Near Future Teaching Focus Group and Testing Session with Employers

Earlier this week and as part of our ongoing efforts to engage with as many groups as possible around the outcomes of the Near Future Teaching project (detailed in this report), we were lucky enough to engage with local employers with a focus group at the Lister Learning and Teaching Centre. Many thanks to Shelley Morgan from the University of Edinburgh Careers Service for her tireless efforts in arranging it. Joining us in the discussion were representatives from Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, and the Scottish Government.

The focus group began with a brief introduction to the project followed by open discussions around particular aims emerging from the project, with the first being a discussion around data fluency.

All the organisations mentioned how data impacted them in some way, some explicitly tied to their work and some informing what they do more tangentially. There was an interesting dialogue around the word itself and how potentially there is a disconnect between how employers are describing data skills and how that might be naturally excluding certain groups who are naturally working with data on a daily basis. This distinction was noted by the representative from the Scottish Government and how when we think of data, many are naturally leaning towards quantitative data and the numerical, computational, and statistical skills associated with it. This naturally excludes those working routinely with qualitative data and the skills involved in its analysis. An interesting discussion around how what employers are signalling in their job descriptions potentially eliminates a large swath of people who are especially data fluent, but from a qualitative perspective.

There was a great emphasis in the discussion on the communication skills associated with data use, that there is an underlying narrative or message within the data that needs to be presented in such a way as to prove persuasive or accessible. Hence, all pointed towards the continuing if not increased need for those that can communicate the data in a meaningful way.


The community aspects of the discussion were particularly focused on community building in an increasingly distributed workplace. I wanted to lead the discussion towards a particular indicative aim (Prioritising human contact and relationships) and action from the report (Invest in technologies which offer new ways for remote and off-campus students to be part of the community) and this stimulated an interesting discussion about the changing nature of work. Remote work, telepresence, distributed organisations, mixed cohorts of here and there, flexible shifts, all of it seemed to resonate one way or another with each of the organisations represented. Some had a particularly strong culture of physical presence where working from home was less pronounced than others, yet all had some degree of autonomy worked in to their organisational ethos. It struck me that organisations, particularly these employers, had embraced organisational change quite readily, working with their own constraints. Scottish Government and Enterprise Rent-a-Car were naturally very large and very dispersed organisations, and naturally more inclined to developing systems that accounted for this distribution.

There was some discussion in this section on the role of technology and working at non-traditional hours (evenings and weekends, primarily) and there didn't seem to be a particular resistance to how technology might blur a sense of worklife balance. This possibly spoke to the autonomy of the individuals and their ability to just ignore incoming messages if they choose to but largely this wasn't seen as an encroachment but rather a welcome opportunity to work efficiently, or ignore it altogether.

To round out the 90 minutes, we briefly discussed the post-digital and playful and experimental strands of the report as well and their applicability to the sectors represented in the focus group. Much of the discussion nominally centred around one of the indicative actions (Invest to give academics more time to be creative and risk-taking in their use of digital education) and what if any equivalent existed in their sectors. Many spoke of how their organisations address risk in their work or in their professional development programmes: simulations, challenge-led workshops and an emphasis on experiential learning, opening up closed space as open play spaces for children at the Zoo. All the organisations seemed to have a clear idea of how they would engage with risk and in experimentation. Much of this was via educational models, much of this was through careful observation and analysis (essentially a data-driven exercise), much of this was through mentoring, and more.

All in all, a very interesting discussion that lends itself to further thinking about how what we are doing with Near Future Teaching speaks to the organisational cultures, constraints, and needs in employers; and where we at the University of Edinburgh can do more to engage with them around what largely seemed to be a shared understanding of near future learning.









Near Future Teaching Event Video

Near Future Teaching Event Video

We were lucky enough to have the Media Services team at the University of Edinburgh craft this video summarising the recent Near Future Teaching event on 26 March 2019 at InSpace.

The event brought together a really diverse grouping of students, staff and friends from across and beyond the university to launch the final report from the project.

Near Future Teaching Final Report Launch Event: 27 March 2019

The celebration of Near Future Teaching, and launch of the final report, happened on the evening of 26th March.

The event brought together a really diverse grouping of students, staff and friends from across and beyond the university. The room itself was full of enthusiastic and encouraging discussion, which our colleague James Lamb was kind enough to document through a sound recording.

