All entries for Thursday 28 December 2006

December 28, 2006

Affordance in E–Learning

The concept of Affordance taken from a range of disciplines is considered as important in the development of E-Learning.

What is Affordance?

I have lifted this directly from a course at Purdue University
however there are many sites which come up with the same material. The door example is especially popular. In other words this is the accepted dominant discourse.

Gibson Affordance Theory

The perception theorist J. J. Gibson (Gibson, 1979) radically changed ideas about human perception:

Gibson assumed that we perceive in order to operate on the environment. Perception is designed for action. Gibson called the perceivable possibilities for action affordances. He claimed that we perceive affordance properties of the environment in a direct and immediate way. This theory is clearly attractive from the perspective of visualization. The goal of most visualization is decision making. In short, Gibson claims that we perceive possibilities for action. i.e. surfaces for walking, handles for pulling, space for navigation, tools for manipulating, etc. In general, our whole evolution has been geared toward perceiving useful possibilities for action.

Affordance example: (Norman, 1988)

You are approaching a door through which you eventually want to pass. The door, and the manner in which it is secured to the wall, permits opening by pushing it from its ‘closed’ position. We say that the door affords (or allows, or is for) opening by pushing. On approaching that door you observe a flat plate fixed to it at waist height on the ‘non-hinge’ side, and possibly some sticky finger marks on its otherwise polished surface. You deduce that the door is meant to be pushed open: you therefore push on the plate, whereupon the door opens and you pass through. Here, there is a perceived affordance, triggered by the sight of the plate and the finger marks, that is identical with the actual affordance. Note that the affordance we discuss is neither the door nor the plate: it is a property of the door (the door affords opening by pushing ). [My emphasis]

Norman, D. (1988). The Psychology of Everyday Things , New York, Basic Books, pp. 87-92.

The Wikipedia entry on Affordance is also interesting as it leads on to post cognitivist ideas within psychology which relate to affordance theories. The term is also linked to graphical design and human-computer interaction.

Here is a blog by a designer about his daughter’s reaction to buttons.
You can follow through to a discussion as well.

Here is a commercial training company’s understanding of the term in relation to e-learning. If you scroll down there is a good range of web pages with some critique on how well they offer ‘affordance’. Do things which look clikable turn out not to be clickable for example.

Here is another blog about ‘drag and drop’. Drag and drop in general is generally a good example of affordance (which I take to mean usability in a pragmatic sense of a no technical user). You will notice references to Ajax here. Ajax is not 1) A Greek Hero nor 2) Some kind of scouring agent. Ajax is 3) A web development programme which helps to create drag and drop however this blog points out that:

The problem with drag-and-drop is that it doesn’t have any affordances. You can’t tell when you’ve encountered an element that is dragable. The result is that this powerful capability is often only known by developers.

This blogger (Jared Spool) is a web designer and a key issue is managing to make thigs easy for users. Of course if they did media degrees they would know that one of the most important things to do is to test out products on audiences before general release as Hollywood does. Several endings are shot at the same time. ‘Affordance means’ audience testing!

This blog ends with a useful set of comments and discussion for people who know something about the technologies (not I). This leads into a a different page on the notion of perceived affordance.

This glossary also led me to the useful term Minesweeping which for non- initiates describes the process when one clicks wildly all over the screen to try and find something interactive. When this happens there is clearly a lack of ‘affordance’.

For educationalists seeking to develop materials and environments for students the issue of affordance is very important. If the pages aren’t set out effectively then students will ignore them. The answer to this is always evaluate your work well with students to see how they cope. Take their problems and comments on board, remember they are the audience.

Examples of Affordance

Thematic Navigation and Contextual Navigation

This entry explains how the tagging system in Warwick Blogs works. This is a very good example of good practice in which alternative paths to providing the content which a target user is likely to be interested in are made available.

... each item of content is also classified as pertaining to one or more themes. These themes run across the whole site, and may appear in any context. For example, the theme ‘Writing Skills’ may be assigned to any page. In Sitebuilder and Warwick Blogs, themes are applied using a taxonomically consistent set of keyword tags. So for example, this blog entry, and many others in Warwick Blogs, contains the tag ‘E-learning’, indicating that it is of that theme. When carried out in such a systematic way, keyword tagging may build an alternative way of organising web content, independent (or on top of) of contextual navigation. Furthermore, each page may contain more than one theme, thus providing sense about the relationship between themes as expresses in the page. The final element of thematic navigation is the provision of ways in which a user can see the available themes, and query for pages that contain those themes.

When Blogging: Take Care of the Humble Tag!

