Category Archives: events

speculative futures, generative AI

by Khyati Trehan, from Google DeepMind on unsplash

With my Centre for Research in Digital Education colleagues Judy Robertson and Cara Wilson, a new, interdisciplinary and cross-Centre programme of research is under way. We are leading two projects this year that are investigating futures for generative AI in schools.

The first, led byJudy and also involving co-leads from the University of East Anglia, Esther Priyadharshini and Harry Dyer, is part of the BRAID (Bridging Responsible AI Divides) programme, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Our project is aimed at understanding how responsible AI principles of explainability, privacy and fairness might be understood by young people as part of possible futures for generative AI in secondary education. We’ll be drawing on the team’s previous work on AI literacies, participatory speculative design, digital sociology, critical education futures work, and speculative approaches in digital education, to develop and run speculative and participatory workshops with young people, create learning resources (including in an exciting partnership with Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh) and develop materials that will inform and inspire educators and policymakers about how young people want to see education unfold in a future that may include a lot more AI technologies.

The second, which I’m leading, will build on the work of Judy, Cara and me, and the BRAID project, to further explore AI futures for Scottish education. This is an ESRC Impact Accelerator grant, and will run from April. Our partner for the project (and also involved in BRAID) is Goodison Group in Scotland (GGiS), a futures-focused charity that provides a forum for educators, policymakers, businesses and the third sector to share thinking about education and learning throughout life. We’ll be working closely with GGiS to ensure that the work of both of these projects reaches as wide an audience and engages as many people as possible.

I’m excited about developing speculative approaches in this setting and with these colleagues. I have been involved in and written about previous speculative work on automation in education, which provides a really good foundation here. I’ve also been speaking and sharing insights about AI futures over the past year, at the Scottish Parliament, Scottish Policy Conference, and Learning for Sustainability Scotland, with a forthcoming talk at the NHS Education Scotland conference, and an ‘in conversation’ session with Dr Wayne Holmes about the ethics and use of AI in social science research, for the National Centre for Research Methods (NRCM).

There is so much AI activity going on in education right now, as in many other sectors, and there is a risk of overstating the importance of particular technologies or allowing techno-determinist thinking to swamp other conversations that are needed. Thankfully there is also a strong strand of critical approaches to AI in Education.

Our projects are aiming to be critically creative – to experiment, explore, and imagine a range of futures with and beyond generative AI, while asking a lot of questions and keeping a focus on the ethical risks and the harms that may come if the responsible AI divide between theory and practice can’t be sufficiently bridged.

Doing speculative method – some thoughts after the Networked Learning conference

I was really happy to spend the first part of the week at the online Networked Learning conference – this is one of my favourite research conferences, and it was a really good few days.

George Veletsianos and I facilitated a session on speculative methods in networked learning – building on work each of us have been doing in this area over the past few years. A few people asked for some insights into how to design speculative methods into a research project. I wrote a textbook chapter a few years ago on this topic, and I thought I’d summarise what I see as the key ‘ingredients’ of a speculative project (in digital education.)

First, it’s important to say that there are many ways to enact speculative or inventive method – and some are explicitly theoretical in nature (see Lury and Wakeford’s 2012 collection on Inventive Methods for examples of this). I am focusing here on more applied approaches, and specifically those that can be used to think about the future of education and educational technology. These are not methods that can be implemented by following a straightforward recipe; they have to be designed in relationship to the question they are seeking to illuminate or the topic they seek to develop new questions around (see Ross 2017 for more on this). However, there are some ingredients which are likely to be significant:

