Teaching neurodivergent students

This is an interview with Giorgia Pigato from QM Academy.

Could you say a little bit about yourself and your job?

I have been at QMUL for over two years working in QM Academy as an education advisor and work on PGCAP to improve practice and help people to get qualifications in teaching. I support staff through advanced HE fellowships where I am a mentor. I am also a reviewer for the SEED award. QM academy delivers webinars and workshops on different teaching areas and I regularly run a webinar together with Disability and Dyslexia Service and the Neurodivergent Student Society: Developing Inclusive Education for neurodivergent learners. It can be booked on QM training platform https://cpd-training.qmul.ac.uk/totara/dashboard/index.php

What is this SEED award?

The SEED award is a recognition programme for students who do peer teaching or work with students to improve teaching practice.

What is the starting point for teaching ND students?

I have gone through a learning process in recent years. We need to focus on changing the context and the environment. We begin with understanding that there is huge learners’ variability in our programmes and we should have an idea of what challenges those individuals face. However, not every ND student will want to share their diagnosis and some may be undiagnosed. The range of learning differences is very wide and hence it is difficult to generalise. Traits that autistics students show might be the opposite of those for students with ADHD. We need to think of proactive inclusive design even before we step into the classroom and not only on individual adjustments.

If I am teaching a big class what are the most important things I can do as a lecturer?

Set expectations and be clear in your communications. Sometimes we take things for granted, for example that students know what is expected in terms of engagement, attendance, participation, behaviour and workload. A variety of formats to communicate can be useful: e.g. use QMPlus announcements but clearly repeat these in class. A video introducing ourself as a lecturer with a short intro to the module can help some students feel at ease. A statement about inclusivity can also students feel welcomed. [Note: example inclusivity statements are shared at the bottom of this interview.]

For example assessment criteria can be confusing for some students. I recorded a short video for assessment criteria using accessible language to explain more clearly with examples. Very long texts with information buried within this can really disadvantage some students.

We mentioned some specific issues like ADHD and autism how would you change your teaching if those students are present in your class?

We should consider making changes even if we do not know students with those conditions are present. Autistic students process senses in a different way and might really suffer if rooms are extremely crowded or poorly ventilated. Audio might be experienced in a different way. Use a microphone even if you are not asked because it may be hard for students to come forward and ask. Some behaviours may seem disruptive like wearing headphones, doodling, crochetting or not making eye contact. It is good to make students feel these behaviours are OK as for some students these activities can help alleviate stress. For students with ADHD you can insert short breaks into long sessions. If these be embedded and will help those students to understand and change the rhythm. For example a few minutes to talk to students next to them about the class could be a beneficial break. But it is important to announce these things in advance. Rather than saying “any questions” and getting no response asking students to write a concept they found hard and one they found easy. Letting students have material in advance can make some students with neurodiversity more comfortable. We offer lots of practical strategies in our webinars.

With classrooms sometimes we don’t have control of where we teach: for example ventilation or overcrowding?

In this case we just need to be aware that while we cannot control it we need to understand that some students might experience stress because of this. It is important to realise in some cases they are not over-reacting. I am working with the neurodivergent student society and their suggestions are reasonable and easy to implement: material given in advance, when there is a video then turn on text captions, make sure you are audible and use the microphone where possible. Group work can be very stressful for them (but a lot of students find this in general) so we need to be aware of this when we consider the option of group work and set the expectations here.

What about one-to-one settings when you are interacting with a PhD student or a project student who may have ND issues?

It could be that a student has not shared a diagnosis with you or even is undiagnosed. It is important to create the atmosphere where the student is comfortable to share either the diagnosis or the ways they prefer to interact which can help them. Ask the question “what can I do to help in this situation”? Dyslexia and Disability Support services at QMUL can provide advice to staff and students.

What do you say to people who worry about making things too easy?

My observation is that some colleagues worry we would lower academic standards if we are too inclusive. I can understand why people might say this but the really important point is that we do not have discriminatory barriers for certain groups while keeping learning challenging. Learning does require challenge and overcoming difficulties but these difficulties come from the concepts being taught they should not come from lack of knowledge or discrimination.

This is the inclusivity statement on my module:

“We are committed to creating a course that is inclusive and accessible. If you are encountering barriers, please let us know as soon as possible so we can determine if a design adjustment can be made. We are glad to consider creative solutions as long as they do not compromise the learning goals.

