Design better blended learning by understanding affordances

blenderHave you been asked to “blend” learning? In its rushed form, this process involves deciding which parts of an existing classroom course will fall into an “elearning bucket”, and which portions remain in the “classroom bucket”. It is a process, sometimes led by assumptions, that may yield a less-than-ideal split. So how do you protect the integrity of learning designs when moving portions to online format? Understanding affordances may help.

Affordance is a relatively new term (coined by Gibson) to describe the interactions that an environment offers to a certain organism. For example, a river affords swimming if you are a swan. The same river affords death -or at least trouble- if you are a beetle.

The term affordance was adopted by the design community, through Norman, for interaction design. Thus, to most people who regularly use computers, a rectangle containing an action verb should afford clicking; they call it a button. A triangle placed sideways under or over a static image should afford playing a video.

Black, white, and shades of gray

A button affords clicking. Or it's just a trick, and doesn't. Quite binary.

A button affords clicking. Or it’s just a trick, and doesn’t. Quite binary.

But these affordances are simple. Water lets you swim, or lets you drown. A button can be clicked, or not. In short, you either “can” or “can’t”, Yes or No. It’s a mostly binary world.

When we take the term “affordance” from its ecology and design origins and move it to the field of learning, it enters a much more nuanced space. It is no longer about handles, door knobs and computer user interfaces. It’s about knowledge transfer, communication, data aggregation, self-assessment, personalization.

In this scenario, many things “can” be done, but with various degrees of success. For example, a discussion forum affords peer-supported learning. Video recording affords knowledge transfer. Yes, these technologies “can” do many things.

The trap

And here’s the trap that leads to some less-than-optimal decisions about what goes into the “elearning bucket”: we tend to think about elearning affordances as binary. Can it be done electronically? Yes. So let’s do it electronically. When it comes to technology-supported L&D, we have an immediate tendency to think in binary, yes or no. And we tend not to think about the affordances of non-electronic alternatives. I have observed this behavior many times, and it works like this:

– The platform supports discussions under each topic
– So we can move all course discussions to the elearning module?
– Yes
– OK, let’s do it!

It’s not so simple

woman-reading-a-bookLet’s say you have classroom learning program supporting a big organization change. For example, the introduction of a new process, along with some new software, etc.

In this scenario, resistance to change by some vocal individuals is more than likely. The original classroom plan has discussions so people could voice their concerns. These discussions can be moderated and managed.

The request to “blend” this program results in all discussions being moved to an online forum. Now picture this:

9:00AM – New program is launched. Employees start watching elearning segments
4:00PM – No glitches, no problems so far. Rollout is going well. First few posts on discussion forums
7:00PM – The L&D team writes the launch retrospective report. It’s a success, they wrap up and go home
10:00PM – A well-crafted post by one of the most respected individuals in the company makes a strong argument against the new changes and processes. No L&D team members online, all celebrating
11:00PM – First responses from other employees strongly support the original post
10:00AM – The whole company is debating the new changes through the elearning forum
10:20AM – A rushed counterargument posted by L&D goes completely unnoticed as hundreds of new posts flood the system
10:40AM – L&D gets a call from the general manager

Yes, online forums support discussions. So does the classroom. But when you are likely to face fierce opposition by respected, influential employees, then the classroom offers an unbeatable set of affordances to manage that opposition right then and there, with limited viral effect.

The formula

Use to make better blended learning when converting existing solutions:

  • Always assume the answer to the question “Can we do that online?” is “Yes”
  • Create one column per each delivery method allowed within your blended solution. For example, elearning, classroom, job aids, social
  • Create affordance rows covering critical aspects of your learning solution: learning effectiveness, risk factors, subject complexity, geographical distribution
  • Score each row with a value from 1 to 5 indicating not “if” but “how well” the method affords this
  • Add scores vertically

Use these relative strength scores to make sound strategic decisions about your blended design. Iterate with every feedback round and update to continuously improve you affordance criteria.

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