One important element of ‘affordance’ is empowering a user to get at the information they want in the most direct way possible. I have learnt as I have been developing this blog just how important the humble tag is. Initially I wasn’t certain of the best way of using them but as entries started to build up (blog builder) learning how to navigate for myself was very important. Only today I realise that I was tagging E_Learning not E-Learning. consequently I couldn’t access the developing discourse on this area. I had to change all the tagging on a number of entries.

Lesson 1. For good blog design which pays respect to affordance is organising your tags well.

Lesson 2. I suggest you ask your visitors to leave a message in the comments box if they find it difficult to navigate.

Lesson 3) To develop ‘affordance’ on this blog I have also placed an explanatory post on the lay out of the side bar and its relevance for the expected target audiences of the site. To increase the visual aids to navigation I have dropped clock widgets into the sidebar set at GMT. This helps to break the sidebar into sections. If you are familiar with Manuel Castells’ notion of ‘timeless time’ in the networked society you will enjoy the irony.

New Media: Citizenship

New Media Technologies and Citizenship

Beyond the discourse of commerce which has increasingly come to dominate the web the fundamental issues of citizenship for the 21st century remains an important issue.

Citizenship isn’t a static concept and concerns of cultural citizenship and ecological citizenship have emerged on top of older concerns about political and social citizenship.

According to a story from the BBC web feed the issue of citizenship in terms of communications and politics is a core issue in China.

It appears as though the remnants of the old command and centralised system is increasingly fracturing as it comes up against networked systems. In theory at least my bet is on the networked systems succeeeding. What perhaps is the biggest issue is what will happen when it does finally succeed. Will there be a highly sophisticate digerati ready to take over China as we know it? Will regional powers start to emerge?

The Open Net initiative is a fascinating site for anybody interested in the effects of new media and communications technologies in relation to citizenship and politics in general. It comes strongly recommended. The BBC page also has some useful links for those intersted in following up.

New Media: Relationship of Podcasting to Radio in an Educational Environment

Courses on Radio Production and Their Application to Podcasting


Here I am going through the process of working through issues of educational innovation and identifying some of the problems involved which are both technical and institutional. Here I have kept the focus on podcasting as the example educational technology to link in with the following educational areas:

  1. Firstly, practical work I intend to introduce in terms of making my own talks
  2. Secondly teaching these technologies to colleagues / students
  3. Issues of managing change
  4. Institutional resistances and problems
  5. How HE institutions which already practice radio production could contribute to developing educational podcasting


For educationalists podcasting is going to become increasingly important as one of the available tools of communications / media management for education. This issue has recently been highlighted by Robert O’Toole.

1. communcations managers are concerned with raising the level of communcations skills and the quality of media processes throughout the organisation;
2. these communications skills are also fundamental academic skills;
3. e-learning (following the new agenda for research based learning) is concerned with encouraging skills and quality processes using technology within the student’s research-learning process, communications form a significant element within these skills.

Podcasting & Radio

In many ways podcasting is an extension of radio. Radio is the oldest form of electronic mass media and as has been indicated elsewhere on this site it is very important in countries which have been less developed.

With the rapid emergence of broadband internet access and the increasingly lower financial hurdles to reproduction equipment a combination of streamed internet ‘radio’ and podcasting looks set to fill the role which was occupied by pirate radio stations in a legitimate way.

The great advantage of podcasting is that individual programmes can be delivered direct to blogs or else to a free subscription service such as i-Tunes. This allows the audience to access the content where and when they want it.

As in other areas of media fully professional programmes from mainstream broadcasters such as the BBC will be delivering podcasts which will sit alongside podcasts from small groups, individual enthusiasts, educationalists etc.

Education and Podcasting

Increasingly people will need to become more familiar with these technologies as the ability to produce podcasts with a reasonable level of technical competence is becoming part of everyday communications strategies.

Currently the shift to new media technologies and their application within education is being pushed from the top down. It is one thing to invent grandiose strategies for implementation and quite another to persuade practitioners of the need and use for these technologies when there are already many institutional pressures in place.

It has recently beeen identified that even within Media Studies at HE radio is very much a Cinderella subject.

Those keen on introducing podcasting which is an excellent way of communicating with students -how many are permanently glued to an MP3 – are currently operating in something of a vacuum in terms of how best to format and deliver the content. This is apart from any technological issues which may need to be dealt with and having institutional funds available to purchases this.

Institutional Resistances

Tick-box culture leads to minimalism. The introduction of IT into learning is often considered as just another government mantra which is entirely disconnected for many teachers and lecturers. There is often considerable resistance in a passive sense to innovation which is regarded as change for changes sake and which can involve a lot of work with rewards which are unclear. There is also considerable concern amongst practitioners about the commodification and instrumentalism entering education. Post cognitivist psychologist John Pickering expresses these sentiments here.