The overall purpose of the night was to present the process and the outcome from the last two years, so as well as eating, drinking and chatting, we had a series of short talks outlining different parts of our work.

Image by Anne-Marie Scott

Sian Bayne, the project lead described the background to the project and its overarching aim not to predict or respond to versions of the future determined by others, but rather to design our own future as a university, based on our own shared values.

Michael Gallagher, project research associate, spoke briefly on how he reconciled his work in developing nations where education is often a low-resource, low-technology, yet highly intricate affair with the models being advanced in the project. He emphasised the value of diversity in widening participation efforts, and how that value is found throughout the project.

Diva Mukherji, the Vice-President for Education for the Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) spoke next on the values underpinning the project, synthesised from data gathered and generated over the period of the project.

Diva from EUSA
Image from Chris Speed

Jennifer Williams, the Near Future Teaching core team member, project manager, and renowned poet, recited a work written during one of our project events which creative writing as a way of articulating the futures of the University. “What you will teach is, what you believe…”.

Jennifer Williams from NFT
Photo from Chris Speed

Santini Basra our partner and colleague from Andthen, the design-research and futures-thinking agency that has been working with us spoke next. He described the methods from the project, discussing how contemporary futures thinking can shake institutions into rethinking and exerting agency over their futures.

Image from Chris Speed

Finally, Professor Peter Mathieson, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh then concluded the evening by officially launching the report, encouraging its uptake throughout the University, and emphasising that the values and methods emerging from the project could inform teaching at the University for generations to come. The remaining part of the evening was spent chatting around the exhibition about the project which designed by Andthen.

Peter Mathieson

Post Digital

Aim: education which recognises that technology is fully embedded in daily life.


  • Reworking the concept of ‘contact time’ to reflect contemporary practice.
  • Breaking down the boundaries between on and off campus.
  • Rethinking what it means to be ‘here’ at Edinburgh.
  • Offering more flexible ways to be part of the University community.

Short- to medium-term actions

  • Define and embed a re-worked understanding of ‘contact time’ into workload models and course descriptors, which takes account of student mobility, distance education and flexible patterns of study.
  • Continue to invest in programmes of work which open our teaching and community to new cohorts of students online and globally, including technologies for increased telepresence for students working off-campus.
  • Plan for the introduction of technological capacity to teach online and on-campus students together in joint cohorts.
  • Use our capacity and understanding of distance education to open our teaching in new ways to on-campus students, putting student-focused flexibility at the heart of our offer.
  • Ensure all staff have the baseline skills needed for a good student experience of digital education (for example the ability to upload slides, to record lectures, to design effective visuals, to tackle accessibility issues, to provide electronic reading lists).

Testing the Near Future Teaching vision with school children

Throughout October 2018, the Near Future Teaching team tested a preferable future vision for digital higher education, and a draft strategy for reaching that vision, with staff and students from the University.

— From Zoë Prosser and Santini Basra

The following four values were recognised within current staff members and students during the early stages of research, and throughout the project had been used as a measure of preferability to determine what the vision of digital education should be.

However, these values represent the beliefs and opinions of staff and students now, so it was important to ask how they might change in the future. As such, school children were included in the study to investigate the following questions:

  • Will a future generation of students hold the same values?
  • What new values, opinions, and needs towards digital higher education might emerge in the future?

Since the school children were far removed from University experiences, testing questions were more abstractly focused on learning in general and we remained open to understanding the contexts that affected their learning beyond school.

Five 90 minute sessions were conducted with school children from two schools near Edinburgh: one primary and one secondary. Two of the sessions were with 16 to 17 year olds, engaging a total of 14 students, and three sessions were conducted with 8 to 10 year olds, engaging a total of 43 students.

To encourage everyone to think about learning as an activity that happens beyond just the school walls, we kicked the sessions off with a general discussion about where we learn, how we learn, and who from. Drawing sheets were used to help the children capture their ideas and for the NFT team’s data collection. Information captured during this activity helped us determine how the children perceived their experiences of learning, along with recurring positive and negative responses to their school education.

In pairs, the children were then asked to design their dream school of the future using a mixture of drawing and collage. Special attention was given to the following prompts: what is happening in your dream school; who is there and what are they doing; what does a typical school day look like; what things are learnt there, and how are they being taught?

