Affordances, Normalisation & Disruptive Innovation – A Principled Approach to Using Technology in ELT

This is a 16-20  minute read. There is a summary towards the bottom of the page.

In this post I look at the concepts of Technology, Affordance, Naturalisation and Disruptive Innovation in looking at how digital technologies can be innovatively integrated into ELT teaching. First of all we begin the journey considering Google glass and SMS Messaging.


Technology & Innovation

Would you spend $1,500 on a device to guide you to the nearest fast food restaurant? Of course it may depend on how hungry you are and how much you crave junk food!

According to a BBC story describing how Google Glasses are being made available to software developers, finding take-away restaurants is one of Google’s suggestions for possible uses of the project. If this is one of the most imaginative uses the people at Google can conceive of for their $1,500 gadget it is a good job they they are giving developers the opportunity to create applications to push the limits of the technology. I’m being disingenuous here as Google understand that people will innovate given a product – and this was their plan all along (and they did have other ideas too!).

The Google people are obviously smart and have learned the lessons of innovation – the developers of a technology are not necessarily the ones to recognise its true potential.

Here are two examples worthy of The Book of Heroic Failures:

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” — Western Union internal memo, 1876

And here are some more.


Teenagers as Innovators

The first SMS message was sent on 3rd December 1992. However the creators of the SMS messaging system didn’t foresee the phenomenon that SMS messaging would it become. It was only in 1996 when newly introduced pay-as-you-go packages made mobile phone technology affordable to teenagers that SMS messaging started to take off in a big way. Teenagers recognised and adopted a new way to communicate. They made it their own to the point of creatively adapting the  language to meet their communicative needs.

(Before anyone mentions digital natives here let’s remember that teenagers and young people have always been innovators – this may actually be the true digital native message. SMS was another way to communicate, teenagers always had always found ways to communicate with each other in the past, and now it was cheaper than a phone call.)

John Naughton, in this Observer article celebrating 20 years of  SMS, identifies an important truth

“the story of SMS shows that the people who effectively invent a technology – in the sense of determining its use and making it viable – are not so much the engineers who design it as the consumers who discover what it’s really for. The telephone was originally conceived as a broadcast medium, whereas radio was conceived as a point-to-point medium. Exactly the opposite turned out to be true in both cases. And it was teenagers who “invented” SMS.


So what about Teaching & Learning

In the remainder of this post I will suggest an approach to encourage innovative uses of technology in ELT through the investigation of four concepts – Technology, Normalisation, Affordance and Disruptive Innovation (these concepts explain the success of SMS & will determine the future success [or not] of Google Glass). I have chosen these concepts as they suggest, to me, the considerations to keep in mind when deciding If, when and how to integrate a technology into the teaching and learning process.


So let’s start with technology.

The Oxford Dictionary defines technology as

“The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry”


“Machinery and devices developed from scientific knowledge”

When we talk of using technology in a teaching and learning context we usually assume that technology to be synonymous with the latest available technology, currently digital technology. Google Glass is the latest (for now) in a line of Information Technology (IT) tools stretching back to paints and BRUSHES used to record information on cave walls. But perhaps the most familiar form of IT the book. A book is a form of technology that was developed to store and disseminate information.


Technology in ELT

In the history of language learning many technologies have been employed whether they be chalk and slate, language laboratories, course books, pen and paper, video-conferencing, videos…etc. At one time or another each was considered (by some people at least) to be the latest best technology.

We could have a great debate about which technologies have been the most successful and enduring – if not which are the most useful. But it is undoubted that most have fallen by the wayside and I would suggest that this is because we did not really consider the concepts of affordance and normalisation of technology. This led to the adoption of technology as novelty rather than innovation – which will never have lasting appeal or application (just consider novelty songs – does anyone still listen to this number 1 song for pleasure!)

The instruction manual (in the form of the modern course-book) is perhaps the most enduring technology for teachers and learners in many contexts (certainly mine). In these contexts it is ubiquitous and an accepted part of language learning for teachers and learners – unfortunately to the point that many people equate language learning with learning the book rather than viewing it as an aid to teaching and learning.


What can account for the endurance of the course book?

Let’s consider some of the advantages of the course-book in ELT. For teachers it provides a ready-made syllabus, it provides guidance on delivery for new teachers without easy access to support, it often provides supplementary materials reducing preparation time, it is easily portable, it is reusable, it is relatively cheap, it provides a reference tool for learners, learners can use it to gauge progress and anticipate future learning, it can be used as a paperweight…etc. It also allows for excuses -“we’ve covered it in the book – why haven’t you learned it?” (A negative affordance). Another way of thinking of these reasons for the use of these course-books is to consider them as affordances – the benefits that the book/technology brings to the users.


What are affordances?

