Affordances, education and future technologies

I see on my stats that this article is starting to get a lot of hits. This is part of a work in progress. My thoughts on affordances are evolving as I continue to explore the topic. A couple of things are slightly outdated in this article and need to be updated. I won’t change this article because it is and always will be representative of the evolution of my thinking. Instead, I’ve created an addendum for further reading here. There are two things that I address there:
1. The persistence of affordances. I say here that an affordance exists as long as it is perceived. This is incorrect. If an affordance exists, it always exists.
2. Norman’s and Gibson’s versions of affordances are two distinct concepts that, confusingly, go by the same name.

People working in education are increasingly being urged to think ahead and consider how emerging and future technologies will affect education to better align educational practice, goals and policy with ongoing technological development. It should come as no surprise that I agree. In fact, it’s what I do. But, how do we do this when the future is always at least a step or two ahead of us? It’s certainly no simple task, but what I think it comes down to, essentially, is affordances. That is, we need to consider what the affordances of projected technological developments will be in, and beyond, educational environments.

Now, I can almost hear the faint murmur of your bewildered voices echoing through the intertubes; “How can we consider the affordances of technologies that don’t exist? A technology that, as yet, is not doesn’t afford anything!” Such a retort would certainly be consistent with the way the term affordances has been used in relation to educational technology; i.e an affordance is a perceived property of an object. Without an object, as is the case with future technology (the object hasn’t been created yet), there is nothing to perceive, hence there are no affordances.

But there, I think, lies the evidence that we’ve gone astray in regards to affordances. The way the term affordances has been defined in educational discourse is confining and not what James J. Gibson, who coined the term, had in mind. In this article I’m going to dig into the origins and evolution of the term affordances to highlight the ways that it has been misconstrued and narrowed. Then I will present a definition that is better aligned with Gibson’s original intended purpose and that, in my view, helps us to better understand the interaction between education and technology, both current and future.

Istance & Theisens (2013) say that considering future implications for education requires equal parts critical analytical thinking and creative thinking. I couldn’t agree more. What’s more, when the two are combined with a clear understanding of the concept of affordances they help us construct realistic scenarios that allow us to engage with possible futures in meaningful and effective ways.

This ended up being much longer than I expected and some readers may not be interested in all of it (although, as I wrote it, I felt it was all necessary to illustrate my point). So, I’m going to put this right out in front: the TL;DR and a table of contents:

TL;DR – Affordances are not something that makers put into technologies, they are what users make of technologies in whatever environment they may find themselves.

Whence the term affordances?
Indirect vs. direct perception: Things are not always as they appear…
Norman’s affordances
Affordances in action
Affordances, education and future technologies

Whence the term affordances?
The term “affordances” was first coined by Gibson in the late 1970s (1977; 1979). About 10 years later, Norman (1988) redefined it as a design concept. From there it made its way to instructional designers and has since been thoroughly appropriated into the educational technology lexicon. In fact it is often encountered today without being specifically defined, even in the most rigorous of scholarly writings. The implied assumption, presumably, is that everyone already knows what it means. What I will argue here, however, is that the way that the term has been used in discourse on educational technology has become so far removed from its original intended meaning, that the concept’s utility is significantly limited to the point that it even obscures many affordances of current, not to mention future, technologies. I believe that the reason that this has happened is that the diffusion of the concept has been driven more by a need to make a point, rather than to enrich conceptual frameworks with the concept’s originally intended complex and nuanced perspective on individuals’ relationship with their environment.

To start with, let’s take a look at Gibson’s and Norman’s definitions of affordances. First, Gibson’s (1979) classic, oft cited definition:

“The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, but the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.” (p. 56)

Contrast that with Norman’s (1988) definition:

“…the term affordance refers to the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used. […] Affordances provide strong clues to the operations of things. Plates are for pushing. Knobs are for turning. Slots are for inserting things into. Balls are for throwing or bouncing. When affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking: no picture, label, or instruction needed.” (p.9)

Gibson and Norman are both trying to describe a concept that refers to the ways that individuals relate to their environment. However, there are some key differences that suggest that the two are not thinking along the same lines:

  • Affordances as properties: In Gibson’s definition there is no mention of “properties” of any object or thing. Norman, on the other hand, makes properties of objects the centerpiece of his definition.
  • Affordances as interaction between individual and environment: Gibson sees affordances as something that emerges as individuals interact with their environment. The affordance belongs equally to the object and individual. Norman’s affordances announce themselves to individuals with no need for interaction beyond perception. The affordance is the objects, but not the individual’s.
  • Affordances as norms: Norman suggests that affordances convey specific meanings, i.e. knobs=>turning, slots=>inserting. Gibson makes no such suggestion.