We are looking forward to working with you”.

This is inclusivity statement that I share in the Developing inclusive Education for neurodivergent learners:

“We care about your learning experience and success in this course. Everybody learns in a different way, at their own pace. Respect other people’s ways to do things. Together we’ll develop strategies to meet both your needs and the requirements of the course. If there are aspects of this course that prevent you from learning, let us know as soon as possible how we can help.”

Mental health and your PhD

AI generated image shows a student at a laptop with an ominous black cloud

This is an anonymous interview with a PhD student about mental health it talks frankly about depression and ADHD while studying.

Would you be comfortable sharing some background on mental health issues?

I was diagnosed with depression in my third year of undergraduate where I got to a crisis point. It got so severe that at one point I needed intervention at a train station from a passerby to stop me doing something stupid. Retrospectively this has been an issue with me since I was fifteen. I withdrew from my studies. At this time there were warning signs for ADHD (Attention Defecit Hyperactivity Disorder) but I thought that I was “too clever” to have that condition. As I passed through academia it became more clear that this was a problem and things started to fall apart.

How does ADHD feel from the inside when you are trying to study in depth?

It is incredibly hard to focus. I don’t know what schizophrenia is like but imagine your own voice talking over yourself. My version of ADHD is what would be called ADD in the past (attention deficit disorder). It makes my mind wander. A lot of people are surprised because when I feel triggered I talk a lot and it is very hard to shut me up. Some of the warning signs were there when I was a kid. I could not wait my turn to answer questions because I felt I was one of the smart kids and I wanted to answer.

Are there ways that people can interact that makes this easier?

Things being written down makes things easier. My thought processes can be non-linear. Sometimes when I seem to be listening my eyes have glossed over and I’m not really listening and have to reconstruct a conversation to catch up.

Are there any advantages to ADHD in studying?

It is a double-edged sword. It can be a super power but it can be an Achilles heel. I can have great attention to detail but then sometimes I can miss things. It is easy for me to find a rabbit-hole to go down. From a young age I always considered myself a scientist and one of the things I held in high esteem was that scientists observe and that this was a skill I should hone.

What parts of the PhD process do you feel are most challenging as a result of mental health issues?

Depression can be incredibly lonely. I work remotely and am quite often home alone which can be quite isolating. Then sometimes I come into the office and don’t get work done because I am talking to colleagues. I live a long way away and travel is expensive so being on a stipend means I cannot be in the office too much. I get bored incredibly quickly which can make things difficult. My biggest concern is that time is running out for my PhD when I am not making best use of my time.

What about writing papers and reports? How do these issues affect you then?

I think writing is not really my strong point. I love doing the research and the reading. Sometimes I have a concept in my head but it is very difficult to communicate. I have time blindness and I will blow through deadlines multiple times because I get too far “in the weeds” with following up on ideas. It is good when supervisors learn your strengths and weaknesses and know when to send a message saying “stop doing what you are doing”. One thing that really works for me is to have really small things to achieve that I can tick off from a list.

Are you ever offended by interactions with your supervisors in relation to mental health?

Yes and no. I find it quite hard to regulate my emotions when work is criticised. Sometimes very blunt feedback can be hurtful. Because I often lose interest in things I can quit things easily. My supervisors have been very supportive and understanding and helped me when I felt like giving up. On the other hand I can worry it makes them dismissive of my ideas at times.

What about interactions with fellow PhD students?

There are no major problems. I am a “people pleaser” and sometimes when I first meet people I can talk a bit too much. I takes a while before I can sit in comfortable silence. Countless times I have cancelled plans with friends because I can’t manage my workload or time because I prioritised my work badly.

What is your experience with the disability and dyslexia service?

I did not have my ADHD diagnosis until my first year. Up until the point of diagnosis the DDS was really good but after that it was really bad. Everyone I tried to contact was too overwhelmed to make time for me. People saying “you need to tell us what you need” is not very helpful when you are newly diagnosed and don’t know what you need. I took a break from study for my mental health during the first year of my PhD and reached out to DDS over the summer period. It felt like there was no service there during the summer holidays as the undergraduate students were away.

Active learning and inclusivity

This is an interview with Steph Fuller from Queen Mary Academy.

Example image of people doing design
Steph Fuller

Tell me a little bit about yourself?

