“Speculative method in digital education research” – my new (open access) article

'sliced' - Pekka Nikrus - https://www.flickr.com/photos/skrubu/2459852876/
‘sliced’ – Pekka Nikrus – https://www.flickr.com/photos/skrubu/2459852876/

I’m delighted to share my new journal article, which has just appeared online in Learning, Media and Technology. The article is available completely open access, so it’s free for everyone to download and share.

The article, titled ‘Speculative method in digital education research, explores the concept of ‘speculative’ (or ‘inventive’) methods, commonly found in art and design disciplines but also increasingly in the social sciences, and argues that digital education researchers need these kinds of approaches if we’re to engage critically and imaginatively with issues in our field. Such an approach, as Lury and Wakeford put it:

is explicitly oriented towards an investigation of the open-endedness of the social world. … the happening of the social world – its ongoingness, relationality, contingency and sensuousness. (Lury and Wakeford 2012, 2)

In the article I argue that the current educational research climate is at best ambivalent, if not actually hostile, to  open-endedness. Work with Amy Collier on our concept of ‘not-yetness’ (see Amy’s recent blog posts on ‘not-yetness and learnification‘ and ‘not-yetness and love‘ for more on her latest thinking about the concept; and stay tuned for our chapter in George Veletsianos’ edited collection, coming in May) was helpful here in framing future directions for digital education research:

in such a sphere of not-yetness, we must work with approaches to research which aim beyond determining ‘what works’, to engage in ‘intelligent problem solving’ (Biesta 2010) and ‘inventive problem-making’ (Michael 2012). These approaches can produce valuable insights and contribute to a flourishing ecosystem of knowledge practices that can respond flexibly to not-yetness. (p.1)

The article draws on three examples of speculative method, coming from work in the Centre for Research in Digital Education:

  • teacherbot – a project led by Sian Bayne which developed a twitter-bot for the E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC (EDCMOOC), to explore teacher automation.
  • artcasting – my current AHRC-funded project examining new approaches to evaluating learning and engagement in art galleries.
  • the tweeting book – Jeremy Knox’s RFID experiment to to problematise the emphasis in learning analytics on human activity and data.

Let me know what you think! And please do share the paper.

Speculative method in digital education research

Jen Ross, Digital Education, University of Edinburgh

The question of ‘what works’ is currently dominating educational research, often to the exclusion of other kinds of inquiries and without enough recognition of its limitations. At the same time, digital education practice, policy and research over-emphasises control, efficiency and enhancement, neglecting the ‘not-yetness’ of technologies and practices which are uncertain and risky. As a result, digital education researchers require many more kinds of questions, and methods, in order to engage appropriately with the rapidly shifting terrain of digital education, to aim beyond determining ‘what works’ and to participate in ‘intelligent problem solving’ [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): 491–503] and ‘inventive problem-making’ [Michael, M. 2012, “‘What Are We Busy Doing?’ Engaging the Idiot.” Science, Technology & Human Values37 (5): 528–554]. This paper introduces speculative methods as they are currently used in a range of social science and art and design disciplines, and argues for the relevance of these approaches to digital education. It synthesises critiques of education’s over-reliance on evidence-based research, and explores speculative methods in terms of epistemology, temporality and audience. Practice-based examples of the ‘teacherbot’, ‘artcasting’ and the ‘tweeting book’ illustrate speculative method in action, and highlight some of the tensions such approaches can generate, as well as their value and importance in the current educational research climate.


Ross, J (2016). Speculative method in digital education research. Learning, Media and Technology. Online First, Open Access. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17439884.2016.1160927

Manifesto for Teaching Online, rewritten for 2015

Online can be the privileged mode - image by James Lamb
Online can be the privileged mode – image by James Lamb


The Manifesto for Teaching Online is a series of short statements first written in 2011 by the Digital Education group at the University of Edinburgh. It was designed to articulate a position about online education that informs the work of the group and the MSc in Digital Education programme.  It was also intended to stimulate ideas about creative online teaching, and to reimagine some of the orthodoxies and unexamined truisms surrounding the field. Each point was deliberately interpretable, and it was made open so that others could remix and rewrite it. In 2015, we revisited and reassembled the manifesto ourselves. The new manifesto text can be found here:


I’m really looking forward to discussing and debating the new manifesto!

Introducing the artcasting project

The Artcasting projectartcastinglogo is a collaboration between Digital Education and Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Working together with the National Galleries of ScotlandTate, and the ARTIST ROOMS Research Partnership, the project team is developing a new digital and mobile form of evaluation of arts-based engagement, in the context of ARTIST ROOMS On Tour.

Along with developing and testing artcasting, the project will engage with the cultural heritage education community to share and generate ideas about evaluation, digital engagement and learning.

Funding for artcasting comes from the AHRC, and the project runs from May 2015-April 2016.

‘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.

– http://redpincushion.us/blog/teaching-and-learning/not-yetness/

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.


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: http://www.aupress.ca/index.php/books/120177 

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.

