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.

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Robert O'Toole

    E-learning or elearning? I usually tag my entries with both. It’s annoying! Personally I prefer learning_technology, but its too late to change!

    02 Jan 2007, 10:35

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