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Interview: Catching Up With Judge Melissa Highton From The University of Edinburgh

By Jemima Morrow | Published: 24th August 2021

We had the pleasure of catching up with Melissa Highton, one of our DEA judges in 2020, who will be sitting on the panel again in 2021. Melissa is in charge of online learning at the University of Edinburgh. We sat down for an in-depth chat about her role at the University.

Can you tell us about your role at the University of Edinburgh?

I’m Assistant Principal for Online Learning which means that I look after our full portfolio of online courses as well as looking after the online platforms and technology that the university uses for on campus teaching. The online courses that I oversee includes 70 Masters Courses and 80 MOOCs, which stands for Massive Open Online Courses.

I aim to use online learning to make it attainable for as many people as possible to study at the University of Edinburgh. We want to reach a wide audience and we achieve this by partnering with online learning organisations such as FutureLearn, Coursera and edX.

Is the University’s student base mainly online or in person? And are there any significant differences between these two demographics?

We have 40,000 on campus students and 10,000 distance learning students and 3.5 million students studying MOOCs. The overall demographic of online students is different to that of our on campus students. For example we have greater diversity in our online students because they’re studying with us from all over the world. Additionally, a lot of distance learners are older than on campus learners and we’ve found that more of them are women. Distance learners tend to be older because they are studying alongside full time work and may even be learning as a result of their employer paying for their course. It all comes down to people striving towards lifelong learning and fitting their study into their lives in a way that works for them.

What types of study are the most popular at the University of Edinburgh and why?

People love short courses! Our short courses can be stacked together to create a qualification from the University of Edinburgh. I think they’re so popular because people are busy and short courses allow people to more easily slot them into their lives. Our short courses can take as little time as 4-6 weeks and allow the student to work flexibly, I believe that these courses will only continue to grow in popularity.

Which future technology trends do you think will have an impact on online learning in universities and what do you think online learning is going to look like in a post-pandemic world?

A huge change that we’re seeing this year and one we’ll continue to see post-pandemic is the quality of online classrooms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Collaborate and Gather. Technology is able to bring people together online and I think the organisations behind these platforms will continue to work on improving the technology to be the best it can be. This will increase competition and we’ll see a lot more players come into the market, which will in turn put emphasis on quality assurance, making sure that people are receiving quality services. I also think that tools for sharing content will become increasingly important, whereby content can be uploaded onto a platform and viewed by many. It’s so important that content can be used by many and having open educational resources is vital for online learning. Wealthy institutions need to prioritise making their content available to those who have fewer resources. This also fits in with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which focus on making the world a better place and are aligned to our goals at the University of Edinburgh.

For more information about online learning at the University of Edinburgh please visit: Online learning | The University of Edinburgh


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