We can find numerous other differences between Gibson and Norman when we start digging deeper into their conceptualization of affordances, but we’ll let this suffice for now. The key point to understand here is that, for Norman, affordances announce themselves to individuals when properties of objects are perceived, while, for Gibson, affordances are the result of individuals experiencing their environment. While it may look like Norman is simply providing some clarification on Gibson’s concept of affordances, there are actually fundamental differences between the two. To understand why, we have to look at Gibson’s rationale for inventing the concept of affordances. That gets us into the deep philosophical debate about what Gibson refers to as direct and indirect perception (has also been described using various other concept pairs). This debate is critical for understanding Gibson’s concept of affordances but, beware, things are not always as they seem.

Indirect vs. direct perception: Things are not always as they appear…
Gibson’s reason for inventing the term affordances is simple; he needed a way to conceptualize his argument for a theory of direct perception. We’ll get into what direct perception is in just a moment. For now, we have to be clear that, insofar as we are beholden to Gibson’s intended meaning of the term affordances, consistency with a theory of direct perception becomes the litmus test for any attempt to define the term. That is to say, if our definition of affordances does not align with a theory of direct perception, then we are talking about something other than what Gibson meant the term to refer to. If that’s the case, we should perhaps consider using another term, if for no other reason than to avoid confusion. So, on that note, what is a theory of direct perception?

The debate about indirect vs. direct perception essentially centers around questions of the type: How do individuals come to recognize and relate to the things that populate their environment? Or, to put it another way, why, when individuals direct their attention toward what is essentially a configuration of particles, atoms and energy, do they perceive a table, or a shoe, or even another person? How you respond to these questions determines whether you lean toward a theory of indirect or direct perception. As I mentioned previously, if we allow ourselves to cast a fairly wide net, we can find considerable variation in terminology used to describe what is essentially the same debate; for ex. in philosophy we can find: direct/indirect realism, physicalism/idealism, objectivism/subjectivism, etc.). We use indirect/direct perception because this is the terminology that Gibson used.

So, without further ado, here is my attempt to provide a working definition of indirect and direct perception in accessible layman terms:

  1. Proponents of indirect perception claim that we perceive our environment through a faulty lens. That is to say, the environment cannot provide all of the information that we need to accurately perceive what is in it. Therefore, when we observe objects in the environment, there are gaps that we fill using prior conceptual knowledge. The result is a perceived environment that is largely of our own making. The environment is not meaningful in and of itself, rather it is we that project meaning into our environment to make it sensible to us. For illustration, consider the age-old ontological stumper: If a tree falls in the forest and no-one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? The proponent of indirect perception would likely respond, “No. There is a stimulus that is a potential for sound-making but with no-one there to make sense of the stimulus, there is nothing that can be sensibly described as a ‘sound’.”
  2. Proponents of direct perception claim that all of the information necessary to make sense of our environment is provided by the environment itself, and it does so in the form of potential for action in the context of events in our lives. That is, we become aware of objects in our environment when they can serve a purpose for whatever we are engaged in at a given time. The focus on events here is important because it signifies an holistic view of individuals and their environments. To our ontological stumper, the proponent of direct perception would likely respond, “Yes. There is a sound, but unless it served a purpose, such as warning some living entity to get out of the way, it is irrelevant in the given context.” This explains why it may seem that there are gaps in our perception of our environment, because we don’t adequately perceive the objects that we have no use for.

For proponents of direct perception, the major weakness of indirect perception is that it promotes and propagates a dualistic view of the world. There are two critical problems with indirect perception which became a central focus for several 20th century philosophers. The first is that if we assume that we fill in gaps in our perception of the environment with prior conceptual knowledge, we are faced with the question, where does that prior knowledge come from?

dualism-2Several pre-20th century philosophers considered this problem with the duality of perception. A common solution was that the environment, as perceived by us, is partly the result of sensory input and partly the result of our access to a conceptual realm that allows us to recognize, and make sense of, categories of being or thingness (see Descartes’ mind-body dualism in his Sixth Meditation for an example of this type of dualistic thinking). In supposedly solving that problem, they raised another: In the dualistic worldview, the human mind is not entirely in the environment being perceived. Rather, it has a privileged position stemming from its being situated between the conceptual and material realms, or in a place where the two come together, from whence it can observe the environment objectively (see Plato’s allegory of the cave for an example of this type of dualistic thinking). But, if the human mind is not entirely in the environment, where is it? And, is it the only mind that holds this privileged position?

