working on affordance paper ideas

April 17, 2007

Yesterday i spent whole day in Tallinn with Terje Väljataga and Sebastian Fieder discussing the key terms in our affordance paper. What was nice …we started from lab, moved to the coffee-shop and ended by the side of the swan pond in Kadriorg. I think the last part was the most creative.

Some of the ideas we tried to refine:

Should we use term web 2.0 tools?
Old term would have been social publishing tools or social media, is it different from read and write web, two-way web?
Sebastian argued that social cannot be part of the tools and systems, social is the second order effect.
So we decided to describe the trends towards new systems with new properties, name the tools and not to use web 2.0, but web-publishing as the general term.

Another discussion was, should we distinguish between individual and collaborative web-publishing. Our thought was that at any time when an individual decides to publish, it accepts the new paradigm of sharing. It feels that individual is an egoistic perspective, but individual web-publishing becomes community-based contribution and practices, and involves paradigm change. So we decided not to distinguish between individual and collaborative web-publishing in the paper, and just to refer to web-publishing tools and services, giving their description with novel aspects.

Bereiter (2002) raises the questions: Where is knowledge if it isn’t contained in individual minds? The kind of answer coming from activity and situated cognition theorists runs along the following lines: Knowledge is not lodged in any physical or metaphysical organ. Rather knowledge inheres in social practices and in the tools and artifacts used in those practices (p. 57). Learning as it pertains to individuals is a process of moving from peripheral to full participations in cultural practices (Lave and Wenger 1991). At another level, learning is the evolution of those practices. Knowledge is regarded as distributed. This does not mean merely that it is spread around, a bit here and a bit there… knowledge does not consist of little bits…all the knowledge is in the relationships – relationships among the people engaged in an activity, the tools they use, and the material conditions of the environment in which action takes place. Bereiter concludes (p. 59): People do not acquire items of mental content which they then take out on occasions and use. Instead they learn how to take part in what is going on and how to function intelligently in the work environment. On page 66 Bereiter (2002) writes: My purpose is to argue for distinguishing knowledge in the form of identifiable conceptual artifacts from knowledge implicit or embedded in individual minds, in social practices, or in physical tools.

Secondly we argued which term is more precise – personal learning environments or personalised learning environments?
PLE incorporates technology, material resources, people, and everything it is a general term meaning environment concept in broader sense, so we discussed to use this and make some arguments with british group. Presonalised relates with adopting some environment to personal needs, like making a personalised web-browser, and it feels a narrower concept.

Third aspect was, whether to use instructional design model term or educational environment design?
We have already written that: User-selected variability in the learning environments has to be considered as part of the learning design, but now we need to change it to the learning environment design.
We decided that, because of the wider degrees of freedom in new distributed systems, we want to put the effort on designing the learning environment, not the learning designs. Learning- or instructional designs would control and determine the activities of the learners, new environments suggest less control of cognitive learning processes and more effort has to put on the environment design where the learners can act self-directed manner.

Then we discussed what is the difference of our understanding of knots compared with Engeström. My argument was that Engeström’s knots are tied and untied when different activities meet either inside the activity system or between several activity systems. But people have problems at the action level whithin activities. So our suggestion was to look at the knotworking situations at action level. This enables to consider every orchestration between actions as a knot. In our framework we say that in each knot of the activity system subjects with certain objectives try to realise something using tools and artifacts and their meaning-system relying on their rules and roles – thus, in every knot the affordances emerge due to that action, which start constraining the possible realisation of the knot.
Engeström has written about collaborative orchestration of action in knots (i think he does not refer to the activity-action-operation hierarchy, but on the moves or actions as a general term). We discussed is this applicable at individual level (in self-directed learning situations). One thought is that individual always has the conversation with artifacts (e.g. Wertcsh’s ‘Voices of mind’), and then knotworking happens at individual level, when certain cognitive and metacognitive actions must be performed in the personal activity system which is in networked situation interrelated with other personal activity systems. Artifacts from other activity systems can be considered as the actors’ minds which need to be translated into one’s own mind..from different perspectives.

Engeström, Y, Engeström, R., Vähäaho T. (1999). When the center does not hold: the importance of knotworking. (pp. 345-374). In S. Chaiklin M. Hedegaard and U. J. Jensen (Eds.), Activity Theory and Social Practice: Cultural-Historical Approaches. Aarhus University Press.

