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Speculative Fiction as a method of investigation: Prof. Dr. Felicitas Macgilchrist presents paper at the University of Utrecht

Screenshot of the seminar “Transmissions in Motion” at the University of Utrecht

What will school look like in 2040? Which socio-technical assemblages will be shaped? How will learners be addressed as subjects?

Prof. Dr. Felicitas Macgilchrist poses these questions in her paperStudents and society in the 2020s. Three futurehistoriesof education and technology“, which she wrote together with Heidrun Allert and Anne Bruch and which she reported on in the seminarTransmissions in Motion” at the University of Utrecht. In theirSocial Science Fictionpaper the authors formulate three different versions of the future 

In the first, learners become so-called “smooth userswho optimize themselves in the pursuit of frictionless efficiency within a post-democratic framework created by large corporations. Because the 2020s had to respond to digitisation and its challenges, education was “smoothedby technological support, entrepreneurs and tech companies became government advisors, decisions were made behind closed doors, and schools became dependent on companies. Educational software was designed to be particularly user-friendly, smooth and groundbreaking, making students less independent, especially in non-cognitive learning dimensions, and their self-optimization became the key process 

The second vision predicts learners as “digital nomads” who seek freedom, individualism, and aesthetic pleasure as solopreneurs, who exploit state regulation and algorithmic rules as they dive deep into a capitalist new economy. In the 2020s, these nomads lived in countries with a low cost of living, but worked in high-wage countries. Through an understanding of algorithms and an authentic, independent entrepreneurial identity, they built their own brand, earned a lot of money by doing so, partly because they avoided government regulations such as taxes, and educated their children online and/or at home. The technical support for their holistic lifestyle was mainly provided by techniques such as life/bio-hacking and the data monopolies of big tech giants manifested themselves. 

In the third vision, learners are participatory, democratic, ecologically aware people, embedded in a “collective capacity to act”, who see institutions as spaces for research into fairer ways of life. In the 2020s it was realized that capitalism had a bad impact on social justice, environment, and independence. Privacy by Design became mandatory for educational software in the EU, OER and Open Source were promoted and established, students learned in hackathons to modify and develop software, and data activism as well as democratic, environmentally conscious responsibility were trained. 

The three visions emerged from the analysis of current educational discourses and developments. In this critical, discourse-theoretical research approach, the focus was primarily on processes of subjectivation. The approach also offers several access points for the following research questions, since a speculative approach in (ethnographic) research can help to better perceive relevant events or ruptures and to recognize new objects of interest.    

Macgilchrist mentions datafication as one such object example in the TiM seminar podcast. Here, a speculative research design could be used to analyze the tracking of learners, the capitalistic use of (learning) data, and example projects that emphasize data justice. In their forthcoming paper on predictive analytics, Felicitas Macgilchrist and Juliane Jarke from the DATAFIED project, for example, focus on a program that reports students whose transfer is at risk. One area of this software is “social learningas a predictive factor. Here, the software tracks which learners communicate particularly frequently with others within the platform, which is then visualised in a network map with colour codes and incorporated into the risk analysis. The problem: the software does not track physical exchanges between learners, but only what takes place on the platform itself. In the future, it could therefore be possible that the learners shift their communication completely to the platform in order to counteract a negative risk assessment by the system. Important risk-reducing face-to-face interactions could be overseen by teachers because they are not “countedby the software system. 

Macgilchrist considers it a problem that the public discourse on education policy still focuses too much on the availability of and equipment with hardware. Software is almost completely ignored here, although it also implies important political and social issues: How are developers trained in the social implications of their actions? Why is this not yet part of their education and what does it mean? How diverse are development teams and how is this reflected in software? How can experiences of exclusion be incorporated into software development and how do we react to incidents of discrimination in educational software? 


Links to the mentioned paper and the lecture: 

Felicitas Macgilchrist, Heidrun Allert & Anne Bruch (2020) Students and society in the 2020s. Three future ‘histories’ of education and technology, Learning, Media and Technology, 45:1, 76-89, DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2019.1656235 

“What Follows for Students & Society in the 2020s? 3 Speculative Futures for Education & Technology” (Recorded Session) 

TiM Seminar Podcast #3: Felicitas Macgilchrist on Speculative Futures for Education and Technology 


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