I work in the Queen Mary Academy which delivers university-wide support for the development of education and research. We work with staff and students to develop and enhance their practice in teaching, learning, scholarship, research, and academic leadership. I am in the Education and Recognition team that runs training courses and provides continuing professional development opportunities for educators, as well as support for staff seeking recognition for their teaching through Advance HE Fellowships. I lead the taught programmes in education development, CILT (Certificate in Learning and Teaching) and PGCAP (Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice ) and am also involved in curriculum enhancement work. I am particularly interested in areas including inclusivity, active learning, curriculum development, and graduate attributes.

“Curriculum enhancement”, what precisely does that mean?

This is working together with academics to develop course design. So exploring, at a design level, if we can enhance courses to better meet student needs, improve their learning and better align them with Queen Mary Strategy. For example, we might look at changing assessment design, revising learning outcomes, enhancing inclusivity in course materials or embedding employability.

What does inclusivity in teaching mean to you?

It means creating an environment that enables all students to participate and to achieve their best regardless of their background or any differences. Often people think about diversifying content, for example what authors are represented in a reading list or diversity in the range of speakers we invite to talk to students. Teaching practices can also be more or less inclusive, and we want staff to consider how they can be inclusive in the way that they teach too and how they can create an inclusive learning environment.

You have a particular interest in active learning, how does that relate to inclusivity?

I am interested in active learning – active techniques are a very broad spectrum. At one end you might take a traditional lecture but break it up with quizzes and questions that are easy to integrate. This goes all the way to a flipped classroom where the “lecture” is a recording and the students apply the knowledge in groups or individually with the teaching staff coordinating this during contact time. Traditional lectures require students to engage individually in a very specific way to learn, and not all students find this easy, depending on their educational background, preferences or learning differences. Active learning can be a way to encourage and enable all students to engage deeply with content and actively apply their knowledge, enhancing their learning. Research shows that active learning is effective in enhancing student learning, and that it can reduce attainment gaps between groups.

In EECS we are often teaching large classes what techniques might work here?

If the students are used to traditional lectures then shifting immediately to flipped classroom for example can be a big step. Moving more gradually with small steps might be helpful, such as integrating Mentimeter quizzes into a lecture. Build in an active

element like this from the start and then you can add to it. You can include short exercises where students are paired or working in groups. A “minute paper” can also be useful, where students write for a minute what are the main concepts they learned, or what they found to be the “muddiest point,” (most unclear elements) of a lecture. This can then be collected by the lecturer perhaps on post it notes or online via Mentimeter / Padlet and used to guide future teaching or provide additional support materials if needed.

In large classes active participation can be stressful, particularly if students are not native English speakers. How can you make this easier?

Giving students warning that participation will be expected is important, so questions are not a surprise. Provide questions in advance of a session so students can prepare their response. Giving students time to work in small groups and present to each other and then having one student presenting for the group can work well. The inclusiveness of the whole setting is also important and setting ‘ground rules’ at the start of a module or semester can be useful. We can think about developing a “learning contract” together with students, setting out how they will engage with staff and with each other (e.g. respecting each other, listening to others, contributing to activities / discussions). This could be formally written down or demonstrated informally by encouraging behaviour that meets the learning contract.

What would you say is the key to inclusive learning?

There is no “one-size fits all”. You need to think about and understand who your students are. You need to be proactive about inclusive design and flexible in trying out approaches. Talk to your students – ask them how they want to engage and what would make them feel included. Taking a look at the Queen Mary Principles of Inclusive Curriculum is a great place to start!

The EECS female academic network

Dr Ekaterina Ivanova demonstrating human robot interaction

Dr Ekaterina Ivanova is setting up an network for female academics within EECS. We conducted a short interview to find out more.

Tell me a little about yourself

I am a new member of staff having started in January 2023 as lecturer in HCI. I study multi-modal human-robot interactions in various situations. I look at the rehabilitation of people in various situations for example children with cerebral palsy and how this could be aided by interactions with robots. I look a different modes of interactions with robots, for example, haptic, auditory and aim for something that can be useful in clinical practice.

What is the core idea behind the Female Academic Network (FAN)

I want to create a community where female academic at different levels from PhD to Professor can mix within EECS. The idea is an informal network that can do a number of things: collaboration for research, organisation of events and invitation for speakers. It would be a bottom up approach to create a network within EECS. I did something smaller when I was doing a postdoc at Imperial College with the Female Robotics club.

