The landscape of speculative methods in digital education

Ransom Canyon Steel House
Robert Bruno’s steel house at Ransom Canyon, Texas in Yellow House Canyon.

I’m in the process of writing a book about speculative methods and pedagogies (due from Routledge in 2022). As part of the writing process I’ve been enjoying engaging with recent literature that builds on ideas I wrote about in my 2017 paper on speculative method in digital education research (Ross, 2017). This post is a little taster of the diverse contexts of use of speculation and not-yetness (Ross and Collier, 2016), and how these concepts are being developed by others.

Speculative methods for research and teaching are aimed at envisioning or crafting futures or conditions which may not yet currently exist, to provoke new ways of thinking and to bring particular ideas or issues into focus. Michael (2012) describes them as “’inventive problem making’ in which the parameters of the issue are reconfigured” (p.536). In their canonical speculative design text, Dunne and Raby (2013) identify speculative design as a way to use futures as “a medium to aid imaginative thought… [to] loosen, even just a bit, reality’s grip on our imagination” (p.3). Enactments of speculative methods are found in critical design, speculative design, inventive method and design fiction, and across the social sciences and art and design disciplines. Speculative methods are often described as research methods, but they are equally suited to teaching contexts in a range of different disciplines, with recent published work highlighting their use in social anthropology, law, education and art. Plus there is some great work being done on speculative engagements in informal learning contexts like museum and galleries. 

I’m seeing a lot of richness and diversity in the literature around speculative approaches, and increasing interest in these. I think this is because their close couplings of provocation, engagement and inquiry are a good fit with the complex knowledge-production spaces of learning and education and the wicked problems we are facing. As George Veletsianos (2020) notes:

the current state of education, at all levels, is situated within a context of ever-evolving social, cultural, political, and technological shifts, [so] we face an urgent need to engage with uncertainty on multiple levels. The use of speculative methods, therefore, may enable us to offer guidance when making current decisions related to the future of higher education, and to explore what may or may not be possible in different contexts. (p.605)

Of the many excellent things I’ve been reading, I want to highlight four papers that have developed my previous work on speculative method in generative ways. 

Osborn, J.R., Barba, E., Henderson, G.E., Strong, L.M. and Kadish, L.H. (2019) ‘The Pilgrimage Project: Speculative design for engaged interdisciplinary education’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 18(4), pp. 349–371. Osborn et al (2019) describe their pedagogical approach to engaging with historical materials in a speculative manner as “retrofuturology”. They embarked on a year-long “experiment in interdisciplinary pedagogy” with a focus on Georgetown University’s Old North Building. The Pilgrimage project brought together students and teachers from six courses on topics including creative writing, media production and museum studies, and “applied the not-yetness of speculative method [to explore] how technological, artistic, and creative projects can inspire and maintain student engagement when directed toward a topic of shared concern” (p.351). Using approaches such as mediated collaboration (where student work from one course was used as prompts for another), students ultimately produced a public exhibition. 

Gallagher, M. and Breines, M. (2021) ‘Surfacing knowledge mobilities in higher education: reconfiguring the teacher function through automation’, Learning, Media and Technology, 46(1), pp. 78–90. 


Breines, M.R. and Gallagher, M. (2020) ‘A return to Teacherbot: rethinking the development of educational technology at the University of Edinburgh’, Teaching in Higher Education, 0(0), pp. 1–15. 

Working with university students, faculty and staff to investigate the notion of automation and the ‘teacher function’, this project used speculative co-design methods to understand perspectives of teachers, staff and students and to produce use cases for teacherbots at the University of Edinburgh.  The researchers facilitated prototype-building workshops which, combined with interview data (Gallagher and Breines, 2021), generated 85 discrete use-cases for instances of automation in a future university. The project developed a framework for evaluating teacherbot designs, moving away from efficiency as a core value, and criteria were the extent to which the designs were pedagogically generative, expressed university values, had potential to positively influencing the student and teaching experience, were ethical, were supportive of teacher professionalism, and were technologically feasible (Breines and Gallagher, 2020, p. 8). Examples of teacherbot designs produced through participatory design sessions included bots for helping students identify their knowledge of a subject before a course began, creating peer groupings based on sophisticated criteria, generating discussion, preparing students for tutorials, and collecting resources from students to help co-create knowledge (pp.9-10). 

