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.

my Digital Futures for Learning book: what’s been happening

It’s now been eight months since the publication of my book, Digital Futures for Learning (Routledge, 2023), and I’m using this post to gather up a summary of what’s been happening, as well as a few resources and interesting discussions that have emerged.

Future of AI event at the Scottish Parliament, June 2023

I’ve had the chance to talk about the book and about speculative approaches to researching and teaching education futures with people in a number of settings, including:

A collection of workshop materials spotted in Brig, Switzerland, including a copy of the book!

I’ve been involved in writing projects that have drawn from the book, including work on data cultures, postdigital speculation, postdigital research and surveillance futures[1], and I’m co-editing a special issue of the International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, on the theme of “Higher Education Futures at the intersection of justice, hope, and educational technology”, with George Veletsianos, Shandell Houlden, Sakinah Alhadad and Camille Dickson-Deane (the call is still open, until the end of October). 

In the coming months I’ll be returning to Sweden to give a keynote at a follow-up workshop in Stockholm, attending the Irish Learnovation summit as a featured speaker, taking part in an ‘in conversation’ event with Professor Mike Michael during the National Centre for Research Methods e-festival, and in May 2024 I will have the honour of being a keynote speaker at the Networked Learning conference

I have learned so much from the conversations, questions and ideas that have been shared with me since the book launched, and from the ways that people continue to take up, use and develop the speculative approaches I discuss (both in the book and earlier work). Some of the work that is currently influencing my thinking about where to go next includes:

  • Ceratto-Pargman, Lindberg and Buch’s (2022) paper on futures-oriented methods in education. This is a really important piece of work that attempts to map the landscape of methods currently in use for education futures work. Ylva Lindberg makes connections to this paper in her review of my book in Postdigital Science in Education
  • Hrastinski’s paper on characteristics of education fiction; and Hrastinski and Jandric’s article about researchers as fiction writers
  • Henrietta Carbonel and her colleagues’ work at Unidistance in Switzerland, on using speculative approaches to support the redesign of teaching and learning – see for example this report on designing online assessment
  • Olofsdotter Bergström and Restrepo-Giraldo’s fascinating workshop paper on walking backwards as a way of speculatively engaging with complexity
  • Carey Jewitt and colleagues’ work on using speculative methods to explore sensory possibilities for interactive skin technologies.
  • Robinson’s exploration of assistive writing technology, using speculative critique to examine the resurgence of an “autonomous” model of literacy that was critiqued by New Literacy Studies but is now re-emerging in new forms.

Also, I have been greatly inspired by the speculative work of doctoral researchers I’m co-supervising, including Sharon BoydJoe Noteboom, John Morrison and Nicolás Ruiz. Students on my Culture, Heritage and Learning Futures course at the Edinburgh Futures Institute also use speculative methods to develop their “Stories from the Future”, and you can read some of the stories from 2022 here

Altogether, I’ve been really appreciative of the opportunities for discussion, debate and imagination the past eight months have brought, and I’m looking forward to the months ahead.

[1] Knox, J. and Ross, J (2023). Afterword. In Data Cultures in Higher Education: Emergent Practices and the Challenge Ahead. Eds: J. Raffaghelli & A. Sangrà. Springer.

Ross, J. (in press). Postdigital Speculation. Encyclopedia of Postdigital Science and Education. 

Fawns, T., Ross, J., Carbonel, H., Noteboom, J., Finnegan-Dehn, S. & Raver, M. (2023). Mapping and Tracing the Postdigital: Approaches and Parameters of Postdigital ResearchPostdigital Science and Education.

Ross, J. and Wilson, A. (in press). Reconfiguring surveillance futures for higher education using speculative data stories In Bonderup Dohn, N., Jaldemark, J., Öberg, L-M., Mozelius, P., Håkonsson Lindqvist, M., Ryberg, T. & de Laat, M. (eds.). Sustainable Networked Learning: Individual, Sociological and Design Perspectives.  Springer.

Wilson, A. and Ross, J. (in press). Surveillance imaginaries: learning from participatory speculative fiction. Surveillance and Society.


