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 developer using 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?

Affordances in learning—--what are they?

Note the heading above. It doesn’t say eLearning. It says learning. Learning other than eLearning still exists, a lot of it. Probably most learning created isn’t eLearning, per se. (See the sidebar, “Learning vs. eLearning.”)

Learning vs. eLearning

Here’s an example of how one very large organization is using eLearning: A major pharmaceutical company does tons of training. They have to. There’s mandatory compliance training that every employee must take and pass every year. This training is mostly eLearning. By that, I mean that it’s available 24/7 and has to be validated into each employee’s record. Make no mistake: Pharmaceutical companies are mostly populated by physicians, PharmDs, chemists, and others who are passionate about curing disease. Their knowledge base is, by necessity, enormous. They have to know everything about the research, developed drugs, and other material in their particular disease area.

Most of the individual training is not eLearning by the definition that has evolved over the last decade and a half. It might possibly come in the form of an online session, but it’s not eLearning. The CLO in this organization thinks that only 15 percent or so of what they produce is eLearning. The rest is live presentations, white papers, brochures and notebooks about very specific topics, longer pamphlets, textbooks, or occasional infographics. Most of it is most assuredly not eLearning as we think about it. It is education.

Is all learning presented online eLearning? I think not. Their training is instruction that would have been live except for the global impact of moving people from virtually every country in the world into one space for training. In my opinion, it is most assuredly not eLearning as defined by the way that word seems to be applied today.

Affordances are a way of determining whether you need to create eLearning or live training or video—or a textbook, pamphlet, or some other form of printed material.

There are many tools and modalities in the training arsenal. You wouldn’t use a screwdriver to pound in a nail. That’s an easy one. You wouldn’t use a hammer to pound in a screw. You could, but the result isn’t ideal. Affordances are a bit of a slippery concept in learning. When eLearning started gaining a lot of traction in the last few years of the 20th century, it was the new thing. All learning was going to be eLearning in the future. All training would be delivered via the Internet. There would be no more classrooms. No more books. Only “e.” Everything was going to move to the Internet.

Organizations were quick to hitch their training to the rising star of this new learning modality. It was the Next Big Thing, and companies thought that creating eLearning would save them buckets of money because it could be so easily reused. NOT! It’s been 10 years dawning on organizations that much of their eLearning just doesn’t work and doesn’t give the training returns, whether measured through immediate evaluations or on a second evaluation after six months that shows the learners actually learned something. Maybe we should learn from history (now there would be something new). There is no panacea. And eLearning certainly isn’t a solution for good training done inexpensively. Good eLearning isn’t cheap to produce. Here’s a table of training modalities and, for lack of a better word, submodalities:

Printed material

Live sessions


Audio (usually combined with visual modes)

  • Textbooks
  • Brochures
  • Pamphlets
  • Workplace signs
  • Lecture
  • Role-playing
  • Facilitated discussion
  • Facility tour
  • Demonstration
  • Live "taped" video with an instructor
  • Scripted video
  • Animation
    • Cartoon
    • Photo animation
    • Motion graphics
  • Interactive video
  • Podcast
  • Live broadcast using phone
  • Live broadcasting using Internet

Table 1: Training modalities and submodalities

There are many different modalities you can use to teach, and there are many ways to present each of the modalities. Are you creating HR (human resources) training? What kind? “Managing Workplace Aggression” is a very different topic from “Welcome to XYZ Company” or explaining rules of conduct. Whatever the title or intent, every training you design and develop is different. Each training takes a different kind of media strategy to appropriately and effectively reach learners. Maybe your essential HR onboarding is best taught in a classroom with a live instructor. A course on managing workplace aggression seems an appropriate fit for some short video clips to demonstrate aggression scenarios. Does your training mode fit your corporate (or academic) culture? Here’s where it gets tricky. There are no truly established rules for affordances. And they’re constantly evolving. In eLearning especially, it sometimes seems that we do things willy-nilly and do a Captivate or Storyline slide deck with some interactivity without thinking about whether this is the right thing to do. Since there are no established guidelines or rules, we’re making them up as we go along. That’s not a bad thing.

A little exploration into guidelines

It shouldn’t be so complex. When you get an assignment, stop thinking about what you did before. Instead, ask yourself some questions:

  • Does your training lend itself to scenarios? Workplace aggression certainly does. Little snippets of video can show and tell an aggression story in 10 – 15 seconds as long as you keep it to one topic.
  • Does your training lend itself to a live person being in the room? “Getting Your Healthcare Benefits Right” really doesn’t lend itself to scenario development and is probably best as live training so the instructor can answer the inevitable questions. There’s always the question from left field. A bunch of slides can’t answer questions, no matter how sophisticated the interactions. There’s always the oddball question, and a slide that says “Contact your HR department” really doesn’t cut it. Here’s a place where a brochure could be a takeaway that clearly explains exactly what the options and their ramifications are.
  • Is your topic highly complex with a lot of facets? A book or ring binder might be appropriate. (Internal corporate books can work.)

An example

Remember the coin and the slot? Here’s how it might work for a particular kind of training. Video and learning by themselves are separate things conceptually. There is an infinite (seemingly) number of videos and a vast number of learnings that people need to have inculcated. We’ll call learning our coin, and video (or any other media) our slot. When a learning topic comes your way, you’ve been given a coin with a specific purpose. Now you need to find the slot it fits into.

Let’s go back to “Managing Workplace Aggression” and look at what the learning might be. You could write a brochure or pamphlet, but would that demonstrate what aggression might look like? But we need to show what aggression might look like and demonstrate different behaviors of an angry or hostile person. The key word is show. Does printed material show these things? You could pay an artist to draw representations. You could take photographs. Would drawings or photographs really show and demonstrate what the aggression looked like as well as methods to deal with it? Do you think a still image adequately demonstrates different aggression and anger management scenarios? The function of video is to show. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a slide, a moving slide (motion graphic), animated slide, animation, scenario-based video, etc.

Evolution of the concept

Affordance is a relatively recent topic in the learning space. It’s a necessary topic, but like most topics, it should not be construed as a panacea. Nothing ever is, although eLearning was in danger of becoming a cure-all for every sort of training there is. This is a topic that bears further discussion and thought. I know others have been thinking about affordances, too, although not necessarily by that name. What do you see as affordances that are now or will be realistically available to us in the next five years? “Realistically” means without breaking the bank or busting the budget, or requiring hundreds or even thousands of hours to execute. It means modalities and submodalities that are supported by available hardware in the workplace, by available software, by skill sets, and by sufficient numbers of practitioners. Please list your thoughts in the comments here.