Category Archives: projects

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.

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.

Now open for applications: Funded studentship on the Ethical and Social Futures of Data-Driven Education

Following on from my last post, I’m happy to announce that the funded PhD studentship on the topic of “Ethical and Social Futures of Data-Driven Education” is now open for applications (closing date 15 May 2020). The studentship is co-supervised by Dr Karen Gregory and me, and so the successful candidate will be working at the intersections of digital sociology and digital education.

This is a really (really!) important time to be doing this work, and we hope there will be lots of interest in applying, even under the strange circumstances in which we all find ourselves. In addition to the project itself, the successful applicant will be part of the first cohort of the Edinburgh Futures Institute’s Baillie Gifford programme in the Ethics of Data and Artificial Intelligence. Have a look at the other four projects being advertised to get a sense of the interdisciplinary opportunities being part of that cohort will bring. Professor Shannon Vallor is leading the programme, and there are a lot of great plans being developed for the cohort.

Beyond that, you’d be part of the Digital Sociology research group, the Centre for Research in Digital Education, and have links with the international “Higher Education After Surveillance” network and a range of other organisations and researchers around the world doing important policy, development, pedagogical and scholarly work in this area.

Please contact Karen or me with any questions about the research.

“The university of data”: surveillance, futures and higher education

I thought it was time to summarise some of the work I’ve been doing with colleagues in and beyond Edinburgh on the topic of higher education and surveillance. I’ve touched on these issues in the context of my doctoral research (trying to understand how students viewed the ‘audience’ for their high-stakes reflection) and in relation to work around plagiarism detection, surveillance and trust (see the conference paper Hamish Macleod and I wrote, and the forthcoming book on the Manifesto for Teaching Online). In early 2019, Amy Collier and I began to put together an international network of people – so far mostly in the UK, US and Canada) to explore possible futures for surveillance in universities – we’ve called this network Higher Education After Surveillance, and it is full of truly brilliant people doing urgently needed work in this area.

Amy and I wrote a commentary for Postdigital Science and Education, explaining some of our thinking behind the idea of ‘after surveillance;’. We explain that when we say ‘after surveillance’ we are not looking back, but instead:

gesturing toward a future that involves a deeper understanding of the role surveillance has played and continues to play in universities and tactics and strategies for interrupting and perhaps reducing or reconfiguring its impacts. This requires a willingness to speculate that some of the surveillance roles we have come to accept could be otherwise, along with an acknowledgment that we are implicated in what Lyon terms ‘surveillance culture’ in education. What can we do with that knowledge, and what culture shifts can we collectively provoke?

Two new things have so far emerged from the network. One is a research project called Co-designing with Speculative Data Stories. This was funded by the Edinburgh Futures Institute Research Awards scheme, and the research team (me, Amy, Anna Wilson, Jane McKie and Martin Hawksey) proposed to run ‘speculative data stories’ workshops with groups of colleagues in UK universities whose roles involve supporting, promoting and working with learning technologies. With the current closure of campuses and intense pressures on those very colleagues to support their institutions to move considerable amounts of university work online, we have had to put this project on hold – but we are hoping to be able to reimagine it in some form, soon.

The second new thing – and the prompt to write this blog post today – is that Karen Gregory and I have been successful in securing one of five new funded PhD studentships on the theme of data ethics (Edinburgh Futures Institute/Baillie Gifford). These projects will be advertised in the next few weeks – ours is called The University of Data: Ethical and Social Futures of Data-Driven EducationI am very happy, as is Karen, to hear from anyone who might be interested in applying for this! More info to follow soon, in a separate blog post.


Collier, A. and Ross, J. (2020). Higher education after surveillance? Commentary, Postdigital Science and Education. Online First.

Ross, J. and Macleod, H. (2018). Surveillance, (dis)trust and teaching with plagiarism detection technology. Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Networked Learning 2018, Edited by: Bajić, M, Dohn, NB, de Laat, M, Jandrić, P & Ryberg, T. ISBN 978-1-86220-337-2.

image source: Unsplash. Photographer: Franki Chamaki.

Higher Education After Surveillance – a transatlantic project

I’ve meant to post about this for a while, but things have been hectic! Higher Education After Surveillance is a new project that my colleague Amy Collier (Middlebury College) and I dreamed up last year, in light of work we are each doing around issues of surveillance, trust, visibility, digital sanctuary and more, and as a way of trying to think big about some of the challenges we are currently facing. We enlisted the help of a small but mighty group of colleagues around the UK, US and Canada  to get involved, and we hosted a virtual roundtable in March as a way of beginning to scope what such a group might do.

We’re aiming to develop this project in a sustainable way – it isn’t funded (or not yet, anyway), and everyone involved is already incredibly busy – so that it can become something genuinely meaningful, critical and impactful. We also need to think carefully about the scope (geographical and otherwise) of this work. It’s all very exciting, and timely, if daunting – it seems there are new stories, questions and areas for attention emerging most days (this week in the UK it was the announcement of a collaboration involving JISC and the Office for Students, led by Northumbria University, to ‘lead transformation in how the Higher Education sector identifies mental health issues in students‘. It… has not gone over well).

If you are or know someone who needs to be involved in what we’re doing, please do get in touch.

‘Mobilising connections with art’ – a new open access journal article about the Artcasting project

Example of an artcast. Artwork: Self Portrait, 1975 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

My newest article has been published in the International Journal of Heritage Studies. Its focus is on interpreting data from the Artcasting project, a 2015-16 research project that was funded by the AHRC to understand how people’s connections with art can be visualised and used to enrich evaluation practice in museums and galleries. The article is open access and available now

Ross, J., Knox, J., Sowton, C. & Speed, C. (2018) Mobilising connections with art: Artcasting and the digital articulation of visitor engagement with cultural heritage. International Journal of Heritage Studies.

The article looks at how digital methods in cultural heritage settings can help evoke and illuminate the richness of visitor engagement and interpretation. Through the process of analysing the Artcasting data, we found it really useful to look for ways to make sense of difference in visitors’ responses to artworks. We did that in this article by conducting both a thematic analysis, and a more mobilities-informed analysis of the same dataset. We argue that:

The Artcasting project focused on supporting visitors to articulate their responses to artworks using a method that was provocative, performative, and attuned to the mobilities of interpretation, engagement and ownership. This mobility, and the sparking of expressions of ownership through the question of where and when an artwork belonged, created new articulations… The capture of these articulations constitutes a contribution and valuable step forward in our understanding of how heritage is performed at an individual level through the production of memory and messages; and at a collective level through the hypermobility of interpretation. (Ross et al 2018, p.17)

I’m pleased and proud to see this article in print – many thanks to my co-researchers and -authors Claire Sowton, Jeremy Knox and Chris Speed; and to our research partners from the ARTIST ROOMS programme at National Galleries of Scotland, Tate and the Bowes Museum.