Addendum on affordances and educational technology

afford_memeThis is an addendum to an article that I previously posted on affordances in April, 2016. As I’ve continued to explore the topic of affordances, there are a couple of things in the original article that I’ve reconsidered and need to address. The first is regarding some incorrect statements that I made about the persistence of affordances. The second is that I don’t think that Norman’s version of the concept of affordances needs to be “fixed” and brought in line with Gibson’s thinking. Rather, I choose to see it as a distinct concept that, confusingly, bears the same name as Gibson’s.

The persistence of affordances.

In the section “Norman’s affordances” in my original article, I suggest that when an observer does not perceive an affordance, then there is no affordance for that individual. According to my current understanding of Gibson’s theory of affordances, this is incorrect. Affordances are “invariant”, i.e. they always exist whether an individual perceives them or not. What differs between individuals is the meaning that the observed object takes on for a specific observer. The meaning is derived from the affordances that an individual’s attention is directed toward.

In the original article I overlooked the role of meaning in Gibson’s account of the perception process. Yet, it is perhaps the most important for making sense of the differences between Gibson’s and Norman’s accounts of affordances. The purpose of the theory of affordances is to account for how objects perceived in an environment become meaningful to an observer. For example, how does a shoe come to mean “object-for-protecting-one’s-feet” or (and perhaps at the same time), “object-for-squashing-bugs”? For Gibson, meaning emerges when an observer’s attention is directed toward an affordance that corresponds with an action that she wishes to perform. I’ve illustrated this in the figure below:

Gibson_affords

For Norman, the process is different. For Norman, meaning precedes the affordance. This is a necessary consequence of Norman’s dualistic position (or indirect perception). Meaning is a mental phenomenon (he refers specifically to “mental models”) that is brought to bear on the physical environment to reveal affordances. Norman’s process then looks something like this:

Norman_affords

So, I am incorrect when I say in the original article:

“Otherwise, the object simply does not afford the action that I want to perform, i.e. there is no affordance.”

In this sentence, I am, in fact, not talking about affordances, but rather meaning. If the object ever can afford a given action, it always affords that action. But, although an object affords an action, the object will not necessarily come to mean something that corresponds with that action in every environment.

So, basically, the gist of this is that, for Gibson, meaning comes and goes while affordances are forever.

I came to this realisation while reading Shaleph O’Neill’s excellent chapter on the theory of affordances in his Interactive Media: The Semiotics of Embodied Interaction (see his comments on McGrenere & Ho on pg. 55). O’Neill and I would seem to be in agreement on a number of things, but we both made the same mistake regarding the persistence of affordances.

Confusing terminology

The other thing that I want to comment on is that I no longer regard Norman’s conceptualisation of affordances as a mistake in need of fixing (as O’Neill does). Although Norman’s version of affordances probably originates out of some misunderstanding of Gibson’s theory, it has taken on a life of its own and has proven useful for many things. The problem is that Norman’s affordances are not Gibson’s affordances, yet the two confusingly go by the same name. It is that we have two distinct concepts, both of which would seem to have a right to their existence as long as they are applied appropriately, that are both referred to as affordances that is confusing. What needs to happen (and I would pass this project along to others) is to clarify what Norman’s affordances are if they are not affordances in the Gibsonian sense, and perhaps advocate for a renaming.

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Trump Jr.’s claims about school choice are hogwash

trumpjrDonald Trump Jr. had this to say about education in his speech at the RNC in Cleveland last night:

“You know why other countries do better on K through 12? They let parents choose where to send their own children to school. That’s called competition. It’s called the free market. And it’s what the other party fears.”

That’s hogwash. The man apparently knows very little about education in the countries that we can assume that he’s talking about. Let’s look at a few of the top PISA performers. Continue reading

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If all innovations in education are social innovations, is there any such thing as a social innovation in education?

This has nothing to do with the article. I just thought I needed a picture of our remarkable football team on the site.

This has nothing to do with the article. I just thought I needed a picture of our remarkable Icelandic football team on the site.

I’m involved in a European project that has to do with integrating social innovation in higher education so that learners understand how innovations can be made to benefit society (the website is forthcoming). Obviously, one of the things I’ve needed to do is to wrap my head around this concept of social innovation. I know that the basic idea is that an innovation is a social innovation when it provides some sort of benefit to society and not just the innovator. But, being an academic sort, I want a more formal definition; one that provides clear criteria that allow me to discern specifically when an innovation is a social innovation and when not. Also, being an educator, it would help to have examples relating to education. I found both of these on Stanford’s Center for Social Innovation website. But, I also discovered a problem. Continue reading

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Metaphors and technological change: A double-edged sword

Are these the same device?

Are these the same device?

A smartwatch is not a watch, no more than a smartphone is a phone. Both are sophisticated computerized networking and sensing devices that we carry either in our pocket or on our wrist. When we talk about these devices we metaphorically relate them to familiar devices to create a sense of continuity when we are faced with what are really radical new technologies. And, we carry the metaphors even further. They’re not only used to provide a way to talk about something new, they also influence the way that these new technologies are designed and marketed. Together, the metaphors and imagery derived from them help to ease the potential shock of significant and dramatic technological changes. Sooner or later, however, change catches up with us and we no longer need our metaphorical crutches (see what I did there?) to relate. That’s when things start to get really interesting. At that point we can start asking the really tricky questions, like what does a smartphone become when it’s no longer a phone?

In this article I want to talk about two things. The first is how we use metaphors to gradually ease into new meaningful contexts that might otherwise be uncomfortably disruptive. The second is how we can start to create new futures by looking beyond current metaphors. Both are important parts of how we deal with technological and social change and demonstrate how we can deliberately use metaphors to expand our temporal horizons to plan for unseen futures. Continue reading

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Is technological change really accelerating? Depends – real or perceived change?

Fast businessI’ve just come across this rather dated blog post (from 2006) by Tom Coates in which he is lambasting people for “rhetoric of endless insane change at a ludicrous rate.” The point he wants to make is that the changes being referred to are really the end results of gradual incremental change. It only looks like rapid change when you’re not keeping tabs on relevant trends. The problem here is that Coates doesn’t differentiate between real change and perceived change. This is an important distinction. Most technology consumers (and this includes industries and service providers that consume technologies for their business purposes) neither have the time nor the know-how needed to keep tabs on real change. For them, change occurs, not as a new technology is developed, but when that technology invades their space. There can be a considerable lag between the two and they progress in very different ways. Continue reading

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Are information and communication technologies necessary in education?

classroom without ICT?

Is this what the “class without ICT” looks like?

I was giving a talk yesterday to board members of a Nordic teachers’ organizations’ network. In the end I was asked if information and communication technologies (ICTs) are necessary in education. I didn’t have much time to give an elaborate response but here is what I was thinking.

How we respond to the question depends on what we mean by “necessary”: Continue reading

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