Tell me a bit more about the female robotics club

This was born during Covid (initially online and later in person) as a very informal group of colleagues who communicated together, cooked together, writing retreats and social events. It was not financed but entirely community organised as a very small scale but with very positive mental health and professional impacts.

How do you imagine the meetings for the FAN?

We want to start with a participative workshop to set expectations and agree on what the meetings will be like. The initial idea is to have team building event, invite great female speakers and have learning workshops or discussion of relevant politics.

What are your big hopes for the FAN?

One hope is to help women stay in research after the PhD and postdoc phase and to make the transition smoother. The network can provide role models for younger female researchers when not so many are available. The meetings can show female PhD and post docs what a pathway to success looks like for women. It’s a great opportunity for women who are part of the faculty to get to know each other and exchange ideas.

We are also planning a workshop for women of pre-university age and even younger to show them that engineering and computer science can be a good career for women. At London School of Mathematics and programming for children found that simple examples with robotics was great fun for the children and teaming up with the schools provided equipment.

We are currently applying for a small grant from EECS that can help fund invited speakers and events.

Who else is involved and how can people get involved if they are interested?

A number of people are already part of FAN: Aisha Abuelmaatti, Maria Liakata, Julia Ive, Laurissa Tokarchuk, Michaela Macdonald, Mahesha Samaratunga.

If people want to find out more contact me (Ekaterina). It would be great to have more people involved in organisation and contributing ideas.

The importance of Mental Health during a PhD

An interview with Sara Cardinale, a 3rd year PhD student at EECS QMUL on her PhD journey and mental health.

Interview conducted by Elona Shatri

Let's begin by asking you about your initial expectations when you started your PhD journey.

I had a decent idea of what a PhD entailed since I’d seen my partner go through two years of his own PhD. We often discussed what it was like, so I felt well-informed about my responsibilities and the process. However, once I started, it turned out to be as I expected, just more challenging in various ways. My partner’s PhD was in a different field, and we are different people, so our experiences differed, and the challenges I faced were different from his.

How have these initial expectations evolved over time?

Our journeys were distinct, and my insecurities were different from his. For instance, I lacked confidence in machine learning and had to learn it from scratch, while many around me were already proficient. Additionally, my first year was demanding due to the numerous modules I had to complete, whereas my partner’s PhD program had none, making my first year particularly challenging.

Have the issues you faced at the start of your PhD evolved? Have you worked on improving your confidence and addressing the areas where you felt you fell short of your expectations?

Yes, I’ve come to realise that most PhD students face uncertainty. On the surface, they may appear confident, but when you discuss their research, they often admit to not knowing what they’ll do next. Recognising that this is a common issue has been reassuring.

Imposter syndrome affects many of us to varying degrees. We all struggle with similar issues, but there's often a stigma attached to admitting a lack of self-confidence. Do you think being a woman in a male-dominated academic environment played a role in this?

Absolutely, especially considering my upbringing in Italy where there were stereotypes about math not being for women. Transitioning from that mindset to realising my passion for computer science was a significant journey.

When did you first become aware that you were struggling with your mental health?

The first year of my PhD was overwhelming due to the workload and external expectations. I also felt unsupported by certain staff members. It all came to a head around April, which coincided with exam season. My lectures were online, as were the exams. That’s when I realised I needed professional help.

Were there specific triggers or experiences that brought this to your attention?

It was a combination of external expectations and my own high standards. I was trying to excel in everything, and my supervisor wanted me to publish a paper, which added to the stress.

How have your advisors, peers, and the broader academic community supported you in dealing with your mental health challenges?

Most of the staff were helpful, especially during a difficult period in April 2022 when I needed accommodations for an exam. However, there’s room for improvement in educating staff about mental health. Some well-intentioned advice was either incorrect or unhelpful. Ideally, they should refer students to counselling.

What about your peers? Did you find individuals within your cohort who could relate to your experiences?

During tough times, I tended to isolate myself, especially when I started taking antidepressants. However, I reached out to a few people, including yourself and others, and realised that many were dealing with mental health issues, not just related to their PhDs. Talking to them was beneficial.

Moving on, what strategies or practices have been most helpful in managing your mental health throughout your PhD?

Therapy has been incredibly beneficial. Also, I am open with people, including my advisor, about my high expectations and the need for boundaries. Discussing my plans with my advisor helps in managing expectations and time effectively.

Has your mental health affected your research and academic output?