  1. A speculative question. What will it mean to teach or learn with an automated process like a ‘bot’? What learning does learning analytics not capture (Knox, 2014)? How can communities be stimulated to reimagine or reframe their understanding of energy demand reduction (Wilkie et al., 2015)? These examples of questions that have been addressed through speculative method have in common a flexible orientation to a situation which is either on the horizon or missing from current thinking around a topic or practice. Speculative questions may often focus on the future, but a focus on the future is never only about the future – it is also about articulating what is currently valued by particular people or communities or in particular settings, and what may be absent or unspoken in privileging those values.
  2. An ‘object to think with’ (Turkle, 1997). The researcher developing a speculative method must create something with which participants or respondents can engage – an ‘object to think with’. This could be a scenario or set of scenarios, a technology like an app, a design prototype, a narrative or a combination of these. The object should be designed to provoke responses that will illuminate the topic of the research, to help construct the horizons or become aware of the absences that the questions of the research are aimed at addressing. A pragmatic consideration is whether the project will require specialist skills to accomplish it, and how the researcher might access the resources they will need. Taking the making requirements of your method into consideration early on will help you ensure you can address your question.
  3. An audience to engage with. It is possible to make the object itself the focus of the research, without a strong focus on participant response and reaction. More commonly, however, the object, which might in its own right take considerable time to design and create, is put into a context in which it can be used, or can serve as a provocation, irritation or invitation. This context might be online, offline, or a combination of the two. The speculative object and its design, along with the responses to it, form the data from this method, so the identities and expectations of participants or respondents need to be carefully considered, along with the ethics of the approach to the object. 
  4. A way to capture and analyse design decisions and responses to the object. In some cases the responses to the speculative object can be integrated into the object itself – as in the case of an app that gathers data, or a twitter stream involving a bot. In other cases, responses need to be captured for analysis via other approaches – for example, making a video or audio recording of a workshop; asking participants to keep a written or photo diary of their interactions with the object; or conducting interviews or surveys. Analysis of speculative method should analyse both the object and the responses it generates. Decisions about how the object has been designed should be captured so that the object and the considerations informing it can be understood and shared. It may be helpful to consider the speculative object as both an instrument and an outcome, and keep notes about the design process accordingly.

Speculative method can be a powerful approach to generating and examining new perspectives and questions, and to helping understand and shape complex topics, especially those that deal with the future. For researchers aiming to understand emerging ideas or technologies, the ability to work with uncertainty is a key benefit of such an approach. It requires, however, a willingness to take risks with the design and implementation of a research project – moving away from approaches which are well-established with clear protocols. Nevertheless, I think it’s an approach that can be carefully designed, and well-justified in terms of both quality and rigour – and I’m excited to see more such research emerging in our field.

adapted from Ross, J (2018). Speculative Method as an Approach to Researching Emerging Educational Issues and Technologies. In L Hamilton and J Ravenscroft (eds) Building Research Design in Education. London: Bloomsbury.


Knox, J. (2014) ‘The “Tweeting Book” and the question of “non-human data”’, TechTrends, 59(1), pp. 72–75. doi: 10.1007/s11528-014-0823-9.

Lury, C. and Wakeford, N. (2012) Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social. London: Routledge.

Ross, J. (2017) ‘Speculative method in digital education research’, Learning, Media and Technology, 42(2), pp. 214–229. doi: 10.1080/17439884.2016.1160927.

Turkle, S. (1997) ‘Computational technologies and images of the self’, Social Research, pp. 1093–1111.

Wilkie, A., Michael, M. and Plummer-Fernandez, M. (2015) ‘Speculative method and Twitter: Bots, energy and three conceptual characters’, The Sociological Review, 63(1), pp. 79–101. doi: 10.1111/1467-954X.12168.

digital cultural heritage research update

One of the four main strands of research I pursue  is about digital cultural heritage engagement and learning, and lots has been happening!

In London for the Critical Heritage Futures conference.

The Artcasting project continues to generate great speaking, writing and conversation opportunities – most recently at the AHRC and Association of Critical Heritage Studies’ Critical Approaches and New Directions conference in London in early October. My colleague Michael Gallagher and I gave a talk about mobilities, mobile technologies and heritage futures. Particular highlights for me from the event were Chris Whitehead‘s keynote, and Hayden Lorimer’s fascinating overview of work at St Peter’s Seminary at Kilmahew. It was also fantastic to see so many of the people I first met last year at the ACHS conference in Montreal, and to hear that Liz Stainforth is going to be spending a few months in Edinburgh as an IASH fellow at the start of next year.

Also re Artcasting, I’ve just finished and submitted a paper about hospitality and digital co-production; and the team recently reconvened with a number of others who have helped us a lot in thinking about Artcasting futures, to talk about a whole bunch of fascinating issues still to be explored. There is a summary of these on the Artcasting site blog.

Beyond Artcasting and its ripples, London also allowed a bit of time for Koula Charitonos and I to talk through some ideas – including to propose a symposium for next year’s ICLS conference on museum visitor experiences in the digital age. We hope this will be able to come together!

Here in Edinburgh, the new academic year has brought a number of new members to the Digital Cultural Heritage Research Network – not least our new chair of digital cultural heritage, Melissa Terras, who joined the University of Edinburgh this week. We’ve already tempted her to get involved with a couple of projects in development – it’s going to be great to have her here. Sian, Chris, James, Kirsty, Melissa and I hope to organise a few DCHRN events in the new year.

