about affordances againJune 28, 2007
There has been some feedback of the affordance ideas at Ed-Media 2007 conference from George Siemens and Terry Anderson. Thus i decided to write here the short abstract of what i believe the affordances are.
To analyze how learners in a given Activity System perceive themselves, the artefacts and tools, and other learners, i find it useful to integrate the notion of affordances. Gibson (1979) originally defined affordances as opportunities for action for an observer, provided by an environment. Gaver (1996) emphasized that affordances emerge in human action and interaction and, thus, go beyond mere perception. This contrasts with the common interpretation that affordances simply refer to situations in which one can see what to do (Gibson, 1979). Neisser (1994) elaborated Gibson‘s concept of affordance and distinguished three perceptual modes:
- Direct perception/action, which enables us to perceive and act effectively on the local environment;
- Interpersonal perception/reactivity, which underlies our immediate social interactions with other human beings, and;
- Representation/recognition, by which we identify and respond appropriately to familiar objects and situations.
Besides the affordances related to the environment, Neisser’s interpretation introduces the interpersonal perception of subjects in action as an additional source of affordances in the social and regulative domain. Another type of affordances relates with learners‘ familiarity of perceiving certain aspects of the environment certain ways, which is culture-dependent.
The mainstream view on affordances in educational technology settings considers them as objective properties of the tools, which are perceptable in the context of certain activities. Thus, it is commonly suggested that tools have concrete technological affordances for certain performances that can be brought into a learner’s perception with specific instructions (Norman, 1988; Gaver, 1996). This use of the concept tends to ignore its relativistic nature and observer-dependence, and seems to imply that affordances should be located in the environment or specific artefacts or tools. Kirschner (2002), for example, defines pedagogical affordances as those characteristics of an artefact that determine if and how a particular learning behavior could possibly be enacted within a given context. 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.
However, i do not follow this positivist understanding of affordances as part of learning environment. From an interaction-centred view (Vyas et al., 2007) affordances are the perceived possibilities for both thinking and doing, what learners perceive and signify during their actual interaction with an artefact or tool. While interacting with an artefact or tool, learners continuously interpret the situation, and construct or re-construct meanings. Thus, instead of relating affordances objectively with software applications or other complex tools and artefacts, they should rather be related to the Activity System, where learners must realize how they perform joint actions with artefacts and tools in order to accomplish their shared objectives. Affordances emerge and potentially become observable in actions what people undertake to realize shared objectives. Grounding on objectives and tools for particular actions brings along the development of certain implicit or explicit rules for effective action in particular settings. These rules constrain how tools could be used in specific actions. In educational settings, constraints in using the tools in a particular way also arise from the perception of predetermined tasks, objectives and artefacts that are meant to guide and contextualise the learning process. Activities within an Activity System are also constrained by the technical functionalities of tools and services, and the artefacts conveying meanings in a specific domain context.
Actors must develop a compatible understanding of the affordances of a given setting to make effective performance possible within an Activity System. This is true both for the facilitator and learners who want to collaborate. The similar application of the tools, functioning rule-system and distribution of labour that support the realisation of certain objectives in the Learning Environment are realised upon the commonly perceived affordances. Facilitator cannot predefine but only anticipate the affordances of Learning Environment. The Learning Environment cannot be ready when learning starts but has to evolve in the process.
Cook and Brown (1999) and Vyas et al. (2007) assume that affordances should be conceptualized as a dynamic concept. In an ongoing interaction with tools, artefacts, and other actors, we are not only affected by the dynamic situational changes but also by our previous experiences. Thus, our personal dispositions strongly influence what affordances we actually perceive in a given situation at a certain point in time. This dynamic understanding of the affordance concept appears to be entirely compatible with the ideas of Engeström et al. (1999), who described the dynamic nature of interactions between the components of the Activity Systems. The dynamic changes in the perception of Learning Environment must be considered as part of the design model: iterative cycles of grounding and regulation with conversational actions among the learners and the facilitator about the state of art of the Learning Environment as the Distributed Activity System, and the development of these competences would become increasingly important.