Maren Deepwell (@marendeepwell) in conversation with… Melissa Highton (@honeybhighton)


Welcome to this regular interview series on the #altc blog. This time I am talking to a leader in our sector, Melissa Highton. Melissa is Assistant Principal and Director of Learning, Teaching and Web Services, University of Edinburgh, FCILIP, FHEA and one of the first Senior CMALT Holders globally as well as the Co-Chair of the 2019 ALT Annual Conference, taking place 3-5 September, in Edinburgh.

Maren: Tell us about what you are currently working on?

Melissa: At the moment I am working on trying to promote a career in university IT as an option for graduates and returners.
This seems to me to be a challenge for leadership and equality and diversity in our sector and I speak about it at tech events, HR seminars and recruitment fairs.

I feel that we have a sector imperative to ensure that the services and products we develop meet the diverse needs of our students and users, and I suspect diversity in our workforce can contribute to that business advantage. I wish we could to work together to make a career in university IT seem like an attractive choice for all.

Maren: What influences your work? 

Melissa: I am very aware of the context in which we work, within the university, in the tech sector and in Scotland. Edinburgh University learning technology group is a big recruiter with a lot of innovation so we need to attract and retain talent. I am particularly interested in the value of students as change agents in our organisation. Offering students work experience is a no-brainer for me. 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. If you are not studying a STEM discipline the digital sector may be hard to enter, we need a pipeline for students to find their way into well paid jobs and new roles.

Maren: Current recommended reading?  

Melissa: Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble (Author).

Maren: How do you make your to-do lists.. analogue or digital or both? 

Melissa: Both. I also hold a lot in my head, but this may not be entirely reliable.

Maren: On work travel, you are never without..? 

Melissa: A hermeneutic of suspicion.

Maren: Which learning technology makes the biggest difference to your work (and why)? 

Melissa: I pay a lot of attention to social media for work. Blogs and Twitter mostly. Reading and writing. I find Twitter to be a very useful way to keep up to date and colleagues are very kind when they recommend and share resources and news. I have been writing my own work blog for more than 10 years and I appreciate the work which others do when they write theirs. Blogging seems to me to be a key part of our open practice and (along with contributions to conferences) essential to creating a culture and social context for learning technology thinking.

Maren: Who are your learning technology heroes?

Melissa: I have been very lucky to work at some very good universities and with some really innovative thinkers. Sian Bayne and Ray Land got me started in learning technology, Aggie Booth taught me about VLEs, Allison Littlejohn told me about re-usable resources. Owen Stephens showed me library systems. Angela Newton and Helen Howard introduced me to Wikipedia, Tracey Stanley explained ITIL and service management. Stuart Lee and Sebastian Rahtz transformed my thinking about research and digital humanities. Daphne Koller and Michael Korcuska challenged me and Rebecca Eynon regularly sends me to the library to learn more.

Maren: If you had learning technology superpowers for a day, what would you change? 

Melissa: I’d have a busy day. I’d disrupt some of the historical, structural inequalities and get more women into the areas of edtech where they are underrepresented. That would bring us new thinking in software engineering, VR design, AV tech, drone camerawork and the internet of things. I’d 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. I’d do transformational make-over on the reputations of ‘maintenance’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘technical debt’ to make them the sexiest and most attractive parts of IT thinking and planning. I’d also give every university a Wikimedian in Residence and a playful environment for innovation. Then I’d have a gin and tonic.

Maren: What are your favourite hashtags? [or equivalent if you don’t use hashtags] 

Melissa: I follow conference hashtags when an event is on and I can’t be there.

Maren: What’s the best way for someone to learn more about what you do?  

Melissa: I write about all of these things on my blog, so that’s a good way. I am also available for conferences, seminars, meetings with senior management, dinners and bat-mitzvahs.

Maren: Thank you, Melissa, for talking with me #altc!

If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member.

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