#H807 On Affordances

This week in H807 features an elaboration on the popular term ‘affordances’ in educational technology.   This relates to the broader discussion on if and how technologies affect our behaviour.  Is our behaviour (as a learner) influenced by the use of e-mail, blogging, e-readers etc.?  For example, ‘writing with pen and paper required the user to think linearly, writing only when the text was near completion, in contrast the use of a word processor allows you to think non-linearly and to adapt and develop ideas as they emerge.’ (McGrenere and Ho, 2000, p6)
The term was originally coined by Gibson (1979), but has since undergone an evolution in its meaning.
Gibson (1979)
Origin in the study of perception by WWII pilots.
Interaction between environment and organisms.  Environment becomes meaningful in its interaction with organisms.
Objective/ Positivistic meaning
Fundamental properties:
  1. An affordance exists relative to the action capabilities of a particular actor.
  2. The existence of an affordance is independent of the actor’s ability to perceive it.
  3. An affordance does not change as the needs and goals of the actor change.
Norman (1988)
Adoption of affordances for design.
Design of an object may support its intended use. 
Suggestions or clues as to how to use the properties
Perceived and actual properties of an object.
Can be dependent on the experience, knowledge, or culture of the actor (User-centric meaning of affordance)
Can make an action difficult or easy

McGrenere and Ho (2000)
Utility vs Usability
Degrees of affordance
        Ease with which an affordance can be undertaken
        Clarity of the information that describes the existing affordance.
Kreijns et al (2002)
Social affordances
Properties of technologies that create and sustain social interactions (‘social space’).
To invite learners to act in accordance with the perceived affordance, i.e., start a task or a non-task related interaction of communication’

Conole & Dyke (2004)
Taxonomy of affordances
Standard set of taxonomies can help practitioners to make better use of ICT in education.

Boyle and Cook (2004)
Affordances incompatible with social constructivism

Oliver (2005)
Term ‘affordance’ is confusing and used inappropriately. 
‘Claims’ would be better.

Wright and Parchoma (2011)
Suggest discourse-based approach, like the 4 discourses on technology in learning identified by Bigum.

In Gibson’s view affordances are latent in the environment, objectively measurable and independent of the individual’s ability to recognise them, but are always in relation to the actor (Wright and Parchoma, 2011, p.249).   Its meaning was confused by the appropriation by Norman, who distinguished between ‘real affordances’ (conform to Gibson’s notion) and ‘perceived affordances’. This shift incorporates subjective interpretation and mental activity, which were explicitly rejected by Gibson. 

Conole and Dyke (2004) introduced a taxonomy of affordances for educational technology, aimed at helping practitioners to design activities.  The affordances include:
  • Diversity
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Reflection
  • Multimodal and Non-Linear
  • Risk –Fragility – Uncertainty
  • Immediacy
  • Monopolization (convergence)
  • Surveillance
The paper from Conole and Dyke (2004) generated an interesting discussion with a response from Boyle and Cook (2004) and a counter-response from Conole and Dyke (2004).  They argue that it’s wrong to apply the notion of affordances within a social constructivist context.  ‘Gibson’s approach is (a) not constructivist, and (b) not social’ (Boyle and Cook, 2004).  They claim that other theories of perception are more reconcilable with social constructivism. 

McGrenere and Ho (2000, p.7) suggest a two-dimensional interpretation of the affordance concept, ‘where one dimension describes the ease with which an affordance can be undertaken and the second dimension describes the clarity of the information that describes the existing affordance. Each of these dimensions is a continuum.’

The main critique centres on the confusing nature of the concept, because of its appropriation by different theoretical streams.  Oliver (2005) concludes that the term is highly problematic in both its origin and application.  McGrenere and Ho (2000, p.8) state that ‘as the concept of a affordances is used currently, it has marginal value because it lacks specific meaning’.
‘The term becomes shorthand, causally ‘afforded’ by the technologies and presented as obvious and inherent.  Rendering something as complex as the idea of anytime anyplace learning in this way closes it to investigation; it simply becomes a black box with an input of access, which occurs anytime or anywhere, and an output of learning. What is going on inside the black box has been obscured from view and closed from enquiry.’ (Oliver, 2005, p.252)  ‘Once prevalence and ubiquity are expanded to include and acknowledge heterogeneity, the supposed ’affordances’ start to break down and its black box begins to crack revealing a much more complex system than a mapping of affordance as input to pedagogy as output.’ (Oliver, 2005, p 254)

