What are media ‘affordances’? And why do they matter for learning?
Published on May 31, 2022 by Kyle Oliver
I’ve just returned to the office after a week in New York to celebrate my graduation from the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design program at Teachers College, Columbia University. (I expected to receive my doctoral hood down the block at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, not across the city at the Louis Armstrong Tennis Stadium, but the pandemic had other ideas!)
Returning to the city and school where I began my educational media studies in 2016 brought back a flood of memories, especially from my long-finished coursework. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about the big idea everybody in our program has to get their heads around.
The CMLTD program at Teachers College, Columbia University, trains all its students in an instructional design tradition that emphasizes critical awareness of media and technology affordances. To give the official account of his research, dissertation advisor Lalitha Vasudevan encouraged Kyle to leverage the affordances of podcasting: longform serial format (to break up a very long “text”), public distribution network (to make the practical research more accessible), and ability to directly publish audio “data” (to help the project come alive through the many voices of its participants).
At its most basic level, you can think of a media or technology affordance as some “actionable” aspect of its functionality or feature set.
Some affordances are obvious. Others are quite subtle, so subtle that you might not notice them.
Most blog posts, for example, are composed of blocks of text. Obviously, one affordance of a blog post is that a reader can, well, read it—assuming they know where to find it, have a device that can access it, have the language skills to make meaning of those blocks of text, etc.
But media and technology “users” don’t always use what designers create in exactly the way they intended. If readability is an obvious affordance of a blog post, a somewhat less obvious but perhaps more important affordance is skimmability.
That second one might sound trivial too. But notice that some other media choices I could have made when composing this content don’t come with this second affordance.
A text-based post can be read or skimmed very easily. You’re probably skimming this one, which is why I use short paragraphs, section headings, and bold typeface to direct your attention in particular ways.
An audio or video post is much harder to skim in a way determined by the content. But of course those media have other desirable affordances:
- If this were a video post, you might connect with me in a more emotional way because you could see my facial expressions and other body language.
- If this were an audio post, you might be able to listen to it while commuting, thus finding the time for content you might otherwise be too busy to engage with.
Designing technology and media is all about being aware of affordances and making choices about them that are well aligned—with your users’ contextual realities and with your objectives for creating the technology or media in the first place.
A well designed switch, or button, or knob does more than control some aspect of the device to which it belongs. It also wordlessly signals its own operation, teaching you how to flip, press, or turn it correctly.
When that happens, we say that the affordances of these controls (flip-, press-, or turn-ability) are well aligned with their purpose and common use. Designers who pay attention to alignment will create things (doors or coffee machines or online courses) that “just work” for a larger percentage of people.
Media affordances in Becoming Tapestry
In a sense, episode 3 of my dissertation podcast is all about affordances. This chapter of the story is where I explore the roadblocks I faced in my research and how I chose to respond to them.
In short: The challenges emerged because of media affordances that were misaligned with the contextual realities and objectives of the work.
The episode begins with a misaligned learning activity. The co-directors of Tapestry and I set out to invite the organization’s mentoring teams to reflect on their experiences together via the media arts tradition of digital storytelling.
We had good reasons for doing so—stay tuned for episode 4 to hear them in action. But we had to reckon with the fact that Tapestry teams don’t normally do projects. Creating scripted, collaborative videos takes many hours of focused work, but Tapestry teams meet for just an hour per week, primarily to hang out in a fun, unstructured way.
In this sense, the affordances of digital storytelling were a poor fit for the contextual realities of my partner organization. But we found a way to make it work. (Remember: Misaligned affordances usually create more work for the people you’re hoping to reach and teach.)
Later on in the episode, I also discuss how the affordances of video storytelling introduced some conflict with respect to my overriding objective to conduct ethical research. I wanted to honor the contributions of individual participants while also keeping them safe from unintended consequences, and the visual medium of video made that difficult in several ways.
I’ll let you listen for yourself to hear how I resolved that conflict with help from my dissertation committee and other researchers in the field.
Media affordances in your ministry
There’s a saying you’ve probably heard that can help you put this key concept of instructional design to work whenever you make media for the people you serve.
Choose the right tool for the right job.
It’s harder than it sounds. First, you need to be crystal clear about what exactly that job is. That’s why Learning Forte spends so much time working with our clients on developing clear, measurable objectives.
Once you know what you’re seeking to help your people learn or try out, let yourself be guided by the affordances of the media tools you have available.
What kinds of concepts are you trying to communicate? Are they the sort of ideas that are best understood visually? Consider an infographic. Are you tracing the way an idea changed through history or different geographical regions? A timeline or annotated map might be an obvious choice.
What kinds of responses are you trying to invoke? If you want learners to connect emotionally, music or videos offer powerful affordances for you to leverage. If you want them to analyze an object or idea and its component parts, consider asking for a structured written response or sorting a list according to criteria via interactive content.
What skill are you hoping your readers, or listeners, or viewers will refine? Asking them to create their own teaching materials (perhaps an animated presentation?) are a great way to make sure their understanding is deep and reproducible. When someone has developed their own judgment about to use media affordances in service of their objectives (even if you don’t use the “a-word”), you can be quite confident they’ve been learning in a sophisticated way.
In short, the idea of affordances is subtle but powerful when we’re using media tools to reach and teach in online and hybrid ministry. Keeping an eye on their alignment in your work will help your ideas land in a clearer and more impactful way.
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