Category Archives: research ideas

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.

surveillance, trust & technology: higher education futures

Several of the research and writing projects and discussions I’ve been involved with this year have directly or indirectly addressed issues of trust and surveillance, and this is an area of work I’m planning to develop further, along with a number of great colleagues.

In several talks this year, at Strathclyde in Glasgow; the University of Sydney; and the Networked Learning Conference in Zagreb, I’ve been drawing on our Manifesto for Teaching Online to develop my thinking about plagiarism detection and attendance monitoring – two routine processes which are becoming increasingly intensive and often invasive in most universities. For example, Hamish Macleod and I recently argued that

Logics of surveillance are strongly at work in practices which attempt to regulate student behaviour through the exposure of their writing to algorithmic scanning and monitoring. These logics frame students as in need of careful monitoring to ensure learning and teaching runs smoothly, and framing academic writing as a space of dishonesty which is both rampant and solvable through technology. Routines of plagiarism detection intervene negatively in one of the central facets of student-teacher relationships: the production and assessment of student work. Where these relationships become risk-averse and mutually suspicious, trust is blocked or lost and not easily regained. (Ross and Macleod 2018, 235)

We end that paper by arguing that we need to find “ways to re-sensitise ourselves and our students to the values we want to prioritise in our classrooms, and offering means by which students can voice their responses to surveillance cultures in higher education; and [address] issues at strategic levels within our institutions and the sector more widely by developing robust mechanisms for engaging in critical debate, discussion about and review of technology platforms and practices”. This second point echoes one of the key observations made by Laura Czerniewicz at her keynote address in Zagreb last month:

My talk in Zagreb (Hamish couldn’t make it, being retired and all!) generated quite a lot of interest, and it’s clear this is resonating with people from across a number of higher education contexts:

I’ve been involved in a number of intense discussions on these issues, during my seminars in Glasgow and Sydney, and with colleagues in the UK and North America (including Amy Collier and George Veletsianos). A highlight was a discussion with David Lyon and Sava Saheli Singh at Queen’s University in Canada last month. David’s latest work on surveillance culture is greatly informing my thinking. Colleagues closer to home are also doing fantastic work in related areas – Sian Bayne on anonymity; Jeremy Knox on learning analytics, Phil Sheail on data bodies in the library, Ben Williamson on monitoring in the school classroom.

The relationship of trust and technology in higher education is one that, in my view, requires a lot more attention.

It’s emerging as a key issue not only in the context of technologies of monitoring and surveillance, but in other more surprising places – like the current blockchain craze, which is generating new discussions about all sort of things…

…but perhaps less than it should about what kinds of models of trust (or trustlessness) we are inviting into the academy with these new technologies. Helen Murphy, one of the participants on my Digital Futures for Learning course this year, developed an excellent Open Educational Resource on this topic:

She says:

the blockchain is often described as ‘trustless’. We might think of what it means to be ‘trustless’ in two ways:
First, data.
The data in the blockchain is immutable and transparent, permanent and unalterable. Data in the blockchain is added by consensus, and because it is distributed there is no single copy of the data. In theory, it can be accessed by anyone. So it is trustless in the sense that no trust is required: it can be taken for granted that the data is accurate and permanent.
​Second, decentralisation.
With the blockchain, there is no need for a centralised authority (such as a bank or university) to verify transactions. Instead all of this verification can be done independently, by the technology and the mechanisms by which it works. So it is trustless because it does not require any trust in these third-party institutions.

(Murphy 2018)

I’m doing some work with colleagues in Digital Education and Information Services on exploring the potential and issues around blockcert technology, and these questions of trust and trustlessness are figuring strongly.

So, look out for more writing on this from me and others in the near future!

One of the most important things, I think, is beginning to speculate and design futures for higher education that are ‘beyond surveillance’. Importantly (and thanks to Peter Goodyear in Sydney for highlighting how important this point is), this doesn’t mean alternatives that require us to return to imagined better analog times  – instead, we need to develop trusting digital futures and approach our technologies critically and creatively to help us do so.  I, and others, will be working on this over the next year – get in touch if you want to discuss!


Lyon, D. 2018. The Culture of Surveillance: Watching as a Way of Life. Polity Press.

Murphy, H. 2018. Education and the Blockchain.

Ross, J. and Macleod, H. 2018. Surveillance, (dis)trust and teaching with plagiarism detection technology. Proceedsing of Networked Learning 2018, Zagreb.

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.

‘Not-yetness’ – research and teaching at the edges of digital education

Last spring,  Amy Collier and I gave a talk at the Emerging Technologies for Online Learning conference in Dallas, called ‘Mess in Online Education‘. We were delighted to then be invited by George Veletsianos to contribute a chapter on a related theme to the second edition of his ‘Emerging Technologies in Distance Education’ edited collection, currently in press (due late 2015)In the first edition, George defined emerging technologies as being, amongst other things, ‘not yet fully understood’ and ‘not yet fully researched, or researched in a mature way’ (Veletsianos 2010, p.15). In writing our chapter, Amy & I landed on the idea of ‘not-yetness’, and this has turned out to be a fantastically useful and generative concept for us.

Amy Collier & Jen Ross
Amy and Jen want YOU to think about not-yetness

Our chapter focuses on not-yetness as it relates to complexity and mess in teaching online:

digital practices contribute to the fruitful mess that characterises education, casting new light on issues of power, responsibility, sustainability, reach and contact. …a key element of emerging technology is its not-yetness: there is so much we do not know when we engage with these technologies. We must therefore choose to dwell as teachers in [a] state of radical and enduring uncertainty …We need practices that acknowledge and work with complexity to help us stay open to what may be genuinely surprising about what happens when online learning and teaching meets emerging technologies. (Collier & Ross, in press)

We’ve since separately been talking about not-yetness at conferences and events, and for each of us the concept has begun to send out new roots and shoots. Amy blogged eloquently about her take a few days ago:

Not-yetness is not satisfying every condition, not fully understanding something, not check-listing everything, not tidying everything, not trying to solve every problem…but creating space for emergence to take us to new and unpredictable places, to help us better understand the problems we are trying to solve.