Digital Education at Edinburgh: Spotlight issue of Techtrends

In late 2013 the Digital Education group was invited to produce a spotlight issue of the journal TechTrends. This has just been published! You can find it here:


As Sian and I wrote in our editorial:

We were delighted to be invited to create a spotlight issue of TechTrends, bringing together research from the Digital Education research group at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. This group includes members involved in the online Masters in Digital Education programme, MOOC developments at the University of Edinburgh, including the E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC, authors of the Manifesto for Teaching Online, as well as our Children and Technology group, and Learning Analytics strand.

The group is diverse, and this diversity is reflected in the contents of this spotlight issue. From app design for children with autism, to how reflection is changing in information-dense environments, to students’ views of academic writing in the digital age, to patterns of participation in MOOCs, this spotlight issue is held together not by a single theme or a topic, but by a shared curiosity about what is happening to learning and education as more and more of our experiences are mediated by digital practices and technologies.

The other key thing that brings the articles in this issue together is this: the authors strongly believe that those of us who are immersed in and excited by the possibilities of technology and education are uniquely placed to ask critical questions about it. As knowledgeable insiders, we can and must examine our own and others’ practices, and challenge assumptions and oversimplifications about educational change in a digital age. These papers share this critical take, and aim to treat emerging technology trends as a generative site for asking big questions.

One key source of big questions isbig data’. In this issue, Hamish Macleod, Jeff Haywood, Amy Woodgate and Mubarak Alkhatnai examine some common assumptions made about MOOCs, and find these are not always backed up by participation data from the University of Edinburgh’s massive courses. Jeremy Knox experimented with sensors to explore the boundaries between the human and non-human in the production of data, with interesting implications for future directions for learning analytics. Dragan Gašević, with his co-authors Shane Dawson and George Siemens, challenge the educational usefulness of measurement and prediction of student outcomes through learning analytics, where these analytics are not well-grounded in educational theory and practice. And big data of a different kind – the digital artifacts we collect and learn with – is the focus of Tim Fawns’ exploration of how we engage with information online. He argues that the scale of these collections, and their importance in our lives, now require approaches which combine selectivity and digital creativity to make reflection central to our strategies for coping with information overload.

Another important dimension of learning and technology is how established practice and theory might be challenged and changed by the incursions of the digital. Philippa Sheail argues that the taken-for-granted concept of the ‘meeting’ undergoes some profound transformations when applied to different sorts of digital environments. Andrew Manches, Pauline Duncan, Lydia Plowman and Shari Sabeti take a close look at the development of children’s games to incorporate them into an emerging Internet of Things (IoT). They examine how children engage with IoT-enabled toys linked to the popular games Skylanders and Disney Infinity, and reflect on the ethical and practical implications of changing children’s relationships with everyday things. Peter Evans’ research into professional learning in social media environments shows how these technologies challenge concepts of autonomy and learner control usually thought of as central to personalisation.

Finally, what is still emerging hasn’t yet become routine and invisible, and so can be particularly useful in defamiliarising our world as educators. Once things become ‘black-boxed’ (ref), they disappear from view, and examining new educational technologies, concepts and practices can sometimes crack that box open, letting us make the familiar productively strange. Christine Sinclair takes student perspectives on academic writing as a starting point for exploring the changes which might be coming in scholarship and rethinking the idea of ‘dialogue’ for a digital context. Sue Fletcher-Watson provides an analysis of the development of mobile applications for children with autism, questioning traditional relationships between researchers and developers in the process. She proposes ways for academic researchers, families and consumers, and commercial developers to work together to ensure that both the evaluation and development of these emerging technologies make use of the best available evidence.

As we have engaged as editors with the papers in this spotlight issue, we have come to feel that the different topics, approaches and concerns of our colleagues accurately reflect the richness and diversity of the field of digital education itself. Psychology, cultural studies, literature, sociology and organisation studies are all in evidence as disciplinary perspectives here. We hope that you will find, as we have, that this bringing together of perspectives is invigorating and inspiring, and offers you some fresh insights into your own matters of concern.

‘Engaging with “webness” in online reflective writing practices’: New paper available open access until 1 December

My latest paper, just published in Computers & Composition, has been made available by the publishers on an open-access basis until 1 December 2014, using the link below.

Ross, J. (2014). Engaging with “webness” in online reflective writing practices. Computers and Composition, 34, 96-109. http://authors.elsevier.com/a/1PvdMV6mkzOlZu

The article argues that online reflective practices in higher education produce tensions around ownership, control, and safety. Reflective writing pedagogies, commonly grounded in a humanist philosophical tradition, often value coherence and authenticity. Writing online, however, opens students and teachers to the sorts of questions and uncertainties about subjectivity, ownership of data, privacy, and disclosure that characterize the online context. This is the case no matter how much teachers try to protect students or deny the “webness” of their reflective practices. The article draws on qualitative data from interviews with students and teachers in higher education in the United Kingdom. It argues that engaging with digital traces calls for a different approach to reflection, and proposes the “placeholder” as a way to privilege fragments, speed, and remixability in a reflective writing context.