All posts by Jen

New Book: Digital Futures for Learning – Speculative Methods and Pedagogies

My new book will be published on 8 November 2022. Here’s what it looks like!

Cover of Digital Futures for Learning book, Routledge 2022
Ross, Jen (2022). Digital Futures for Learning: Speculative Methods and Pedagogies. New York: Routledge.  https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/mono/10.4324/9781003202134/digital-futures-learning-jen-ross

It has been a really positive experience – it’s given me space and time to step back and consider how the variety of work I’ve been doing on education and digital learning futures over the past decade or so comes together around a methodological and pedagogical position on complexity, responsibility, creativity and uncertainty. In the book, I define speculative approaches as working with the future as a space of uncertainty, and using that uncertainty creatively in the present. It’s been a real pleasure to revisit projects and ideas, and to develop arguments about the role speculative methods can play in the landscape of digital education and critical education futures.

One of the things I got the most from was working through the ways that education futures (particularly digital education futures) are made and how they come to be seen as legitimate (or otherwise). This took me on a journey through work on critical education futures, anticipation, imaginaries and different kinds of predictions. That exploration was extremely useful for the development of the new MSc in Education Futures that has launched this month! I hope it will be helpful for other people too (I wrote about it in chapter 2).

I see the theoretical foundation for speculative methods as emerging in education from work on complexity (which chapter 3 of the book is all about). However, a speculative approach to research can in turn be suitable for exploring a lot of different kinds of ideas – the second section of the book discusses speculative projects that developed around theories of posthumanism, mobilities and surveillance, for example. 

When I first started writing about speculative approaches to educational research and teaching back in 2016, there weren’t that many examples of their use, but happily the situation has changed a lot in the years since, and chapter 4 of the book explores this literature and draws attention to some of the big questions and ideas that have emerged from it (here are just a few examples). It’s also been good to see the range of methods people actually use – for example, an approach that has been developing quite rapidly is the use of speculative fiction writing as a way of working with education futures, and there is a lot of energy around examining current visions of the future and telling stories about new ones.

There are four case studies in the book – each of which discusses speculative approaches in practice, including speculative objects, audiences and ways of knowing produced through research and teaching projects. In Chapter 5, a speculative Twitter bot makes a surprising entrance into the social space of a Massive Open Online Course and proceeds to engage with participants about the nature of teaching. The chapter explores debates about automation and massification of higher education, and investigates the glitch as a speculative object. Chapter 6 focuses on the speculative pedagogy of the Digital Futures for Learning postgraduate course, in which the course itself is partly made up of Open Educational Resources produced by students. It examines openness and co-creation as educational qualities and as challenges for higher education. Chapter 7 turns to engagement in museums and galleries, and to the Artcasting project, which explored alternatives to problematic forms of evaluation that cultural heritage organisations were grappling with. Chapter 8 is about the Data Stories Creator, developed as part of work to imagine surveillance futures in higher education at a time of radical shifts in modes and visibility of education, partly driven by the Covid- 19 pandemic. 

The final section of the book tries to capture elements of speculative research, and teaching, in ways that others will be able to use and build on. I had already written about this a bit in a research context, but the chapter on speculative pedagogies is completely new, and it was good to think about issues of ethics and participation in the context of assessment, course design and lifelong learning (for example).

Overall, I want the book to provide encouragement for others who are working – or want to work – on digital education futures in their own contexts. Speculative work is located in a complex web of uncertainty, playfulness and responsibility (a theme that I found myself returning to a lot), and this has implications for how we work as well as what we do: 

The relationships created and revealed within speculative practices, however playful they may sometimes be, are also serious about the future, responsible to the present and thoughtful about the history of our field. This means that the tensions and contradictions and complexities of our work are not there to be resolved – they are the work.

(Ross 2022, p.205)

Many of us can gain something from understanding our work in a more spacious, generous way than the customs of research and teaching, and the visions of the future that are  currently in play give us room for. A lot of innovative and interesting stuff is going on in the social sciences, arts and humanities right now to make this kind of space, and I see speculative approaches as part of that. It’s a little bit daunting to see the book head out into the world, but I hope it finds the people who will find it useful!

