner-context interface (Language Learning in Distance Education by Cynthia White, p 86, etc CLTL) places the individual learner’s capacity to construct an effective interface with target language*  (TL) sources in the learning environment at the centre of distance education.

* I guess any subject area could be referred to here.

An affordance is an action that an individual can potentially perform in their environment. However, the more exact meaning depends on whether the word is used to refer to any such action possibility or only to those which the actor is aware of, both of which are common uses.  (Wikipedia)

Thus an affordance is a kind of can-do statement applicable to a particular functionality within a learning environment (eg a Web 1.0/2.0 CMS), which does not necessarily have to be pre-defined by the creators of the CMS , ie any scope of application of a tool/feature within a learning environment either initially known or not known by the user may be perceived as an affordance. It is important to differentiate between what happens and how the learner perceives what happens.  Keeping a blog is an activity which is multidimensional,  some of those dimensions are affordances, whereas some are not. Let me elaborate on that. Blogging invloves typing, editing and saving your blog entries. These are not affordances.  However, blogging enables you to share knowledge and provides you with opportunities to interact with readers of your blog in the comment area. These could be perceived as affordances.

So far I have understood it all so that what exactly you do is not an affordance, whereas why you engage in a certain activity and what it enables you to achieve is. That reminds me of the saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions:), in other words, an affordance is what you intend or hope to achieve by engaging in whatever synchronous or asynchronous activity. Results and achievements are perceived and hence are interpreted differently by different people.

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I got a comment on this on May 13, 2007, which I would like to keep for future reference. See the contributor’s blog for more on this

Gibson (1979) defined affordances as the opportunities for action for the observer provided by an environment. However, as assumed by Gaver (1996) affordances are primarily facts about action and interaction, not perception. This contrasts with the common impression that affordances refer to—approximately—situations in which one can see what to do (Gibson, 1979). The mainstream view to the affordances in educational technology settings considers them the objective properties of the tools perceptable in the frames of some activities, suggesting that tools have concrete technological affordances for certain performances that can be brought into learner’s perception with specific instructions (Norman, 1988; Gaver, 1996). Neisser (1994) elaborated Gibson‘s affordances distinguishing three preceptual modules: i) Direct perception/action, which enables us to perceive and act effectively on the local environment, ii) Interpresonal perception/reactivity, which underlies our immediate social interactions with other human beings, and iii) Representation/recognition, by which we identify and respond appropriately to familiar objects and situations. Kreijns, Kirschner, and Jochems (2002) have defined social affordances as the “properties of a collaborative learning environment that act as social-contextual facilitators relevant for the learner’s social interaction. Neisser’s interpretation, however enables to consider also the interpersonal perception between subjects in action as the source of affordances at social and regulative domains. Kirschner (2002) defined educational affordances as those characteristics of an artifact that determine if and how a particular learning behavior could possibly be enacted within a given context. The contextual aspect of affordances relates with the artifacts and meanings. Thus, instead of relating affordances objectively with the software they should be related with the knots of the Activity System where subjects must realise how they perform joint actions with artifacts and tools in order to accomplish their shared object. Cook and Brown (1999) assumed that affordances are dynamic – the ongoing interactions with the environment and objects, where our previous knowledge applied during the activity helps us to evoke noticing of certain aspects, affordances, and knowing how these affordances could support the activity. This assumption supports the Engeström et al. (1999) view of the dynamic nature of knots in the Activity system.

As people perceive affordances differently, different approaches to instructional design are necessary. Two aspects are important. If we assume that affordances are perceived differently by teams, team members need to find common ground on their perceptions in order to work effectively.  Secondly, we can no longer assume that the facilitator or the teacher can define affordances on the learning landscape for her students.

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