Encyclopedia of Educational Innovation

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters, Richard Heraud

Affordances of Digital Technologies for Learning

  • Peter IlicEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-2262-4_135-1



The proliferation of affordances offered by digital technologies continues to have a significant impact on the learning sciences. Since Gibson coined the term affordance to represent the relationship between an animal and its environment, affordances have been discussed in educational literature in relation to the application of the various attributes of digital technologies to their possible benefit in the learning process. Likewise, researchers have considered the associations between pedagogies and technology that motivate learning practices. Key affordances associated with this discussion include the portability of mobile technology and the customizable environments offered by augmented reality. However, the manifold nature of contemporary information society is mediated through communication technologies, which can lead to questions of information quality and provenance, as well as the depth of reflection. Researchers have yet to clarify the full impact of this concept on the intersection of technology and education.


James Jerome Gibson used the term affordance to represent the relationship between an animal and its environment as a part of his approach to visual perception which constituted part of his larger ecological approach to psychology (Gibson 1977). In particularly, Gibson’s work was influenced by Gestalt psychology concepts, including Koffka’s notion of “demand character” and Lewin’s concept of “invitation character” or “valence” (Gibson 1979). However, the affordance of something is invariant, so even though the observer might not perceive or attend to the affordance, it is always there to be recognized. The affordance is not made real by the need of an observer or the act of perceiving it but is an essential part of it (Gibson 1979). So, an affordance exists, whether it is perceived and used or may even be employed without awareness of doing so. Gibson observes environments as a changing structured organization of substances and surfaces, which contain objects, layouts, and events meaningful to the animal. For instance, they can mean tools, pathways, impediments, and so forth. Light is reflected from objects in the environment and received by the animal as an ambient optic array that changes from moment to moment as the animal changes position. It is the detection of unchanging aspects in the ambient light within the environment that allow animals to directly pick up meaningful information without developing internal representations of their environments.

In Gibson’s approach, animal and environment come together to constitute a whole system, in that the animal’s form and behavior are linked to the surrounding environmental structure to allow its activity in the environment. When describing their environment, humans point out those objects that correspond to their particular size and capabilities of action. An environment offers resources or support to an animal, but the animal must possess the capabilities to perceive it and to use it. “The affordances of the environment are what it offers animals, what it provides or furnishes, for good or ill.” (Gibson 1977). Useful affordances differ for animals owing to the diversity of animal evolution and stage of development. Therefore, environments that afford use for humans may be irrelevant for flying creatures. It is objective in the sense of the physical properties of the animal’s environment and to its physical characteristics and capabilities. At the same time, it is relational, because it is determined not by the environment alone but by the relationship between animal and environment. By exploiting an affordance, a mutual exchange between perception and action exists. The information obtained from perception allows action, which generates effects that inform perception. This link allows adaptive control of action and hence the opportunity of manipulating environmental change.

While Gibson described affordances related to human-created objects such as tools, including scissors, knives, and clubs, he considered them similar to affordances provided by “natural” objects to nonhuman animals. Gibson wrote, “… it would be a mistake… to separate the cultural environment from the natural environment, as if there were a world of mental products distinct from the world of material products. There is only one world, however diverse, and all animals live in it, although we human animals have altered it to suit ourselves.” (Gibson 1979). He saw Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) as having affordances that personify the features of the late modern age.

Gibson’s original conception of affordances did not require perceptibility. Therefore, a hidden affordance is, in Gibson’s view, still an affordance, because hidden or not, it is intrinsically available. However, perceived and perceptible affordances have been employed as a conceptual device for examining the design of interactive systems; Don Norman (1988) spoke of perceived affordances, and Bill Gaver (1991) spoke of perceptible affordances. In their view, the existence of the affordance is not sufficient, since it is the perception of the affordance by the user that is requisite. In the late 1980s, Norman’s (1988) proposal that affordances be employed in design became popular with designers who wished to clarify the potential uses of their products and grew into a fundamental concept in interaction design and human–computer interaction. Gaver’s (1991) work in human–computer interfaces expanded the initial definition to incorporate complex affordances, such as, nested, grouped in space, and sequential affordances which is when an affordance that is acted upon leads to information indicating new affordances. The overlap between human–computer interfaces and e-learning has led to affordances being taken up by researchers in education.