Podcasting is just one of a plethora of new technologies which added together seem overbearing in their enormity. I feel the need to be familiar with a large number of quite complex software programmes such as Dreamweaver, Flash, Photoshop, A DTP package, PowerPoint, an audio package say Audition, Premiere Pro for video and video strreaming. I could also do with being familiar with audio equipment, digital video, digital cameras all of which are changing at an incredible speed.

On top of this I should be familiar with VLE environments and how to make the most out of them in a pedagogical way. All the content needs to be rewritten rewritten or even reinvented. Look at the emerging culture of Second Life for example.

The reality is that people learn as much as they can in a very eclectic way. Any strategy involving E.Learning technologies requires a clear institutional investment in ensuring that their educationalists are trained up properly in these technologies. Further more it is important that their training is achieved in relation to the courses they are delivering. Thus there is likely top be a long period of transition for most practitioners which needs to be taken into account.

Where it is possible, the transition to E-Learning needs to be organised on a team basis with clear tasks being given preferably flowing from people’s prior knowledge base and enthusisms. It also needs to be recognised that developments are ongoing things which can’t just be delivered in a one or two day training course. I am certain that a considerable amount of money is wasted within education delivering short ‘training’ courses on some piece of software or another. This is a tickbox attitude which can emanate from mnanagement structures themselves: “X members of staff have received training in Y software. 90% of aattendees said they learned something”. This approach has little to do with implementation, increasing familiarity with the available tools and embedding the technology within the teaching / learning environment effectively.

Here it must be emphasised that the very nature of Web 2 technologies changes the parameters of the educational environment itself, which adds another level of complexity to the equation. Overall considerable amounts of thought need to be invested in devising effective transistional training and development programmes for educators which will undoubtedly be expensive but cheaper in the long run than the odd ‘training day’.

Problems of Innovation: Educational Technologies Guidelines?

For those who are keen to incorporate change and to enthuse colleagues there need to be more practical guides written by academics who run practical production courses which should be available in a multimedia environment on the web. A range of special courses for education professionals could also be set up on ‘Technological Innovations and their Pedagogical Development_’. Educational practitioners could attend courses every week to learn the technologies and discuss their implementation within their own setting. The courses would be assessed on the introduction and implementation of E-technologies in the practitioners environment. these accredited certificates would be available for individual technologies. for the purposes of this blog “Podcasting within Education” for example.

This suggests that HE institutions need to be aware of the potential professional development market within education. Arguably one of the roles of the Higher Education Academy would be to encourage this approach by funding devlopment partnerships between HE & other institutions to provide this accreditation.

Effectively what is happening is a campaign to reconstruct the British educational environment. It sorely needs the active participation of the foot-soldiers. It these people who will put things into practice and develop a new cultural milieu. At the same time the budgets must be available in the institutions for the enthusiasts to be able to innovate. This is an argument for ring-fenced budgets to go to educational institutions for this purpose.

Here is a link to TELFRI which is an organisation concerned with the issue of transferability of educational technologies. I haven’t as yet had a chance to delve in depth into the contents but its on the ‘to do’ list.

The FE / Sixth Form Environment: The Discouraging of Change?

My comments are particularly addressed to problems of change and innovation within the educational foodchain below HE. The ‘A’ level environment consists of teachers taking low risk teaching strategies and things which work and are proven to work to get their students through. Innovation necessarily implies risk.

The intensely competitive environment where teachers do intense textual analysis on what is demanded by the examinations boards functions as a closure and unless process based reward is introduced into the public examinations system there is always going to be a serious problem as risk and innovation are inherently linked.

The current obsession with metrics means that even slight variations in student results are picked up. Unsurprisingly this encourages an attitude of “If it ain’t the broke don’t fix it”. Given that performance related pay systems are also in place the risk is a very real one. Despite the continual bombardment of creativity and change the system itself discourages change on the ground. If management structures order change and targets then people can blame the management if their figures change. We can talk about embedding the new practices or consolidating them.

I would suggest that performance related pay systems need to be linked to a range of different parameters and benchmarks rather than pure results in public exams to encourage the willingness and enthusiasm necessary to promote change from the bottom up. This would encourage the risk-takers and remove some of the conservative values amongst grass roots educators.

Media Production Courses for Radio

Below I have included a link to HE institutions which deliver radio training both theoretical and production based. Accessing their websites may well yield guidelines to practical production of programmes which can be applied to the creation of educational podcasts.

The importance of checking out available courses for practical radio / podcast production is moving up the agenda. Useful media links which I have accessed via the Higher Education Academy

Links to Higher Education Media Projects

Radio Studies Final Report

For students and teachers in schools and FEs here is a link to HE courses which specialise in aspects of radio production

Successful Non-Commercial Radio Projects

Radio Warwick The student radio station

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