Technology Affordances in Education

Brenton Burchmore
Jan 14, 2018 · 3 min read
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The contradiction of new tech and old teaching

I want to delve a little into the term “affordances” and re-position this discussion.

It was coined by Gibson back in 1977 to mean the potential that arises from the synergy between animal and environment. In edutech, it is the possibilities that are enriched by the leveraging of technology by the teacher or student to increase learning outcomes.

They key word here I believe is “potential”. This broad definition allows for a wide spectrum of measurement, and therefore expectation. However, when there is also a cost associated with the use of technology the whole question is framed around delivering a return on that investment. People are asking “what does technology do for me?”.

Going back to the key word, the answer is that it brings potential. Potential that must be realised by the users themselves, by those with the skills and motivation to unlock this potential. There has been a range of disappointments from educators about the supposed affordances of technology not delivering what they felt it should deliver. Early use of classroom tech often did little more than replace another tool doing the same job. The technology often did not do that job significantly better, yet still required a higher level of knowledge to work with it, as well as a higher cost and maintenance for its operation. It felt like we were going backwards.

As the tech has matured and developed it has become easier to use and maintain, but it still only brings the same thing it always did — potential. A flatscreen TV on the wall can deliver the same text-based material that teachers used to write on a board with chalk — but it has the potential to show videos or software operations with detailed knowledge. A tablet or laptop can be used by a student to take notes the same way they did with a paper and pen — or it can be a reference tool allowing them to look up information during a lesson to help them synthesise their knowledge.

The difference between affordances and results is in the application. In education it comes down to the lesson plan which determines how the students are expected to encounter and then interact with the new knowledge. If such educational design merely expects technology to be a more efficient version of older tools then the affordances may not be visible. If the lesson plan is evolved to make the most of the affordances that the tech brings then outcomes can increase more significantly.

However, there is a flip side to this perception problem. Many early adopters of tech in the classroom focused on the other end of the expectation. They held the dream that the affordances of tech in the classroom could mean dramatic improvements in teaching efficiency and effectiveness, and therefore also in learning outcomes and results. This was the reverse side of the problem. Not only was it challenging for teachers to understand and master the changes in educational design needed to fully leverage the tech, but the resulting improvements to learning outcomes were not as significant as expected.

In my view this is partly because the entire paradigm of teaching was not changing to accommodate technology. Teaching was (and largely still is) the delivery of knowledge by a teacher to students. This “push” model has existed for centuries as previously only the teacher had the required knowledge. Now we live in a world where our phone knows more than an entire school full of teachers.

For me, a whole new question must arise, be considered, and ultimately find new answers that blend with technology.

That question is this: what are the affordances of human teachers in a technology-based learning era?


Brown, J.P. (2015). Complexities of digital technology use and the teaching and learning of function. Computers & Education. Volume 87, September 2015, Pages 112–122.

Gibson, J.J. (1977). The theory of affordances. R. Shaw, J. Bransford (Eds.), Perceiving, acting and knowing: Toward anecological psychology, Hillsdale, NJ, Erlbaum (1977), pp. 67–82

Mao, J. (2014). Social media for learning: a mixed methods study on high school students’ technology affordances and perspectives. Computers in Human Behavior, 33 (2014), pp. 213–223.

Parchoma, G. (2014). The contested ontology of affordances: implications for researching technological affordances for collaborative knowledge production. Computers in Human Behavior, 37 (2014), pp. 360–368

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