Yes, it has. While I’ve tried not to let it impact my work, there have been fluctuations in my productivity. For instance, I had a challenging period in July, but it wasn’t as severe as some earlier experiences. Despite the difficulties, I managed to publish a paper during my first year and complete my modules.

Did achieving these milestones boost your self-confidence?

Yes, it did to some extent, but it also felt forced. I was pressured into publishing a paper shortly after a stage-zero presentation, which wasn’t ideal. I should have taken more time for myself.

Are there specific resources or services at Queen Mary or within the academic community that you accessed or wished were available to support students facing similar challenges?

I personally haven’t needed these services, as I can afford therapy with my PhD stipend. However, I’m aware that master’s students and undergraduates without financial support might benefit from such services. I did use counseling services at my previous university, which was helpful.

What advice would you give to other PhD students dealing with similar challenges, or those who might not recognise the signs?

If you recognise the signs, reach out to people. You don’t have to go through this alone. There are others who have faced similar situations and can relate to your feelings. Opening up can lead to finding support and helpful techniques. If you notice someone else is struggling, encourage them to seek help and take breaks when needed. Therapy is also highly beneficial.

How do you envision your path forward, both in terms of research and your mental well-being? Are there changes or shifts you hope to see in the academic environment to better support this journey?

Moving forward, I plan to be more attuned to signs of burnout and declining mental health. It’s crucial to prioritise self-care and set realistic expectations. Imposter syndrome is prevalent in academia, and acknowledging this normalcy is essential. Academic environments should provide more education about mental health to better support students. Expectations in academia can be excessively high, and understanding this can be reassuring.

Navigating Academia with a Newborn: An Intimate Conversation 

In this interview conducted by Elona Shatri, Inês De Almeida Nolasco, a PhD student at QMUL, provides an account of her journey starting academic pursuits while expecting. She elaborates on the challenges of navigating both her research and new motherhood amidst the unprecedented circumstances of a global pandemic, offering a nuanced perspective on the institutional support systems and the broader implications for women in academia. 

Can you share your personal journey and experiences as a PhD student who had a baby during the pandemic? What were the key challenges you faced? 

I started my PhD in February 2020 when I was around five months pregnant, and around the end of March, I started working from home due to the pandemic.  

Everyone at that time was struggling with the uncertainty of a novel situation and dealing with something no one had experienced before. It wasn’t very different for me. The main challenge was the ever-evolving protocols from care services as they adapted to the escalating situation. For instance, I never thought I would ask for breastfeeding advice over a video call. There was also a strong feeling of isolation and lack of support from our families, who could not travel to the UK, which was very difficult to accept.  

Nonetheless, I also have very warm memories of those times while trying to get behind the first stage of the PhD and planning the birth and life with a newborn rendered lockdown and pandemic to the background.

How did the interruption in your PhD studies impact your academic progress and career aspirations? 

I took six months off, and my funding and PhD finish date was extended. Other than the odd conference I may have missed during that time, there wasn’t a significant impact on my academic progress.

However, it was hard restarting work after some time away and a significant shift in priorities. It didn’t help that the pandemic at that time was still not entirely resolved, and my partner and I were still adapting to life with a baby. My mind was definitely not in the right frame to develop work at the level I felt was expected to.  

3. Could you elaborate on the support systems or resources that were available to you as a PhD student and new parent within EECS at QMUL? Were there any areas where you felt additional support was needed? Were there any specific institutional or departmental policies that supported you during this time?

“It is sad that having a child while studying for a PhD feels like an immense privilege. “

Regarding financial support, I’m a student funded by the ESPRC, which paid for my 6-month maternity leave, and the Westfield Nursery provides a discount to QMUL staff and students. These are hugely important but still far from enough to support new parents, particularly, moms. For example, more than my monthly stipend goes directly into paying the nursery fees; this means I would probably not have been able to continue studying if I didn’t have a supporting partner. 

The scenario gets even more grim because PhD students receive a nontaxable stipend; we are not considered employees, which means that I need to be eligible for most government support programs like the 30-hour free childcare or the tax-free childcare. 

It is sad that having a child while studying for a PhD feels like an immense privilege. 

In terms of academic accommodations, did you find that the university was flexible and accommodating in adjusting deadlines, workload, or other academic responsibilities due to your circumstances? 

