Who Designs the Future of Education?

Education researchers often focus on current practices or innovations, although they of course hope to contribute to a ‘better’ education in the future. Up to very recently, therefore, we knew surprisingly little about how researchers imagine the future of education. However, rapid technical developments and hypes such as ChatGPT (see Bozkurt et al. 2023; Jandrić 2023), increasing commercial interests in education, the climate crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, and many other factors have brought about uncertainties leading to an increased interest in education futures. Special issues such as ‘Education and technology into the 2020s: speculative futures’ (Selwyn et al. 2020a), books such as Ross’ Digital Futures for Learning: Speculative Methods and Pedagogies (2023), projects such as ‘Speculative social science fiction of digitalization in higher education: Towards a theory and practice of humanized digital future (2021–2025)’ (Suoranta et al. 2022), and a growing number of dedicated articles (e.g., Costello et al. 2020; Macgilchrist et al. 2020; Selwyn et al. 2020b), are just a few of many examples.

Postdigital Science and Education has been promoting this development since its inception. In 2022-2023, we decided to make one step beyond the research mainstream. In this issue, we proudly present, amongst other material, more than twenty fictional stories about education futures. In our call, education researchers have been invited to abandon the chains of academic formality and write short fictional stories. Their stories complement scholarly research by presenting the fruit of unrestricted imagination about the many possibilities for the future of education.

What Happens When Researchers Imagine Education Futures Through Fiction?

In response to Mills' (1959/2000) call to use science fiction as a material for sociological thinking, social science fiction has been developing since the 1950s (Gerlach and Hamilton 2003). Social science fiction is implicitly and/or explicitly informed by the authors’ research expertise and previous research (e.g., Macgilchrist et al. 2020; Selwyn et al. 2020b). This collection could be named science fiction, social science fiction, speculative fiction, educational fabulation, and more (Conrad and Wiebe 2022; Costello et al. 2020; Macgilchrist et al. 2020; Ross 2023; Selwyn et al. 2020b). However, as the collection does not fit neatly in any of these categories, we prefer to call it simply ‘education fiction’ (Hrastinski 2023).

We hope that our readers will enjoy the stories, and we also hope that the stories will be useful for scholarly research. In lieu of the latter, we will just quickly outline four main themes that we have identified in the collection: the online as a norm, artificial intelligences, organization of higher education, and post-dystopian education.

The Online as a Norm

A reoccurring theme in the collection, the online as a norm, is futures in which the characters prefer online to offline connections. Some stories (e.g., Zeivots 2022) focus on the physical freedom from attendance; others (e.g. Hurley 2022) describe emotions of people who feel more comfortable online; and yet others focus to mundane problems such as power outages (e.g., Schnaider and Schiavetto 2022). These stories can be almost directly mapped to testimonies from global Covid-19 lockdowns between 2020 and 2022 (Jandrić et al. 2020, 2021a, 2022a, b), which, in a very different context of the compulsory move online, have identified very similar themes (Jandrić et al. 2021b). These stories, therefore, can serve as important inputs into possible futures that may come out of post-pandemic policy and practice.

Artificial Intelligences

In this collection, artificial intelligences have been given the power to choose what modules a student should take (Håkansson Lindqvist 2022); grade students (Bozkurt 2022); provide student feedback (Scott 2022); and befriend students (Vallis 2022). Fuentes-Martinez (2022) offers a history of the future, in which an old teacher remembers her past which is the readers’ future, and Curcher (2022) pushes the irony to absurd in a story where students use AIs to write assignments, teachers use AIs to provide feedback on these assignments, and then students upload the feedback to their AI so that it can write a better assignment next time:

Students could, if they wanted, read the feedback but almost none of them did, even the most conscientious just uploaded the feedback into their own personalized version of the AI, so that next time round their [natural language processing] took the feedback into account, whatever it said. Who knew? Lots of learning going on in this process, machine learning that is… (Curcher 2022)

As we write these words, artificial intelligences are a hot topic. The January 2023 Special Issue of Postdigital Science and Education, ‘Education in The Automated Age’ edited by Selwyn et al. (2023), is just one of many collections that confirm this interest. The stories complement this body of research by using imagination to give the reader an opportunity to explore and reflect on different possible education futures and the role of artificial intelligence.

