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Queen Mary Academy

Dr Steven Buckingham

Meet Dr Steven Buckingham, Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Sciences, School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, and also one of the new Queen Mary Academy Fellows. In his profile, he talks about the work he is doing with the Academy, what it means to be a 'Director of Innovation and Good Practice' and his love of learning languages.

How long have you worked at Queen Mary?

Since September 2019.  A long, long time ago it seems, given all that has happened.

You’re taking on a new role as a Queen Mary Academy Fellow, what will you be working on?

I am creating a QMplus resource called The Blender for colleagues that will make it easy to adopt more blended approaches to learning. I did that for the School of Biomedical Sciences and Chemical Science (SBCS) and it still gets several hits a day. It is a no-nonsense site full of how-to’s, useful links and even plug-and-play learning objects that you can add to your QMplus site. Many of our teaching staff are busy researchers, and I want the best of teaching and learning research to be available to them without adding too much to their workloads. That way, even busy researchers can provide teaching informed by up-to-date research.

I will also be running a stream within the Queen Mary Festival of Education 2021. Although planning is in the early stages, I expect to be sharing some examples of innovative online teaching at Queen Mary in response to the pandemic. I’m excited to see how colleagues have solved problems such as teaching large groups or running practical learning activities over the past year.

The Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PGCAP) is the basic teaching requirement for lecturers. I am currently working with the PGCAP teaching team to introduce more content about blended learning, given that this is the direction we are currently heading at Queen Mary.

What other projects are you working on at the moment?

I am doing research into how staff attitudes to blended learning have changed over this academic year. I am also Chair of the Learning Environment Operations Group. This is a think-tank that monitors how our current learning environment stacks up against the industry gold standard

Starting in January, I will be involved in a research project to test the effectiveness of the online teaching of dance, in cooperation with the English National Ballet (I’m hoping for free tickets, even though I have no idea what ballet is about). It will look at the effectiveness of two or three different ways of teaching dance online. This is particularly interesting as dancing is one of the last things you would think could be successfully taught online!

I am also involved in a potential project to develop software that will provide insights into QMplus log data. Moodle logs all student interactions with QMplus. This is potentially a very rich source of information about the different strategies that students use when studying, and what sorts of activities are useful to them in practice. I think this complements student surveys, which are inevitably very limited. We could also identify patterns of online activity that predict a successful outcome. These patterns could be used in a number of ways including advising a student in real time of alternative study strategies should they be following a path we predict would result in a less favourable outcome, or we could identify good strategies of online learning and tell students about them.

You are also Director of Innovation and Good Practice? Can you tell us more about this role and what it involves?

This is a role I have in SBCS in which I keep an eye on the direction of travel we are taking in our teaching. I see it as ensuring that the students get the benefit of the results of all the research that goes on into how people learn, without burdening busy research staff unnecessarily. More generally, my role is to monitor the quality of teaching and make sure it fulfils expectations.

Despite my title in this role, I am not a blind devotee of innovation. But I am a great devotee of finding the best way of doing a job, without any loyalty to any particular tool or method. What is best for each job depends on your situation, and teaching environment is changing rapidly. The skills that are expected of our students has changed. I see my role as making sure that we don’t equip the students for today’s world, but rather that we equip them for tomorrow’s world.

Describe your average day/week.

Like anyone else, my days consist of juggling between competing priorities. Teaching comes first. I give first call to the students on my modules. They have given three years of their lives to learn with us, so I try to honour that trust. I spend about an hour a day answering student emails, seeing if anyone hasn’t logged in for a while, reading forums, preparing new learning objects.

I also generally have several queries a day from academics about how to deploy learning technologies in teaching design. I also spend time working on various committees centring on teaching and learning. What time I have left I spend reading about research into teaching and learning, or thinking up ways of interrogating logs to find objective measures of effectiveness. I also try to sneak in a bit of my own research when I can!

What’s the best thing about your job?

Helping people discover they can do something. It can be students who find they don’t get something difficult, or a member of staff worried about how to deliver a webinar. What I really like about Queen Mary is the appreciation people have when you help them. I have taught at several universities and the students here have amazed me with their gratitude when you go out of your way to help them. Same with staff.  I have been bowled over by the collegiate spirit over the summer when we faced the herculean task of changing our entire teaching design.

What do you see as your role in helping the University achieve its Strategy 2030 for education and the student experience?

Finding ways of making it easy for busy academics to deliver the best teaching in the country.  Convincing staff that designing their teaching so that students are more active in their learning is less work, and more satisfying, for the teacher. And more satisfying for their students.

Finding ways of making technology work for us: making teaching more effective by closing the loop between the student and the teacher; making sure that precious face-to-face time is used well; eliminating wasted time; and, finding out what really works.

I also want to help ensure that the momentum that we have gained since the pandemic in adopting blended learning approaches doesn’t get lost. The industry’s direction of movement overall is towards blended teaching and active learning, and this crisis has catapulted us forwards. I want to do all I can to capture the momentum and help us share the lessons we have learned.

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

The lecture theatres!  Bet you didn’t expect that.  Like most of us, I long for the day when we can be teaching face-to-face again.

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

In all honesty, I believe students get something special from Queen Mary. It is a top London university, but it is different to the rest, and that difference is in the teaching. I think that the staff care more about teaching here than they do in many other universities. That hackneyed word, “inclusivity”, is not just something we work at, it is part of our very history as the college of the East End. Something of that spirit of acceptance and variation still permeates the look and feel of the place.

Do you have any unusual hobbies, pastimes outside of work?

I love learning languages. I’m learning Azeri at the moment, but I have had a go at Susu, Esperanto, Danish, Sanskrit, Chinese, Swahili, Lojban, German, Italian, Samoan, Cornish, AngloSaxon, NT Greek, Latin…