Understanding Affordances Part Two

The wonderful thing about sharing your learning openly on a blog is that people comment on your posts and contribute to your learning. Yesterday, shortly after I published the first post in this series, the post was commented on by Jenny Mackness, a scholar whose work I very much admire. She shared with me two links, full of fantastic information about affordances, and exploring this information has filled my day today.

I love how blogging ‘affords’ these connections with others who are interested in similar topics, and the way that the commenting feature ‘affords’ the ability to share information (see what I did there? :-)). Listening to Gale Parchoma speak in depth about the development of the concept of affordances, and discuss four seminal papers which contribute to our understanding of technological affordances, I realised that perhaps no one has pinned down this concept in a way that satisfactorily meets our needs; and that it is possible that the journey to where we are in our understanding of affordances is what has been most valuable.

A new understanding – but not the one I was looking for!

Similarly, my journey to understanding affordances has perhaps been more valuable than developing my understanding (or lack therof) of the concept itself. In exploring affordances more deeply, I came to see ontology in a clearer light. Previously, I understood ontology as my worldview, one that shaped the choices I made when comprehending my surroundings. I do believe that the interpretivist world view sits most satisfactorily for me. Everyone experiences reality and interprets it in light of their own existence, and therefore there are many realities, which are constantly changing and developing.

I’ve long wondered whether everyone sees the same thing as I do when I describe something as ‘red’ – or whether we all agree that the label red describes the beams of light energy our eyes and brain are processing. The colour may be inherent in the object – but are our interpretations of that colour identical? Reading more about affordances, and the debate that is ongoing about the ontological inconsistencies of different theories, I suddenly understood ontology in a different light. The argument that affordances might be both real (objectivist, positivist) and perceived (subjective, interpretivist) does seem like a contradiction. Ontologically, there is a continuum between believing that things are the way they are and at the other end, that things are the way they seem. We are all somewhere along this continuum, and while we move back and forth along it, we would rarely be at both ends at once. However I said it myself – the colour is inherent in the object (objectivist) and yet we may all perceive it differently (interpretivist). How do we respond?

This is perhaps what makes affordances so difficult to understand and pin down. Because no matter which direction you choose, neither the purely postivist or purely interpretivist view will ever really be provable. We will never really know whether red is red, or whether it is just what we think it is. And so, we try to make the best of it – we inch ever closer to the most accurate explanation we have, while realising that we will never actually get to that ‘eureka’ moment. Of course, I am only a beginner in this field – and so if I have gotten it entirely wrong, please let me know in the comments!

Back to Affordances

One ‘version’ of affordance theory that seemed to make sense to me and built on my understandings from yesterday was the work of Chemero (2003). Although he still argues that affordances are both real and perceivable (something that I am struggling with), he does suggest that they are relational, and neither belonging to the animal/observer nor the environment. In describing relational affordances, he suggested that there were ‘properties of objects’ (his example is a dint in a car) and ‘features of situations’ (his example was a rainy day). The properties of objects are aspects of the object that are part of it – whereas the features of situations describe what is happening in the environment at that point in time. The relational affordances are the actions in response to the properties and features. I’m the first one to say that this is a complex paper, and a difficult subject, so I put forward this example freely admitting I may have misinterpreted Chemero’s work – but my stab is:

How would you hold this mug of hot coffee?
Image in the Public Domain thanks to fxxu

A coffee mug has a handle which affords holding, but it is also of a size that affords holding simply by wrapping one’s hand around it. The property of the mug is ‘holdability’. However, when the feature of the situation is that someone has just poured hot coffee into the mug, something changes.  It is the ability of the person (based on past experience, knowledge etc) which determines whether the situational feature of hot coffee leads them to grasp the mug by the handle. Therefore, the relational affordance is now the ability to hold hot liquid without being burnt. This affordance exists neither in the mug (it’s not being burnt) nor the person (they can’t hold the liquid) – it is in the relation between the person and the mug with a handle.

How does all of this relate to PLNs and why am I blathering on about hot coffee? Because I think this relational view which recognises both the properties of the object and the features of the situation/environment is similar to what Day and Lloyd (2007, p.17) were arguing when they stated “it is too simplistic to view learning outcomes as depending solely on the properties of the technologies. Rather, they result from a complex interaction of factors that contribute to a learning context”. For the PLN, affordances are best viewed in light of the combination of the technologies that enable them, the characteristics of the network and the needs, goals and interests of the learner. Therefore, the affordances will be different for each participant. However, based on the research presented in Part One, I offer some suggestions – and these may be found below.