North American psychologist, James Gibson’s conceived of an affordance as a property of the environment that has an effect, positive or negative, on another organism in that environment (Van Lier, 2000, pp.252-253) . He gives the example of a leaf in the Amazon rainforest. Leaves exist solely to produce sugars for its plant by absorbing sunlight. However, a leaf has affordance for other organisms

“lt can offer crawling on for a treefrog, cutting for an ant, food for a caterpillar, shade for a spider, medicine for a shaman, and so. In all cases, the leaf is the same: its properties do not change; it is just that different properties are perceived and acted upon by different organisms.”

In a classroom context a Smartphone could be used by a learner to whatsapp  with friends in another class, as a dictionary or to play games – its fundamental nature does not change, just the purpose it is used for. In other words, with reference to technology,

“an affordance is a “can do” statement that does not have to be predefined by a particular functionality, and refers to an application that enables a user to undertake tasks in their environment, whether known or unknown to him / her.” (McLouglin & Lee 2007,p.666)

In many ELT contexts there is an obvious push towards, and excitement around, e-technology including plenty of specifically designed educational apps and websites. As teachers when we are looking at a particular technology we should consider the affordances it can bring to the learning situation:

  • Does it actually add to or extend learning possibilities?
  • Does it allow us to do things we couldn’t do before?
  • Does it do the things we currently do – but more effectively?


Encouraging Learners to recognise the affordances of technologies

Perhaps we should also take a lesson from the story of SMS. Teenagers recognised the affordance it offered to communicate instantly, cheaply and silently with their friends. As teachers we are usually the ones who determine the technology that our learners will use – and more often than not the technologies they cannot use. Just think of all that creativity, imagination and innovation we are missing out on.

A more learner-centred approach would be to set the context and allow learners to use a technology they believe would help them complete a task or activity. For example, we could reframe homework from an activity which is often a solitary reinforcement of classroom learning to active and collaborative learning. We could even try and move away from homework  and it negative connotations to  broaden the boundaries of active learning beyond the classroom.

Classroom based activities may well benefit from technology if we involve learners in the choice of tools to complete activities. Later I will explore how Project Based Learning provides a great context for just this sort of freedom.


What is Normalisation?

As I mentioned earlier, in my experience, the course-book is the most enduring learning technology in ELT. Both teachers and learners, generally, perceive them as a natural, useful and pedagogically sound tool in language learning. It is not a big event or a novelty when they are used in the classroom. This is not to say that they are perfect tools – I am an admirer of the Teaching Unplugged approach – but it is the perception of the course-book’s usefulness, longevity and its pervasiveness that makes them a normalised technology.

In this sense the course-book is at a stage of normalisation where

“the technology is invisible, hardly even recognised as technology, taken for granted in everyday life.” (Bax, 2003, p.23)

For those interested, I recommend a quick read of Bax’s 2003 article “CALL – Past, Present & Future” . Clearly dated by the reference to CALL, it is prescient in predicting that true integration of computers into the classroom will involve computers “probably very different in shape and size from their current manifestation” (2003, p.23).In my teaching context learners, who all have laptops, do not appear to view them as key tools for learning and prefer their smartphones.

He recognised that CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning) had not reached a stage of normalisation by the very nature of it having an acronym CALL. He points out that we do not refer to PALL (Pen Assisted Language Learning) or BALL (Book Assisted Language Learning) because they are normalised. For this reason he argued that “CALL practitioners should be aiming at their own extinction.” (2003, p.239).

11 years later we have yet to reach, or even get within touching-distance of, normalisation when it comes to Digital Technology in teaching and learning – It seems we can’t even reach a consensus on the use of online dictionaries. We may not use the CALL acronym but we still talk of “Teaching with Technology” rather than just “Teaching”.

This reminds me of a scene from the TV show Friends when Joey and Chandler are offering Ross some relationship advice

Joey: He’s right, man. Please. Move on. Go to China. Eat Chinese food.

Chandler: Course there, they just call it food.


In a previous post I discussed how, in my experience, digital technology is frequently used as a novelty to enagage learners rather than as a tool to support learning. We have yet to reach the stage where

“CALL will be normalised when computers are treated as secondary to learning itself, when the needs of the learners will be carefully analysed first of all, and then computers used to serve those needs.” (Bax 2003, p.24).

Or to put it another way – what learning do we wish to take place? What are the affordances of the technologies (digital or otherwise) to promote this learning? Who has the knowledge of the technologies and makes decisions on which to use to promote learning?


Disruptive Innovation, PBL and Normalised Uses of Technology

I believe that Project Based Learning provides a wonderful, naturalised context for the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning. This relationship is symbiotic as it is also the affordances of the technologies that provide deep opportunities for PBL and other Inquiry Based Learning methods to take place.

Of course other learning situations and contexts can benefit from a principled and innovative use of technology and to develop this point I will talk about the concept of “Disruptive Innovation”.

In his article ‘Disrupting Ourselves: The Problem of Learning in Higher Education’, Randy Bass applies the economic concept of Disruptive Innovation to learning in Higher Education. The process of disruptive innovation seems to nicely incorporate the concepts of affordances and normalisation.