Smythe, S., Pelan, D. and Breshears, S. (2018) ‘The LinkVan Project: Participatory Technology Design in Vancouver’, Language and Literacy, 20(3), pp. 9–25. The authors found speculative analysis essential to grapple with the “’wicked’ and entangled issues” (p.21) that emerged from their project examining a mobile van for supporting digital literacies amongst Vancouver, Canada’s low-income and homeless population. These issues included problems of scarcity, the slippage of digital inclusion to a more radical demand for more equitable digital landscapes, and the tensions between anonymity and relationality in providing community services. For them, the ‘not-yetness’ of the socio-technical landscape they were working in required reaching beyond the technological to a more experimental way of thinking about learning and resource sharing (p.22). 

Ehret, C. and Čiklovan, L. (2020) ‘How speculative designs produce new potentials for education research in digital culture’, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 41(5), pp. 708–722. doi:10.1080/01596306.2020.1774713. Ehret and Čiklovan (2020) built on a traditional multimodal discourse analysis of toxic digital discourse on the livestreamed gaming platform to produce a ‘critical remix video’ to synthesise toxic content and then “repurpose[] and reconfigure[] those media in order to communicate messages that expose pernicious ideologies and behaviors”. They add to speculative methods in education a focus on emerging technocultures, arguing that pedagogical development should flow from “emerging experiences of digital, social life” (p.721). For them, speculative design experiments need to develop “new pedagogic potentials that themselves may inform social change through youths’ expanded and nuanced repertoire of digital practices in the future” (ibid).

From these authors, I’m taking some key points forward into development of a speculative framework for digital learning futures in the book. I’m really grateful to them for their work and for these great papers. 

  • The value of considering what kinds of futures are productive to speculate with (for example, Breines and Gallagher disentangled a particular form of ‘dumb’ automation from the wider AI futures discourse to explore how it could be used to engage teachers and students as designers).
  • A broad view of what ‘counts’ as education futures and how these are shaped by practices and technologies beyond formal settings – like gaming-related digital spaces.
  • The role of speculative methods in analysing complex issues around inclusion and relationality – and with tensions that arise through this complexity.
  • Ways of structuring and scaffolding speculative teaching methods – this is going to be an important part of the book, and seeing how other teachers and researchers have grappled with pedagogical dimensions of speculation (especially around interdisciplinarity and collaboration) is really valuable. 


Breines, M.R. and Gallagher, M. (2020) ‘A return to Teacherbot: rethinking the development of educational technology at the University of Edinburgh’, Teaching in Higher Education, 0(0), pp. 1–15.

Dunne, A. and Raby, F. (2013) Speculative everything: design, fiction, and social dreaming. Cambridge, Massachusetts; The MIT Press.

Ehret, C. and Čiklovan, L. (2020) ‘How speculative designs produce new potentials for education research in digital culture’, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 41(5), pp. 708–722.

Gallagher, M. and Breines, M. (2021) ‘Surfacing knowledge mobilities in higher education: reconfiguring the teacher function through automation’, Learning, Media and Technology, 46(1), pp. 78–90.

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

Osborn, J.R. et al. (2019) ‘The Pilgrimage Project: Speculative design for engaged interdisciplinary education’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 18(4), pp. 349–371.

Ross, J. (2017) ‘Speculative method in digital education research’, Learning, Media and Technology, 42(2), pp. 214–229.

Ross, J. and Collier, A. (2016) ‘Complexity, mess, and not-yetness: Teaching online with emerging technologies’, Emergence and Innovation in Digital Learning: Foundations and Applications, pp. 17–33.

Veletsianos, G. (2020) ‘How should we respond to the life-altering crises that education is facing?’, Distance Education, 41(4), pp. 604–607. doi:10.1080/01587919.2020.1825066.

New publication – Speculating with glitches: keeping the future moving (Bodden & Ross 2020)

Response to the Teacherbot glitch in EDCMOOC – discussed in the new paper.

