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Professor Nigel Spencer, Professor for Education Innovation and Professional Practice

Nigel Spencer is Professor for Education Innovation and Professional Practice in the School of Law. He talks to us about broadening Queen Mary’s executive education offering and leadership development. Nigel has recently launched one of Queen Mary’s flagship specialisations on Coursera – Leadership Out Of The Box – which is now available to all staff and students.


Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve worked at Queen Mary

I was linked originally to Queen Mary’s Law School since 2013 – at that time I was working in an international law firm (Reed Smith) where I was responsible globally for all the training and leadership development. I wanted to help undergraduates gain practical, workplace experience to build their confidence and skills before entering the workplace - so with Queen Mary I created a year-long work placement degree option, which we still run 10 years later! In this option, third-year undergraduate law students can go and work in legal practices for a year.

I then joined the Law School at Queen Mary in this role in 2020, with the aim of developing more work professional practice opportunities for students, and also developing Executive Education courses, including digital ones. We’ve created a Hub for Professional Practice in the Law School to emphasise all this work we do –  alongside the award-winning Legal Advice Centre which the Law School has too, offering students practical learning opportunities.

Describe your average day/week

My weeks are wonderfully varied! I might be speaking with employers to create more placement opportunities, working with industry experts to create Executive Education courses, and also speaking externally, researching and writing. For example, I am just completing a manuscript for a book on leadership in the legal sector to guide legal services practitioners on how to develop their careers as leaders in firms. 

Also I work with students, creating skills courses for them, and coaching them as they apply for graduate jobs, and we created a podcast too (ReImagine Law) which now has over 100 episodes – aiming to help students to plan their career in the legal sector.

Finally, I am often asked to speak about how to best develop lawyers and their careers from my 15+ years of leadership development in the legal sector.

You’ve recently launched one of Queen Mary’s flagship specialisations on Coursera, Leadership Out Of The Box. Can you tell us more about this and how you came to be involved? 

At Queen Mary we have always wanted to broaden access to education – inclusion and global engagement are key elements of our Strategy 2030 at the University. So one Executive Education project I was tasked with was creating an online, digital course on Leadership which would be available on a global learning platform, Coursera. 

Coursera’s platform has over 125 million learners looking for courses to develop themselves, and our course (like all others on the platform) is available to all those people for a very low fee, a few hundred dollars – and learners get a Queen Mary certificate for completing it! So again, the goal is making this good quality learning as broadly accessible as possible. You work through the material at your own pace, a few hours a week around your other commitments – and you can take the course in 18 languages!  

We also run quarterly live drop-in sessions and it has been great to connect with learners across the world: we have leaders taking the course dial in from the US, Europe, all across Africa and Asia, and we have a community of nearly 8,000 global learners now

The course (and others created by the University) is also available now to all the Queen Mary community: all students and staff can join and enjoy the courses for free using their Queen Mary email address – so we hope that our students, colleagues, and alumni will enjoy it and find it as helpful as the other global learners.

 To access the programme,

  1. You’ll first need to create a Coursera account via the ‘Join for Free’ button
  2. Then use this link to join the Queen Mary Learning Programme

Have you been surprised by its success? 

I’m not sure if I’m surprised, but I’m pleased that the design we put together has worked for a very broad audience globally. For example, one of the challenges is designing a course for a very broad audience, is that they might work in any country and industry sector, or for type of organisation: a private company, a government department or they might be university students or staff.

We therefore decided to keep it really practical and give some tips and ideas on leadership which are widely applicable. So, we structured the course around key themes such as: understanding the context you are leading within (your type of organisation); stepping up into a first leadership role; managing and leading a team; and finally, leading a whole organisation.

For each step we tried to cover what are the challenges but give very practical ideas on what you actually need to do on a daily basis – and people have said to us that this is very helpful.

Can you talk us through some of the complex operational aspects of running digital education provisions and why it’s important? 

The design was complex for this one especially because it is what you call 'asynchronous' digital learning – in other words, people work through the resources without your intervention or you being there and running live tutorials or lectures. So, you need to think about what they need, especially to stay engaged, and how you can create that sense of “learner community”.

We did this by putting into the course lots of quizzes, exercises where students had to reflect themselves and also submit work which other learners had to then comment on – also that’s why we voluntarily added in the live drop-ins every quarter, to maintain engagement and help learners, giving them space to discuss ideas with each other, and with us as faculty!

So the complexity is how you can inject into the course all those interactive parts. It’s really like designing a complex audio book: there were over 90 short videos, and all the quizzes, exercises which were about 800 pages in total before we put them into the Coursera template!  We started with a very large story-board of the whole course, week by week, for all 16 weeks of the content, and then developed it from there, so it’s a big undertaking – and complex to do from a learning design perspective

What do you see as your role in helping the University achieve its Strategy 2030?   

I mentioned above that I can see how the digital learning we have created helps to achieve one of Queen Mary’s main goals of generating new knowledge and – especially – of engaging not only locally, but also nationally and internationally. The digital learning course for Executives we have created does exactly this because there are quite literally no boundaries!  You can access it anywhere, and learn in your own time, fitting it into your schedule, and it does not cost thousands of dollars – which most Executive courses on leadership do!

More broadly in my role, all the work placement opportunities and experiences we are creating for students really help them too – and especially those who are perhaps the first generation in their families to go to university. These work opportunities allow them to build their CVs, professional networks and confidence as they begin to explore which careers might give them a sense of fulfilment. So again, that is helping to broaden access and opportunity, increase social mobility, and “unleash potential” as we say in the Strategy 2030!

What’s your favourite principle of leadership that you think could help with everyday life?  

I think one point to remember is leadership is about taking action where you see something needs to be done – so you don’t have to be senior to be a leader, anyone can step in, make a difference and show leadership – even early in your career. And linked to that, role modelling the behaviours you want to see others exhibit too is massively important.

What’s your favourite place on any of our campuses?   

I love the Regent’s Canal running down the side of the Mile End Campus – it’s a great place to stop and think, and gives a feeling of space too.

If you could tell a prospective student one thing about Queen Mary, what would it be? 

That you’ll find an incredibly diverse community of fellow students, and also that it’s a university which really believes in building both knowledge and skills – and that’s not true of many other Russell Group universities – so I think for your future, it gives you a great developmental experience, very well-rounded!

Do you have any hobbies, pastimes outside of work? 

I’m quite a sports fanatic, so interested in lots of different sports, cricket and football to name just two! Also, I love Classical history and archaeology – that was the subject I studied originally!  And with my wife being Greek, and having lived in Greece while I was studying and researching for my doctorate (many years ago now!), I love reading about the history and ancient cultures in the Mediterranean.

Are there any Queen Mary activities you’d recommend staff getting involved with?

I would say always look out for the University’s CPD offerings to keep developing yourself as you go through your career. I’m a massive fan of the idea of lifelong learning, and think that gives us always a good focus.  As the wonderful Greek poet Constantine Cavafy said in his lovely poem Ithaca, life is about the journey and being in the present to take the learning from that, not just about the destination.  So we all need to focus on the now and enjoy every step of the journey!


Nigel is also a champion of educational scholarships. Read more about some of the scholarship projects he has been part of and how that work has contributed to his career progression.



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