The Affordances of Technology

Affordances have been debated in educational literature in relation to using online technologies to apply the attributes of various technologies to their possible benefit in the learning process. For example, the networked information sources that characterized Web 1.0 and the second-generation Web 2.0 affordances of the reading and writing architecture of participation. When examining how technology affords learning and education, it is possible to differentiate between three types of affordances – educational, social, and technological. Kirschner (2002) defines educational affordances as those characteristics of an educational paradigm (artifact) that determine if and how a particular learning behavior could be enacted within a learning community (context). Educational affordances are the relationships between the properties of an educational intervention and the characteristics of the learner that enable them to participate in specific kinds of learning. Kreijns et al. (2002) describe social affordances as the “properties of a [Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning] environment that act as social-contextual facilitators relevant for the learner’s social interaction.” Bradner et al. (1999) explain a social affordance as “the relationship between the properties of an object and the social characteristics of a group that enable particular kinds of interaction among members of that group.” When social affordances are perceptible, they encourage learners to participate in social interaction. According to Norman (1988), affordances are connected to the design aspects of an object which suggests how it should be used, so binding the affordances to an object’s usability. It is these affordances that are designated technological affordances. These technological affordances offer a framework from which the aspects affecting usability can be investigated.

Technological Affordances and Pedagogy

Cope and Kalantzis (2017) and members of their “new learning” research group from the University of Illinois present the following seven affordances and core to their approach is that the motivating force behind learning practices is not technology but pedagogies. Technologies are seen as pedagogically neutral and “…propose that reflexive pedagogy, enabled by an emerging wave of educational technologies, can create e-learning ecologies that will be more engaging for learners, more effective, more resource efficient, and more equitable in the face of learner diversity” (Cope and Kalantzis 2017). The group maintains that when modern technologies are utilized poorly by educators, they are just reinforcing the many didactic practices often in use.

Ubiquitous learning, or anywhere, anytime learning, blurs the classical boundaries of the classroom. Humans can experience learning in many forms at any moment during the day, but commonly for many, the space of learning has been a classroom of approximately 20 people and the time has been governed by a timetable. This was necessitated by the need for the learners and instructor to meet in a specific physical location at a designated hour. Usually, this meant the instructor is functioning as the focus of the class who speaks while the pupils listen or take turns speaking individually. The concept of ubiquitous learning is analogous to that of ubiquitous computing, so just as the technology encircles each individual throughout the day, now learning can pervade each person’s life. Today, these technologies appear in the form of online, mobile, cloud-based, and wireless technologies which are constantly on and regularly connected. Learning can now take place anywhere at any moment with the same intensity as the conventional classroom. In addition, it allows learners to obtain information immediately because of increased accessibility. Technology allows learning to be taken out of the classroom and into authentic situations where the knowledge can be displayed in its natural and authentic form.

Active knowledge making is an affordance that comes from the theory that producing knowledge is considerably more powerful than merely consuming it, because being a producer brings other benefits than only being a consumer (Cope and Kalantzis 2017). ICT allows learners to access online databases of material which has the potential to transform learners from passive consumers of information to active knowledge makers through activities like project-based learning. This follows the contemporary focus on developing learners for the knowledge economy ready to innovate and problem solve. Here, learners can explore for themselves by searching, exchanging, and engaging with information, not just absorbing it.

Multimodality describes communication practices in terms of the textual, oral, linguistic, spatial, and visual resources or modes employed to construct messages. Where media are involved, multimodality is the use of several modes (media) to produce a single artifact to enhance an audience’s reception of an idea or concept. A webpage is an excellent example of this, where everything from placing images to the organization of the content creates meaning. Technology has allowed this transformation from the isolated text printed on paper being relied on as the dominant source of communication to picture, video, and audio being employed. Multimodality can include five modes: visual mode, aural mode, gestural mode, spatial mode, and linguistic mode. Multimodal meaning-making also builds on the field of Multiple Intelligence Theory.

Feedback is constructive information given to a learner about how they are progressing in their efforts to reach a goal. Ideally, a learner receives feedback applied to modify their actions positively until they receive more feedback. So, effective feedback occurs during the learning, when there is still time for the learner to act on it, not just at the end in a test when it is too late for any modifications to be implemented. Technologies afford recursive feedback to learners step by step throughout a course. Technological assessment systems provide a continuous machine-mediated human assessment from multiple perspectives (peers, self, teacher, parents, invited experts, etc.) and machine feedback (selected and supply response assessments, natural language processing). Student performance can further be evaluated through data mining of their activity data to provide details of individual progress or comparisons across cohorts. This technology affords just-in-time feedback, or assessment for learning (formative assessment) and not just of learning (summative assessment) (Cope and Kalantzis 2017).

