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Back to women in data

Melissa Highton

Picture by Lesley Martin, interview Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

Melissa Highton

Director of Learning, Teaching and Web Services, University of Edinburgh

A career in university tech will take you around the world. Universities use data to understand and improve the experience of staff and students. We develop new educational technology tools which change the way people learn

Tell us about your background and the journey to your current role?
I have worked at several large UK universities including University of London, University of Leeds and University of Oxford. I have been at Edinburgh in this role now for five years.

That sounds fascinating – so what does a typical day look like for you?
A typical day is never boring. We look after the university institutional systems for learning and teaching, online learning, media and web. The management of those and strategic thinking around how they support the university business is fascinating and challenging. I also work on future service development, being strategic about what the future could and should be for educational technology.

What specific projects do you have going on?
I work with partners from across the University to provide an on-campus student experience where technology enhances and optimises learning and teaching, and to establish and embed a framework for the development of digital literacy. Collectively, these measures ensure we meet student and staff expectations for world-class learning. Our services make a key contribution to the University strategic objective of leadership in learning, ensuring that students’ achievement is supported by the latest in learning technologies and that we are at the forefront of digital education. We provide opportunities for students and staff to develop the digital skills needed for work, study and teaching. We have a number of very large projects that involve everyone across the institution. I make sure that our systems support and deliver what the university needs. The data gathered from the systems and platforms used by staff and students enables us to understand and improve our services. We can make data-driven decisions about teaching innovation.

So you collect data on the back-end of these systems and platforms?
We have analytics tools that help us to get insights into how students are using lecture recordings, library catalogues, reading lists, virtual learning environments and online courses. The data acts as feedback to staff and students to enable them to make informed choices. We also have demographic data and user feedback. These are data sets from a very diverse student body.

How does this data link with GDPR?
The data is not linked to you personally. It provides large data sets for looking at trends, behaviours, activities and tells us what works and what doesn’t in terms of e-learning and workplace learning.

What are the biggest challenges with innovating these platforms?
The data is not easy to integrate, it comes in different forms, it is not disaggregated well and is not necessarily clean or tidy. We have to bring together data sets from different systems to answer questions. They all have very useful data but it’s bringing it together in useful ways which is challenging.

What are your ambitions or visions for these platforms?
We want to make sure that the platforms and the data they produce are as useful to the university as they can possibly be. My role is to make sure that the business benefits from its own technology and institutional data sets, to inform the improvement of teaching, learning and university experience.

Do you find your work – senior management at the university – supportive of women?
We aim to be a best practice employer with regard to tackling the gender gap in IT, information science and data science. We are one of the largest employers in the city and we compete with the big banks and famous tech companies in the city to attract and retain female staff.

In our workplace I have led a programme of diversity and inclusivity activities particularly targeted towards supporting women who work in tech roles. Diversity programmes and women in STEM programmes are notoriously hard to implement and evaluate and there needs to be a strong management commitment to make a shift happen. The work we do to support gender equality in IT at the University of Edinburgh has been planned, sustained, reported and evaluated and is an example of best practice amongst the university tech sector.

The more diversity we can find in our teams, the more I can be sure that our services and products meet the needs of the diverse students and staff in the university and the more creativity we can support, the more innovation and transformation we can deliver. It is vital that we position ourselves in the market as an inclusive employer.

What do you think about the recruitment and representation of women in wider data-driven areas?
When talking about the lack of women in digital technology, the focus tends to be on engaging the interest of girls and supporting women to become qualified in relevant areas. Without change within the industry itself, the women who pursue digital technology qualifications will still not remain in or be attracted to the sector.

think about ways in which we can create a more inclusive and attractive work culture where women aspire to stay. Business-wise, it make sense to retain valuable, experienced staff rather than having to train new staff.

When we take an intersectional approach to recognising that people’s identities and social positions at work – particularly in the technology industry – are shaped by multiple and interconnected factors, we have to pay attention to how long people have been working and where they are in their careers.

Is there anything in particular you would recommend to women and girls who would like to go in to those roles?
I think that people assume that working in STEM at a university means working in academic roles, but there are 100s of women in tech roles across the university. Women in STEM have a choice and many women choose their employer by looking at a range of things in the organisational culture – not just the job. They will look at the flexible working and work-life balance, and visible policies on these areas. The university is in a very good position to offer attractive rights and policies and to promote a culture that is open to diversity.

To nurture a pipeline of talent into the digital sector we offer students work experience. We get up-to-date ideas and creative thinking from them; they get real work experience and digital skills from us. The digital sector in Scotland is booming and students are hungry for work experience which will help them to succeed once they graduate. We look beyond the obvious STEM disciplines too. If you are not studying a STEM discipline the digital sector may be hard to enter, we can facilitate a pipeline for students to find their way into well-paid jobs and new digital work roles.
This is the fourth year I have hosted student interns and the numbers keep getting bigger. This is credit to all the Information Services Group managers who establish a range of interesting summer projects. We are gaining a reputation as a great place to work.

It is a competitive and growing international market. Universities around the world will try to recruit people with experience working with educational technology because the systems and learning platforms are specific to universities, colleges and schools. So if you are particularly expert in these systems, you can live and work anywhere in the world.

When you work at universities, you work alongside the best, most cutting-edge innovators. Institutions have in their computer science departments and business schools, the people who are designing the newest technology. Working in a research institution, I work with the people who are thinking about the next way that technology will change. It is a privilege to work in a research-led organisation. I have been very lucky to work in universities where people are setting the standards and thinking about the technology of tomorrow.

Is there anything in your work you wish you could do more of?
It would be great to disrupt some of the historical, structural inequalities and get more women into the areas of ed-tech, where they are under-represented. That would bring us new thinking in software engineering, VR design, AV tech, drone camerawork and the internet of things. I would disaggregate all our datasets for gender to better understand our users’ experiences and use our lecture recordings of women speakers to better train voice-recognition software. It is very important that the development of educational technology is informed by the most up-to-date thinking about bias and ethics. We could spend more time at institutional level thinking about that.

Of what are you most proud?
The University of Edinburgh has an excellent reputation, my educational technology teams are one of the most expert groups in any university. We have attracted amazing talent. When people look to work in a tech role at this university you can see a lot of positive messages about the experience of working here and the kinds of things we do.

Do you have a hero or heroine?
I have had some very amazing bosses and mentors. Having a mentor and being a mentor is a very important thing to do. It’s also important to be visible and to celebrate the women who blazed the trail before us. One of the things I am very pleased about is that we have recently named the boardrooms, training rooms, services and data centres after pioneering women and we continue to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day across the university.