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Programming the future of education

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Digital education expert Professor Sian Bayne is challenging us to see technology not just as a tool for learning, but as something that fundamentally alters how we learn.

Professor Sian Bayne wears a teal top and is sat with her chin resting on her hand smiling directly into camera.
Professor Sian Bayne

When we think of digital learning, often we picture a sole student, hunched over a tiny screen with eyes glazed. Research carried out at the University of Edinburgh shows that harnessing technology in the correct way can have a huge impact on online education and is a far cry from this outdated assumption.

“Education has changed a lot over the last 15 to 20 years as technologies have shifted,” explains Professor Sian Bayne, Director for the Centre for Research in Education at the University of Edinburgh. Her research challenges preconceptions of digital education and explores the possibilities of new technologies to make online learning more sustainable, effective and accessible.

The Covid crisis

In the current climate, it’s impossible to think about digital education without considering the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. “The Covid digital pivot was obviously a massive challenge for everyone working in all sectors of education,” says Professor Bayne. “It was hugely traumatic and difficult when the pandemic kicked off – students and staff all suffered.”

As we were forced to reconsider the use of digital technologies in everyday life, the role of online learning was thrown into the spotlight: “We have seen some really radical, rapid changes which are going to persist long after the pandemic is over.”

But although the situation put real strain on both parties, Professor Bayne is optimistic about its effect on digital education: “As a sector, it’s now becoming clear that – awful though it was – we are emerging out of it with a much stronger sense of the possibilities of creative digital education, and much greater confidence in working with learning technologies.

“It’s so important that we have a strong, critical research base which can help us understand the implications of these shifts, particularly their effects on vital social issues like access, equity, inclusion, privacy and the quality of teaching.”

Strong foundations

Professor Bayne and her team at the Centre for Research in Education are producing exactly that. Their interdisciplinary research in digital education focuses on knowledge exchange and impact, supporting real change in the way technologies are understood and used in education: “We research digital education in international contexts, trying to understand how it can support development agendas, and how cultural differences influence its use.

a woman sits looking at her iPad

“We have done a lot of work with museums and galleries around informal digital education, and we have a strong strand of work looking at the social, political and ethical impact of data society on education. Our Data Education in Schools team does fantastic work on data literacy and data citizenship within schools, and we have a great portfolio of research on the role of technology on the everyday lives of pre-school children.”


One of their first projects that marked a huge change in the landscape of digital education was the creation of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Professor Bayne shares more: “We were involved very early on with MOOCs – from as far back as 2012 when they were brand new and full of a sense of possibility! Our University was a real leader in this area.”

In 2013 the team was invited to become the first UK member of the Stanford University-based MOOC platform, Coursera, where they developed one of the very first courses. “It enabled social engagement between a massive cohort of learners – before that most platform MOOCs were about learners consuming content rather than about new forms of teaching and community building,” explains Professor Bayne. “We used our research to create dynamic, engaged ways of doing teaching at scale. Our MOOC – called E-learning and Digital Cultures – was very innovative at the time.”

a close up of a persons hands on a keyboard

Now these sorts of short online courses are much more common, but Professor Bayne is keen to remind us that their impact is still vital: “They remain a fantastic thing – a way of sharing our work and enabling millions of learners to benefit from our research. We now have a large portfolio of outstanding short courses that we offer from Edinburgh and they are so important in the way they enable us to reach out to learners globally.”

Beyond higher education

It’s not just higher education institutions that have been using short online courses, and seeing the benefits. After the launch of E-learning and Digital Cultures, Professor Bayne and her team were approached by the World Bank. She elaborates: “The open learning lead at the World Bank became aware of the MOOC, and liked the dynamic approach to engaging learners that we developed for that.”

Professor Bayne and her team consulted on the development of the World Bank MOOC portfolio: “The designs we developed underpinned a lot of the MOOCs they ended up offering. The first one we developed with them – called Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4 Degree Warmer World Must be Avoided – has reached over 39,000 learners in more than 180 countries.”

More than a tool

So what exactly is the best way to harness digital education and create this kind of impact? Professor Bayne has written extensively on the subject, and in 2020 her team published their Manifesto of Teach Online. Since then, it’s been translated into Spanish, Chinese and Croatian and used in teaching materials across the globe.

“It’s really exciting to see people using the Manifesto! Those of us in the author team regularly see the postcard version pinned up in offices all over the place,” says Professor Bayne. “It’s a piece of work we are very proud of.

“The Manifesto is important because it uses our research to make a strong set of statements about practice – in a way it’s one of the most direct mobilisations of our research agenda, and it’s helping stimulate discussion and inform change all over the world,” she continues. As this is such a fast-moving field, the team is already planning a third edition.

One of the key teachings of the manifesto, is to show that technology can be so much more than a singular aspect of online learning. Professor Bayne explains more: “There is still a tendency for people to see technology as a tool – in education this surfaces as an assumption that we can just use technology to make our teaching better, more efficient, more scalable, more responsive and so on.”

It’s this position that Professor Bayne and her team have been looking to counter through their research, and a reason why their work has had such impact. “The role of technology in society is much more complex than that instrumentalist view would have us believe,” continues Professor Bayne. “Technology doesn’t just extend practice – it changes it, and changes the landscape in which we work as educators.”

A woman sits at a home office desk

The pandemic also helped to challenge another assumption of digital learning that Professor Bayne and the team address in the Manifesto – that of it being inferior to in-person teaching. Professor Bayne elaborates: “We still see that a lot in public and media discourse and it’s so reductive. Our research has shown that it’s much more nuanced than that.

“Covid-19 has given us a lot of insight into how introducing elements of online teaching improves education – can make it more accessible, more engaging,” she continues, “But well before that we had developed in our own University and elsewhere so many examples of outstanding, top quality digital pedagogy. What we need in future is more confidence and flexibility in the way that we balance and mix modes to the benefit of our students.”

Leading the way

Looking back on the past few years, Professor Bayne is particularly proud of how the Centre and her team have grown since 2015: “We have a team of 20 academics and 25 PhD students doing incredible, important work now – I think our research is genuinely helping to make education better.”

Despite how far they’ve come, Professor Bayne still has ambitious plans for the future, especially through collaboration across subjects. Working with the Edinburgh Futures Institute, which provides the opportunity to tackle today’s challenges across disciplines to find new perspectives and solutions, is one possibility. She shares more: “There are areas of research we would like to grow – climate change and sustainable digital education, ethical data futures, and responsible and just digital education in international contexts. These are I think the main challenges for the field and for the sector generally over the coming decade, and we want to be in a position to lead those discussions. Connecting up with new work happening elsewhere in the University – in particular the Edinburgh Futures Institute – is going to really help us grow our understanding of these critical areas over the coming years.”