COVID-19 has reminded us that you can never be entirely sure what tomorrow may bring. While forecasts and predictions give us a sense that the future can be anticipated, no one has ever gathered data or evidence about events that are yet to occur. Even apparent trends may bend or break. As Beatrice Weder di Mauro of the Centre for Economic Policy Research put it in March 2020, for many of us in the pre-COVID world, “There was no imagination to see where something like this [pandemic] could come from ”.
In this blog, we consider how researchers can work under conditions of uncertainty to produce future-oriented knowledge about current problems and be of use to policymakers and other stakeholders. Which reliable research methods can we use to produce new knowledge about futures that are undetermined and unpredictable? We draw on our experiences from a scenario planning workshop convened by the University of Oslo to explore the digitalisation of Norwegian education in late 2019 and early 2020, asking: What form might the relationship between schools and digital devices take in times to come?
Visiting the future Norwegian school
In October 2019, researchers from the Screen Cultures  and Living the Nordic Model  projects at the University of Oslo’s Department of Media and Communication hosted a workshop to explore this question. The 15 participants included teachers, academics, representatives of tech firms, government agencies and NGOs, and policymakers.
This workshop was convened against the backdrop of an increasing digitalisation of primary and secondary schooling in Norway, with related social concerns about the commercial interests involved and the lack of knowledge about the longer-term consequences of digitalisation and datafication for children’s futures. Exploring how children will use digital media in the future is challenging, as uncertainties arise not just from technological development and diffusion, but also from the changing social, political, and economic contexts in which technologies are deployed.
The aim of our project was not to predict what would happen, nor to describe preferred futures, but to generate plausible, challenging alternative visions for the future context in which education institutions might have to operate. Such alternative futures provide vantage points on the concerns of the present and reveal assumptions about the future in which current policies and perspectives are anchored.
The scenarios were centred on the operating environment of a real-world decision-maker: the typical Norwegian headteacher. Headteachers were chosen for their authority over the use of digital devices within an individual school setting and their extensive links to many communities and levels of hierarchy – from national, county, and city governments through to suppliers, teachers and their unions, parents… and, of course, students!
1. “The child that needed to grow up”…
… depicted a climate-ravaged postcapitalist world on the brink of collapse where children and teens self-educated across age groups in advanced virtual environments, assisted by smart software agents. Education was more about exploration than instruction, and the increased independence and responsibility demanded of older learners challenged the current boundary between adulthood and adolescence.
2. “Norway Prime”
In “Norway Prime”, Norwegians were employees as much as citizens in a world of corporate dominance: big business and the state were deeply entwined. Surveillance was the norm, privacy was dead, and machine intelligence provided people with physical comfort at the price of their conformity. In this scenario, the last battleground between parents and institutions was children’s health and wellbeing, as carers argued, against the prescriptions of “the algorithm”, that they knew what was best for their children.
3. “Make Norway Great Again”
In “Make Norway Great Again”, oil-rich Norway’s plans for “life after fossil fuels” collapsed after a series of economic and financial shocks, sending the nation into spiralling decline. Schools remained remarkably similar to the institutions we know today but operated in an impoverished environment characterised by social tensions and authoritarian politics.
Putting the scenarios to work
The workshop outputs were refined and published  in March 2020, as Norway was challenged by its first COVID cases. Several issues identified in the scenarios swiftly rose to prominence. Young learners working remotely from home did have to take more responsibility for their learning [i.e. 5]. Norwegian parents, whose assessment of COVID’s threat to their children’s health differed from that of the state, lobbied for school closures on Facebook . And the economic shocks of COVID, including the slowing of the oil market, caused Norway to engage in public spending at a scale unprecedented in peacetime, breaking a self-imposed cap on the nation’s sovereign wealth fund .
Our scenarios did not predict any of these things, but these visions of 2050 had surfaced issues and tensions with profound implications for the digitalisation of education in Norway. A conversation about the future in October 2019 had successfully highlighted significant contextual forces which were not typically considered in policy documents such as the Norwegian Ministry of Education’s “The School of the Future” . The scenarios continue to be used by workshop participants and other Norwegian education stakeholders as they navigate the ongoing turbulence of the pandemic.
Conclusion: Uses of the unwritten future
Based on our experience, we argue that scenario planning offers an important and appropriate methodological tool to help researchers in the humanities and social sciences to engage with and challenge assumptions relating to existing research problems and to develop new knowledge and future-oriented solutions. By engaging diverse perspectives from across the education ecosystem, scenario planning brings stakeholders together on the common ground of an unwritten future, helping to reframe contemporary debates and “learn from futures you didn’t see coming”.
 Financial Times. (2020). Coronavirus: The moment for helicopter money. https://www.ft.com/content/abd6bbd0-6a9f-11ea-800d-da70cff6e4d3
 University of Oslo. (2021). Screen Cultures. https://www.hf.uio.no/english/research/strategic-research-areas/screen-cultures/
 University of Oslo. (2021). Living the Nordic Model. https://www.uio.no/english/research/strategic-research-areas/nordic/research/research-groups/living-the-nordic-model/
 Finch, M. (2020). Schools and/or screens: Scenarios for the digitalisation of education in Norway. https://booksadventures.files.wordpress.com/2020/03/oslo-future-of-schools-scenarios.pdf
 European Commission. (2021). COVID online presence: more risks for children and more digital skills for parents to mitigate them. https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/news/covid-online-presence-more-risks-children-and-more-digital-skills-parents-mitigate-them
 VG. (2020). Holder barna hjemme fra skolen. https://www.vg.no/nyheter/innenriks/i/b52er5/holder-barna-hjemme-fra-skolen-har-et-kollektivt-ansvar-for-aa-begrense-spredningen
 Reuters. (2020). Norway shatters wealth fund spending cap amid pandemic. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-norway-budget-idUSKBN22O1IR?taid=5ebaa9a13e01670001c545a4
 Regjeringen. (2015). NOU 2015:8 The school of the future: Renewal of subjects and competences. https://www.regjeringen.no/en/dokumenter/nou-2015-8/id2417001/
About the authors
Niamh Ní Bhroin is a Researcher at the Department of Media and Communication at the University of Oslo and a member of the CO:RE project. Her research focuses on children’s and young people’s use of new media and on related research ethical issues.
Steffen Krüger is Head of the Screen Cultures initiative at the Faculty of Humanities and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Media and Communication at the University of Oslo.
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