She describes ‘the play, the fun, the opportunity in complexity and not-yetness’, and argues that ‘the ill-defined, the un-prescribed, the messy can lead to the unexpected, the joyful’.

Not-yetness has become an important part of my thinking this year about digital education practice and research. As I’ve moved towards the end of my time as programme director of the MSc in Digital Education, I’ve been inspired by the idea of the ‘edges’ of digital education: where I think we need to stay to make sure that what we do remains distinctive and relevant as the educational ground continually shifts. At our MSc away day last year, we grappled with the edges of digital education in a team session which went on to generate the Online Professional Learning Incubator, a ‘micro credits’ course called Open Themes in Digital Education which is currently working its way through the university approval process, and new collaborations and projects on playful analytics and MOOC reuse. These edges require not-yetness, and the openness to uncertainty and surprise it brings.

Then I was invited to give a plenary talk at a seminar in Limerick, Ireland called ‘Building an evidence base for enhanced digital pedagogy for online learning‘, and in thinking about evidence-based practice and the nature of evidence more generally, I found not-yetness a useful critical tool for considering what happens at the edges of digital education research.

I’m exploring that further in an in-progress journal article about how we can do research that helps us engage in ‘intelligent problem solving’ (Biesta 2010) and ‘inventive problem-making’ (Michael 2012) in digital education, where we have a particular need for methodological approaches that can grapple with not-yetness. One such set of approaches is known as ‘speculative design’, ‘speculative method’, or ‘design fictions’. These approaches are aimed at envisioning or crafting particular futures or conditions which may not yet currently exist, to provoke new ways of thinking and to bring certain ideas or issues into focus. Wilkie, Michael and Plummer-Fernandez (2014) describe a speculative method involving the creation of a series of ‘Twitter-bots’ to participate in exchanges about environmental issues, and they characterise these bots as:

methodological interventions that are overtly constitutive of the material that is gathered, but in ways that are open, ambiguous or troublesome. In triggering such responses, the aim is to access new and emergent formulations of the ‘issues at stake’… (p.2)

This is, I think, a lovely way of understanding not-yetness. And in fact my own experience with twitterbots this year (the EDCMOOC teacherbot, generated from a project led by Siân Bayne) echoes this concern with new ways of formulating ‘issues at stake’, in this case the nature and role of the digital teacher.

Now I’m about to put not-yetness into practice in a different context, as May sees the start of a new research project (Artcasting, funded by the AHRC and working with the ARTIST ROOMS research partnership partners, including National Galleries of Scotland and Tate) that will use mobilities theories and speculative design approaches to examine and help to rethink how gallery educators can evaluate visitors’ engagement with art.

I look forward to seeing how not-yetness keeps evolving in light of the experiences we’re having and feedback we’re receiving as we discuss and work with this concept.


‘Not-yetness’ – research and teaching at the edges of digital education曾曉韻/posts/5tdUwdjCzRM#storify/13e6e57e55f446722bbe75b106194ceb

Some older things…

Other ‘notyetness’ unrelated to ours!


Biesta, G.J.J., 2010. Why “What Works” Still Won’t Work: From Evidence-Based Education to Value-Based Education. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 29(5), pp.491–503.

Collier, A. & Ross, J., in press. Complexity, mess and not-yetness: teaching online with emerging technologies. In G. Veletsianos, ed. Emerging Technologies in Distance Education, 2nd edition. Athabasca University Press.

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

Veletsianos, G., 2010. Emerging Technologies in Distance Education, Athabasca University Press. Available at: 

Wilkie, A., Michael, M. & Plummer-Fernandez, M., 2014. Speculative method and Twitter: Bots, energy and three conceptual characters. The Sociological Review, 63(1), pp.79-101.

MOOCs, peer marking and reputation – a placeholder post

I’m hastily blogging this ‘placeholder’ idea before I forget about it in the whirlwind that is #et4online.

The EDCMOOC teaching team has been discussing how to make the peer assessment process better. One thing we know we want is for people to be able to give feedback on the feedback they receive from peer markers.

At the same time I’ve been reading Accelerando (Charles Stross) – part of the premise of that book is a future society based on economics of reputation (Cory Doctorow writes about this as well in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom – and maybe others that I can’t remember at the moment).

So, the bare bones of the idea as it sits at the moment is to:

a) let people gain reputation throughout the MOOC, and display this next to feedback they provide on peer assignments, so that those receiving the feedback would have one way of ‘reading’ that feedback.

b) give people with high reputation scores the ability to vet/filter/’assess’ peer feedback before it is delivered – perhaps returning comments to the feedback provider, or even asking them to expand, or rephrase…

Challenges I can think of immediately include:

– how can all the activity of the MOOC (which for us includes a lot of social media, blogging, twitter activity) contribute to a reputation score?

– how can a reputation score be meaningful in learning terms? Could people gain reputation on a number of metrics (constructive; challenging; insightful; knowledgeable)? Need to find out more about different approaches to this…

Amy Collier (sitting at the table across from me at this moment!) tells me that Venturelabs is working with reputation in their group-based MOOC platform, so there is a basis for this in MOOC developments.

Ideas or comments very welcome…