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Posts Tagged ‘affordances

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If I had to teach the concept of affordances in 10 minutes, I would use this video.

Most people use Excel to create spreadsheets and graphs. This Japanese retiree’s use of Excel to paint is an unexpected use of the program. The former is a designed or intended use. The latter is a perceived or negotiated use.

In education, we also speak of technical, social, and pedagogical affordances. These take longer than 10 minutes to teach and might require a lifetime to master.

Is there a master Japanese artist who might illustrate these affordances by accident?

Mention the word “affordances” even today and you might get quizzical looks.

Mention that in education there are affordances that are technical, social, and pedagogical and you might as well have spoken a foreign language.

I outlined some ideas on these three affordances in an ICT book chapter several years ago. That same book had a chapter dedicated to affordances and referenced Gibson (1979) and Norman (1999) as the precursors of ICT affordances.

Gibson, J. (1979). The ecological approach to human perception. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Norman, D. (1999) Affordance, conventions, and design, Interactions, 6(3), 3-43.

Tan, A. (2010). Wikis. In Chai, C.S., & Wang, Q. (Eds.), ICT for Self-directed and Meaningful Learning (pp. 249-261). Singapore: Pearson.

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If you wish to get a good idea on what Norman’s ideas on affordances are, you should watch this video on doors. It might open your mind up to possibilities in the design and integration of educational technology.

A colleague of mine, Sally, shared this link via Facebook. It about a group text messaging service called Yobongo.

Video service

The author of that blog entry reflected on how the tool might be appropriated for good or bad use. I concur.

My take is not new. Technologies like Yobongo are pushing social, ethical, political, legal and other boundaries. Often the utility of the tool is based on relatively simple technical affordances. In Yobongo’s case, it is being able to text message everyone in a particular location.

But what you do socially with such a messaging system is another matter. Do you use it to send out timely reminders or do you use it to spread hateful rumours? Do you use it to share a useful resource or to coordinate an attack? Those are the tools social affordances, some of which you anticipate or design for while others are emergent.

An educator needs to not only consider the technical and social affordances of an e-tool but also the pedagogical ones. How do I teach better with it? How do my students learn better with it? For example, a tool like Yobongo could be used to brainstorm or backchannel in a manner that learners intuitively take to.

A framework of educational technology affordances is both descriptive and prescriptive. It might be used descriptively to evaluate a tool (this might be what it is good for). It might also be used prescriptively to integrate the tool into a learning activity (this is how we will leverage on affordance X to make Y happen).

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When it comes to the iPad, the apps can make a huge difference.

Thanks to the efforts of @tucksoon and his PLN, I’ve learnt that there is no shortage of iPad apps for education:

So it is not surprising for people like this CNET writer who was initially critical of the iPad to be sold on it after regular use. But it must be said that the iPad was still used like a laptop computer in the examples.

Just what are the technical affordances of Apple’s newest darling? The iPad:

  • is a multitouch input device
  • offers more screen real estate than a mobile phone
  • is an instant-on device
  • offers wireless Internet access via wifi or 3G

By combining the latter two properties, you get potentially instant access to information that you need. You can then view or manipulate what you find more naturally and easily thanks to the first two properties. That hints at some of the iPad’s social and pedagogical affordances, but are there others?

I think this is what articles like iPads and authentic learning experiences from the Australian Teacher Magazine try to address. But as I read it, it was hard for alarm bells not to go off.

Why? All the reasons that were brought up in the Aussie article (e.g., authentic learning, kinaesthetic learning) can be done about as effectively and much more cheaply with netbooks. Or with the phones students already have. The iPads are great to have, but are not essential.

Nonetheless I applaud that school’s effort in being among the first to explore the possibilities. I also like the fact that they are getting 21 units for a trial rather than a blanket programme. But I hope that along with the apps they hope to find or develop, they also design and implement pedagogy that runs parallel with and takes full advantage of  iPad technology.

I’m not the first to say this and I won’t be the last: The technology alone isn’t going to change things; it’s the pedagogy that must change and drive change.

[image source, used under CC licence]

Blasting PowerPoint is not new. Seth Godin blogged about how PowerPoint bullets can kill and it was an entertaining read, as was the original NYTimes article which got Godin rolling.

The original “PowerPoint kills” context was its use in the US military. PowerPoint was described as a tool that “stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making” and “can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control”. Some more choice quotes:

it ties up junior officers — referred to as PowerPoint Rangers — in the daily preparation of slides, be it for a Joint Staff meeting in Washington or for a platoon leader’s pre-mission combat briefing in a remote pocket of Afghanistan… Last year when a military Web site, Company Command, asked an Army platoon leader in Iraq, Lt. Sam Nuxoll, how he spent most of his time, he responded, “Making PowerPoint slides.” When pressed, he said he was serious.

But PowerPoint was not without its charms.

Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters. The news media sessions often last 25 minutes, with 5 minutes left at the end for questions from anyone still awake. Those types of PowerPoint presentations, Dr. Hammes said, are known as “hypnotizing chickens.”

I’ve blogged about what I think of PowerPoint before and I’ve shared my philosophy of presentations [1] [2].

PowerPoint tends to be used in a frontal, delivery-oriented way. Worse still, it is linear and bulleted by design. But teaching and learning are not always sequential. We should not to let the medium restrict a message. In the context of education, I’d add that the medium should not restrict multi-way communication and learning.

Slideshare source

I am not saying that PowerPoint presentations cannot be effective. Many of the ones at Slideshare are testament to how good they can be (see the one above for practical tips and the one below as an example of visual design). The best ones often speak for themselves and the reason they do that is because their creators don’t restrict themselves to what PowerPoint does. It’s another example of how social and pedagogical affordances trump technical ones.