Oliver (2005) denounces the taxonomy of affordances, suggested by Conole and Dyke (2004).  ‘This list [taxonomy of affordances] groups together qualities attributable to the technology (e.g. multimodality and non-linearity), to its user (e.g. reflection) and to their mutual relationship (e.g. immediacy). Arguably, such a list does not conform neatly to Gibson’s, Norman’s or McGrenere & Ho’s formulation of affordance. Some elements seem consistent with the positivist origins of affordance. Others seem entirely unrelated – reflection, for example, would be denounced by Gibson. Moreover, the idea that reflection might be a response to an offering by technology (implying some causal link) rather than an act of personal agency seems odd. ‘(Oliver, 2005, p.409)

However, Oliver (2005) acknowledges that a list might be useful, but objects to the use of the term ‘affordances’.  ‘The notion of ‘affordance’ seems ill-suited to legitimating this conglomeration of claims about perceptions, actions and characteristics. Something much broader is required. Substituting the word ‘claims’ for ‘affordances’, for example, provides a more plausible framework with no loss of the central message and no diminution of utility to practitioners.’ (Oliver, 2005, p.409)
A brief ‘tour’ of the literature provides some insight in the origins and various interpretations of the term ‘affordances’.  It seems wise to either refer specifically to the intended meaning when using it (for example, by referring to Gibson or Norman), or drop the term altogether, using more neutral terms as ‘claims’ or ‘potential’ instead.

Key references
  • Gibson, J. J. (1979) The ecological approach to visual perception (Hillsdale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum).
  • McGrenere, J. & Ho, W. (2000) Affordances: clarifying and evolving a concept, Proceedings of Graphics Interface, May, Montreal. Available online at: http://www.dgp.toronto.edu/~joanna/papers/gi_2000_affordances.pdf
  • Kreijns, K., Kirschner, P. A. & Jochems, W. (2002) The sociability of computer-supported collaborative learning environments, Educational Technology & Society, 5(1). Available online at: http://www.ifets.info/journals/5_1/kreijns.html(Accessed March 14, 2012)
  • Oliver, M. (2005) ‘The Problem with Affordance’, E-Learning and Digital Media, 2(4), pp. 402–413.
  • Wright, S. and Parchoma, G. (2011) ‘Technologies for Learning? An Actor-Network Theory Critique of “Affordances” in Research on Mobile Learning’, Research in Learning Technology, 19(3), pp. 247–258.
  • Categorization of Affordances, http://acad88.sahs.uth.tmc.edu/courses/hi6301/affordance.html
This entry was posted in H807.

4 comments on “#H807 On Affordances

  1. Sukaina says:

    Wow – well done for getting through all this and summarising it. I am now even more confused about 'affordances' but I find the notion of replacing it with 'claims' or 'potential' helpful. It makes it less fixed. I've always has a sense of 'affordances' as being inherent qualities or features that allowed something to happen pedagogically.

  2. Thanks for you comment, Sukaina. The term 'affordances' seems to pop up really everywhere. I found it interesting to dig into a few papers that take a close-up look at the subject. It made me running a little behind with the ordinary course work though!Stefaan

  3. Hi Stefaan, this is a very useful synthesis, tracing the contested use of the term affordances. I was also struggling with its use (See my own blog posting). I'm looking forward to reading up more on the Boyle and Cook (2004) paper you mention above. The full reference to this paper is below in case you need it. Many thanks!Reference:Boyle, T. and Cook, J. (2004) Discussion Understanding and using technological affordances: a commentary on Conole and Dyke. Association for Learning Technology Journal, 12 (3). pp. 295-299

  4. Simon says:

    Yay – affordances are fun. I had some fun with them when I first came across them, a paper by Bill Gaver: Gaver, W. (1996). Affordances for interaction: The social is material for design. Ecological Psychology 8(2), 111-129. I did a couple of pages on the Knowledge Network with some refs and comments (mostly alluding to web sites and browser functionality): http://tinyurl.com/d2grake.

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