As the students negotiated their ideal learning scenarios, the NFT team sparked conversations with them individually and asked each pair to expand on points that had reference to any of the four values. When responses conflicted with the four values, or when new values were suggested, they were captured by the team using post it notes and subsequently discussed and synthesised into recommended changes to the values, strategy, and vision.

Phase 3: Testing Vision and Strategy

Phase 3 Blog Post of Near Future Teaching Methods: Testing Vision and Strategy

— From Zoë Prosser and Santini Basra

During the earlier stages of the project, the opinions and values of staff and students had been collaboratively translated into a series of speculative worlds and scenarios. These served as thought experiments, which outlined possible futures for digital education at the University. From these speculative scenarios, an understanding of the kinds of futures that would be ‘preferable’ to students and staff had been identified and translated by the Near Future Teaching (NFT) team into a draft vision and associated strategy for building a preferable digital education future at the University. These were outlined through a series of five aims (vision), each with a set of indicative actions (strategy) to help realise each aim.

Find out more about this process by exploring our earlier blog posts.

Throughout October we supported the NFT team in facilitating a series of sessions with staff and students from across the University to test the response to this draft vision and strategy, and gather feedback and input for a further iteration. Through these sessions, we engaged 15 staff members and 40 students (although over 150 students expressed interest in attending one of the sessions).

The Testing Approach

Since the values and opinions of staff and students directly fed into the creation of the draft vision and strategy, it was important to take these back to them for further feedback. We were also aware that the students and staff members who had taken part in the earlier phases of research were limited in number and also by their distribution across the University. So further testing was an opportunity to widen the project’s scope of engagement, gather a broader range of perspectives, and add detail to our existing insights.

There were three areas that we proposed to focus on during the testing sessions:

  1. Assessing Preferability: Is our notion of what makes a ‘preferable’ future correct?
  2. Adding Detail: Collecting feedback on the aims and indicative actions that is sensitive to the diverse range of learning and teaching experiences from across the University. Understanding how aims and actions might affect people from across the University in different ways.
  3. Identifying New Indicative Actions: Taking suggestions and considering new actions which could be built into the strategy..

The testing sessions were kept brief, to 90 minutes, to allow for four sessions per day and a higher number of participants. At the same time however, it was also important to create an environment for deep and detailed conversation, and so while the sessions were kept short we limited the number of participants to under ten. This meant that the sessions were similar to focus groups, valuing each individual’s responses.

The Methods

As each aim was introduced, so too were a selection of designed speculative artefacts that touched upon the issues which the aim raised. These artefacts, which we called ‘provotypes’ (provocative prototypes), were used during the session to help participants quickly immerse themselves in ideas and discussion topics that are speculative and typically intangible, such as data ethics, new forms of assessment, and building digital skills.

Since the provotypes were intended to help facilitate discussion, and not to propose outcomes or ideas, they were produced in low fidelity. Therefore the artefacts themselves were not the subject of the discussion, but rather a mechanism to enhance and deepen discussions. They invited critique of the aims proposed in the draft vision, and the wider issues that the project is concerned with. Specific focus was placed on the opportunities and specific threats that the aims afforded.

Once a group had discussed an aim and its issues, the indicative actions were then introduced. These actions were discussed, developed and built on by the participants in relation to their own experiences at the University, and views on education. To conclude, students were asked what they thought the University should do to deliver each aim.

Distance students were engaged in a separate online session using Skype. This followed the same format as the previous face-to-face sessions on campus, however the aims that were discussed were those with particular focus on the experiences of distance learners and distance communities. Conversations between the online participants were captured using the chat box as well as audio.

Next Steps

At the very core of the draft strategy is our understanding of what a ‘preferable’ future means to those at the University. Our filter of ‘preferability’ has been qualified by the four values that were identified at the end of the community scoping phase, which concluded in Spring 2018. These values emerged from staff and students who are at the University now, but the NFT team is aware that in the future a new generation of students might hold, or prioritise different values. By continuing our testing with children in secondary and primary school education, the NFT team hopes to understand what new values for digital higher education might emerge in the future.

Following the sessions with school children, the NFT team will synthesise the data captured from conversations, into a final draft of the vision and strategy for digital education at the University, to be published widely.

Near Future Teaching: Vision Document Testing Workshops

The Near Future Teaching team have been exploring alternative futures for digital education at the University of Edinburgh.