Slideshare source

[image source, used under CC licence]

I have mixed thoughts on this article, Insidious pedagogy: How course management systems impact teaching by Lisa Lane.

The article is based on the premise that course management systems (CMS) like Blackboard have an inherent pedagogy, which is limited to traditional forms of teaching, and this in turn impacts instructors. I do not agree fully with the premise, but I agree with much of the rest of the article even though it is built on that premise. It is an insidious article!

I think that the premise is technologically deterministic, that is, the outcomes of using a tool are defined by its design. But as I wrote earlier, there are technological, social and pedagogical affordances of modern technologies. Affordances are not guarantees of use. The pedagogical affordances of a CMS are but one aspect that influence its use. How they are used socially can make a difference.

Technology is largely neutral even if it is designed to harm. Let us take an ammunition round for example. It is designed to kill. It can be used in a mindless mall shooting. It can also be used to hunt in order to feed a family.

There are limits to a CMS but it is still neutral. It allows the pedagogy of the instructor to take centre stage. If you only know a delivery-oriented model, you will use a CMS that way. If you have constructivist leanings, you will use a CMS to that end. So while I agree with Lane that a CMS limits users, I think it does not determine how they teach.

I agree with her that novice instructors may know no other way of teaching than to attempt to deliver content. I also agree that CMS tend to support that model of teaching and that learning how to use a CMS might be a barrier to developing your own teaching style. So I agree with her advice to novices to ask themselves what they want to do first, rather than do what a CMS demands of them.

[image source, used under CC licence]

If you do, you might abandon an institute-sanctioned CMS like me. The CMS is Blackboard here in NIE. I stopped using it after one semester in 2006 and have been using blogs, wikis and other Web 2.0 tools in my courses since 2007. Why? I started blogging and using wikis in 2004 and began to see their potential for learning.

BlackBoard did include some of these tools as add-ons (in a desperate bid to stay relevant I might add), but they are closed off to the rest of the world. Worse still, my trainees would not have indefinite access to them. Worst of all, my trainees would be put only in the shoes of students, unable to administer, customize and add to the tool itself. I did not realize it then, but I was trying to get them to use what all of us already have access to: Get your own blog, your own wiki, your own online mindmap, your own VoiceThread, your own Google Docs, etc.

A technology learning curve is expected of any tool. It would help if the curve was shallow and short and if pedagogy took centre stage. Bringing in tools that students or teachers-to-be are already using is logical and necessary. (Think about Facebook as an example.) First, the tools are relatively easy to learn. Second, the learning and tinkering is already done outside of class. Third, you can focus on formal learning processes and content with your students or trainees. Finally, the learners expect to be able to use them at work and at play. This way learning becomes naturally seamless instead of just constrained to a time and place.

It’s about killing a few birds with one stone. A stone that has an expected use, but if used innovatively, might redefine how we teach.

Steve Wheeler shared a thought after having a pre-conference Tweetup:

Quote of the evening must go to Simon Finch (@simfin) who said something along the lines of: ‘On Twitter people I don’t know let me know about stuff that really interests me. On Facebook people I do know tell me stuff I don’t want to know about’. OK, it was a signature piece of hilarious wordplay from Simon, and it made us all laugh out loud. But it also shows up what some people see as a contrast between the frivolous nature of Facebook, and the way Twitter is becoming a serious professional networking tool.

I grinned. I, too, use Twitter more than I do Facebook (FB).

But I also see a flaw in Simon’s generalization. You can get as much garbage in Twitter as you can in Facebook.


It is not so much about what the technology does for you as what you do with the technology. What a particular technology might do for you is termed its affordances. There are at least three aspects of affordances: technical, social, and in the case of education, pedagogical.

The technical affordances of Twitter include text inputs of up to 140 characters and embedding URLs linked to Websites, videos, photos, etc. You also get to choose who to follow and whether a follower gets to see your tweets.

The technical affordances of Facebook are greater. Amongst other things, you can post longer and richer messages on your wall, you can play online games and you can set up group spaces. Like Twitter, you can choose who to “friend” and the person you intend to follow decides whether or not to “friend” you back.

But the social and pedagogical use of the tool are what makes a real impact. Consider how a hammer is designed to drive nails into wood or a wall. But it can also be used to kill someone or shape a piece of art.

I know of teachers who want to use FB like an LMS. Pedagocially, they might be transferring the teacher-centred control, teacher-prepared resources and teacher-directed tasks of an LMS to FB.

I always ask these teachers why they want to do this if they already have an LMS in school. The standard reply is that their students are already on FB. I counter that the kids are intent on socializing in FB and that the teachers are not taking advantage of the social factor (when was the last time you socialized over PowerPoint?). They are also forgetting the distractions that FB brings. I then challenge them to design social forms of learning and/or build the distractions (e.g., games) into the learning process.

Twitter, by comparison, seems very limited. But I’d say that it provides less distraction because of its simplicity. That and the fact that the people I follow do not just answer Twitter’s original question “What are you doing?” or the current “What’s happening?” Instead, we focus more on answering the questions:

  • What do you want to know more about?
  • What did you learn?
  • What can you share?
  • What can you teach?

We have socially renegotiated what Twitter was designed to do.

By following just a few folks and reading the resources that come my way every day several times a day, I have established a personal learning network (PLN) like I have never experienced before. It is like attending several professional development sessions a day, all of which are rich and meaningful to me.

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