What on earth have these three things got in common? Well, this week in H807 we have been grappling with a diverse range of issues. A key theme has been the concept of affordances, which I must confess I have found rather difficult to grasp. Wikipedia defines an affordance as: "a quality of an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action". New technologies, and in particular Web 2.0, provide many affordances in the field of education, but in examining the concept I was tending to simply think in terms of advantages and disadvantages. Hammond (2010) provides a better explanation:
"The essence of an affordance is that it 'points both ways' to the object and to the organism. An affordance is an emergent property of an object. The affordance is there, it has always been there, but it needs to be perceived to be realised. A subsidiary idea is that affordances provide both opportunity and constraint. These are not opposites rather they are complementary, so, for example, a sledgehammer affords the breaking of rocks but the user is constrained by its weight - the very thing that provides the opportunity for rock breaking."
I find it useful to think of affordances as providing both opportunity and constraint. I was also grateful to one of my fellow students, Chris Moreton, who provided some useful supplementary information on the tutor group forum. Chris said that he thought of an affordance "as a cue, or an encouragement, to behave in a particular way". He referred to McCloughlin & Lee (2007) who explain the difference between "enablers" and "affordances" by making specific reference to blogging:
"blogging entails typing and editing, which are not affordances in themselves, but rather enablers of affordances which include idea sharing and interaction".
If I'm being really honest the concept is still a little vague for me. I keep thinking I've got it, but then if I was asked to explain it in detail I would really struggle.
On to other matters which I can understand much more easily but I never thought I'd be writing about on Masters degree! Another aspect of this week's work involved analysing wikis. We were asked to view a screencast by John Udell which describes the evolution of a Wikipedia article about the use of the umlaut in the names of heavy metal bands. This is the last thing I thought would be interesting, not least because I really don't like most heavy metal music, but also because I didn't think that the evolution of a Wikipedia article would be particularly enlightening. How wrong I was. Despite the subject matter (which the author freely admits is not a typical subject for an academic treatise), the animation is fascinating. By examining the log of edits to the Wikipedia article the author shows how the piece evolves from a single line in 2003 to a comprehensive article in 2005. It involved contributions from dozens of different people around the world, and was edited and re-edited many times, with the addition of images, hyperlinks and a table of contents. The log shows that on some days edits took place every few minutes. This in itself is interesting – to think that there is a global community of people who care enough about a subject to ensure that the information on the wiki was correct.
There are also two specific incidents which provide evidence of the way in which wikis can be self-regulating and culturally sensitive. Firstly, the screencast refers to an incident of vandalism in which a contributor simply filled the article with offensive language. Within minutes of the language appearing someone else had edited it to remove it. The offensive language appeared three or four times subsequently but each time it was removed very quickly. The second incident concerned a contribution which referred to the umlaut's German origins and seemed to imply that style of lettering used in heavy metal had associations with Hitler and Nazism. Again, the tone of the article was edited over time so that the German origins were still referred to, but the references to Nazism were removed.
These incidents suggest that the majority of people who contribute to Wikipedia do so responsibly and indeed are committed to ensuring that the information uploaded is both accurate and sensitive to cultural values. The open technology of Wikipedia can result in the validity of some articles being questionable, but at the same time a self-regulating and self-correcting culture seems to have grown up around Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is widely dismissed, particularly by academics, as being an unreliable source which students should not use for their research. Whilst I accept that the dynamic nature of a resource such as Wikipedia demands a degree of caution, I think it is wrong to dismiss it out of hand. Some people view Wikipedia as simply providing a forum for cranks and mischief-makers, and undoubtedly there are many examples of this but, as the screencast shows, over time the socially responsible members of the community will promote the veracity of the content.
McCloughlin, C. and Lee, M. (2007) 'Social software and participatory learning: Pedagogical choices with technology affordances in the Web 2.0 era', in Proceedings ASCILITE Singapore 2007, p.664–675.