Already we have engaged staff and students through future-building workshops and discussions. Now that we have some new ideas and possibilities for what digital education might look like in the future, we’re inviting our students back to test them out.

Join us on the 17th of October to help test new concepts and have your say! We’ll be running a series of 90 minute sessions throughout the day. Register your interest here

Explore design and futures thinking, innovative testing models and contribute to the future of digital education at the Unviersity of Edinburgh.

Students who take part will receive a £10 book voucher.@NearFutureTeach#nearfutureteaching

Please spread the word to University of Edinburgh students far and wide… we would love to work with you on this phase of the project.

Near Future Teaching methods: values within worlds

— From Zoë Prosser and Santini Basra

Using the education futures that were created in the first task group workshop, we ran a second workshop in which participants were challenged to create a vision of a University of Edinburgh that would exist within their worlds.

In each instance, they had to consider what the University might do to embrace the values and opinions that emerged from the community scoping phase of the project (for more on these, see the previous post — NFT methods: community scoping and crafting worlds), while still flourishing in each future world.

A series of diverse, yet possible future University of Edinburghs emerged from this workshop. Consolidating these, we captured them as annotated illustrations (fig.1  below).

These future Universities will function within this project as thought experiments; instead of serving as any kind of ‘preferable vision,’ they will be used as source material to inform a discussion around various probable futures and their respective risks and opportunities.

In addition, we can use the aforementioned values as a way to qualify what ‘preferable’ looks like to the staff and students at the University. Cross referencing these values with the material captured in the future University of Edinburghs will help us start to develop a rich understanding of what a ‘preferable’ future vision of digital education at the University might look like.

NFT methods: community scoping and crafting worlds

Unpacking the community scoping phase

— From Zoë Prosser and Santini Basra

The first phase of the NFT project, ‘Community Scoping’, has generated a large amount of content: the vox pop interviews are summarised in a series of thematic videos, while earlier blog posts capture outcomes from several workshops, think tanks and focus groups with staff and student around the campus.

Working closely with the core Near Future Teaching Team (Sian, Jennifer, and Michael), we extracted information from these vox pops and workshops, with a focus on understanding the viewpoints and values of those who were engaged. This would serve as useful source material in the later stages of the project, and help us develop possible futures for digital education at the University of Edinburgh.

Fig. 1. Affinity mapping some of the key quotes.

Combing through these videos and blog posts, we pulled out key quotes and statements and affinity mapped them into clusters of quotes with similar sentiment. To formalise these, we converted each cluster into an opinion card (fig.2.); each card captured the essence of an opinion that was commonly held by those who engaged in the earlier phase of the project.

Using futures thinking in the Near Future Teaching project

Hi, we have been supporting the Near Future Teaching core team recently on parts of this project. We haven’t yet posted, so here is a short introduction:

We are part of Andthen, a small design strategy consultancy company based in Glasgow, that marries design research with futures thinking to help organisations of all shapes and sizes with early stage innovation. We are working on this project over the next few months to offer some expertise of using a futures-driven approach in strategic planning, and will be posting here about our process and thinking.

— Zoë Prosser and Santini Basra

An intro to futures thinking

While futures thinking is by no means a young practice, it is not particularly defined or established as a discipline; there are few recognised futures thinking degrees, and there is varied understanding of what constitutes a ‘futurist.’ The terms ‘foresight,’ ‘futurism,’ ‘futurology,’ ‘anticipation studies,’ ‘futures thinking,’ and sometimes ‘futures’ for short, are often used interchangeably. While some are slightly varied within their definitions, they all essentially describe the practice of thinking in a structured way about the future, and the methods and approaches that are used to do so. For simplicity, we will just use the term ‘futures thinking’ to describe the practice in this post.

While, as mentioned, futures thinking is a somewhat nebulous discipline, there are characteristics of the practice that are commonly agreed upon:

You can’t know the future

The first and most central tenet of futures thinking is that it is not concerned with prediction; practitioners agree that ‘you can’t know the future.’ Instead, it is about anticipation and exploration. Futures thinking seeks to unpack the question ‘what could happen?’ over attempting to answer ‘what will happen?’

Fig.1. Based on a well known taxonomy of futures, the Futures Cone is a visual tool that helps to categorise different future scenarios according to likelihood and preferability.