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Higher education and the data revolution

Written by Luke Burns


A STAGGERING total of 90 per cent of the world’s data has been generated in just the past two years. But what does this ‘data revolution’ mean for higher education, students and the way they are taught? LITE Teaching Project Enhancement Leader, Dr Luke Burns, explores here this changing world.

We are awash with data, whether these be more traditional datasets such as school performance statistics or store revenue estimations or newer forms of what we now term ‘Big Data’.

These new and exciting datasets include social media interactions like Facebook check-ins or geolocated tweets and data generated from a wide range of daily activities such as loyalty card swipes, mobile phone usage, credit card spends and internet searches.

There is no doubt that we live in a data rich society so much so that 90% of the world’s data has been generated in the past two years, and that is one statistic that we should sit up and take notice of.

As educators, we need to both enthuse and nurture the next generation of the workforce where such data and analytical skills will only grow in importance.

The ‘data revolution’ is here to stay and with that comes a need for people with the appropriate skills to help turn this mass of data into meaningful action.

Future skills

Data skills are not just important when developing the next cohort of computer programmers, accountants or statisticians, these quantitative skills are necessary across the full breadth of industry.

With such rich data at our fingers tips both the public and private sectors are looking to skilled graduates to help them better understand this data and make informed decisions.

One great line that succinctly sums up this demand-supply relationship is that “Businesses are drowning in data but starving for insights”.  

LITE AUTHOR: Blog writer Dr Luke Burns

LITE AUTHOR: Blog writer Dr Luke Burns

Interesting results

Sadly, in the UK we are generally poor when it comes to teaching and learning quantitative skills.  Many people are open in their lack of confidence when working with numbers whereas others vastly overstate their abilities, perhaps deliberately.

This is somewhat highlighted by the market research company Ipsos MORI’s bi-annual opinion poll of MP’s.

In winter 2011, the Royal Statistics Society approached Ipsos MORI and asked if they could slip a question into this poll to test the basic quantitative skills of MP’s – the result was rather startling.  The question posed was a simple one: What is the chance of getting two heads if you toss a coin twice?

MP’s were given five multiple-choice responses to select from, meaning that even a wild guess would lead to a 20% chance of getting the answer right, and only 40% responded correctly.

The fact that only two-in-five MP’s could conduct a simple probability is alarming in itself but even more so when close to 80% of the same group of MP’s declared confidence in their numeracy skills.

With half of these people being on the then government list and all very well-educated, not to mention making big decisions on risk and return on a daily basis, our approach to quantitative skills education ought to evaluated.

Change needed

I have a firm belief that universities should be held to account when it comes to producing what I term ‘industry standard’ graduates – these are graduates with strong quantitative skills but also the right quantitative and data skills needed for modern-day industry.

Part of this battle is overcoming statistical anxiety and a fear of numbers as partly evidenced above. The other part is ensuring graduates have the toolkits to be able to handle some of the newer datasets that more traditional quantitative techniques can’t address, even if these are still readily taught with little consideration given towards their industry value.

There is a need to change tact, modernise curricula and reconsider approaches to teaching.

Research suggests that students first develop their core interests, and rarely sway too far from these, during their early education years and so this process of engagement with data must start much earlier than in the university lecture theatre.


My LITE project - Massive Open Online Courses: Engaging tomorrow's data programmes today, pulls together the increasing need for specialist numerate data professionals with an appreciation that these skills need to be embedded far earlier in the education lifecycle.

The output will be a suite of freely available Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) aimed at pupils and teachers at the GCSE and A-Level stage of education.

The interactive courses, which will be made available via the FutureLearn platform, will enable pupils to see first-hand how data can be used to solve problems in a wide range of application areas such as crime, health and business.

The resources will be designed in a way such that they can be used by teachers for whole-class sessions or taken by interested pupils in their own time to develop their skills and interests and enhance university applications.

All resources will be fully supported and endorsed by Q-Step, a national initiative that seeks to get more social science students using and embracing data.

Whilst this project is about data and quantitative skills, it is not solely about probability and descriptive statistics – topics which have been part of quantitative curricula for many years.

It is about using engaging examples and interactive forms of teaching to introduce new datasets and the tools and techniques needed to handle them.

It is about getting young people excited at the prospect of using data and introducing these skills early enough in the educational journey such that they are pursued at the school/college level, into university and beyond.

And it is about bringing together stakeholders such as QStep, FutureLearn and the University of Leeds to generate inspiring teaching which acts as stimuli for the pursuit of contemporary quantitative skills.

With over 3 million students - 500,000 having accessed the University of Leeds’ courses - and the schools market growing, MOOCs via FutureLearn represent a real opportunity to make a difference and start developing the data professionals of tomorrow, today.