Dreaming the Future: The Role of Speculative Fiction in Shaping Education – Part 2

In Part 1 of this post we considered how speculative fiction might help us to imagine and move towards our preferred educational futures.  

This year, the Postdigital Science and Education journal published a collection of speculative vignettes, or ‘education fictions’ (Hrastinski & Jandrić, 2023). Three of these were written by academics in the Business Co-design team at The University of Sydney. In this post, Jessica Tyrrell, Carmen Vallis and Sandris Zeivots share the stories behind their stories.

Between them, they explore themes such as the impact of the climate crisis on education, the breakdown of technology, technocratic control and surveillance, the corporatisation of education, artificial intelligence, the boundaries between formal and informal learning, and the nature of meaningful connections. While the vignettes may be daunting portrayals of the future of education, each invites us to resist dystopian visions and shape our educational futures through agency and creativity.

Three Speculative Vignettes

Learning to Breathe

By Jessica Tyrrell

‘Learning to breathe’ was written to imagine how the climate crisis will impact our education futures. It takes the motifs of air and breath as starting points for fabulation of a not-too-distant future where university atmospheres are becoming unstable. In this near future, learning spaces have moved underground to avoid the smoky air from omnipresent bushfires whose particles are permeating slick campus buildings. Technologies that were designed for a pre-crisis world are starting to break down. The main character Ava, a teacher, finds her iPhone won’t operate in the extreme heat, and fire alarms are going off in her office. The title, ‘Learning to breathe’, was intended to invoke a paradox. Breathing is not something we are taught; it is an autonomic function. Yet this fiction asks whether new (chaotic) climatic conditions may necessitate us learning new ways to breathe.    

The future imagined in ‘Learning to breathe’ is not a preferred future, rather it experiments with undesirable futures that might come about if researchers do not play with possibilities and disrupt assumptions around our shared futures, such as the assumption of a future where the air is breathable.

AI generated image of university classroom filled with smoke.
AI generated image created by jessica tyrrell with Adobe Firefly.

The method used to ‘experiment with the future’ in creating this fiction, was to draw on a real, lived experience of working at the University of Sydney during the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-2020. The triggering events were based on an afternoon when the university building that I was working in was evacuated due to a false alarm. Outdoor bushfire smoke had set off the smoke detector. Later that summer, when driving to avoid nearby fires on the NSW South Coast, my car became so hot that my iPhone would not turn on. From these recent past experiences, I extrapolated into the near future by slightly exaggerating or emphasising aspects of the events I recalled, especially relating to how the design of technologies were functioning. I used language to heighten certain experiential qualities from my memory such as smell of smoke and the feeling of heat.  

‘Learning to breathe’ was written as a creative companion piece to a more theoretically focused text called ‘Learning foams: towards an atmospheric ethics of education’ (forthcoming). It uses Peter Sloterdijk’s (2016) theory of foams to position air as an explicit infrastructure for education, and to argue for breathable learning futures. The upcoming PDSE Special Issue on the design of learning futures will publish ‘Learning foams’.  

You can read the vignette, Tyrrell, J. (2022). ‘Learning to Breathe’, in Postdigital Science and Education at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-022-00365-6

Free to Choose

By Carmen Vallis

In this speculative vignette, the intention was to play with the idea of the university as a corporate structure, driven only by the dollar. In this technocratic world, education is disaggregated into bite-size chunks (‘Higher Learning Experiences’) that are heavily marketed and easily consumed. Students are technically “free to choose”, although each of their choices and actions are reported, monitored, and influenced by AI algorithms. It’s a world where AI and data are used to extract the maximum from the natural environment, including humans. This dystopia is reminiscent of warnings from Shoshana Zuboff in her book, ‘The age of surveillance capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power’ (2019).   

Yet educational futures are not fixed and need not advance a neoliberal agenda. Dystopian and deterministic visions can unnecessarily narrow the range of educational goals and values (Sandford, 2013). Imagining a different future is a starting point for change. Teachers and students can actively and creatively influence the direction of educational futures (Duggan et al., 2017). In ‘Free to Choose’, the AI digital human (Digi) has been programmed to sell pre-packaged Higher Learning Experiences to Yuxuan and their friends. But the friends resist this narrative. They are open to play, friendship and experimentation with Digi. It turns out Digi can also learn new tricks. As educators, resisting dystopias and imagining creative futures with artificial intelligence is sometimes difficult but critical.  

You can read the vignette, Vallis, C. (2022). ‘Free to Choose’, in Postdigital Science and Education at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-022-00373-6

What Connexus Do I Want This Year?

By Sandris Zeivots

This vignette explores a future where the word ‘learning’ is no longer used. Instead, it uses the term ‘connexus’ (or connexing). The narrative captures the protagonist’s inner thoughts and experiences as they awaken on the first day of a new year and contemplate their wishlist for the year ahead. This planning is carried out by connecting wishes, experiences and activities. Connexing is deeply embedded as an integral part of the protagonist’s life, with their wall-display serving as a visual representation of their aspirations and goals.  

Connexing is loosely associated with educational institutions, and is portrayed more as an everyday word which reflects meaningful connections with people, objects and activities (Fenwick & Edwards, 2019). The narrative portrays connexing as a practice that emerges through communication, action and relationships. Kemmis (2022) would label these as sayings, doings and relatings.

Image from Unsplash. Author: Alina Grubnyak.

The story reveals the protagonist’s ambivalence towards the concept of connexing. On one hand, they appreciate the opportunities for personal growth and the freedom connexing brings. On the other hand, they yearn for the simplicity of ‘learning’, where knowledge could be compartmentalised and left behind after school or university. This internal conflict reflects the tension between the traditional approach to education and the continuous, sustainable and interconnected nature of learning in the future world (Barnett & Jackson, 2020). It raises questions about the impact of technology, personal agency, and the blurring of boundaries between formal and informal learning and associated spaces (Wardak, Vallis, & Bryant, 2022). The narrative depicts connexing as a practice rooted in meaningful connections and experiences that are primarily positive and impactful (Zeivots, 2018).  

You can read the vignette, Zeivots, S. (2022). ‘What Connexus Do I Want This Year?’, in Postdigital Science and Education at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-022-00364-7

Embracing Imagination and Agency

The three vignettes remind us of the power of imagination and its role in shaping the future of education. These glimpses into potential educational futures encourage us to reflect on our own desired futures and serve as a catalyst for action. The future of education is not set in stone; it is ours to envision and construct together.

About the author

Carmen is an educational designer, researcher, and writer based on Wangal land in Sydney, Australia. Lurks on twitter and LinkedIn @cjvallis.

Dr Sandris Zeivots is a Lecturer - Educational Development with Business Co-Design at the University of Sydney Business School. He investigates how to design and implement innovative learning experiences that are engaging, meaningful and purposeful. With a professional background in experiential learning, Sandris explores how to design impactful educational events to strategically improve the experiences of learners through learning spaces, experiential education and emotional engagement.

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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