“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. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s42438-019-00098-z

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.

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