The Affordances of Virtual Classrooms.

The idea of affordances has been used in the last few decades to capture the idea that the environment allows us to do certain things. Some environments afford some actions, other environments afford different actions. In this post, I consider the characteristics of virtual classrooms and what they afford students and teachers.  

First, technology has perfect memory. At least compared to human memory it is perfect. Your virtual classroom can remember exactly which articles and presentations and files you used in class on each day. By uploading your documents to your online classroom, you afford students endless access to those files. Now if you are one of those who says that “it is students’ responsibility to keep track of these things,” then I guess you can never mind. But of course, you cannot complain later that students don’t have what they need nor can you complain that they didn’t learn what was in those files. 

The perfect memory also affords us the opportunity to remember exactly what students handed in and when they handed it in. Your virtual classroom allows you to avoid discussions about the fate of students’ work; claims of “I handed it in, but you lost it” can be resolved immediately. 

Second, technology follows rules with inhuman speed and accuracy. It affords quizzes that are immediately and perfectly corrected (if the questions and programmed answers have no errors). It also tracks performance, so (for example) it can prevent students accessing certain materials until a passing grade has been earned on an assignment. 

Third, technology has been developed that allows multimedia communication. While we were restricted to using alphanumeric input and output when desktop computer first arrived on our desks, recent generations of computer devices allow users to create and disseminate images, audio, and video information easily. Networks and web services are designed to handle these files efficiently as well. This affords the ability to see and hear each other when circumstances prevent us from being together. 

Fourth, today’s virtual classrooms afford many tools for interaction. When I first started teaching online in 2000, my courses where places for information exchange. My plans, materials, and project directions were online, and students shared their thoughts on articles they studied. Now, my students have opportunities for true collaboration. For example, they create wikis where they define and refine answers and solve professional problems together. These advances have resulted from both technological advances as well as my efforts, along with colleagues, to improve how we structure online interaction. My virtual classrooms afford spaces for interaction that complement and extend and enhance the interaction that happens when we are face-to-face.