The Unique Affordances of Mobile Learning

Understand How to Leverage Them Prior to Design and Development

Mobile Development, Mobile Devices, Mobile Strategy Comments (3)

Psychologist James J. Gibson first coined the concept of affordance in his 1977 book, “The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Essentially, an affordance is a quality or feature of an object, or an environment, which allows an individual to act. For example, the handles on a teacup enable it to be lifted without getting burned.

All learning technologies have a set of affordances that make actions possible while limiting others.

If we look at three different learning technologies–a physical classroom, self-paced eLearning, and mobile learning, we can immediately see that the actions of both teachers and learners are enabled, shaped, and also limited, by the features of each of these technologies.

The following table shows some differences (and similarities) among these three learning technologies:

Physical/Virtual Classroom Self-Paced eLearning Mobile Learning
Teacher control Software control Learner control
Learner is immobile Learner is immobile Learner is mobile
The learner is NOT in the context The learner is NOT in the context The learner is usually in the context
Information is presented Information is interactive Information is pulled as needed
Books are the main external source of information Television, computers, monitors are the main external sources of information Social networking and databases in the cloud are the main external sources of information
The assessment uses exams, homework, observation The assessment uses short quizzes, games, tracking of interactions with learning materials The assessment uses quizzes, games, behavior tracking, gestures, geolocation, sensors, portfolios

If we broaden the concept of capabilities to include features of mobile environments and look for additional features of mobile devices, we can see that there are over 20 possible affordances of mobile devices, as shown in the list below:

  1. Camera(s)
  2. Clock
  3. Cloud storage
  4. Computing Functions/Apps
  5. Document production and viewing
  6. Embodiment
  7. External and internal sensors
  8. Geolocation
  9. Individual Addressability
  10. Input/Output Peripherals
  11. Internet Connectivity
  12. Media viewer / playback
  13. Memory
  14. Messaging
  15. Microphone and audio recording
  16. Microprojection
  17. Networking
  18. Notifications and Alerts
  19. Portability/Mobility
  20. Short-range communication
  21. Touchscreens
  22. Ubiquity
  23. Voice/phone communications
  24. Wearability

My colleague Chad Udell has already written about several of affordances in a series of articles on this blog.

And, I’m sure there are other affordances of mobile devices and environments that can be identified and discussed in terms of their usefulness in learning and development. The future will also bring new functionality we haven’t even thought about to the mobile world.

As instructional designers, it is crucial that we understand these various possibilities before embarking on the design and development of mobile learning experiences. Learning is complex, and the design of useful learning materials requires an understanding of objectives, the capabilities of the technologies and environments we are in, and the kinds of learning activities that both motivate and teach in a way that is engaging and memorable.

If you need help in designing mobile learning activities, please call us at Float. We’re here to help.

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Gary Woodill is a senior analyst with Float, as well as CEO of i5 Research. Gary conducts research and market analyses, as well as assessments and forecasting for emerging technologies. Gary is the co-editor of "Mastering Mobile Learning," author of “The Mobile Learning Edge,” and the co-author of “Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds.” He also presents at conferences and is the author of numerous articles and research reports on emerging learning technologies. Gary holds a doctor of education degree from the University of Toronto.

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On November 13, 2013
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3 Responses to The Unique Affordances of Mobile Learning

  1. […] …to really get the most out of mobile, you need to think of the different possibilities mobile affords us. […]

  2. […] problem is that with about 30 identified affordances of mobile technologies, the number of potential combinations is impossible to evaluate, even if you only combine three or […]

  3. […] Float, we have been speaking and writing about the concept of mobile affordances for […]

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