The dualism tied to the notion of indirect perception did not jibe well with the scientific thinking that rose to prominence around the start of the 20th century. In the scientific worldview, humans do not, and cannot, hold a privileged place in their environment. They are but one of a multitude of instances of living beings that are, themselves, as much a part of their environment as any other living being. Thus, was born the concept of direct perception as a way of explaining away the dualism that had pervaded Western philosophy, an endeavor still pursued by many scholars today.

This is pretty complex stuff, so just to summarize:

  • Gibson is looking for a conceptual foundation for the way that he thinks about direct perception.
    The theory of direct perception rests on the following:

    • All meaning is in the world itself. We humans do not imbue the world with meaning.
    • Meaning emerges through action, i.e. an object is what it is used for.
    • The human mind (or any other for that matter) does not hold a privileged position within the environment. It is simply there along with everything else. (a non-dualistic worldview).
    • Affordances are the possibilities for action that present themselves in the environment.

It is out of this intellectual landscape that Gibson’s concept of affordances emerges as a very useful tool for explaining how our environment presents itself to us, assuming a non-dualistic worldview. [Gibson is by no means the first to address this issue in the manner that he does. There are very interesting and enlightening similarities with the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. I don’t know whether Gibson was aware of this. He at least does not mention Heidegger anywhere in his writings, as far as I know.]

Norman’s affordances
In Norman’s (1988) original formulation, affordances are signals that indicate to individuals how an object should be used. For example, whether there is a knob, stiff handle or plate on a door indicates to individuals whether a door should be pushed, pulled or the knob turned to open it. Thus, the affordances of objects are in their perceivable properties. This view of affordances has two significant consequences. First, the utility of an object is constrained by its properties, not what an individual wants to do. Second, designers and makers of objects have some control over how their affordances are perceived. This is essentially what affordances become for Norman and his audience, i.e. design elements that indicate what stuff is for: Put an image of a button on a computer interface and you have created an affordance, i.e. the affordance of clicking a button to perform an action.

There is an obvious problem with Norman’s view of affordances. That is that we often use objects to perform actions that they are not intended for. For example, using a shoe as a hammer or using a knife as a screwdriver. Norman’s view of affordances is not able to account for how this occurs. Realising this, Norman (1999) later acknowledged that his early work on affordances had created some confusion. He has attempted to provide clarification in two ways. First, distinguishing between “real” and “perceived” affordances. Second, clarifying how conventions and constraints work in conjunction with affordances to signal intended uses of objects. Both attempts fall short and fail the litmus test of adherence to a theory of direct perception.

Norman claims that an object’s real affordances are determined by its physical properties. Perceived affordances are the “visual feedback that advertise the [object’s] affordances” (Norman, 1999). That is to say, perceived affordances are those that a designer can manipulate to better inform an individual of an object’s intended use. This distinction is based on a flawed understanding of what affordances are. There are no real vs. not real or perceived vs. not perceived affordances. If an object affords an action for me in a given context, I perceive it and it is a real affordance. Otherwise, the object simply does not afford the action that I want to perform, i.e. there is no affordance. Let’s say that I am wanting to put a nail into a piece of wood. I have on one side of me a rock, and on the other, a perfectly good hammer. The hammer affords nailing. The rock does not, even though it likely would in a different context/environment where I do not have access to a hammer. And on the same note again, the hammer would not afford nailing if I’m holding the nail in place, the rock is within reach and the hammer is in the toolshed in the backyard. The affordance is perceived when it is needed and it is real when it is perceived. Appeal to intended uses have no bearing here and cross over into the realm of indirect perception, i.e. they fail the litmus test. To suggest that intended uses have some sort of priority over other uses and can override other affordances assumes that there are affordances that are independent of individuals, their environments and what it is that they need, or want, to do.

For Norman, constraints and conventions are symbolic or cultural norms that place limits on the perceived utility of objects in our environment. But, (in his own words), “Symbols and constraints are not affordances.” In fact, things like norms, conventions, concepts and language present themselves to individuals as affordances in the same way as the affordances of physical objects do. Consider this: there is a teacher who is frustrated with students’ constant use of WhatsApp during class because it distracts them. So, the teachers makes a new rule for her class – henceforth, students are not allowed to use WhatsApp in class. Thus, a new rule, a type of convention or constraint, presents itself as affording less distraction among her students and she acts in accordance with that. Likewise, if a teacher wants to communicate something to her students, a certain form of an utterance, a cultural convention, presents itself as affording that action and she acts appropriately. If we accept that these sorts of entities are not affordances, then we need to explain where their power to influence our actions comes from. I cannot see how that would be accomplished without violating the tenets of a theory of direct perception, thereby failing the litmus test.

