An Ecological Approach to Educational Technology: Affordance as a Design Tool for Aligning Pedagogy and Technology
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
Digital technologies have for many years been acclaimed as tools that hold the power to transform learning, yet educational research has so far failed to demonstrate the transformative effects of these digital technologies on learning outcomes (Cuban, 2001; Price and Kirkwood, 2011). Some research has even gone so far as to question this underlying assumption regarding digital technologies ability to transform education, suggesting that they do not in fact have any inherently positive benefits for learning, and that perceived benefits are actually artefacts produced by other factors (Means et al, 2009). Several potential causes have been proposed for the slow progress in educational technology, including lack of time for staff development, unsuitability of technologies, and cultural barriers within institutions (Laurillard, 2012a). A fourth potential cause may lie with the lack of theory to explain technologies themselves (Oliver, 2013). Different theoretical perspectives have been proposed as a way to enhance our understanding of technologies, with one potential candidate being the theory of affordances. The theory of affordances has been used extensively within many fields, including educational technology, but remains a divisive and often under-defined term (Hammond, 2010). This thesis argues that this may in part be due to its distortion through adoption in multiple disciplines, and its popular description as the ‘action possibilities’ presented by an object or scenario, something not present in the theory’s original conception. It is suggested that a return to the original theory of affordances as proposed by Gibson (1979), which attempted to explain how individuals derive meaning from the world around them, returns clarity to the theory. A particular focus on the underexplored aspects of intention and invariant, together with a re-appreciation of what it means to apply the theory of affordances to digital environments, to digital spaces and places, provides a way of thinking about affordance that arguably can be applied more constructively to the effective use of technology in education. A design-based research approach was taken in order to research the original concept of affordance, and its key components of intention and invariant, within learning scenarios supported by digital technologies. Design-based research is an evolving methodology, with no strict definition, but it has shown promise in both the design and the research of technology-enhanced learning environments (Wang and Hannafin, 2005). A pilot phase at secondary school level demonstrated the potential for the approach; multiple iterations at a higher education level developed and enriched these findings into a stable model for the alignment of digital technologies with a particular pedagogical scenario. Findings suggest that affordances can be used to ‘explain’ educational technology, if the concept is broadened to include the wider ecology of learning; digital technologies not only as tools, but also as places. Extending the notion of affordances from ‘action possibilities’ to ‘transaction possibilities’ gives agency to both learner and technology, and recognises the important contribution of the digital environment to the learner experience. A specific design framework is offered which uses this redefinition of affordances as a design tool to align an authentic learning scenario with the digital technologies that have the potential to support that learning scenario. A generic design methodology is proposed, based on this framework, which has the potential to align pedagogy and technology using this updated definition of affordance. To close, some thoughts on the value of the design-based research approach are discussed.
PhD in Education