When individuals work collectively, they can usually solve more problems and are more productive than someone acting alone. Modern communication technology enhances the capability for collaboration and networking around a task and affords the capacity for production and coproduction. Collaborative work brings different experiences and perspectives together to produce collaborative intelligence where different inputs often create higher standards and increase the depth of knowledge and build a sense of community of peers around the knowledge.

Metacognition occurs when someone thinks about their thinking. More precisely, it refers to the processes used to plan, monitor, and evaluate one’s understanding and performance. It includes a critical awareness of one’s own thinking and learning and of one’s role as a thinker and learner. Technology makes the logistics of metacognition more practical due to ICT such as email, blogs, and wikis that provide a dialogic working space (Wegerif 2007).

Differentiated learning occurs when individuals and groups of learners work at a pace that suits their needs and where data analyses allow that these processes are readily and conveniently managed by teachers (Cope and Kalantzis 2017), so all learners can make progress measured against common goals. Technology allows tailoring of learning experiences and instructions, so learners no longer have to sit in the classroom, waiting for the teacher to attend to them. Instead, technology provides affordances for ensuring that all learners can be engaged, can ask questions, get feedback, track individual performance, and tailor material and tests to individual needs.

Influential Technologies

Parsons et al. (2016) identify five specific mobile affordances which differentiate e-learning from mobile learning: portability, evidence and data gathering, communication, interaction with the interface, and outdoor environment. Mobile technology is portable enough to enable learners to move around and interact with their environment. Evidence and data gathering allow the capturing of their learning. The communication afforded supports the sharing and development of their understanding and learning with others. All of this is made possible through the interaction with the interface of the mobile device.

Augmented reality (AR) technology in education, including both image-based AR and location-based AR, may result in different affordances for learning. Image-based AR supports spatial ability, practical skills, and conceptual understanding, and location-based AR usually supports inquiry-based scientific activities. This technology provides customizable environments and the development of visualization tools to enhance spatial understanding. For example, computer simulations can visualize invisible phenomena and provide opportunities for manipulating experimental variables which could have positive learning effects. Also, immersive experiences afforded by AR technology allow for the permeating of digital information throughout the real world, which engages learners in an immersive context along with authentic experiences. Learning affordances of 3-D virtual environments include the enablement of tasks that lead to enhanced spatial knowledge representation, opportunities for experiential learning impossible in the real world, increased engagement, improved contextualization of learning, and improved collaborative learning than is possible with 2-D alternatives.

Unintended Consequences

There are unintended consequences of actions in the context of information technologies, where technologies have not been taken up or used in the ways originally intended. Abundant and rapidly changing information is mediated through extensive communication technologies, but this can lead to issues of information quality, the authority of sources, and depth of reflection by encouraging surface approaches to learning. Information technologies expose people to new experience beyond their own communities, which in turn raise issues of how to evaluate authenticity and power in the virtual world. While these new technologies offer communities of practice through new forms of dialogue and communication in online communities created around new means of communicating and sharing information, these communities can lead to issues such as individuals having a lack of identity, limited peripheral engagement, and being inadequately engaged due to membership in too many communities. ICT may discourage reflection in that there is no space for contemplation and considered judgment but instead encourages a more pragmatic, spontaneous response to new information. This speed of ICT has led to a shift in user expectations in terms of response, with users being increasingly required to respond almost immediately to requests. Also, increasing concern about potential infringements on individuals which technological applications make possible, such as monitoring tools within learning environments that allow teachers the power to monitor all student activities.


Since the introduction of the term, affordances have been debated in educational literature in relation to digital technologies and their possible benefit to the learning process. The rapid improvement in existing technologies alongside the seemingly constant development of new ones offers the potential to reform didactics and pedagogies. Also, the rapid integration of established technologies into discrete multifaceted and increasingly mobile devices means an increasing number of affordances are becoming ubiquitous. While much research has been done on the dynamic nature of digital technologies as seen through the lens of affordances, there is still ongoing debate that has yet to clarify the full impact of this concept on the intersection of technology and education.



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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Language ResearchUniversity of AizuAizu-Wakamatsu CityJapan

Section editors and affiliations

  • David Parsons
    • 1
  1. 1.The Mind LabAucklandNew Zealand