Affordances in action
So, let’s look now at how Gibson’s affordances work. Readers should note that the theory of affordances is still very much alive and debated in scholarly circles. It has undergone some changes since Gibson published his seminal work and there are significant differences of opinion in academic circles. Nevertheless, there is a thread that binds all of the different viewpoints together, which is adherence to a theory of direct perception as I have described above. What I will depict here reflects my opinion and understanding of what affordances are, based on my reading of scholarly and practitioner literature. Just keep in mind that it’s not the only interpretation.

Let’s consider a classic example of affordances. Imagine a box. The box affords a range of actions. It can be used to store things, it can be sat upon, it can be picked up, and so forth. All of these affordances are dependent, not only on the object, but also the individual and what the individual wants to accomplish. The individual wanting to store something has to be able to open the box to afford storage. To afford sitting, the box has to be sturdy and of a certain height relative to the individual wanting to sit. To afford picking up, an individual has to have some reason to pick up the box and it has to be within certain size limits relative to the individual. Gibson’s claim is that perception of one’s environment is oriented toward these affordances rather than the qualities or properties of the object, ex. we do not consider the box’s “openability” before we have some reason to want to open it. Likewise, we do not consider the height or sturdiness of the box until we want to sit on it. What I’ve described here are somewhat obvious affordances of a box that, in part, assume that we are familiar with the concept of “a box”. In a sense, we might say that these affordances that we’ve been considering are those that, for most individuals, an object “wears on its sleeve”, so to speak.

Gibson’s theory of affordances makes it possible to paint a much more complex and rich picture of our environment that goes far beyond the obvious. This is especially evident when we consider possible affordances of objects that have nothing to do with their commonly intended uses. Keeping with the example of the box, let’s consider a few examples of unlikely affordances, that is affordances that are unrelated to the intended use of the object:

  1. Say that I have been sweeping the floor and accumulated a decent pile of rubbish. When I consider my surroundings, there is no dustpan in sight but there is a box. In that immediate context, I may realize that the most economical way for me to transfer the pile of rubbish from the floor to the trash would be by using the box as I would usually use a dustpan. Thus, “transferring-rubbish-from-floor-to-trash” becomes an affordance of the box, but only in that immediate context. In a different context, say if I had a dustpan in my hand, “transferring-rubbish-from-floor-to-trash” would never present itself as a viable affordance of a box, even if it’s sitting next to me.
  2. Now, imagine that I’m playing a game of hide and seek. It’s my turn to hide. I am in a room and there is a box in a corner. A reasonably large, empty box will present itself to me as affording the “obscuring-from-site” that I need in my current context, with the possibility of me getting in the box. A large box that is full of stuff will present itself as affording “obscuring-from-site” in an entirely different manner than an empty box. Perhaps I can hide behind it rather than in it. If the box is small, like a shoebox, it might present itself as affording “obscuring-by-blocking-light”, i.e. I can use the box to block out the light in the room and then stand in a corner.
  3. Finally, let’s say that I’m exceptionally bored and there happens to be a box next to me. Hoping to find anything to occupy my mind, the box presents itself to me as affording “kicking-for-the-heck-of-it”. An odd example but no less illustrative of affordances as the previous two.

My point with these examples is to illustrate how affordances can be entirely unrelated to the intended use of an object. What matters when considering affordances is what an individual is aiming to do and what is in its environment. So, to return to Norman’s definition, affordances do not refer to properties of an object (Gibson has stated this unequivocally), only how things can be used in specific contexts.

Affordances, education and future technologies
Putting a clickable button with a printer icon on the interface of a word processing application only creates an affordance if the user is able to recognize the icon and, more importantly, if the user is interested in printing her document. The button may afford many other actions. For a user troubleshooting her computer it might afford testing USB connections. For a toddler it may afford amusement, seeing how the icon changes when the button is clicked. For a graphic designer it may afford acquiring a printer icon for her own project. There is no limit to what such an object might afford (or to put it another way, there is no constraint). Likewise, an application that has been carefully crafted to direct the user toward learning activities does not afford learning, unless that’s what the user wants to do.

Mobile phones are probably one of the most common technologies in the developed world today. On the surface, it is a communication device. For individuals who have one and know how to use it, it affords communication with others, if that’s what they want to do. But, it can also afford passing time when bored, signalling to others that the user doesn’t want to be bothered, making one appear to be engaged/look important or even knocking someone on the head to hurt them (remember, Gibson said “for good or ill”). These are all real potential affordances. If we are dealing with a classroom full of students, most of whom have one of these devices, these are all things that work together to shape the learning environment when these technologies are present.

