Digital Affordances

2009-08-04 (rw)
George Siemens recently highlighted the importance of the shift from focusing on connection to focusing on interaction to focusing on quality of interaction. A giant step etc...

In networked learning the important thing is not which link/ page/ connection is open, but which mind is open and engaged with which other mind/s.

One way of understanding the implications of the novelty of form, particularly of integrated digital neworks, is by looking at the affordances they make possible. To start with, they allow people to create new spaces, and reconfigure some of the fundamentals about the divisions and borders of public/private space and individual/ social space. Sociologically, this changes everything.

Secondly, the affordances of autonomy are transformed: the possibilities for self-organisation, and self-initiated interaction, virtual/ avatar/ anonymous/ interaction, speed, range, and diversity.

In complexity terms the conceptual attractor for all this is "adaptation", i.e. integrated digital networks (or digital ecologies) enable people to create and adapt (and 'learn'?) within these networks in substantially new ways - as individuals, members of communities, avatars, etc, etc.

It’s not the connections that make a difference, or the aggregation of connections, it’s the fun, organization and quality of the networks.

But affordances inevitably bring about ecological shifts. The fun clearly gets out of hand very easily, with 'sexting' for instance. And the tasks of organisation and self-organisation, particularly of mult-tasking, dynamic, weak links, although it feels completely 'natural' to some of us, is a burden, or at the very least a long and rather painful learning curve for others.

The dialectic of self-organised learning has progressed far enough to make the downside visible, and I for one had never previously asked whether "we all want to be self-organised learners" until I recently heard a research report about a blind software students who managed her learning very comfortably (with a host of technical and human aids), but really struggled with managing all the people (7 of them) and resources. Its and extreme case, but a useful one.

An affordance is the product of the interaction between the learner and the environment. Each interaction potentially alters the knowledge and the identity of the learner, as well as the micro-ecology of the environment (paraphrasing Gibson)

millenium-bridge1.jpgThis is one of my favourite bridges, as a design, and experience: the Millennium Bridge on the Thames. It links the Tate Modern Museum to the City of London.

Affordances? it had wonderful, unintended affordances when it was built, so its a useful example.

The original design was visually minimal-impact (its a kind of upside down suspension bridge, with the bridge sitting above the suspension cables, instead of below them), but it was tooooo minimalist in design, and when a crowd walked over it on the first day, their rhythm started to 'rock' the bridge.

Unfortunately the H&Safety Mafia declared it unfit, and they had to add huge shock absorbers underneath it, which took months. But its now working, 'safely'. Question: what does that say about 'affordances': they can be exiting, but 'dangerous' and possibly disallowed (rather than positive/ negative)?

So, the millenium bridge is an interesting example of affordances.

Here are some more examples of affordances (Please add, and edit to taste ... )

Here is an attempt at Affordances .2
And a summary of the draft of a full paper, in Affrodances .3
(excuse the dyslexic slip, I dont seem to be able to change it)
And here are some thoughts towards a new framework for sharing resources as Affordances, rather than as commodities.

But What's an Affordance? Here's some thoughts ...
and some more thoughts on Naming...

Reed has done some fascinating research on language development within ecological psychology, or ecological socio-linguistics (if there is such a thing). What he has done is to unpack the mechanisms and processes of language acquisition in infants, and in the process he demonstrates (once and for all?) that (language) learning is active, reciprocal, perceptual, from a very early age, that the fundamentals of knowledge are embedded in action and perception, and that however powerful reflective cognition is, it 'stands on the shoulders of' perception-and-action, to coin a phrase. So our notion of learning and affordances must be informed by this full range of human inter/action.

Not Derry
On the other hand, a paper by Jan Derry (Epistemology and conceptual resources for the development of learning technologies J. Computer Assisted Learning 23:6, 503-510) is really unhelpful.