In our discussions on this site and in our book in preparation about implementing apps in the classroom, we explore the importance of affordances associated with the uses of tablet and smartphones. Affordances are what a particular object—for our purposes a tool, or environment in which the tool is located, provides the user. To further narrow this, we will take the position that apps either include tools or organize environments that foster the use of certain literacy practices designed to achieve some purpose, for example, engaging audiences through use of a panoramic slideshow of the Grand Canyon.
The affordances are, in a way, features that users perceive in a significant way as helping them achieve these purposes. Affordances can be part of design, but users can determine what affordances actually play out and teachers can orchestrate more positive outcomes if they are aware of affordances.
In short, the affordance is more the actualization rather than a static feature of the tool. Designers might design affordances into an app, but the app might enable or actualize a set of affordances that a designer never anticipated. On the positive side, these affordances enable users to enact beneficial sets of literacy practices. On the negative side, a particular tool or an app that organizes tools in a particular way, might inhibit some practices even while enabling others.
In this site, and in our book we will explain this tension in detail with examples. App designers are likely to know what appears to be an affordance of a particular app, at least insofar as the affordances of the operating system it is designed for. But, they are often equally likely to sometimes misunderstand the teaching and learning consequences of a particular tool or feature enabled by the app and its operating system. We will discuss these issues in great detail with affordances related to reading in digital environments, using writing tools like notes and annotations and so-called study skills that integrate both reading and writing processes related to learning, like both highlighting and note taking, and reviewing note cards—all features of Apple iBooks 2 app and other e-textbook systems. What is happening now, and will continue to happen with app design is that designers that provide users opportunities to enact literacy practices.
Hence, we make the case that what an affordance provides, either as part of its design or as part of the way a user positions herself or himself is a critical teaching issue. An affordance is not simply “in” an app. Teachers are also assigning affordance by on how they will be using an app related to achieving their own learning objectives given their particular classroom with their particular students. For example, an 8th grade science teacher selected to use the app ShowMe, an app that allows students to doodle over an image, as well as add their own audio commentary about that image. These are features inherent “in” the app. This teacher wanted her students to take photos to document the steps they took to conduct their chemistry experiments, photos they would import into ShowMe to add their doodles and audio commentaries describing these different steps.
At the same time, the teacher recognized that her students would be far more motivated to create their ShowMe presentations if they knew that they would using them as tutorials on how to do their experiments for the benefit of their peers. She is therefore identifying an additional affordance for the ShowMe app, an affordance based on the motivating social value of informing others about how to do something. (This social motivation is reflected in the fact that people have created millions of how-to YouTube videos). Given her sense of her students’ social needs, she knew that her students are particularly motivated when they are assisting each other, as well as having a sense of purpose and audience for framing their audio commentary as co-teachers and learners.
And, students can also assign affordances to apps. While, in this case, the teacher was identifying additional app affordances, it could also be argued that students themselves could also identify app affordances based on their particular goals, needs, interests, and knowledge. This entails a teacher encouraging students to reciprocally and collaboratively identify app affordances, a shift in teacher control of the classroom to adopt more of a co-teaching approach.
In a presentation to the Berkeley Center for New Media and School of Information, University of California, Berkeley, Howard Rheingold described his use of a co-teaching approach in teaching a course on social media to his Berkeley students. Rheingold argues that people need to be self-learners and co-learners in learning to use social media. Becoming self-learners leads to their sharing online what they learn with others, all of which gives them a sense of agency in knowing that they can inform and influence others as co-learners. In another presentation at the Change 2001 MOOC, about his forthcoming book, Net Smart, How to Thrive Online, Rheingold describes that learning to be effective users of online social media entails use of five basic literacies: attention, crap detection, participation, collaboration, and network know-how.
In his talk, he cites a nice example of co-teaching associated with reciprocal identification of app affordances. In his course, he created a discussion forum for sharing posts that allowed students to index their contributions for future use in reflecting on their own uses of the discussion forum as a social media—the focus of the course. He’s therefore not only identifying an app affordance inherent in the app, but he’s also recognizing how that this app affordance—indexing, was particularly important given his learning objectives.
During the course, his students recommended that, given their use of Facebook to engage in sharing posts, they might also try to Facebook for that purpose. So, Rheingold let them try out Facebook as an alternative forum site. However, after a short period, his students recognized that because they couldn’t index their posts, that Facebook wasn’t as useful as the original course discussion forum. The students were therefore also identifying app affordances related to the value of indexing for sharing knowledge and then recognizing that their assigned affordances were not being fulfilled by use of Facebook.
Another innovative teacher, Cathy Davidson (2012), describes uses of blogging in her college courses, in which student blog each week on a WordPress class blog about readings and assignments, in which the students comment on each other’s posts. In doing so, she is assigning the affordances of co-constructing knowledge in a social context of her classroom. She notes that by writing blog posts, her students are writing more and are far more engaged than in writing essays or term papers given their sense of the social context:
My students write more than they think they are writing because the context is so urgent, compelling, and interactive that they enjoy it and it doesn't seem like drudgery. They work so hard to articulate and defend ideas about which they have strong convictions that it does not feel to them like the exercise of "writing a term paper."
Blogs, per se, don’t necessarily contain the affordance of engaging in dialogic exchange. Davidson and her students assign those affordances to their class blog that help her students:
write for the world they are about to enter, in their jobs, in their careers, and they are learning how to improve their active discourse already happening on line. They are learning that some of the best thinking (as Socrates would say) is dialogic, and their writing is part of an interactive, vibrant written dialogue.
And, because she asks her students to devote two assignments to generate “public contributions to knowledge.” Her students then perceived this as an opportunity to assign their own affordances to make these public contributions, by, for example, writing Wikipedia entries or contributing to professional medical forums, recognizing the value of engaging in dialogic exchanges with others outside of her class.
Both Rheingold and Davidson are assigning app affordances in ways that foster co-teaching and learning, represents a teacher—an important shift in the power dynamics of the classroom towards using apps within a collaborative space for learning.
Davidson, C. (2012, January 27). Should we really ABOLISH the term paper? A response to the NY Times. HASTAC.