What I will do now is to present the possible affordances, as I see them, of a technology that according to the most recent NMC Horizon Report on future technologies in K-12 education will significantly affect education in the next four to five years. The report describes two technologies: digital badges and wearable technology. I’m going to go with wearable technology.

First, what is wearable technology? Well, we have some examples already that give some indications, most notably smart watches. Smart watches are devices that essentially put our smartphones on our wrists. Much of what a user does with a smartphone can be accomplished with a smart watch without having to interact with the smartphone itself. Smart watches also add some things to users’ technological arsenal. Because the watch is worn on the users’ body, it can be used to monitor her activities and physical state (heart rate, etc. depending on the feature-set). Also, a smart watch can keep a user connected to communication networks when they aren’t carrying their smartphones on them. Smart watches have a very constrained graphical interface so they make extensive use of current voice interfacing instead, i.e. the user interacts with the device by talking to it. All of these technological features can, or will, be able to be implemented in various ways. For example, sewing the technology into our clothing. What then are some of the affordances of this type of technology looking toward the future?

Wearable technology will afford tight personal integration with technology. We won’t be able to remove students’ technology in the classroom without taking dramatic actions, like making them undress. BYOD will likely be an unavoidable reality that teachers will have to deal with.

  • Wearable technology will afford exerting one’s individuality in new ways that will be very visible using flashy, dynamically interactive apparel.
  • Wearable technology will afford new ways of monitoring students in learning environments. A teacher might even be able to monitor learners’ physical states to determine how they are doing on certain learning tasks. Say a student is growing anxious because she is not able to do what is expected of her. She need not draw attention to herself to seek the teachers’ assistance. The teacher already received a warning that the student’s anxiety was rapidly increasing.
  • Wearable technology will afford new ways of grouping students for learning activities. Rather than having to shuffle students around to work together in the leaning space, their wearable technologies will be linked to create groupings.
  • Wearable technology will afford new types of opportunities for learning outside of the classroom. Teachers will be able to track where students are and what they are doing outside of the classroom.
  • Wearable technology will afford very discreet forms of communication between individuals. Individuals may use barely visible gestures, etc. to communicate with people in and outside of the learning environment.
  • Wearable technology will afford new forms of “spoofing”, i.e. transmitting false data to make it look to a receiver like the user is doing something other than what they are really doing.
  • Wearable technology will afford new ways of delivering instruction. For example, a student might be able to download instructions on how to perform a certain action that uses the wearable technology to indicate when the action is being performed correctly or incorrectly, etc.

These are only a handful of potential affordances of wearable technology. Some are obvious, some are less so. Listing what emerging or not-yet-available technologies might afford can help us to imagine what we want future learning environments to be like. However, unless we are brutally honest and consider all forms of potential affordances (“for good or ill”), it’s likely to be a futile activity. Also, we shouldn’t assume that we will ever be able to imagine all affordances. Someone will always surprise us (that’s how innovation happens, right?). What’s important in using affordances in this manner is that we understand that affordances are not something that makers put into technologies, they are what users make of technologies in whatever environment they may find themselves. There will be those who want to use the technology they have access to to learn, to “cheat” (however we define “cheating”), to take control of their environment, to avoid undesirable situations, and so on. Future technologies will provide ways to accomplish all of these and more. These are affordances that will likely present themselves to students in learning environments no matter how they are designed.

Norman’s concept of affordances as design elements assumes that those who create technology can embed meaning in them in ways that will influence users actions. This would necessarily entail that users will understand designers’ symbols and conventions the same way that the designers do. That’s a big assumption that will not hold up under enough circumstances to justify it as a reasonable rule of thumb. The theory of direct perception tells us that individuals will construct meaning as and when the need to do so arises, in particular when they need to engage with their environment to perform an action. It is at those moments that affordances present themselves. What this means for educators, educational technologists, school leaders, etc., is that, it is the environment in which learning technologies are encountered that they should be concerned with, not the look or feel of the technologies that populate it. If the intention is to promote the use of technologies for constructive learning, the learning environment has to be designed in such a way that the technologies present themselves as affording learning activities relevant to the tasks at hand.

Partial reference list:
Gibson, J. (1977). The theory of affordances. In RE Shaw & J. Bransford (eds.) Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing.

Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Istance, D., & Theisens, H. (2013). Thinking about the future: Insights from an international project. International Journal of Educational Research, 61, 111-115.

Norman, D. A. (1988). The Psychology of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books.

Norman, D. A. (1999). Affordance, conventions, and design. interactions,6(3), 38-43.

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