Guest Post: Speculative Data Storytelling – a project about higher education & surveillance


On 15 December, Anna Wilson & Jen Ross will discuss the Data Stories project at the ALT Online Winter Conference, and facilitate an interactive prompt/map session to give participants a chance to experience the Data Stories approach and consider its use in their own work with colleagues and students.

Higher education systems have always involved monitoring through data collection, assessment, and evaluation, shaping the intellectual work, and tracking the bodies and activities of students and teachers. However, surveillance in higher education settings has become increasingly pervasive and fine-grained as monitoring and data-gathering technologies grow in sophistication and as the quantification and measurement of everything from outcomes to student satisfaction to engagement is increasingly valued in universities. While we do not know the full extent of the impacts of surveillance on higher education cultures and student experiences, we are beginning to see concerns about exploitative commercial uses of collected student data, discriminatory practices, and even political, social, or physical harm inflicted because of that data. The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified existing tendencies in this area, increasing the level of monitoring and data gathering that is taking place in now sometimes highly distributed education settings.

However, some of the more data-intensive practices in higher education are not often seen in terms of surveillance – for example, the widespread use of plagiarism detection software (Ross and Macleod 2018) and learning analytics systems (Wilson et al. 2017). More often, technology’s use in education is tied to what Watters (2019) calls the ‘ed-tech imaginary’ – stories that we tell ourselves about the role that educational technology plays in preparing students for the future.

The Data Stories project made a ‘Data Stories Creator’ tool  – a WordPress-based interface that facilitates the creation of short pieces of speculative fiction. It is aimed at Learning Technologists and others with an interest in surveillance technologies in Higher Education.  It supports storytelling as a way of exploring possible futures, and hopes and concerns about uses of data in Higher Education.

To make the storytelling tool, we explored how speculative data stories can be scaffolded and created. An iterative process of reflection and discussion amongst the project team led to the development of prompt questions to generate story-objects. The prompt questions, and their usefulness in helping participants create speculative stories, were trialled with Learning Technologists and other stakeholders.

While the methodology was designed and tested, we were also working with Pat Lockley from Pgogy Webstuff to design the three-part storytelling tool, consisting of 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.

The use of fiction not only encourages a focus on the future, it also gives people the freedom to talk about difficult or controversial issues in a way that is not too close to home. By working with actions, actors and interactions, those with a stake in how data is used in higher education can articulate ideas about the future of surveillance and data ethics in a creative way.

Work underpinning this co-design project has been taking place over the past two years, centred around the development of an international Higher Education After Surveillance initiative. The After Surveillance network involves expert contributors including researchers, teachers, technologists, students, and administrators, and it aims to “analyze current surveillance practices in the higher education sector… to understand what post-surveillance futures might be desirable and how to work toward these” (Collier & Ross 2020). The speculative data storytelling approach this project developed emerged from Ross and Collier’s (2016) work on the concept of ‘notyetness’ in digital education, Ross’ work on speculative method in digital education research (Ross 2016), and Wilson’s co-design work, based around the creation of fictional characters and their stories (Wilson et al. 2018).

The Data Stories Creator tool is available to use now – visit to try it out. You can also read the stories that have been created so far.

The Data Stories project team is Jen Ross, Anna Wilson, Amy Collier, Jane McKie, Martin Hawksey and Pat Lockley. The project was funded by the Edinburgh Futures Institute Research Awards scheme.


Collier, A., & Ross, J. (2020). Higher Education After Surveillance? Postdigital Science and Education, 2(2), 275–279.

Ross, J., & Macleod, H. (2018). Surveillance, (dis)trust and teaching with plagiarism detection technology. Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Networked Learning 2018. Networked Learning, Zagreb.

Ross, J (2017). Speculative method in digital education research. Learning, Media and Technology. 42/2.

Ross, J., & Collier, A. (2016). Complexity, mess and not-yetness: Teaching online with emerging technologies. In G. Veletsianos (Ed.), Emergence and Innovation in Digital Learning: Foundations and Applications. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press.

Watters, A. (2019). Ed-Tech Agitprop. Talk given at the OEB conference, Berlin. Available:

Wilson, A., Watson, C., Thompson, T. L., Drew, V., & Doyle, S. (2017). Learning analytics: Challenges and limitations. Teaching in Higher Education, 22(8), 991–1007.

Wilson, A., De Paoli, S., Forbes, P., & Sachy, M. (2018). Creating personas for political and social consciousness in HCI design. Persona Studies, 4(2), 25-46.


Jen Ross (University of Edinburgh) & Anna Wilson (University of Stirling)