Unfortunately, after maternity leave, you are expected to restart working full-time and still fall within the progression deadlines of the PhD (shifted for the duration of maternity leave). This is hugely unrealistic due to the demands of having a new baby, which creates immense and unnecessary pressure on the students. What happens frequently is that, if possible, parents transfer to a part-time working regime, but that means a considerable pay cut.  

The job of managing deadlines and adjusting workload is left to the supervision team and student, and although it makes sense to assess each case on an individual level, this means that the process is very subjective to the relationship and understanding one has with one’s supervisors. I’m grateful to my supervisors, who have shown great support and understanding.

What advice or recommendations would you give to other women pursuing a PhD who are considering having children or those who may face similar experiences in their academic journey? 

I recommend not disregarding the immense shift in focus after having a baby. It might not happen to everyone, but it was huge and very unexpected for me. Suddenly, the PhD was not the main thing on my mind, making me question if I should continue it. 

Also, it helps to plan and take advantage of every opportunity and support available to you. If I could go back, I would have taken more maternity leave; six months later, it was too early to return to work!

Regarding childcare and work-life balance, what strategies or arrangements did you find most helpful in balancing your academic responsibilities and parenting duties?

Nursery is an absolute necessity; other than that, it hugely helps to have close friends or family who can offer some help during work peaks or approaching deadlines.

If not for other factors, the best time to have a kid is during a PhD; the flexibility it provides is super helpful in managing the day-to-day. 

From your perspective, how can EECS at QMUL enhance diversity and inclusivity, particularly for women and parents pursuing PhDs? Are there specific initiatives or changes you would recommend?

The mental load and stress of complying with the same schedule of PhD progression as before has been hard to manage. Given the financial consequences of transferring to a part-time working regime, this is not an option for many. 

Another point is related to our status as students, which means we are not eligible for most childcare support from the government. 

In my experience, these are the main issues which the universities could try to address either by creating different pathways for new parents or increasing the financial support offered.

Interview: Professor Yue Chen (Director of Scholarship)

Professor Yue Chen has moved into a new role as Director of Scholarship. This interview explores what the role means and why she feels passionate about it.

Prof Yue Chen Director of Scholarship

What is the Director of Scholarship role?

The main duty of the role is to look after scholarly activities and to support staff on teaching and scholarship contracts. Given advances in technologies universities are not a monopoly provider for high level education so it is important to look into our delivery to ensure our teaching is at a high level and is still relevant. School is still growing, we have around 5000 students including the Joint Programme in Beijing and around 150 academic staff. This creates big challenges that can be helped by investing in scholarship.

How would you define scholarship in this sense?

Exploration and reflection on teaching practice, teaching initiatives related to in-house teaching and supporting learners. I use the metaphor of a colour palette with three parts:
1) Scholarship for teaching and learning (improving teaching practice)
2) Educational research: using data analysis or other research methodology to explore pedagogy or particular areas such as student motivation.
3) Wellbeing, ethical issues and social justice.

What made the role attractive to you?

It seemed like natural progress after being Director of Education. That role was about ensuring the smooth operation of our day-to-day academic business. A school our size has lots of operational needs. In the role I was exposed to new ideas for assessment and education and I wanted more time to explore them. For example how does assessment change learners behaviour?

On that topic are students over-focused on optimising assessment results?

There is a very competitive job market and this makes students become more “strategic” on how they learn. Students are still starting at the same age but there are a lot of new things on the curriculum that they need to learn. Can we bring students back from a strategic way of learning? Can we give them a larger picture of education beyond what appears on a transcript? I want them to develop skills for critical thinking, the ability for life-long learning and to learn to solve complex problems. I also want to keep the human touch in teaching.

Could you explain that last phrase a little more?

New technologies support education and make it more convenient and flexible but this can have drawbacks. I want to make teaching personal. Thinking about my early education I remember seeing particular teachers as a role model, inspiring students. A student who was taught by an AI could never see it as a role model. I want to support students with understanding and empathy.

Often we are teaching at a large scale. How do we keep that empathy?

It is very hard to make teaching personal when we teach large classes but even then we could let students learn in more personal ways. Can we help students recognise the gaps in their learning? We can listen to their feedback and help them achieve learning outcomes without undue stress. For example students might have a “fear of missing out” where there are so many resources available. This can make students anxious and overworked which can have a negative impact.

What teaching methods do you see as most useful outside the traditional “broadcast” lecture?