Clayton Christensen’s concept of Disruptive Innovation in business refers to

“ a process “by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves ‘up market,’ eventually displacing established competitors” (Bass 2012, p.24)

The story of SMS is a perfect example of disruptive innovation in the business sense – an existing (relatively unused) technology was embraced and became a dominant form of communication. This happened once a genuine affordance was identified by teenagers – cheap, instant (and silent) communication. Its affordances were recognised by teenagers and it is now a completely normalised technology used by all.

Bass applies the concept of disruptive innovation to learning in Higher Education. Echoing Prensky’s acknowledgement that current technologies allow us to undertake Inquiry Based techniques previously considered impractical (Prensky 2010, p.xv), Bass argues that innovation in Higher Education will come from within – with the growing use and influence of experiential learning made possible by the affordances current technology.

“new digital, learning, and analytics tools now make it possible to replicate some features of high‑impact activity inside classrooms, whether through the design of inquiry-based learning or through the ability to access and manipulate data, mount simulations, leverage “the crowd” for collaboration and social learning, or redesign when and how students can engage course content. Indeed, one of the most powerful aspects of today’s technologies is that many of the high-impact features that used to be possible only in small classes can now be experienced not only at a larger scale but, in some cases, to better effect at larger scale” (Bass 2012, p.26)

 And when Bass refers to disruption with reference to technology he does not mean the disruption caused by learners using Facebook or Angry Birds in class (that dates me!). Rather, disruption in this sense is a positive force for motivation and is driven by the affordances of technology. Technologies whose affordances for learning are recognised and used in this way become a normalized part of the learning process

“we are compelled to imagine ways to ask students, early and often, to engage in the practice of thinking in a given domain, often in the context of messy problems. This is perhaps one way to rethink the role of technologies and social media tools—often the cause of that other type of teaching disruption— and re-imagine the ways that discussion boards, wikis, blogs, Twitter, and collaborative writing tools and spaces might facilitate activities that help students learn” (Bass 2012, p.28)

Bass indicates, and I concur, that Inquiry Based Learning (such as PBL) lends itself to complex, constructive, meaningful and challenging learning situations preparing learners for real life situations. He also recognizes the importance of allowing the learners the access to the tools to help them achieve these learning goals. It is also clear that a normalized used of technology enables this.

In this normalized context we as teachers are not the gate-keepers of digital technology. Rather we can set the learning contexts and trust and encourage learners to be the innovative users of technology – finding the affordances of technologies to enhance learning.


So a principled, normalised approach to the use of technology can only be achieved through Project Based Learning?

Certainly not! There are many ways and contexts in which technology can be used to enhance teaching and learning which can, should and have nearly become normalised.

In an upcoming post I will look at current digital technologies identifying their affordances and assessing the extent to which they can, or have, become naturalised within teaching and learning contexts.


In Summary

  • The developers of technology are not necessarily those who find the most innovative uses for it.
  • SMS is an example where a group of people, teenagers, found the innovative use for the technology.
  • If we want to use Digital Technologies innovatively to enhance teaching and learning the concepts of Technology, Affordance, Normalisation and Disruptive Innovation are useful to consider.
  • The concept of technology, the way technologies have been and are used in English Language Teaching.
  • Affordances are the possibilities a technology offers beyond its initial design. I consider the affordances of a common technology – the course book. We should encourage learners to recognise the affordances of technologies to enhance their learning.
  • Normalisation is the process where a technology becomes a natural part of the environment. In the classroom pens and course books are naturalised. A naturalised use of digital technology will potentially redefine the boundaries of learning.
  • Disruptive Innovation is the process where a product or service becomes a market leader (and therefore naturalised) thanks to the recognition of its affordances by innovators. Randy Bass claims Inquiry Based Learning methods (such as PBL) are gaining ground in higher education through their relevance to real-world learning and their facilitation through Digital Technology.
  • Once again, remembering the lesson of SMS we should encourage our learners to be innovators, finding the affordances of digital technologies to enhance their learning.
  • PBL provides a context for a principled and naturalised use of Digital Technology but not the only context.



Bass, R 2012, ‘Disrupting Ourselves. The Problem of Learning in Higher Education’, Educase review, March / April 2012, pp.23-33

Bax, S 2003b, ‘CALL—past, present and future.’, System, vol.31, p.13-28.

Prensky, M 2010, Teaching Digital Natives. Partnering for Real Learning, Corwin, California

Van Lier, L 2000, “From input to affordance” in Lantolf J P (ed), Sociocultural theory and second language learning, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp.245-259.


Related Posts

Affordances and Normalisation of Current Digital Technologies in ELT – Coming Soon

Technology as a Cognitive Aid – Coming Soon

PBL & the Affordances of Web 2.0 Technology – Coming Soon

PBL & English Language Teaching

“It was good enough for us, it should be good enough for them.” – Coming Soon

Digital-Media Literacy – Coming Soon

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Affordances, Normalisation & Disruptive Innovation – A Principled Approach to Using Technology in ELT by Andrew Bosson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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