Introducing the MSc in Education Futures

The last few years of my professional life have involved a number of projects with significant ‘behind the scenes’ activity, and none more than the development of the new MSc in Education Futures at the Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI). I started working in earnest on this programme in early 2019, when I was appointed to an EFI fellowship to develop a programme on the topic of ‘future education’. Along with a group of programme leads from across the university, the past three years have been a whirlwind of interdisciplinary conversations, curriculum and pedagogical design debates, administrative and academic milestones, and many and varied discussions about how to engage people across sectors in considering what the future of learning will be like, and what it will be for. 

The public launch of the programme last week, along with five others (Creative Industries, Data, Inequality and Society, Future Governance, Narrative Futures and Service Management and Design), means that we will quite soon know who will be joining us for the very first year of this new adventure. I really can’t wait, because a lot of our design considerations have been about how to bring together a group of participants with diverse experiences and areas of focus to investigate key topics around education and learning futures. It will be fantastic to see how this plays out when the programme begins next September.

One of the most interesting aspects of EFI is the ‘fusion’ design of the courses: all the Education Futures courses are designed around two-day ‘intensive’ sessions – available to study online or on campus ­– and wraparound online activity. Each 10-credit course will run for five weeks, including the two full-day intensives. My programme co-director, James Lamb, has written about how we are going about designing these courses – check out his blog post here.

The curriculum design process has been equally interesting. I’ve been engaging with speculative research and teaching approaches for the past ten years or so, and it has highlighted the productive challenges of working with ideas of the future (I’m currently writing a book about this!). The first year of courses will cover topics like the design of learning organisations, and education’s role in wicked problems and challenging futures. We are also working on courses that explore methods of engaging with futures (including through cultural heritage approaches, postdigital and speculative experiments, and social science fictions), issues of personalisation, social change, creativity and resilience, and lots more. In addition to these, there are shared ‘core’ courses that all EFI students will have access to that help develop creative and data skills, and a set of electives from across the programmes that are open to all EFI students to choose from. 

We’ll be piloting two of the courses between January-March 2022 – Future of Learning Organisations and Postdigital Society. The intensive sessions will take place in a specially designed fusion teaching space, and we’ve been playing around in that space and investigating the possibilities it is able to support. The programme team meets regularly and we have had amazing discussions about things like learning times and spaces, decolonising a futures-focused curriculum, and approaches to collaboration. There is a lot of energy for the new programme and for what we are each bringing from our own research, disciplinary context, teaching experiences, ideas about the future, and so on. I’ll introduce some other members of the team in a future post, and look out for a co-authored position paper from us in the next few months.

In the meantime, I warmly welcome questions about the programme – feel free to get in touch! To learn more, including about how to apply, check out the web site:

The landscape of speculative methods in digital education

Ransom Canyon Steel House
Robert Bruno’s steel house at Ransom Canyon, Texas in Yellow House Canyon. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ransom_Canyon_Steel_House_2009.JPG

I’m in the process of writing a book about speculative methods and pedagogies (due from Routledge in 2022). As part of the writing process I’ve been enjoying engaging with recent literature that builds on ideas I wrote about in my 2017 paper on speculative method in digital education research (Ross, 2017). This post is a little taster of the diverse contexts of use of speculation and not-yetness (Ross and Collier, 2016), and how these concepts are being developed by others.

Speculative methods for research and teaching are aimed at envisioning or crafting futures or conditions which may not yet currently exist, to provoke new ways of thinking and to bring particular ideas or issues into focus. Michael (2012) describes them as “’inventive problem making’ in which the parameters of the issue are reconfigured” (p.536). In their canonical speculative design text, Dunne and Raby (2013) identify speculative design as a way to use futures as “a medium to aid imaginative thought… [to] loosen, even just a bit, reality’s grip on our imagination” (p.3). Enactments of speculative methods are found in critical design, speculative design, inventive method and design fiction, and across the social sciences and art and design disciplines. Speculative methods are often described as research methods, but they are equally suited to teaching contexts in a range of different disciplines, with recent published work highlighting their use in social anthropology, law, education and art. Plus there is some great work being done on speculative engagements in informal learning contexts like museum and galleries. 

