Thursday, 10 March 2011

Affordances confusion - and much musing!

This week is looking at the concept of affordances (the quality of an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action - Wikipedia). I have come across the concept before. I know the Norman reference, and I've probably cited it somewhere in the past. All the descriptions of affordances in the Weller text (the H807 course notes) seemed to make sense, and I could see how they were being applied... but then activity 1 asked for the affordances found in email and blogs, and I got mired in grammatical confusion.

Affordance seemed to be a noun (you could have a set of affordances, characteristics of a technology), but then affordances could be found in a technology. I'm familiar from previous work and research with making statements like "this function affords the user the ability to...x or y", in which case affords is a verb, and it means something like "allows" the user, but with a bit more pushing them towards a particular action rather than just permitting it.

Maybe I got most confused by (and so am happy if I ignore) the sentence "Suggest the affordances found in each technology". I'm not sure affordances are in technologies. I think I'm happy with saying this technology affords x or y... so here's my stab at affordances of email and blogging (as required for Activity 1).

  • Ease of writing - can edit/save etc
  • Can sent instantly or delay if required
  • Can quote from previous emails, encouraging dialogue
  • Delivered instantly (although sometimes technology fails"), so can facilitate an almost real-time 'conversation'
  • Or, may be read later, asynchronously - the recipient chooses when suites them
  • Allows writing to be tailored to the specific recipient
  • Easy to copy in additional recipients - though CC and BCC can be much used and abused
  • Awareness of writing for audience may influence tone or content
  • Ease of publishing to wide audience - questions about retro-editing and authenticity
  • Commenting facilities - tend to encourage short interaction - may spin off into email exchange
  • More of a one-way communications method - blogs can be very self-centred, albeit with an acknowledgement that other may or will read what is posted
So, was the concept of affordances useful when thinking about the technology?
Well, not especially, since I'm not quite clear enough about what it really means. I can ask "is it intuitive", "what types of communication does it encourage", "how does the design of this technology influence its use" - all without needing the concept of affordances.

I think it could be useful to think about where or why affordances arise. Are they designed? Are they emergent properties? Do affordances change when you combine various technologies in otherwise unexpected ways? Some of those emergent properties might be beneficial - but they equally well might not be and we need to be aware of their potential implications in designing elearning.

And what about how different users might experience the same technology? The original use of the term affordances in biology by Gibson described the interaction an environment offers an organism. The same environment (or technology) will have different affordances for different organisms/people. We need to be aware in designing technology (and educational technology) that difference people will experience the opportunities or facilities that we provide in different ways. What is intuitive or easy to use for one learner maybe not suit another.

Could there be other explanations (other than affordances) for behavioural influences? I think so. Community usage for a start may encourage or discourage various interactions or behaviours. Maybe some would label this a social affordance (as in Krejins et al). But social expectations or norms of behaviour could influence activity, outside of any affordances of the technology itself. It's also possible that people use a particular technology because they are unaware of alternatives - and while in this case it doesn't meant that the technology doesn't afford them what they need, it doesn't mean that need might be better met elsewhere. 


Gibson, J.J. (1979) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Boston, Houghton Mifflin.

Kreijns, K., Kirschner, P.A. and Jochems, W. (2002) ‘The sociability of computer-supported collaborative learning environments’, Journal of Educational Technology & Society, vol.5, no.1, pp.8–22; also available online at (Accessed 2 December 2010).

Norman, D.A. (1988) The Psychology of Everyday Things, New York, Basic Books.

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