Activity theory takes a collective object-oriented activity system as its prime unit of analysis. Activity is realised in goal-oriented individual and group actions.
Knotworking is not reducible to a single knot or a single episode. It is a temporal trajectory of successive task-oriented combinations of people and artifacts. Knotworking situations are fragile because they rely on fast accomplishment of intersubjective understanding, distributed control and coordinated action between actors who otherwise have relatively little to do with each other.
In knowtworking, the combinations of people and the contents of tasks change constantly. This highlights the importance of communicative actions and tools for the success of knotworking.
Instead of being stable the combinations of people collaborating to perform for some tasks change constantly. Combinations of people, tasks and tools are unique and of relatively short duration yet in their basic pattern, they are continuously repeated. These forms of organisation do not fit standard definitions of a team. Teams are typically understood as relatively stable configurations. Neither do they fit standard notions of networks. Networks are typically understood as relatively stable structures, which can be exploited more or less effectively by their individual or collective nodes. We call this type of organisation of work knotworking.
The notion of knot refers to a rapidly pulsating, distributed and partially improvised orchestration of collaborative performance between otherwise loosely connected actors and activity systems.
Knotworking is historically significant new form of organising and performing work activity, connected to the emergence of new co-configuration models of production.
We may name six criteria of co-configuration: a) adaptive product or service b) continuous relationship between customer product/service and company, c) ongoing configuration or customization d) active customer involvement, e) multiple collaborating produces and f) mutual learning from interactions between the parties involved.

Knotworking needs to be represented along several complementary dimensions (Engeström, 1999). First we need the socio-spatial dimension to depict the relations between the different activity systems involved in forming a knot at any given point of time. We also need a temporal dimension to depict successive steps or episodes in a trajectory of knotworking. The spatial and temporary dimensions are fairly obvious. What is less obvious is the need for an ethical dimension. Knotworking regularly calls for redistribution and reconceptualisation of control, responsibility and trust. This does not imply that knotworking is automatically a benign phenomen of empowerment. Our claim is simply that the emergence of knotworking shakes and makes questionable the given forms of hierarchy and segmentation of professional and organisational authority.

Knotworking is characterised by a pulsating movement of tying untying and retying together otherwise separate therads of activity. The idea of pulsation integrates the socio-spatial and the temporal dimensions: knots are tied and untied in various rythms which need to be represented along both dimensions simultaneously. Pulsation alows comresses and releases the different participating activity streams in ways that tend to disrupt and shake given notions of responsibility and power, opening up the ethical dimensions of work for analysis and intervention.

The tying and dissolution of a knot of collaborative work is not reducible to any specific individual or fixed organisational entity as the center of control. The center does not hold. The locus of initiative changes from moment to moment within a knotworking sequence. Thus knotworking cannot be adequately analysed from the point of view of an assumed center of coordination and control, or as an additive sum of the separate perspectives of individuals or institutions contributing to it. The unstable knot itself needs to be made the focus of analysis. Each thred in a knot may be analysed as a collective activity system.
We may distinguish between more individually-based and more collectively-based forms of knotworking.
Dimensions of knotworking:
Knotworking is dependent on fast accomplishment of intersubjective understanding and distributed control. Intersubjectivity is not reducible to either the interaction between or the subjectivity of each participant. Both are needed. Thus we may be able to analyse the internal dynamics and tensions of the activity systems that partake in a knotworking trajectory. For this we use the model of an activity system (Engeström, 1987).
Activity-theoretical studies of work and communication have mainly dealt with development and learning within well-bounded singular activity systems. If knotworking is indeed a historically-significant new way of organising work, associated with the rise of co-configuration, activity theory must expand its methodological repertoire to cope with the challenge.
Activity-theoretical studies of work and organisations must conduct critical dialogue with varieties of discourse and conversation analysis that neglect or ignore the object to be produced as the central driving force and glue of practical-discursive human activity.

Activity systems are complex social organisations containing of learners, teachers, curriculum materials, software tools and the physical environment (p. 79).
Situative learning perspective builds on (Greeno, 2006, p. 80):
1) patterns of information that are hypothesised to be recognised or constructed in activity related with operating in the problem-spaces
2) pattern of coordination in groups of individuals engaged in joint action with material and informational systems in their environment, relates with operating in the activity system

Phillips (1972) has called such patterns participation structures or participant structures. A participation structure describes the distribution of the functional aspects of the activity including agency, authority, accountability leading and the following, initiating attending accepting questioning or challenging and so on. Participation structures that are charactersitic of a community or group are aspects of the community’s or group’s practices and learning to become more effective in one’s participation corresponds to achieving fuller participation in a community’s practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991).

Situative studies bring the individual cognitive and interactional approaches together by providing analyses of interaction in activity systems that include the hypotheses about semiotic structures that are the informational contents of the activity. These analyses include representing contributions of the material and technological tools and artifacts of the system. The goal is to understand cognition as the interaction among participants and tools in the context of an activity. The situative analysis has two components: an interaction analysis of the conversation including close attention to its turn taking, responses and contributions (Sawyer, 2006) and the semiotic structures of information that they constructed in the coversation.

We also discussed what Engeström meant by the community term in the activity system, and is this community the same as the community in new networked situations. Engeström wrote that: The community comprises multiple individuals and/or sub-groups who share the same general object and who construct themselves as distinct from other communities.
In networked situations it is questionable, whether they share identity and goals when acting individually (which are the properties of the community), but the result would still be a participation network.
We decided to use term actors in an activity system which seems enough (instead of community) – this can be supported with Wenger’s (1998) arguments. But we agree that participation networks can develop into a community after a certain period of time.