Potential affordances of the PLN

Yesterday, I listed affordances of the PLN in a table, aligning them with affordances identified in research by Conole and Dyke (2004) who explored the affordances of ICTs, boyd (2011), exploring the affordances of networked publics and Gogia (2016), discussing the affordances within the open web. I based this list on my own personal understanding of affordances, my familiarity with learning in online networks, and the fact that PLNs consist of a combination of features which are part of ICTs, networked publics and the open web. I acknowledge that this list is not complete, nor that it will be the same of others. However, as a first attempt, I describe them here and look forward to future debate and clarification, particularly as I progress with the data collection in my research.


So for better or for worse, at this point in time, I suggest that the PLN may offer:

  • Authentic and accessible learning – The PLN enables teachers to share, solve problems, discuss and give feedback in areas of interest, with like-minded colleagues. This type of learning may be far more authentic that that experienced in traditional professional development courses which have been selected by the school system and have little relevance to current classroom practice. As PLNs are able to be drawn together through shared purpose rather than by physical or temporal limitations, educators may find others who are facing similar challenges or have similar goals – something that is less likely when limited to working with far smaller numbers of colleagues locally. PLNs create accessible learning through a wide range of social software and digital platforms which are openly networked. The openly networked nature of these social platforms creates multiple points of entry and access.
  • Currency of information – Information on the internet is highly fluid, and is updated when needed. The speed with which information can travel online means that lessons which reflect current events, or strategies to help students respond or react to immediately unfolding situations are available when needed. The context of education changes rapidly, and the PLN enables access to resources and advice which is equally flexible. The negative aspect of this high speed of change is that there is potential for learners to become overwhelmed by the amount of information, and must therefore develop techniques including digital curation to deal with and manage the flow of information effectively.
  • Asynchronous connections – The PLN offers learning when and where needed, as long as access to the internet is available. This means that busy teachers are not challenged to identify times when they can meet synchronously with colleagues – resources can be shared or constructed, discussions can occur and information can be sourced at the point of need, but also at a time that best fits the timetable. The ability to connect asynchronously also provides space for reflection – an immediate response is not always required in the same way as a face to face dialogue demands.
  • Cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural & cross-generational connections – accessibility to connections from different disciplines, cultures and generations is potentially easier through a PLN. When time and space constraints are removed, it is possible to reach out to connect with expertise and experience drawn from different places. A teacher might make contact with a renowned expert in a particular field in a different country, may find opportunities to mentor or be mentored and may learn that their situation is similar or different to those in different parts of the world. All of these opportunities may enrich the experience of teaching and the expertise of the teacher.
  • Social learning – Although the PLN is designed by and for the individual teacher, it is the connections with others that initiates and sustains the learning. Extensive research has found that when teachers participate in collaborative learning opportunities, there is a greater likelihood of a change in practice. For many educators, teaching is an isolated and isolating profession, and the existence of an online PLN enables walls, boundaries and borders to be diminished and allows learning to occur with others in many different ways.
  • Production centred learning – The PLN is characterised by a “do-it-yourself (DIY) mentality” (Nussbaum-Beach & Hall, 2012, p. 11) which requires learners to actively create opportunities for knowledge construction.The PLN uses social software which encourages not just the consumption, but the creation and sharing of knowledge and information in multiple modes and modalities.
  • Interest driven, self directed learning – The PLN provides personalised learning that is driven by the learner’s interests and current professional learning needs. Within a PLN, an academic orientation might be re-conceptualised as a “learner first attitude”, where continuous improvement and professional growth are actively pursued. 

Where to now?

This is not the end of the journey – far from it. I see the blog as a place to share ‘works in progress’, to gain feedback, advice, and as a way to express my understanding at a certain point in time. I share it publicly because not only do I personally benefit when someone comments and helps me along the road, but I also hope that it might offer other learners something – a contrasting view, a link to a useful resource, an explanation that ‘speaks’ to them. I will be continuing to work on my understanding of affordances, even if not at the intensity of the past few days.

Am I any clearer on the concept? Yes, a little. But I take comfort in the fact that I am a life long learner, and that this means I don’t have to completely ‘get’ something first time around. Every little step is important!

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