Understanding “Panopto” through the Lens of Semiotic Affordances

Understanding Technologies as Tools to Solve Specific Problems

For the average consumer, technological services and products are rarely understood beyond how they fit into daily living and/or workflow. How ironic it is, then, that these basic questions related to “how” and “why” they are used are the fundamental starting points to understanding these technologies on a deeper level . Understanding which specific kinds of problems these technologies are designed to solve open the mind to how they can be better used, repurposed, or abandoned in favor of a more relevant tool. As Cole notes, tools are “simply prior natural things reshaped for the sake of entering effectively into some type of behavior.”(Cole, n.d.). The same principle applies to more sophisticated tools such as software. By understanding the design problem for that intended “behavior”, we understand the tool in context.

Cognitive and semiotic technologies, in particular, are best explored by “understanding what kind of technologies these are and how they should support all the functions and activities associated with symbolic cognition and expression” (Irvine, n.d.). For technologies in a learning context such as a university, consciously examining how a technology is used for cognition or expression as well as tracing back how similar problems and tasks were solved across time are a starting point to understanding them now.

Let’s apply these lenses to one such tool many university faculty use for capturing and managing their lectures called “Panopto”.

Understanding “Panopto” by Contextualizing Its Semiotic Affordances

Panopto is a set of software used primarily for recording lectures for digital or online consumption, and also contains organizational functions for managing and embedding recorded media as needed. For the typical Faculty member, they see this software integrated into their learning management system, but it can also be accessed on the desktop or in the cloud. The technology initiates and captures video recordings from a variety of sources, including activity on their computer screen, video source from a webcam or external camera, slide presentations, or isolates only the audio.

See the video I recorded below for a brief demonstration of what this looks like:

The tool is used for semiotic purposes. It mediates the transmission of cognitive learning objects, the recordings, from professor to online learner through several layers of representation. The video begins its life as a recording, makes its way up into the cloud as part of Panopto’s web library,  and is then disseminated as needed through the Learning Management System to the Learner.

As can be seen, Panopto differentiates itself from some other technology for the professor as a tool specifically meant to capture and communicate knowledge within a digital environment, affording itself more specifically to online lectures and blended learning. Historically, professors have used physical environments and physical cognitive artefacts to solve the same problem of capturing and delivering knowledge. Libraries have served as central hubs for preserving, managing, and accessing knowledge for thousands of years. Lecture halls and classrooms have had a similar lifespan. Panopto is software, but more than that, it is a tool to deliver knowledge, and a hub for managing it.

Looking at cognitive technologies and artifacts through the lens of the the problems they and how those issues have been addressed historically is touched on by Don Norman, saying: “The evolution of artifacts over tens of thousands of years of usage and mutual dependence between human and artifact provides a fertile source of information about both”(Norman, 1991).

The nature of the problem itself is not so different. While the video navigation is similar to Youtube for the student, it is not a tool for capturing and sharing knowledge on a massive scale, it is meant specifically for contained classroom settings. By understanding what it isn’t, you understand what it is. Looking at Panopto as a cognitive technology solving semiotic problems, it becomes easier to gauge whether the tool itself is useful and intuitive for solving these problems, or not.


Cole, M. (n.d.). Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Retrieved from https://drive.google.com/a/georgetown.edu/file/d/0Bxfe3nz80i2GMkFwdTlxYVdWWHc/edit?usp=sharing&usp=embed_facebook

Irvine, M. (n.d.). Introduction to Cognitive Artefacts and Semiotic Technologies. Retrieved September 26, 2017, from https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bz_pbxFcpfxRd2ZUak5TNlE2bzg/view?usp=sharing&usp=embed_facebook

Norman, D. A. (1991). Designing Interaction: Psychology at the Himan-Computer Interface. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bxfe3nz80i2GTHE1TEhNeDMzYlE/edit