I’m seeing a lot of richness and diversity in the literature around speculative approaches, and increasing interest in these. I think this is because their close couplings of provocation, engagement and inquiry are a good fit with the complex knowledge-production spaces of learning and education and the wicked problems we are facing. As George Veletsianos (2020) notes:

the current state of education, at all levels, is situated within a context of ever-evolving social, cultural, political, and technological shifts, [so] we face an urgent need to engage with uncertainty on multiple levels. The use of speculative methods, therefore, may enable us to offer guidance when making current decisions related to the future of higher education, and to explore what may or may not be possible in different contexts. (p.605)

Of the many excellent things I’ve been reading, I want to highlight four papers that have developed my previous work on speculative method in generative ways. 

Osborn, J.R., Barba, E., Henderson, G.E., Strong, L.M. and Kadish, L.H. (2019) ‘The Pilgrimage Project: Speculative design for engaged interdisciplinary education’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 18(4), pp. 349–371. Osborn et al (2019) describe their pedagogical approach to engaging with historical materials in a speculative manner as “retrofuturology”. They embarked on a year-long “experiment in interdisciplinary pedagogy” with a focus on Georgetown University’s Old North Building. The Pilgrimage project brought together students and teachers from six courses on topics including creative writing, media production and museum studies, and “applied the not-yetness of speculative method [to explore] how technological, artistic, and creative projects can inspire and maintain student engagement when directed toward a topic of shared concern” (p.351). Using approaches such as mediated collaboration (where student work from one course was used as prompts for another), students ultimately produced a public exhibition. 

Gallagher, M. and Breines, M. (2021) ‘Surfacing knowledge mobilities in higher education: reconfiguring the teacher function through automation’, Learning, Media and Technology, 46(1), pp. 78–90. 

and

Breines, M.R. and Gallagher, M. (2020) ‘A return to Teacherbot: rethinking the development of educational technology at the University of Edinburgh’, Teaching in Higher Education, 0(0), pp. 1–15. 

Working with university students, faculty and staff to investigate the notion of automation and the ‘teacher function’, this project used speculative co-design methods to understand perspectives of teachers, staff and students and to produce use cases for teacherbots at the University of Edinburgh.  The researchers facilitated prototype-building workshops which, combined with interview data (Gallagher and Breines, 2021), generated 85 discrete use-cases for instances of automation in a future university. The project developed a framework for evaluating teacherbot designs, moving away from efficiency as a core value, and criteria were the extent to which the designs were pedagogically generative, expressed university values, had potential to positively influencing the student and teaching experience, were ethical, were supportive of teacher professionalism, and were technologically feasible (Breines and Gallagher, 2020, p. 8). Examples of teacherbot designs produced through participatory design sessions included bots for helping students identify their knowledge of a subject before a course began, creating peer groupings based on sophisticated criteria, generating discussion, preparing students for tutorials, and collecting resources from students to help co-create knowledge (pp.9-10). 

Smythe, S., Pelan, D. and Breshears, S. (2018) ‘The LinkVan Project: Participatory Technology Design in Vancouver’, Language and Literacy, 20(3), pp. 9–25. The authors found speculative analysis essential to grapple with the “’wicked’ and entangled issues” (p.21) that emerged from their project examining a mobile van for supporting digital literacies amongst Vancouver, Canada’s low-income and homeless population. These issues included problems of scarcity, the slippage of digital inclusion to a more radical demand for more equitable digital landscapes, and the tensions between anonymity and relationality in providing community services. For them, the ‘not-yetness’ of the socio-technical landscape they were working in required reaching beyond the technological to a more experimental way of thinking about learning and resource sharing (p.22). 

Ehret, C. and Čiklovan, L. (2020) ‘How speculative designs produce new potentials for education research in digital culture’, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 41(5), pp. 708–722. doi:10.1080/01596306.2020.1774713. Ehret and Čiklovan (2020) built on a traditional multimodal discourse analysis of toxic digital discourse on the Twitch.tv livestreamed gaming platform to produce a ‘critical remix video’ to synthesise toxic content and then “repurpose[] and reconfigure[] those media in order to communicate messages that expose pernicious ideologies and behaviors”. They add to speculative methods in education a focus on emerging technocultures, arguing that pedagogical development should flow from “emerging experiences of digital, social life” (p.721). For them, speculative design experiments need to develop “new pedagogic potentials that themselves may inform social change through youths’ expanded and nuanced repertoire of digital practices in the future” (ibid).

