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The affordances of education technology

In this article, Professor Hughes discusses the issue of learning affordances.
Drawing of a sorcerer's apprentice in the process of making a spell. He is surrounded by books of spells, a broom, a skull and a smoky cauldron.,
© Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Philosphers have had a lot to say about technology. For example, Martin Heidegger (1977) and Karl Jaspers (1951) theorise about technology in the abstract as having demonic agency (like the magic broom in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice) or as causing unintended consequences such as in the case of Frankenstein’s creature.

This view is contested by the likes of Don Ihde (1993) and Peter Paul-Verbeek (2005). They argue that instead of looking at technology in the abstract, we should focus on particular technological artefacts and the role they play in mediating the relationship between humans and their environment. This relationship is seen as both dynamic and reciprocal in which technologies harbour possibilities and affordances that offer potential for creativity and innovation.

In this course, I argue that by adopting Ihde and Verbeek’s perspective in the context of learning design, we can break free of received notions about education technologies. What’s more, we can gain a lens through which to identify previously unseen opportunities and to think more deeply about the possibilities of the technologies at our disposal for improving learning outcomes. In Romantic Blended and Online Learning Design (2021), I outline 11 affordances that I believe can be leveraged by learning designers:

Modularity This refers to the fact that the courses we design are often an amalgam of different platforms, applications and even modes of delivery that can be combined together in different ways to achieve pedagogical outcomes.

Multi-modality Online courses afford multiple modes of representation. Thus, written texts, images, audio and audio-visual texts can be ‘mashed’ together in ways that motivate learners and persuade them to engage in activity effective for learning.

Editability Courses can be continuously modified and updated in response to changes in institutional norms, student feedback or changes in the syllabus. As Dorian Peters (2013: 4) explains in Interface Design for Learning:

One of the most important aspects ‘of online learning’ is that the context is adaptive and can evolve on the basis of evaluation and experience.

Interactivity The platforms and tools we use offer a range of opportunities to trigger interactions with content, peers and tutors that are contingent on user choice. This affordance undergirds much action that is effective for learning such as exposure to new ideas, checking understanding, collaboration, the production and sharing of knowledge, processes of reflection and the scaffolding of learner engagement with complex concepts and frameworks etc.

Temporality As we have already seen, educational technologies afford both synchronous and asynchronous communication.

Co-production Content can be created as much by the user as by the designer. Such user participation in content production clearly sets online courses apart from print texts.

Reprogrammability By manipulating code, designers can modify key features of their courses.

Sharability As well as ideas, digital content can be easily shared with colleagues working on other courses.

Spatiality Courses can be closed and limited or open and borderless as in the case of the MOOCs offered by the likes of FutureLearn.

Traceability Who is using the course, how often and for how long can be monitored by designers and acted upon to improve design quality.

Rhetoricity It’s possible to think of the online component of a course as a rhetorical situation (Bitzer, 1968). Thus, as we saw in Week 3, learning designers can use different modes of communication and discourse strategies to persuade students to engage in action effective for learning. We will return to this issue again this week.

How useful is the concept of affordances? Which of the affordances described above do you utilise in your own teaching context? Do you, for example, use traceability to track learners engagement or use platforms, apps and tools to trigger interaction? Is this a comprehensive list or are there additional affordances that learning designers might want to consider? Use comments below to share your thoughts on one or more of these questions.

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Blended and Hybrid Learning Design in Higher Education

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