Serendipitously, I’ve got the opportunity to supervise not one but two masters students this year who are exploring aspects of 3d printing, scanning and visualisation in cultural heritage contexts – I look forward to learning lots from both of them about this topic.

Last but not least, I’ll be in Manchester for the Researching Digital Cultural Heritage conference on 30 November-1 December (sadly only for the second day) – the programme looks amazing.

Activist arts and youth inequalities workshop, 7 June 2017

I’m spending the day with a fantastic group of artists, youth organisation representatives, researchers and arts experts for a workshop at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, aiming to collaboratively explore and develop ideas for a project to explore the potential of contemporary art to raise awareness, provoke thought and motivate change in relation to youth inequalities. I’ll post some notes and other materials later, but we’ll be using the hashtag #artineq.

The other organisers of the event are Marlies Kustatscher and Alan Brown.

My time in the Scottish Parliament

This year I was delighted to have been appointed a Scottish Parliament Fellow by the Beltane Public Engagement Network. This meant I got to spend a day a week in the Scottish Parliament over a roughly six-month period.

I really can’t say enough good things about my experience as a Fellow, working closely with Donald Jarvie and Scotland’s Futures Forum. My understanding of public engagement, the policy sphere in Scotland, and the value of networking and collaborating beyond academia has been deepened, and it’s really had a big impact on how I think about my identity and priorities as an academic.

My Fellowship focused on online and distance learning in Scotland, and looked in particular at issues around Massive Online Open Courses. I briefed Parliament colleagues about MOOCs, co-ordinated resources and activities to get them to explore these courses by signing up for one in early 2014, and worked with the Forum and the Learning and Leadership team to embed MOOCs as part of the professional development infrastructure of the Parliament. The MOOC strand culminated in a workshop in April 2014, bringing together groups of non-academic experts in four topic areas, including wellbeing and community energy, along with MOOC experts from the University of Edinburgh, to discuss the potential for creating MOOCs for public engagement and knowledge exchange. These teams are now taking their ideas forward, with further input from me.

MOOC scoping workshop, 7 May 2014, Scottish Parliament


Two other strands of activity emerged during the Fellowship. The first involved discussions with the Shetland Learning Partnership, when Scotland’s Futures Forum was asked to help plan scenarios for secondary, further, higher and adult education in Shetland.

One of the sights of Shetland - in the taxi, stopped at the runway's level crossing to wait for a plane to take off!
One of the sights of Shetland – in the taxi, stopped at the runway’s level crossing to wait for a plane to take off!


The second was a collaboration with the Forum to host a ‘Creative Futures for Scotland’ roundtable event exploring how the growing popularity of individual and collaborative creativity (for example, crafting, 3D printing and web coding) could impact on learning, innovation and wellbeing in Scotland.

making coding crafting
My question about Scotland’s creative futures.


All three areas of work are continuing beyond the end of the Fellowship. I greatly appreciate the support I’ve received from Beltane, Scotland’s Futures Forum and the University of Edinburgh.

Networked Learning & Emerging Technologies for Online Learning – an eventful week

Next week I’m fortunate to be involved with two digital education conferences, and wanted to post about them both, because they’re both very dear to me.

From Monday 7th, my colleagues and I are proud to be the local hosts of the Networked Learning conference in Edinburgh. This is, in my opinion, the best conference for hearing about new approaches to networked/digital/online education theory. This year the keynotes (from Neil Selwyn and Steve Fuller), symposia, and papers look outstanding. I’m missing my own symposium on Wednesday, on ‘the spaces of networked learning‘ which is upsetting, because it’s going to be amazing. But Phil Sheail, my paper co-author, is planning an excellent short talk based on our paper: Disrupting the illusion of sameness: the importance of making place visible in online learning.

The reason I’m missing it is because I’m heading to Dallas, USA, for my third year of Sloan-C’s Emerging Technologies for Online Learning. I have this conference to thank for introducing me to some wonderful collaborators, including Amy Collier, with whom I’m giving a plenary talk on Friday morning: Mess in Online Education – How it is, how it should be. I’m also getting the opportunity to think about my career (!), as I join a panel discussion about ‘the role of faculty and professors in educational technology’.

So – an eventful week, the end of which will find me with my dear sister, the other Dr Ross, exploring the sights of DC. I’m promised cherry blossoms.

If we’re overlapping next week in Edinburgh or Dallas, I look forward to seeing you!