Cerratto Pargman, T., Lindberg, Y., & Buch, A. (2022). Automation Is Coming! Exploring Future(s)-Oriented Methods in Education. Postdigital Science and Educationhttps://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-022-00349-6

Hrastinski, S. (2023). Characteristics of Education Fiction. Postdigital Science and Educationhttps://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-023-00400-0

Hrastinski, S., & Jandrić, P. (2023). Imagining Education Futures: Researchers as Fiction Authors. Postdigital Science and Educationhttps://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-023-00403-x

Jewitt, C., Barker, N., & Golmohammadi, L. (2022). Creative Probes, Proxy Feelers, and Speculations on Interactive Skin. Multimodal Technologies and Interaction6(4), Article 4. https://doi.org/10.3390/mti6040022

Jewitt, C., Barker, N., & Golmohammadi, L. (2023). Feeling our way: Methodological explorations on researching touch through uncertainty. International Journal of Social Research Methodology0(0), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/13645579.2023.2173423

Lindberg, Y. (2023). Review of Jen Ross (2023). Digital Futures for Learning: Speculative Methods and Pedagogies. Postdigital Science and Educationhttps://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-023-00396-7

Olofsdotter Bergström, A., & Restrepo-Giraldo, J. (2023, June 12). Walking backwards as a radical practice for design. Nordes Conference Series. Nordes 2023: This Space Left Intentionally Blank. https://dl.designresearchsociety.org/nordes/nordes2023/researchpapers/32

Robinson, B. (2023). Speculative Propositions for Digital Writing Under the New Autonomous Model of Literacy. Postdigital Science and Education5(1), 117–135. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-022-00358-5

Call for papers: Higher Education Futures at the intersection of justice, hope, and educational technology

As part of a collaboration around education futures, a group of colleagues led by George Veletsianos are co-editing a special collection for the fully open access  International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education. The theme of the collection is “Higher Education Futures at the intersection of justice, hope, and educational technology”. The journal works with a rolling submission framework, so papers are reviewed and (potentially) published as they come in rather than all at once. This is interesting from an editorial point of view!

The final deadline for submissions for this collection is 31 October 2023, but please submit any time before then.

The collection invites prospective authors to turn towards reimagining the futures of education, and to contribute scholarship that speculates what higher education at the intersection of justice, hope, and educational technology could look like. Read all the details of the call on George’s blog.

For me, this way of tackling digital education futures – connecting justice and hope – is potentially really rich, because it suggests the complexity of exploring the idea of ‘responsibility to the future’ (Adam and Groves, 2007, Facer 2021). My recent work around speculative methods has shown me how tricky this is – I’ve tended to think about this in terms of the balance of play and responsbility, for example:

Insisting on responsibility is not to overstate our ability to predict, but instead to recognise that what we do and say about the future matters. Regardless of the complexity involved, teachers and researchers, students and participants can be part of producing new things in the world, including beliefs, practices and technologies (Urry, 2016). In addition, it has implications for how we understand caring… [reframing] care of the future to take account of open-endedness. (Ross 2023, p.50)

I’m really looking forward to seeing the range of different approaches and responses to this call.

Editors for the special collection:

George Veletsianos: Royal Roads University, Canada
Shandell Houlden: Royal Roads University, Canada
Jen Ross: University of Edinburgh, UK
Sakinah Alhadad: Griffith University, Australia
Camille Dickson-Deane: University of Technology Sydney, Australia


Adam, B. and Groves, C. (2007) Future Matters: Action, Knowledge, Ethics. Boston, the Netherlands: Brill.

Facer, K. (2021) Futures in education: Towards an ethical practice. UNESCO. Available at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000375792 .

Ross, J. (2023) Digital Futures for Learning: Speculative Methods and Pedagogies. Routledge.

Urry, J. (2016) What is the Future? John Wiley & Sons.

New Open Access Resource: Speculative Futures for Higher Education

Over the past six months or so, I’ve been working with my great colleagues Siân Bayne and Michael Gallagher on a new set of resources for working with higher education futures.

Speculative Futures for Higher Education includes 8 scenarios, 8 tarot cards and 8 short stories builds on the 2017–19 Near Future Teaching project, which used design-based methodologies to co-create
a vision for the future of digital education at the University of Edinburgh. Two short trend-mapping reviews were done as part of that project, and we returned to these reviews in 2022 to update them, identifying the 8 scenarios presented in this new resource.

Speculative Futures for Higher Education #3: the universal university.
Example of the higher education futures ‘tarot cards’ – “the universal university”

In addition to the 8 scenarios, the resource also includes 8 very short stories, written to evoke one form of the future proposed in each scenario.

The eight scenarios are:

  1. Extinction-era universities 
  2. AI academy
  3. The universal university
  4. Extreme unbundling
  5. Justice-driven innovation
  6. Return to the ivory tower
  7. The university of ennui
  8. Enhanced enhancement

All the materials and the scenario and story texts are available on the Centre web site, free to download and reuse with attribution.

Cover of the Higher Education Futures booklet
Bayne, Ross & Gallagher, 2022

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 the digital futures for learning book
Ross, Jen (2023). 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 2023, 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: