The affordances of digital technology

Recently, the news has been awash with wonderings and reports of schools going online as a way forward. As a modern learning pedagogy enthusiast and someone who believes in strong technology use within the classroom, you would think I would be fully behind the announcement. And I am. But, we must not lose sight of one of the most fundamental elements of learning. The very best piece of technology a student will ever have access to is a good teacher. The context of the drive to establish communities of online learning has perhaps been lost in the responses to the original announcement. Here we are faced with the opportunity to respond to the ever-changing needs of students, and keep them entirely at the centre of learning. We know that technology is not the silver bullet. It is often described by those less inclined to use it as ‘being as effective as giving a fish a bicycle’. But, is this the real picture? Once the engagement with the device as a shiny object has subsided, we can really begin to unpack just what learning with digital technology can do for our learners. The key areas are perhaps summarised best by the Woolf Fisher Research Centre’s ongoing research with a progressive cluster of low-decile Auckland schools.

technology affordance

  • Engagement
  • Powerful teaching conversations
  • Complex tasks
  • In-site and on-site support
  • Connections and visibility.

These areas have become known as the ‘five affordances of digital technology’ and stem from over three years’ worth of professional research into the use of technology to accelerate student progress and achievement.

Very recently, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to unpack the affordances with a group of senior teachers and school leaders. All of these are currently in the second year of a three-year supported programme focused on raising student achievement and making accelerated progress. This is underpinned by a shared cluster pedagogy and a base of visibility through access to technology.


After the box has been unpacked and the glow of the device has subsided, what is left? Just how can using an internet-enabled device in a well-organised 1:1 programme add to student engagement? We know that intrinsic motivation stems from learning that has high levels of interest or opportunity to explore curiosity (Woolfolk-Hoy and Hoy, 2009), so, perhaps the first area to unpack with regards to engagement is authenticity. Having access to the wider world and the understanding that a piece of work is not finished when it’s handed to the teacher, means that students have the opportunity to engage with an authentic audience. In context, this could be as simple as preparing a speech on world poverty and famine. Previously, the student would write and present the speech to their peers, and then receive their feedback before moving on to the next topic of study. Having an internet-ready device opens up a world of possibilities. The speech can be blogged for others outside of the school to see. It could be recorded and shared via a multitude of audio and video hosting platforms with the intention of reaching those who can actually make a difference. Just recently, this very scenario happened. An intermediate level student shared their writing about equality and the lives of refugees to their blog. The post was automatically tweeted by the cluster account and within an hour had been read and retweeted by a small human rights organisation based in Europe. The connection came to life and the writing had, very quickly, gone far beyond the walls of the classroom. This example alone feeds well into some of the other areas felt to be related to student engagement. The writing had been completed both in and out of the classroom, researched using sources from across the globe, and curated for relevance. The learning had become relevant, meaningful, and powerful; engagement was simply a wonderful by-product.


technology affordanceSomething New Zealand teachers do well is conferencing with students. Since moving to NZ over six years ago, I have been shown the value of purposeful, powerful teaching conversations between students and teachers. So, how can digital technology improve something that is already very strong in many learning institutions? Having access to learning via a device means that students have the opportunity to learn anytime, anywhere, and any-how. They continue their journey on a ubiquitous platform of lifelong education, underpinned by the access their device affords. Both the student and teacher have this access. Teachers in 1:1 environments have the opportunity to comment, unpack, and question student learning without being constrained by the ten-minute window to talk during the working day. When that face-to-face window finally comes around, the conversation has already begun online (through commenting and collaboration) and can be instantly focused. Simply recording the conversation with an audio tool means the student can return to it at any point and listen again to the feedback and discussion around their learning. The face-to-face, human interaction is not lost, merely extended.


Aside from not being limited by the space on the page, students have the opportunity to evolve their learning based on their understanding of an authentic audience. As they begin to explore blogging and publishing online, there is a need to think about what a ‘global audience’ really means, and how it can affect their outcome. We know that students learn in a variety of ways. Having access to multiple tools, with the expert guidance of a skilled teacher means that learning does not end when the work has been written and edited. The ‘final piece’ can now be presented as a piece of a much larger puzzle, showing research, conversations, editing, commenting and alternative ways to present- all feeding a multimodal learning outcome for an audience to interact with.

Something else that needs to be considered is ownership. Student engagement is known to be higher when there is a feeling of ownership of the learning that is taking place. Students who understand how they learn are able self-scaffold their learning, increasing or decreasing its complexity to suit their needs. Under guidance, this can not only increase the complexity of learning taking place, but also tailor or differentiate it to a self-selected level and add considerable value.


In placing learning onto a visible and accessible portal, students are able to access it at a pace and time they feel most comfortable. Most teachers I meet have become experts at planning the tasks and steps needed in order to achieve a predetermined final outcome. However, for those that learn differently, having access to ongoing learning both in and out of school hours, coupled with a strong grasp of how to access information, there is the possibility to learn around an area and build a much wider understanding. Potentially, students are able to develop a clearer perception of themselves as a learner and apply this to future situations, without the need to have the processes carefully constructed by a teacher. They are able to take responsibility for accessing the methods that they have found to be successful and use them when confronted with new and unfamiliar contexts.


affordance student technologyPerhaps the most obvious affordance of digital technology is the ability to connect and make learning visible. As a teacher, there is the opportunity to share planning, activities and learning outcomes via a class portal. Not only are parents and caregivers able to see this and provide support, but also other teachers and colleagues, who are able to adapt and extend the ideas to meet the needs of their own learners.

In making their learning visible, students are able to make their learning ‘real’ and purposeful. The new connections have the potential to drive learning to a level well beyond the initial plan. Sharing authentic writing and learning via a blog allows students to develop meaningful relationships with students from the classroom next door just as easily as with students from a classroom halfway across the world.

Bringing technology and digital learning into the classroom must never be about learning the tool. While understanding how to use a device effectively remains important, the learners of today already have many of the skills needed to navigate the online world as a consumer of information. As 1:1 device rich environments grow, we have a real chance to make today’s learners creators of knowledge and information for their peers of the future.

Whatever your view on the use of technology in schools, the fact remains that technology on its own cannot accelerate student progress and achievement. Without a teacher with strong pedagogy, the fish and bicycle scenario remains. With a teacher with strong pedagogy, the possibilities, in my humble opinion, are limitless….

Further reading and watching
Woolf Fisher Research Outcomes — Manaiakalani Outreach 2016
What is an affordance and can it help us understand the use of ICT in education? — University of Warwick 2010

Woolfolk-Hoy, A., & Hoy, W. K. (2009). Instructional leadership: A research-based guide to learning in schools. (3rd ed.) Boston: Pearson

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Anne Kenneally is an experienced professional learning facilitator. Anne facilitates the effective use of digital technologies to engage and empower all learners. She has been a part of the Learning with Digital Technologies team. She is also a mentor within the UChoose mentoring programme and Virtual Professional Learning and Development (VPLD) programmes. Anne has worked with schools and leadership teams across New Zealand supporting the development of effective use of technology, Google how-tos, and teaching as inquiry, through to strategic planning and school transformation initiatives. Anne has a strong focus on teaching as inquiry, supporting leaders and educators to maximise their potential. She is also passionate about removing ‘barriers to learning’ for students, particularly in literacy.

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