In our book, Using iPad and iPhone Apps for Learning with Literacy Across the Curriculum, we posit the need to identify the affordances of iPad and iPhone apps for fostering uses of various literacy practices. Apps are designed with certain affordances that invite students to employ literacy practices. These affordances are also shaped by the design of a certain classroom activity. So, the affordances aren’t simply “in” an app; they are activated and exploited by how the app is used in an activity.
Fostering transfer of learning based on genres. Activating and exploiting apps affordances requires an understanding the experiences and practices students bring from previous contexts to their current classroom context—what is known as transfer of practices across different contexts. Rather than think of transfer as simply applying knowledge from one context to another context, it’s important to also perceive transfer as involving the social processes of knowing how to connect uses of literacy practices in one context to another context.
Students make these connections between contexts through uses of social genres defined as typified, recurring social actions. Rebecca Nowacek (2012) posits that transfer is facilitated by the use of “genres associated with one context…[that] can cue an individual to make connections to knowledge domains, ways of knowing, identities, and goals associated with another, previously unrelated context” (p. 28). For Nowacek, intertextuality involves the similarity itself between genres while transfer is the active recognition of the potential for using a genre across different contexts (p. 29). Knowing about and how to use a social genre therefore helps students engage in transfer across contexts.
For example, the genre of the interview is something that one learns to employ for knowing how to interact as an interviewer and interviewee. Each time an interviewer and interviewee engage in an interview in a new context, they transfer their social experience with previous interviews to the new interview. As job-seekers know, each time they do a new interview, they improve in their uses of the interview genre.
The social genre of visual collaboration. One social genre that assists with transfer is what could be called visual collaboration—the use of a shared visual image or object that serves to foster collaborative work. Visual collaboration could be defined as a social genre in that students interact in a systematic, codified manner with a particular image, video, or object in some systematic manner, through, for example, shared turn-taking focused on the same image, video, or object. When one student notices something unique or interesting about an image, another student knows that they can or need to build on that description. Over time, students learn to use this genre to collaboratively shared their descriptions of images, videos, or objects.
The app affordances: Visual collaboration genre. Concept-mapping, shared note-taking, annotation, screencasting, or video editing apps provide the affordances fostered through use of the social genre of visual collaboration. For example, in using a screencasting app such as ShowMe or VoiceThread, different students are viewing the same image or video clip to share and react to each other annotations about that image or video clip. Or, when a student uses the Diigo app to add sticky-note annotations on a specific section of a text, other students may spot that sticky note to respond with their own annotation to the same text.
Use of the genre of visual collaboration fosters transfer between visual and students’ collaborative verbal or written sharing of ideas. When students are drawing and sharing their doodles on images using ShowMe or VoiceThread, they use those doodles to draw on their previous use of descriptive talk to reflect on the meaning of those doodles. Or, in editing video, they can apply their previous use of shared evaluation talk to collaboratively determine the effectiveness of certain edits to make further edits.
Transfer as a rhetorical act: argumentative genres. Nowacek (2012) also posits that transfer is a rhetorical act. Students need to know how to move from the context of interpreting and critiquing images, videos, or written texts to the rhetorical context of convincing others of the validity of those interpretations or critiques. This requires them knowing how to sell their ideas to others. As Nowacek notes, “the act of selling is closely tied to the act of reading one’s audience, to understanding what an audience expects and how to either meet or recalibrate that audience’s expectations” (p. 39). Moving from the context of reacting to or interpreting images, videos, or written texts to the rhetorical context of engaging in arguments about those texts requires students drawing on argumentative genres to know how convincing audiences of the validity of their claims, something that can be a challenge for students. In analyzing college students’ notes taken in class or in response to readings, Nowacek found that those notes were “dominated by a series of bullet points recording facts. The rhetorical dimension of disciplinary knowledge—on the rare occasions that it become visible in class—remained invisible in the notebooks… these notebooks contain almost no sense of dialogue, of conflict, of people making arguments (not students, not teachers)” (p. 94).
A basic affordance of concept-mapping, shared note-taking, annotation, screencasting, or video editing apps is that they make it easy to share their claims with their audiences. Students can employ their knowledge of argumentative genres to transfer from the context of descriptive reactions to move into a rhetorical context in which they are using their use or descriptions of images/video to convince audiences to accept their claims. This requires that students go beyond simply summarizing their perceptions of images or objects to framing those summaries for rhetorical purposes. Based on the claim they are adopting, they draw on their knowledge of argumentative genres to select those particular images they believe will have the strongest impact on their audiences.
The value of social genres. All of this suggests the value of perceiving app affordances as mediated by uses of social genres. These social genres provide the glue fostering transfer from prior to new contexts, so that students are continually improving on how they use apps to enhance their learning. Teachers can enhance their students’ exploitation of app affordances by teaching them how to employ these social genres, for example, modeling their own use of visual collaboration or showing them how to consider audience beliefs, knowledge, and needs in formulating claims.