Affordances. It’s a word we don’t see in the learning space as frequently as we should.Affordances. Is that asking whether you have the budget to do the training you’ve been asked to create? That could be one explanation, but it’s not what an affordance is. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines affordance as:

The qualities or properties of an object that define its possible uses or make clear how it can or should be used. <We sit or stand on a chair because those affordances are fairly obvious.—Scott Lafee, San Diego Union-Tribune, 15 Aug. 1993> <An affordance is a resource or support that the environment offers an animal; the animal in turn must possess the capabilities to perceive it and to use it.—Eleanor J. Gibson, et al., in The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, 1999>

Time for some science

A little obtuse, isn’t it? OK, maybe more than a little. Let’s see if we can “de-obtuse” this definition. Think of an affordance as a conceptual match. From a cognitive and educational perspective, it is. This is cognitive science. It’s brain science used in a different way than the neuro-this and neuro-that rolling around the learning space lately. A designer or developerusing a little cognitive science is a good thing for learners. But you only need to use a little. Knowing how to use a little will help your training, and your learning audience won’t even know you used it.

So how do you define an affordance? Something like a coin and a slot, or a ball and a basket,can work as an affordance.

A coin and a slot are two objects that have nothing in common, at least overtly. Conceptually, a coin is a flat disc of a certain size, usually made of some sort of metal. It’s also specie of the issuing country. A slot is a long, skinny, horizontal or vertical rectangular hole. Apart, neither is anything other than what it is, a disc or a rectangle. However, if you want to purchase something that requires a coin, then that slot becomes very important to the coin … or the coin is important to the slot. Either way, the modality of the coin has been changed by requiring the slot.

A somewhat more complex affordance might be a ball and a basket. A ball is a sphere. There are all kinds of spheres of all sizes: ping-pong balls, Wiffle balls, baseballs, beach balls, soccer balls, basketballs. Concept … a ball that goes with a basket. Baskets are another concept. A basket is a cup-shaped thing made of various materials, and baskets also come in a multitude of sizes. Here, the size of the basket might be somewhat related to the size of the ball. Basketball started with a peach basket, of all things. In the case of basketball, over time, the ball and the basket got a more or less standard size and the “basket” became a hoop with a string net hanging down. The hoop is mounted at a certain height. This is a confluence of affordance and convention.

Let’s move these concepts of affordance to learning. All learning has modalities: from a live classroom to a presenter talking in a video (it could be the same person), to eLearning, to whatever modality we use to get our training to learners. Video has a lot of modalities as well. Taped instruction (the trainer again), motion graphics, narrative video (video stories), documentaries, and the list goes on. Even still graphics and slides are a form of video. They’re all visual modalities we use in training. Each one offers an affordance. So how do all these affordances work in eLearning?