Grappling with the pandemic has presented many challenges for Higher Education institutions, but similarly, the shift towards online learning has provided some unique opportunities for progress.
As Director of Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering, David Ingram has been responsible for making sure that online learning allows every student to study in a way that works for them.
Kitty Hadaway, GoodCourse’s EDI lead, sat down with David to learn more about the process he’s been through and how he’s engaged with students along the way.
I feel it’s important to mention that I’m dyslexic, because that part of my identity has shaped so many of my experiences in education as well as my career. I didn’t enjoy school very much and I didn’t particularly get on with my teachers. Then one day a school inspector sat in on a maths lesson and suggested that I should be moved into a higher set – which was somewhat of a turning point for me.
Around the same time, in the late seventies and early eighties, micro-computers started to become more widely available. I turned my maths abilities into a love of computing, and after finishing my A Levels I went on to study Maths, Statistics and Computing at the University of Greenwich.
My degree involved a placement year, and it was there that I met scientists who supported me during my practical work but who also sparked my desire to complete a research degree. After applying to as many universities as I could, I was offered a funded PhD place at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Diversity is crucial, but so is helping to undo some of the structural barriers that stop people from thriving once they make it to university.
I finished my degree there and became a reader shortly after. Then a teaching position opened up in engineering at the University of Edinburgh, and a friend encouraged me to go for it. I’m glad I did – but if you had told me when I was in school that one day I’d be a Professor, I never would have believed you!
I never planned to end up in an EDI role – it wasn’t even an option when I first became an academic. But I’ve always held a really strong belief that everyone should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential, no matter what it is they want to do in life.
Diversity is crucial, but so is helping to undo some of the structural barriers that stop people from thriving once they make it to university. That is always a goal for me in my work.
A lot of my time is spent supporting people who want to set up new procedures and processes to support equity, diversity and inclusion. That’s actually quite straightforward in the School of Engineering, because scientists are used to following rigorous processes and thinking in terms of risk. Mapping that onto minimising the risk of discrimination is surprisingly straightforward.
The pandemic has also thrown up a lot of opportunities to make things more accessible for all students. One change we took the opportunity to make was uploading all of our lecture content online, but dividing it into ten or fifteen-minute chunks.
The aim was to make sure that students wouldn’t spend all of their time at their laptops and get burnt out and we know that this change was particularly helpful for students with ADHD. There’s a shift in academia right now towards anticipating the problems students could face in accessing materials, rather than just dealing with them when they come up, and I think that this is very much the right approach.
We always speak to students affected by different issues as much as we can, to find out how much we’re getting right. But our Student Union actually does a lot of that work for us, and they do it extremely well. Recently a student working group brought together research and presented a paper on gender-based violence at Edinburgh, and I know that every member of staff has found this insightful and informative.
On top of speaking to students, we have also trained staff members to be EDI champions, so that they can support people who are shaping policies and courses across the university. The aim is always to ensure equality of opportunity, as well as equality of access.
I think that being upfront about your passion and how much you care about making a change can only be a good thing. Don’t hide the fact that you want things to be different.
I really admire Jane Smallman, who is a visiting professor at Edinburgh as well as the former Managing Director of HR Wallingford Research Station and a past president of the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science & Technology. She has done a lot of fantastic work in encouraging young women towards careers in engineering.
I don’t want to talk about a book, I want to talk about a website! I would suggest visiting the Royal Academy of Engineering’s website. They do a lot of fantastic diversity and outreach work, and their site is full of excellent resources, too.