From these authors, I’m taking some key points forward into development of a speculative framework for digital learning futures in the book. I’m really grateful to them for their work and for these great papers. 

  • The value of considering what kinds of futures are productive to speculate with (for example, Breines and Gallagher disentangled a particular form of ‘dumb’ automation from the wider AI futures discourse to explore how it could be used to engage teachers and students as designers).
  • A broad view of what ‘counts’ as education futures and how these are shaped by practices and technologies beyond formal settings – like gaming-related digital spaces.
  • The role of speculative methods in analysing complex issues around inclusion and relationality – and with tensions that arise through this complexity.
  • Ways of structuring and scaffolding speculative teaching methods – this is going to be an important part of the book, and seeing how other teachers and researchers have grappled with pedagogical dimensions of speculation (especially around interdisciplinarity and collaboration) is really valuable. 

References

Breines, M.R. and Gallagher, M. (2020) ‘A return to Teacherbot: rethinking the development of educational technology at the University of Edinburgh’, Teaching in Higher Education, 0(0), pp. 1–15.

Dunne, A. and Raby, F. (2013) Speculative everything: design, fiction, and social dreaming. Cambridge, Massachusetts; The MIT Press.

Ehret, C. and Čiklovan, L. (2020) ‘How speculative designs produce new potentials for education research in digital culture’, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 41(5), pp. 708–722.

Gallagher, M. and Breines, M. (2021) ‘Surfacing knowledge mobilities in higher education: reconfiguring the teacher function through automation’, Learning, Media and Technology, 46(1), pp. 78–90.

Michael, M. (2012) ‘“What Are We Busy Doing?” Engaging the Idiot’, Science, Technology & Human Values, 37(5), pp. 528–554.

Osborn, J.R. et al. (2019) ‘The Pilgrimage Project: Speculative design for engaged interdisciplinary education’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 18(4), pp. 349–371.

Ross, J. (2017) ‘Speculative method in digital education research’, Learning, Media and Technology, 42(2), pp. 214–229.

Ross, J. and Collier, A. (2016) ‘Complexity, mess, and not-yetness: Teaching online with emerging technologies’, Emergence and Innovation in Digital Learning: Foundations and Applications, pp. 17–33.

Veletsianos, G. (2020) ‘How should we respond to the life-altering crises that education is facing?’, Distance Education, 41(4), pp. 604–607. doi:10.1080/01587919.2020.1825066.

New publication – Speculating with glitches: keeping the future moving (Bodden & Ross 2020)

Response to the Teacherbot glitch in EDCMOOC – discussed in the new paper.

In June 2018, I attended a workshop at Lancaster University called “Staying with Speculation”. This wasn’t long after the publication of my paper on “speculative method in digital education research” (Learning, Media & Technology, 2017) and I was keen to think about next steps for the work. The workshop was organised by Luke Moffat and colleagues in sociology at Lancaster, and it was a really good event with lots of discussion and the development of ideas for a special issue on the same topic. At the workshop, I met Shawn Bodden, a doctoral researcher in Human Geography who also happened to be based at the University of Edinburgh. We have a few people in common but I doubt we would have met otherwise – and the meeting proved really fruitful. Over the following year we worked together on an idea that was sparked at the workshop – the role of the ‘glitch’ in producing speculative orientations to the future – and this week one outcome of that work is this new publication:

Bodden, S. and Ross, J. (2020, online first) Speculating with glitches: Keeping the future moving. Special issue, Staying with Speculation. Global Discourse

The paper explores the glitch as a generative problem which is capable of introducing unanticipated possibilities and futures into situations. We understand the glitch as a sociomaterial encounter rather than merely a technical error, and argue that it calls for (re)consideration of here-and-now possible futures through practices of response and repair. Exploring the ways that people seek to respond to glitches, we consider two case studies in which unexpected problems provoke those involved to speculate playfully and practically about new possibilities. In the first case, a malfunctioning ‘Teacherbot’ incites new challenges and pedagogical opportunities in an online learning environment. In the second, Hungarian activists creatively use infrastructural and political problems to make new spaces of protest and to press the government to respond to their concerns. Considering these empirical cases allows us to observe how playful and disruptive dispositions have worked to question the terms of possible futures in the real world, and to unsettle the seemingly given terms of power-relations. Glitches are not a panacea, but they can provide an impetus to act from within situations that are uncertain, and can therefore point to new trajectories and possible futures.

