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The Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative

Mobile Technology: Affordances

As a result of the excitement surrounding mLearning in recent years, many educators and instructional designers mistakenly ask, “where do I start in deciding which mobile technology to use?” Faced with the overwhelming array of choices, many start in an arbitrary way, selecting a popular technology that seems to be a fit for their need and find a way to make it work for them (e.g., augmented reality). A more logical approach is to define the learning, training, or performance problem to be solved, and then examine mobile technologies systematically, aligning them with specific device capabilities and affordances. This can be tricky, because most mobile technologies were not invented solely for learning, and do not come with a manual of how to use them explicitly for learning.

An affordance in general terms is a quality of an object or an environment that allows an individual to perform a specific action or ability. According to Psychologist James Gibson, affordances are “objectively measurable and independent of the individual’s ability to recognize them, but always in relation to agents and therefore dependent on their capabilities.”

Affordances are important to recognize for the design of mLearning because smartphones and tablets exhibit unique features and qualities that allow individuals to perform a specific action. Each affordance is enabled by the portability of the device, coupled with a specific capability of the device. In many cases the affordance is based on the combination of both hardware and software capabilities. For example, the camera is a capability of many smartphones and tablets. The hardware for the camera alone does not provide a unique capability. When the camera hardware is combined with a software application then such affordances as capturing video and images, Augmented Reality, Quick Response (QR) code reading, or content image analysis are made possible.

Raw capabilities of the device are therefore the enablers for affordances. However, learners may not always have equal access to the same capabilities depending upon their device type, connectivity, security, privacy, and other technological or environmental restrictions. Equal access to specific device capabilities is a critical factor and consideration influencing the flexibility and richness of mLearning design options

Affordance for Mobile Learning Device capabilities
Augmenting: Overlaying still imagery, audio, or video over real world
objects or setting in support of or during a contextual learning activity.Example(s): Augmented Reality, scavenger hunt, museum tours, language learning
  • camera
  • GPS
  • internet connectivity
Capturing (audio): Documenting or recording auditory content in support of
or during a learning activity.
  • microphone
  • speakers
  • digital storage
Capturing (imagery or video): Documenting or recording visual content
relevant to learning activity.
  • camera
  • microphone
  • digital storage
Communicating (messaging): Two-way, or group discussion as part of
an informal or formal learning activity.Example(s): Group conference, meeting, focus group
  • voice call
  • voicemail
  • speakers
  • microphone
Contextualizing: Notifications and linked
interactions sent by transmittersor tags attached to objects using proximity or location sensors to provide a
context-aware or location-aware content in support of or as part of a learning activity.Example(s): iBeacons, QR Codes, scavenger hunt, mobile tours, games,
and interactive stories
  • Bluetooth
  • GPS
  • NFC
  • RFID
  • WiFi
  • camera
eReading: Accessing and reading documents on multiple
devices anytime and anywhere in support of or as part of a learning activity.
  • text zoom
  • text highlighting
  • notes
Media Playing Accessing media anytime and anywhere
in support of or as part of a learning activity.Example(s): YouTube, Kahn Academy, Webinars
  • image
  • video
  • audio
  • internet connectivity
Notifications / Reminders: Event triggers, instant
reminders, and alerts that illicit immediate responses or deeper
engagement with a learning activity.Example(s): Spaced repetition/learning, flash cards, language learning
  • connectivity
  • touch screen
  • push notification service
  • calendar
Supporting Memory and Performance: On-demand access
to information for performance support or refresher knowledge.Example(s): Search knowledgebase, job aids, reference, dictionary, Wikipedia
  • internet browser
  • connectivity

Mobile Research


Mobile Learning: Technology


Mobile Learning: Design