Professor Sian Bayne

Personal Chair of Digital Education, Moray House School of Education and Sport

Tell us about your background – what did you do at university and who inspired you?
My first degree was in English Literature and my second degree was my PhD in Cultural Studies and Digital Education, so I don’t come from a computational or quantitative background. My background is literary and cultural studies. In terms of who inspired me – I’m inspired by women who think deeply about the ways that data and digital are changing what it means to be human. Theorists and feminists like Rosi Braidotti and Katherine Hayles, who are doing amazing theoretical work across the disciplines on how data and digital are changing us on a societal, planetary and individual level.

What does a typical day look like for you now, in your job?
I’ll try my best to explain (laughs). As Director of Education for the Edinburgh Futures Institute, my days are generally very busy. The Futures Institute is going to occupy the old Royal Infirmary building in Lauriston Place, it’s a massive building and a massive programme of work that is part funded by the City Deal. My job there is to develop and design forward-looking education at postgraduate and undergraduate level, as well as incorporating executive and open education. Essentially, we’re interested in: what is education going to look like and how does it need to adapt to meet the needs of students going through university in the next 10-15 years. How can it meet the objectives of the City Region Deal? What we’re developing are very forward-looking and interdisciplinary programmes that take data skills seriously and are designed around global issues and complex questions that arise from the social sciences and humanities. I’m working with a terrific group of academics from across the University, developing new teaching on the future of society, education, creativity and much more. It’s a real collaboration between academics in the arts, humanities and social sciences, and those in the sciences, including data science. It’s a complex but really exciting piece of work. It feels like we are re-crafting the ways that education will look. That’s what I’m doing!
In terms of what my days looks like, they are very meeting-intensive. I connect with people across the whole of the University and beyond. I travel quite a bit to talk to other universities about the work we are doing on the future of teaching, particularly within Europe. Every day, I get to talk to really interesting colleagues with strong visions and big ideas. So, I’m lucky, lots of meetings quite a bit of travel. Also a fair amount of email to answer though, it has to be said!

Don’t we all!
(laughs) yes, it’s brilliant isn’t it? It never stops. As well as EFI I’m also Director of Research in Digital Education at the Moray House School of Education and Sport, so my job really varies working with really smart group of colleagues to build research within the School of Education around digital and data. I also have a cross-institutional role as Assistant Principal for Digital Education, which involves, again, lots of meetings! But it’s also a chance to do lots of big thinking about the future of digital education across the whole university.

What excites you the most?
It’s all exciting – and I’m not just saying that – the different parts of my job are all really exciting. We’ve just released a report on a recent project, which was about co-designing a shared vision for digital education across the university. We worked with over 400 academic staff, support staff, students to take a design approach to the future of teaching. This means it’s not so much about predicting technological change, as it’s about defining a preferred future – one that fits with our values as an institution and a community, one that we can work towards collectively. It’s called the Near Future Teaching project .

Amazing! And do you find your work supportive of women?
Yes – hmm. That’s a really broad and difficult question, isn’t it? There are a number of women in senior positions and it’s great that two of our Heads of College are female. We have some senior women in top levels of administration as well. So we have some brilliant, very strong women in very senior leadership roles and I think that’s great. I do feel supported in general and my colleagues, including male colleagues, are all keen to collectively build a strong model for women and for female leadership in the institution. I think we do better than many other universities. Academic work can be hard for women though, there are lots of tensions around balancing kids, life and the intensive workload that comes with academic work and leadership. Overall, I have felt very supported in building my career at this university. Nothing is perfect though, is it?

Absolutely. Is there anything you wish you could do more of?
No, I already have too much to do! (laughs) I am a professor and I feel I have a lot of autonomy in my work, which is not something that can be said by all women, or all colleagues here. I feel very lucky and privileged in that regard.

What do you think are the biggest challenges for women and girls that are going in to, or would like to go in to, the areas you’re working with?
This is an interesting one, from my perspective, and for anyone whose work stretches across different disciplines. My academic home is the School of Education and a lot of women work in education at all levels. But then, I’m also connected to the data world, where women are not generally so well represented. I straddle different areas so, with education, a lot of women lead, deliver, conceptualise and theorise in the area of education. In terms of data and digital, I think a primary issue is the expectations we build for girls’ futures and careers, coupled with the paradigms that remain in schools that encourage boys towards particular subject areas and girls towards others. Despite all the intervention and initiatives going on to disrupt this, this is still entrenched in many ways. Things are changing – I have a 10 year old daughter and the guiding expectations that applied in the past don’t seem to have the same grip in her life now. I hope it continues in this direction. It is true that technology careers have in the past not been that open for women but I am so hopeful for the future in data and digital, because so many women, like those you are speaking to for this project, are working to this agenda and shifting expectations surrounding women’s careers.
I know so many women who would probably identify as data scientists, who are redefining the rules and paving the way, carving out new territory for women in technology.

What are you proud of in your work?
I am really proud of the group of women working within the University at all levels who are making the change happen. The fact you have set up this work at DDI is so important and sending such a strong message about the need for our work in data and innovation to be inclusive, diverse, ethical, critical.

Would you mind sharing with us the best opportunity you’ve had in your career?
To be honest, being involved with Edinburgh Futures Institute and the DDI programme. It feels like a once-in-a-career opportunity, leading the educational programme here, to do something so impactful.

What do you look forward in your work?
I look forward to making change happen. I look forward to maybe, in 25 years’ time, lying on a beach (laughs) and thinking ‘we really did something amazing there, we really made it happen, we changed things and we made the University even better for students and for our global community’.

If you could improve something in your work, what would it be?
It would be – making it easier for colleagues to work across discipline areas to make new kinds of teaching and research possible. If we could make it easier for, say, people in humanities and medical science or data science to collaborate and teach together, we would be on to a really good thing. Interdisciplinary working on a structural level is what I’d like to wave a magic wand at.

Finally, who is your hero or heroine?
Does it have to be one person? I have so many. I’d probably go with one of the medieval abbesses like Hildegard of Bingen. Women who wielded power at a time when that was rare, they were often polymaths, fluent in so many ways of making sense of the world, from music to maths, healing, history, politics. Heroes!

What do you do when the working day is over?
Cook, read, sleep, in that order.

Image of Professor Sian Bayne
Picture by Lesley Martin, interview by Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

I know so many women who would probably identify as data scientists, who are redefining the rules and paving the way, carving out new territory for women in technology

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