One of the cool things about this journal is that each article they publish is accompanied by a reply, so in addition to our paper, there is also a thought-provoking response from Joe Deville

Deville, J. (2020, online first) ‘A reply to Speculating with glitches: Keeping the future moving by Shawn Bodden and Jen Ross: Covid-19 as glitch: A provocation for speculative ethics?’, Global Discourse, (Special Issue: Staying with speculation).

In this reply, Deville ponders whether Covid-19 can be seen as a glitch – exploring its role as an interruption and the dangers of ‘blind optimism’ in relation to its possible effects. He concludes that:

COVID-19 as glitch is very unlikely, on its own, to prompt major shifts in our relationship to the world. But we can hope that it opens up new spaces for critical thought. 

Drawing on our discussion of the “temporalities of contemporary life that amplify the potential for glitching” (Deville 2020) to examine what Covid-19 is doing or might do as it breaks down infrastructures and makes them visible seems to offer something really generative to our thinking about the present moment and about speculation. So, I appreciated this reply a lot.

Co-authoring this paper and the discussions it has led to has been an extremely positive experience. At its best, working in a university offers these chance encounters with extremely smart and interesting people, and (occasionally) the time and space to try to make something new together. Thanks to Shawn, and to Malé Luján Escalante and Christine Mortimer (co-editors of the special issue), Luke Moffat, and all the participants at the 2018 workshop. Thanks also to the Coding the MOOC teacher research team – one case study from this paper came from the first outing of the Teacherbot in EDCMOOC!

Speculative Data Storytelling – a project about higher education & surveillance

Along with some fellow members of the Higher Education After Surveillance Network, Anna Wilson, Amy Collier and Martin Hawksey, as well as Jane McKie, I’ve just finished work on a small research project which aimed to facilitate the creation of short pieces of speculative fiction by people with an interest in the growing use of surveillance technologies in Higher Education.  

The Speculative Data Storytelling project‘s purpose was to facilitate stories that explored possible futures, in order to give expression to perhaps previously un-recognised hopes, concerns and fears.  

Initial work focused on the development of face-to-face co-design activities, but we shifted approach as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, revising our plans to create a remote method of generating data, enabling participants to engage in brief, asynchronous ways.

 Data Stories creator interface

Over the project period, we explored how speculative data stories can be scaffolded and created. Anna led on designing and testing a methodology to help participants create data stories. Working with Pat Lockley, we mapped this methodology onto a web based interface (in the form of a WordPress plugin, built by Pat). An iterative process of building, testing and refining led to a three-part data storytelling tool: prompts, mapping and writing. Prompts and mapping help users identify actors and explore possible interactions between them, while the writing section gives a space to write an anonymous multimedia story (text, images, video, tweets and GIFs are all possible elements of the story). The finished story can be saved, and also (optionally) submitted to be shared publicly on the data stories site.

Like a lot of things this year, this project did not go as planned, but I am really grateful to the team, the network, and all the people who participated in the testing phase, for being involved in creating something that I think is really worthwhile, and I hope will be of interest and use to others. Thanks, too, to the Edinburgh Futures Institute Research Awards for the funding that supported this project.

Book Launches – Manifesto for Teaching Online, MIT Press 2020

The book is a lovely object

The team behind the Manifesto for Teaching Online has just published a book! The book version (2020, MIT Press) was co-written by all the 2016 manifesto authors, and its purpose is to link the abbreviated, punchy statements of the manifesto to the large body of research and practice from which it emerges.

Online teaching has leapt from the margins to the mainstream in many universities around the world in 2020. It’s been good to find that the manifesto has held up, and I am really proud to have contributed to this in-depth exploration of how distance can be a positive principle, the way digital education reshapes subjects and practices, issues of distrust and surveillance, the recoding of education through automation and algorithms, and much more.

To launch the book, we are hosting three online events. The first is tomorrow (16 September), on the theme of ‘recoding’. The other two are ‘we are the campus’ (7 October) and ‘text has been troubled’ (15 October). All are free to attend. More details and signup information is here: https://www.de.ed.ac.uk/event/manifesto-teaching-online-launch-events