Dreaming the Future: The Role of Speculative Fiction in Shaping Education – Part 1

How might speculative fiction help us to imagine and move towards our preferred educational futures? In Part 1 of this blog post we look at the ‘what, why and how’ of speculative fiction. In Part 2, we will hear from fiction authors from The University of Sydney Business School who will provide insights into their recently published speculative fiction stories.

What is speculative fiction?

As Hrastinski & Jandrić (2023) point out, while researchers hope to contribute to better educational futures, their work often focuses on innovations and practices in the present. As such, we don’t know much about the preferred educational futures of researchers. However, in response to uncertainties in education arising from rapid developments in technology and artificial intelligence, there’s a growing interest in speculative fiction and its power to challenge current directions and imagine alternative futures.

So what is it exactly? Speculative fiction in education involves departing from reality and imagining alternative pedagogical futures. In the process, it allows us to “deepen our understanding of where we already are as a point of departure…” (Houlden & Veletsianos, 2023, p. 3). Speculative fiction is sometimes referred to as social science fiction, educational fabulation or design fiction (Hrastinski, 2023, p. 1). Regardless, the approach is unique in the way it harnesses creativity to envision future possibilities (Conrad & Weibe, 2022).

Typical characteristics have been identified in the literature. Speculative fiction tends to connect past, present and future, is both speculative and informed, uses atmosphere to evoke emotions, and encourages reflection (Hrastinski, 2023).

Researchers, teachers, students and learners need ways to critically consider […] future visions, and produce their own.

Ross, 2023

Disrupting the narrative

There are many reasons why educational researchers are turning to speculative fiction. For example, researchers have highlighted their concerns about the influence of large ed-tech companies on digital futures in education. The “instrumentalising narratives” of these companies, that outline “a highly technologized, datafied and surveillant future”, are often “framed as an imperative” (Bayne and Gallagher, 2021, p. 607). These kinds of narratives leave educators feeling like the “future is being designed for them” (p. 607). Speculative fiction provides an opportunity to explore what the future of education might look like if these features become all-pervading, or to present alternative and hopeful futures.

Bayne and Gallagher (2021) argue that universities need to create “compelling counter-narratives” about the future of technology in education and ensure that the voices of students and teachers feature strongly in the process of technological change (p. 607). Bozhurt et al. (2023) advocate for a reimagining of the relationships between educators and technology using a “future-oriented mindset” (p. 53).

Designing educational fictions offers opportunities to both explain and query possible technological futures. For example, Cox (2021) presents a series of design fictions that explore the potential use of AI and robots in learning, administration and research. In doing so, he provokes discussion and debate about issues such as AI’s “impact on human agency and the nature of datafication” (p. 1). Speculative fiction can help widen the debate about the future of HE and help us address the many ethical challenges posed by technologies such as AI and robots (Cox et al., 2023).

The value of speculative fiction

Educational fiction is valuable because it helps us to imagine new possibilities in vivid, engaging and open-ended ways (Cox et al., 2023). Insights can be unexpected, and spark our imaginations (Suoranta et al., 2022 cited in Hrastinski, 2023). For example, a paper by Macgilchrist et al. (2020) presents three fictional stories. Set in 2040, it presents these stories as ‘histories’ of the 2020s. It invites us to explore whether students might become “(i) ‘smooth users’, improving themselves in the pursuit of frictionless efficiency within a post-democratic frame created by large corporations, (ii) ‘digital nomads’, seeking freedom, individualism and aesthetic joy as solopreneurs exploiting state regulations and algorithmic rules while stepping out of the state and deeply into the capitalist new economy, or (iii) participatory, democratic, ecological humans embedded in ‘collective agency’ that see institutions as spaces for exploring more equitable ways of living” (p. 76).

At the centre of speculative approaches is imagination. It is considered key to advancing the social sciences. In describing imagination, Eskola, cited in Suoranta et al. (2022), suggests that the aim “is not to keep a mirror in front of people’s faces and show them how they look, but to explore ideas and thinking.” In this way imagination “provides views of what we can be and can become” (p. 266).

Image produced in Photoshop using generative AI fill

Speculative methods

While it is still early days in terms of developing and sharing methods to support speculative fiction, some examples are surfacing in the literature. For example, Bayne and Gallagher (2021) turn to ‘anticipation studies’ in education and present a participatory methodology that can be used within universities for imagining preferable futures. Other studies (see for example Ross, 2023) describe various approaches including scenario building, design fiction, future studies, science fiction prototyping, participatory approaches, and critical and ethnographic speculation.

A number of studies advocate for certain types of stories and offer guidance for elements or qualities to include. For example, Cox et al. (2023) offer criteria to support the development of quality education fiction, including resonance, ambiguity, rich rigour and sincerity (p. 565). Some studies advocate for more optimistic stories – stories of hope rather than pessimistic ones:

…we propose using this method to help develop hopeful futures… shaped by themes, such as connection, agency and community and individual flourishment, and suggest a turn to the genres of hopepunk, solarpunk and visionary fiction as models of storytelling grounded in hope which imagines more liberatory education and learning futures.

Houlden & Veletsianos, 2023

Rather than viewing AI for example as a “hostile threat to the humanistic aspiration of good teaching” it may be more valuable to focus on a future where AI elements such as avatars “can best support the development of ethical and critical thinking” (Vallis et al., 2023). While most speculative fiction takes the form of fictional writing, speculative approaches can also include media such as photographs, images and objects (Hrastinski, 2023, p. 1).

Image produced in Photoshop using generative AI fill

Stay tuned…

In 2023, Postdigital Science & Education published a Special Issue with over 20 pieces of speculative fiction. Three of these were written by academics in the Business Co-design team at The University of Sydney. In Part 2 of this post, some of the authors share the context and thinking behind their fictional pieces.

What is your preferred educational future?

How might fictional stories help you to voice the educational futures that matter to you? And where might there be opportunities for you to use speculative fiction in the classroom to help students imagine alternative futures in Business?

Feature image: produced in Photoshop using generative AI fill

About the author

Stephanie is a Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director (CLaS) with the Business Co-design team at Sydney University and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA). She enjoys working with others to explore new approaches to learning and teaching inspired by design practice and the arts.

Published by Stephanie Wilson

Stephanie is a Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director (CLaS) with the Business Co-design team at Sydney University and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA). She enjoys working with others to explore new approaches to learning and teaching inspired by design practice and the arts.

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