Affordances, Writing tools (digital and pen) and Student agency : A student perspective


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Publication Details

Author list: Dahlström, Helene

Publication year: 2018


Affordances, Writing tools (digital and pen) and Student agency - A student perspective

This paper reports on a multiple methods study of Swedish primary school students´ access to digital tools for writing. The study also explores how students perceive the affordances of digital tools as well as pen and paper tools when creating stories. The results are discussed in relation to the concept of student agency. The research questions were:

What access to digital tools do students have and how can the access be understood in relation to student agency?

How can the affordances of different tools for writing perceived by the students be understood in relation to student agency?

The digital society challenges what is being taught in contemporary education. The debate is often about pen and paper versus digital tools and in what direction teaching is going to change due to this (Linderoth, 2016). But the question about what is being taught, the content of the education, in order to suit contemporary and future society is also important to discuss. When professional writing takes place digitally- in word-processing programs, it would be natural to focus a writing process that students learn as a preparation for their professional lives, including mastery of text editing, and because these word processing programs containing spell checking and grammar control, it means that students can focus more on texts content than its form (Linderoth, 2016). Using technology as tools does not automatically improve the learning, but learning can be seen as something else than it has traditionally done, according to Säljö (2010). He indicates that the competencies necessary in school and in society can no longer be limited to our bodies and mind. The competencies are now to be expressed in the mastery of and in collaboration with external tools. Tools for writing have developed from societal, social and individual needs. Social changes produce other changes as different technological needs (Säljö, 2010, Kress, 2010). Bezemer & Kress (2016) suggests that we ask open questions about gains and losses with current social and digital development. Exploring students perceptions about the affordances of different writing tools and discuss this in relation to student agency is one step in that direction.

Having access and ability to use digital writing tools can be a matter of accessibility and equivalence (Samuelsson, 2014). Writing with digital tools can mean an extended possibility to independently participate in writing activities in the classroom (Agelii Genlott & Grönlund, 2016). Scaffolding tools like computer software can lead to that writers can be able to carry out tasks that would otherwise be beyond his or her normal efforts (Stone, 2002). Handwriting is seen by other researchers as important for the cognitive development, perception and motor action (Mangen, 2016). Based on this contradictory former research, it is important to explore students perception of the affordances created in the meeting between student and writing tools.

Every medium that we use to communicate has affordances. These affordances are to be seen as social and material possibilities and constraints. The media we use and the affordances they offer influences how we make meaning (Adami & Kress, 2010). In this article, affordances are seen as relational (Hutchy, 2001), and are described according to their functionality (Gibson, 1979). The concept of agency refers to students active participation and ability to act independently in writing activities in a school context (Selander & Kress, 2010; Bezemer & Kress, 2016). When the learner´s agency is in focus, the learner is seen as being able to act independent and able to make choices of their own (Selander & Kress, 2010).


Both qualitative and quantitative methods were used to get a broad and deep understanding of the empirical data. Methods used were a statistical survey and qualitative interviews. This study consists of two strands: a qualitative interview strand and a quantitative survey strand. An affordance analyse were used to interpret the empirical findings from the qualitative interviews. The quantitative survey was analysed using the software program SPSS. Six classes from five different schools located in a community in the middle of Sweden were chosen as an informant group for this study. In total 111 students participated.

Expected Outcomes

The students had high access to digital tools for writing at home as well as at school. Students had the highest access to computers, but the majority had to share it with their family. There were a small number of students that did not have access at all to a computer or a tablet. Findings indicate that the most common conditions were that students shared digital tools for writing with the family. This could, in fact, mean that they felt that they got low access to digital tools. Similar findings were found in the school context, students described that even though the school had digital tools, they were not allowed to use them to the extent they wanted to. This can, in relation to students agency, imply that these students have less agency than those that have their own devices at home or are allowed to use the digital resources for real in school. The empirical findings from the affordance analysis were conducted in two steps. First, the affordances perceived by the students were investigated, followed by an analysis of how that affordance could be understood in relation to student agency. Four affordances emerged when students used digital tools: write-ability, edit-ability, story-telling ability, and accessibility. When using pen and paper as writing tools, two affordances were perceived by the students: In relation to student agency could the affordances of write-ability and edit-ability when writing digitally, for example, mean an increased capacity to communicate and the affordances of individual write-ability mean an increased to develop a personal style.


Adami, E. & Kress, G. (2010). The social semiotics of convergent mobile devices: New forms of composition and the transformation of habitus. In G. Kress (Ed.), Multimodality. A social semiotic to contemporary communication (pp. 184-197). London: Routledge. Agélii

Genlott, A., & Grönlund, Å. (2016). Closing the gaps: Improving literacy and mathematics by ict-enhanced collaboration. Computers & Education, 99, 68-80.

Bezemer, J. & Kress, G. (2016). Multimodality, learning and communication, A social semiotic frame. Oxon and New York: Routledge

Kress, G. (2010). Multimodality: A social semiotic approach to contemporary communication. London: Routledge.

Linderoth, J (2016). Lärarens återkomst: från förvirring till upprättelse. Stockholm: Natur och Kultur.

Mangen, A. (2016). What Hands May Tell Us About Reading and Writing. Educational Theory, (66) 457-477.

Samuelsson, U. (2014). Digital (o) jämlikhet? IKT-användning i skolan and elevers tekniska Kapital. (Avhandling) (nr 23). Högskolan för lärande och kommunikation, Högskolan i Jönköping.

Selander, S. & Kress, G. (2010). Design för lärande - ett multimodalt perspektiv. Stockholm: Norstedts. Säljö, R. (2010). Digital tools and challenges to institutional traditions of learning: technologies, social memory and the performative nature of learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(1), 53-64.


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