1) We should understand students’ learning needs and level — a challenge of QMUL’s inclusive model means that we get students from a number of backgrounds. One option might be to diversify the way we assess students. Some students are disadvantaged by certain assessment styles and giving them a choice might help with this.

2) We should find the right pedagogy that fits the module we teach. Lots of people talk about the flipped classroom but, for example, this might be more useful in situations where students are more experienced as learners and more willing to engage in discussion.

3) It is important to be an effective learner ourselves. We need to expose ourselves to advanced technologies and understand their impact on teaching.

Book Review: Women in IT: Inspiring the Next Generation (2014), BCS Publishing

This review was written by our own Michaela Macdonald

I picked this book up at a BCS’s authors event last year with a certain amount of curiosity. This is a 2014 title and wondered, how much has changed within the industry regarding the systemic lack of diverse representation in the workplace in the UK IT sector. Firstly, if you would like to understand and dig deeper into the underlying reasons, you will not find them here. While the book provides a cursory background to the persisting gender imbalance in the sector, these are not studied in great detail.

The book exists as a part of a wider initiative by e-skills and BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, to inspire the next generation of IT professionals and academics so that the workforce truly represents the diverse users of technology. In three main parts – IT professionals, entrepreneurs, and academics – the book aims to create a positive impression of all the different careers possible in the tech industry through individual stories of women’s experiences. Many of the women featured have appeared on the annual list of the 25 most influential women in UK IT in the past. There is also a story from a former QMUL colleague, Nela Brown, a sound artist, musician, designer and technologist with a PhD in human-computer interaction. She founded G.Hack, an art and technology lab for female researchers at EECS, in 2011, aiming to create a supportive and women-friendly learning environment where skill sharing and hands-on experimental production can occur.

Secondly, notwithstanding the developments over the last decade, progress is still too slow. During the global pandemic, the IT sector experienced and unprecedented boom. In 2022, the gross value added (GVA) of the entire sector in the UK alone was £141.8 billion. And yet, companies are facing an enormous talent gap. Employers believe that the key to reducing the gender imbalance lies at an earlier stage – in schools, colleges, and universities – which is where the gender divide starts. Lower female participation rates exist at the GCSE level, with the gap increasing at A-level and continuing into higher education and, thus, the IT professional workforce. The lack of females taking IT-related qualifications directly impacts the proportion of females that are employed today as IT specialists. Businesses can only address inequality, make better products, and tackle the skill gap crisis by training and recruiting people from different, underrepresented backgrounds.

It’s not necessarily a book you will read from cover to cover, but it will certainly provide food for thought for educators and anyone looking for more diverse role models.

“Computing is too important to be left to men”. Karen Spärck Jones

Book review: “The Algorithmic Leader: How to Be Smart When Machines Are Smarter Than You” by Mike Walsh

This review is from Elona Shatri, a fourth-year PhD student at QMUL and a part of the Centre for Digital Music.

“The Algorithmic Leader: How to Be Smart When Machines Are Smarter Than You” by Mike Walsh provides an insightful and practical guide for those leading teams in the rapidly changing field of AI, as well as all industries that are transformed and impacted by AI. The book offers a thorough overview of how AI is changing different industries and proposes strategies for leaders to leverage this technology for growth and innovation. Specifically, the book draws attention to the importance of equity and inclusion in AI, and how they promote diversity and avoid bias in decision-making. The book is written in engaging and accessible language, and complex concepts are made easy to understand for readers with no background in AI.

What I liked about this book is the way it challenges traditional hierarchies and structures that can hinder innovation, and instead emphasizes a more collaborative and adaptive approach that embraces the potential of AI to augment human intelligence.

Wiki-editing event for International Women’s Day

On International Women’s Day, our team members Elona Shatri and Richard Clegg organised a Wikipedia editing event to create or enhance articles about inspiring women, particularly those in the STEM fields. Although Wikipedia is a widely used source of information, it has been criticized for its significant gender bias, with fewer articles about women and a greater tendency to delete those that do exist as “non-notable.” This gender gap in content and editors was highlighted when Dr. Donna Strickland’s Wikipedia article was deleted for being “non-notable” just before she won the Nobel Prize in Physics. 

The editing evening was held on March 8th, with a team of seven individuals working together to improve existing articles and create new ones. In keeping with the theme of the event, the team listened to a carefully curated playlist of music composed by women, which was available on Spotify. Through this event, we aimed to make a contribution to the representation of women on Wikipedia and promote greater gender balance in its content.