In June 2018, I attended a workshop at Lancaster University called “Staying with Speculation”. This wasn’t long after the publication of my paper on “speculative method in digital education research” (Learning, Media & Technology, 2017) and I was keen to think about next steps for the work. The workshop was organised by Luke Moffat and colleagues in sociology at Lancaster, and it was a really good event with lots of discussion and the development of ideas for a special issue on the same topic. At the workshop, I met Shawn Bodden, a doctoral researcher in Human Geography who also happened to be based at the University of Edinburgh. We have a few people in common but I doubt we would have met otherwise – and the meeting proved really fruitful. Over the following year we worked together on an idea that was sparked at the workshop – the role of the ‘glitch’ in producing speculative orientations to the future – and this week one outcome of that work is this new publication:

Bodden, S. and Ross, J. (2020, online first) Speculating with glitches: Keeping the future moving. Special issue, Staying with Speculation. Global Discourse

The paper explores the glitch as a generative problem which is capable of introducing unanticipated possibilities and futures into situations. We understand the glitch as a sociomaterial encounter rather than merely a technical error, and argue that it calls for (re)consideration of here-and-now possible futures through practices of response and repair. Exploring the ways that people seek to respond to glitches, we consider two case studies in which unexpected problems provoke those involved to speculate playfully and practically about new possibilities. In the first case, a malfunctioning ‘Teacherbot’ incites new challenges and pedagogical opportunities in an online learning environment. In the second, Hungarian activists creatively use infrastructural and political problems to make new spaces of protest and to press the government to respond to their concerns. Considering these empirical cases allows us to observe how playful and disruptive dispositions have worked to question the terms of possible futures in the real world, and to unsettle the seemingly given terms of power-relations. Glitches are not a panacea, but they can provide an impetus to act from within situations that are uncertain, and can therefore point to new trajectories and possible futures.

One of the cool things about this journal is that each article they publish is accompanied by a reply, so in addition to our paper, there is also a thought-provoking response from Joe Deville

Deville, J. (2020, online first) ‘A reply to Speculating with glitches: Keeping the future moving by Shawn Bodden and Jen Ross: Covid-19 as glitch: A provocation for speculative ethics?’, Global Discourse, (Special Issue: Staying with speculation).

In this reply, Deville ponders whether Covid-19 can be seen as a glitch – exploring its role as an interruption and the dangers of ‘blind optimism’ in relation to its possible effects. He concludes that:

COVID-19 as glitch is very unlikely, on its own, to prompt major shifts in our relationship to the world. But we can hope that it opens up new spaces for critical thought. 

Drawing on our discussion of the “temporalities of contemporary life that amplify the potential for glitching” (Deville 2020) to examine what Covid-19 is doing or might do as it breaks down infrastructures and makes them visible seems to offer something really generative to our thinking about the present moment and about speculation. So, I appreciated this reply a lot.

Co-authoring this paper and the discussions it has led to has been an extremely positive experience. At its best, working in a university offers these chance encounters with extremely smart and interesting people, and (occasionally) the time and space to try to make something new together. Thanks to Shawn, and to Malé Luján Escalante and Christine Mortimer (co-editors of the special issue), Luke Moffat, and all the participants at the 2018 workshop. Thanks also to the Coding the MOOC teacher research team – one case study from this paper came from the first outing of the Teacherbot in EDCMOOC!

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.

Book Launches – Manifesto for Teaching Online, MIT Press 2020

The book is a lovely object

The team behind the Manifesto for Teaching Online has just published a book! The book version (2020, MIT Press) was co-written by all the 2016 manifesto authors, and its purpose is to link the abbreviated, punchy statements of the manifesto to the large body of research and practice from which it emerges.

Online teaching has leapt from the margins to the mainstream in many universities around the world in 2020. It’s been good to find that the manifesto has held up, and I am really proud to have contributed to this in-depth exploration of how distance can be a positive principle, the way digital education reshapes subjects and practices, issues of distrust and surveillance, the recoding of education through automation and algorithms, and much more.

To launch the book, we are hosting three online events. The first is tomorrow (16 September), on the theme of ‘recoding’. The other two are ‘we are the campus’ (7 October) and ‘text has been troubled’ (15 October). All are free to attend. More details and signup information is here:

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.

Launch of the Digital Cultural Heritage cluster in the Centre for Data, Culture & Society

I’m pleased to announce the launch of the Digital Cultural Heritage cluster, part of the Centre for Data, Culture and Society. The cluster has been in development for the past year, and I’m the cluster lead/facilitator.

There are about 25 University of Edinburgh colleagues associated with the cluster so far, and we hope it will continue to grow as more people who are doing work in this area get involved. In addition to providing a way to amplify the University’s work in this area, we are also aiming to host workshops, showcases, roundtables and other events (including some to be co-organised with the Digital Cultural Heritage Research Network); facilitate research networking and exchanges; and develop exhibitions and teaching resources.

You can visit the Cluster’s new web site at

Digital Cultural Heritage cluster home page