Community of practice is a group of people participating together to carry out different activities. For individuals it means that learning is an issue of engaging in and contributing to the practices of the communities. For communities, it means that learning is an issue of refining their practice and ensuring new generations of members. For organistions it means that learning is an issue of sustaining the interconnected communities of practice through which an organistaion knows what it knows and thus becomes effective and valuable as an organisation (Wenger, 1998, pp. 7-8).

There are four charactersitics that the learning communities must have (Bielaczyc and Collins 1999):
1)diversity of expertise among its members who are valued for their contributions and given support to develop
2)a shared objective of continually advancing the collective knowledge and skills
3)an emphasis on learning how to learn
4)mechanisms for sharing what is learned

In the end we made some major changes on the figure of the distributed activity system. We removed the community term and moved the subjects to the center of the model. This simplified the picture a lot, and if the term SUBJECTS is used, it is not changing the idea how the participation network emerges and works.

distributed activity system new

1. Assembling distributed learners and their learning spaces in groups, using shared communication spaces.
2. Grounding, who will do what actions in teams with tools; Grounding leardership etc.
3. Grounding, how to work; planning the meetings etc.
4. Grounding, where to work and what activities to do in each medium
5. Evaluating team-members, with whome you work socially.
6. Grounding the content to be created, and the content of learning materials to be used, and their relationships.
7. Materializing the objectives with tools. Creating the questionnaire and its content; publishing communicative acts.
8. Grounding discussed learning content, and its realisation in material artifact.
9. Grounding, how the subjects‘ performance was meaningful for realising their shared purpose.

The other figure, on which we explain the emergent nature of affordances will also be simplified. We will remove the context terminology, because the ideas, how Nardi describe what context is and how it influences the activity, started to overlap with the notion of affordances, and how they emerge and influence the activity.

It is some info i want to add to the paper to make it more related to AT and affordance literature. Also i needed to test my interpretations which i wrote in paper, and they seem to be ok.

Gaver (1991) finds that culture, experience and intentions are indeed entangled in the user-system interaction.
Gaver finds that such contexts can function to highlight certain affordances.
Affordances are:
“Properties of the world that are compatible with and relevant for the actors’ interaction, which, when perceptible, offer a link between the actors’ perception and action” (Gaver)

*this seems interesting objectivistic approach environment has affordances that are links if perceptible for action

Bärentsen in particular mobilises the principle of situated action (Suchman, 1987) and the theory of cultural historical psychology/AT (Leontjev, 1978).
He explicitly addresses the dynamic aspect of the affordance concept, for instance through underlining the importance of what space (invariants) and time means for the learning aspect.
The perception of affordances are dependent on the degree to which users are able to know or feel (intuition) “where they are” in ecological space.

*can be added to the dynamic affordance reference

As Vicente (1999) rightly mentions, Ecological Interface Design (EIS) principles by Vicente and Rasmussen (1992) in particular explores the application of ecological design principles for loosely coupled work domains with a high degree of strategic task uncertainty and self-organisation, where the actors’ levels of control, learning, strategies and tasks are crucial units of analysis.
EIS principles:
• Support of skill-based behaviour: a gradual aggregation of singular physical movements or cognitive processes
• Support of rule-based behaviour: supporting the actors’ cognitive control of her goal-directed behaviour through displaying perceptual and diagnostic cues for changes in the environment
• Support of knowledge-based behaviour: in particular crucial in high-risk work domains and situations requiring continual awareness and fast intervention.
An important design rationale in the EIS approach is the notion that actors have the ability to directly perceive the state of affairs in the environment, given that the information is present in a proper format. In order to do this, the interface of a system must be transparent in the sense that the deep structure of the work is accessible to direct perception as an affordance space in a Gibsonean sense.

*particularly interesting is approach to deal affordances in similar environment as we do, secondly i like they don’t use properties of the environment but “state of affairs” in the environment which emerge from deep structure of work – it is a step towards activity system where affordances emerge.


The affordance spaces are created from a separate analysis of the deep structure of the work domain, from its physical properties to its goals, and from a separate analysis of the actors’ recurrent behaviour, intentions and strategies (e.g. Pejtersen & Albrechtsen, 2000; Albrechtsen & Pejtersen, 2000).

The Definition of affordances should be extended as follows: “cues for action relevance, displayed in the context of a virtual ecology of work”.
The shift between the actors’ focus on work problems and context, tools that mediate their activity and their coordination of work activities with other actors performs at several levels of action, communication and understanding.

*here again i see implicit relations with activity system components, secondly i like they consider actors’ behaviour, intentions and strategies as the source of affordances

From: Affordances in Activity Theory and Cognitive Systems Engineering
H. Albrechtsen, H.H.K. Andersen, S. Bodker, A.M. Pejtersen
Ris National Laboratory, Roskilde
August 2001


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