What is Affordance?

An affordance is what a technology "provides or furnishes", but crucially this is a relational concept; digital technologies are understood not as technically deterministic entities which have the power to impact education regardless of context, but more as part of a ecological system together with the educator. Only by first analysing the needs and intentions of the educator using AIM models can the best technology be aligned with those needs, and hence positively impact learning outcomes.

A little history

The term affordance was coined by the ecological psychologist James J Gibson external link icon in the 1970s. It is a relativistic concept, and one that is often misunderstood as something simple and technologically deterministic. In reality it is the bedrock of how individuals make sense of the world around them, as it provides a way of understanding the meaning of objects in the world relative to an individual.

"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, 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."

Gibson (1979)

Larson - School for the giftedAffordance is often described as the interaction possibilities that objects encountered in the environment might present, i.e. what potential interactions might be possible and what that might mean to an individual. For example, a door handle might provide an opportunity to pull on the door, and hence open it (though this is sometimes wonderfully misconstrued, as in the brilliant cartoon by Gary Larson on the right). Note that this is relative to the observer though - a door handle has this affordance for the average human, but not for a small child or perhaps an animal without grasping limbs.

A new definition

Dr Osborne's research external link icon explored this concept in detail, and suggested a more nuanced definition for affordance - as transaction possibilities. Whilst recognising the utility of defining affordances as interaction possibilities, he argued that a more powerful way of understanding affordance is not as the interaction possibilities provided by objects encountered in the environment, but instead the transaction possibilities.

Humans are not interested in simply how to interact with objects, they are fundamentally interested in what is transferred when they interact, i.e. in the transaction - what they will get back from the interaction. This notion of transaction is also, arguably, at the very heart of what it means to teach and to learn.

"A critical community of learners, from an educational perspective, is composed of teachers and students transacting with the specific purposes of facilitating, constructing, and validating understanding, and of developing capabilities that will lead to further learning."

Garrison and Anderson (2003)

It is only through transactions with others around us, and similarly transactions with the artifacts created by others, that we engage with difference and hence begin to understand the invariant patterns in our world which it is possible to internalise, i.e. learn.

The interaction possibilities definition of affordances can be translated as "What can I do in this environment?", whereas the transaction possibilities definition of affordances translates as "What will happen when I do this in this environment?". From a learning perspective, affordance as transaction possibilities becomes a hypothesis for the consequences of action, tested in everyday experience, and a hinge upon which learning is predicated.