Organization of Higher Education

Academics are notoriously hard to organize, and there is a long history of scholarship about the organization of higher education. Matthews’ (2022) story about the inner workings of a team tasked with the development of a new strategy for a fictional university ironically describes the timelessness of human nature, as the team's dilemmas, and even ways of discussing these dilemmas, could have happened at any university of today. Blaj-Ward (2022) directly builds on Matthews (2022) and imagines an open and hopeful university. Three stories explore the future university as a specialized teaching factory, addressing important debates of today such as commercialization and surveillance (Motson 2022), the role of the teacher (Costello and Girme 2022), and the gamification of education (Smith 2022).

The next three stories explore the metaphor of the network. Wallin (2022) uses the metaphor to explore the age-old struggle between the view to education as a public good and the view to education as a commodity; Lindberg Lebugle and Lindberg (2023) imagine a world where the arts have gained significant social and epistemic position; Boyd (2022) imagines a nearly-destroyed world en route to restauration. O’Sullivan’s ‘The Sustainability Consultation’ (2022) follows a recent (and real) meeting transcribed by an AI transcription application, which discusses the tensions between academic networking and the environmental cost of travel.

This group of articles is by far the largest in the collection — and it is also the most diverse. Eternal themes such as academic vanity and commercialization of education need no introduction; each reader can seek their own ways in which these stories can contribute to current debates. For us, one of the key themes that push these debates forward is the many distinctions and tensions between networked approaches and postdigital-biodigital descriptions of our reality. Unsurprisingly, the stories also have a clear parallel with recent postdigital research (see Jandrić 2022; Peters et al. 2022).

Post-Dystopian Education

Post-dystopian education refers to the fictional future moment after a major natural or human-induced disaster. Tyrell (2022) focuses on the role of design and claims that ‘in designing solutions, we’re also designing the problem’. Dickey et al. (2022) imagine academic work after the collapse of the academia. Houlden (2022) is amongst the rare authors who identify glimmers of hope for the better world.

This, we believe, deserves some attention. Most fictions in this collection describe a distant future, at least several decades from today, and most of them are quite pessimistic. While this pessimism presents important counterarguments to bad practices, Houlden and Veletsianos argue for a more hopeful approach that would serve.

as a refusal of the disimagination machine of the academy, as a refusal to reinforce settler apocalypticism (and its cousins white supremacy, ableism and cis-hetero-patriarchy) in these times of demise and transformation. They [hopeful stories] need to become a part of enabling the end of such systems. (Houlden and Veletsianos 2022)

We fully agree with Houlden and Veletsianos’s call for writing more hopeful stories, yet we also appreciate the timeliness of the collection. For better or worse, the stories represent the Zeitgeist felt by their authors. Some of us may not like that Zeitgeist, and that’s fine. Yet honesty is the best policy; knowing people’s true feelings in the first step towards changing them.

To Seize the Eternal in the Right Moment

Educational futures are now undergoing a bit of a fad. This fad is vernacular, as (educational) scholars around the world struggle to deal with our present and future. It is also a unique historical opportunity, as some of the best minds of today are focused on developing existing theories and experimenting with new research approaches.

In this collection we classified fictional stories as Commentary articles; a genre that allows maximum writers’ freedom within an academic context.Footnote 1 Placing these stories al pari with mainstream academic research sends a clear message: imagined educational futures are just as important as our lived present. So stay tuned, keep in touch, and share your ideas with us — however wild they may seem. Let’s free our imagination and seize this important historical moment together!