Middle schoolers in decades past might have learned about scientific data by observing the growth of plants in a garden and compiling a set of observations.
Today, that same class might as easily be digging through thousands of data points about air quality pulled from the internet or from a piece of equipment that’s streaming information to a smartphone.
Thanks to the Internet and other advances in technology, data of all sorts are more accessible than ever before. A new report from the Oceans of Data Institute, part of the nonprofit Education Development Center, asserts that students and teachers need a new focus on helping students understand and work with all of that information.
Randy Kochevar, the director of the Oceans of Data Institute and a marine biologist (he says the institute’s name’s connection to his previous profession is a coincidence), said schools from elementary level to college need to help students learn how to work with the enormous amount of information we now have access to.
“Schools and teachers are recognizing that data and the ability to interact effectively with data is increasingly important,” Kochevar said. “It touches all aspects of our life.”
The report calls for “bringing data literacy to 100 million data students by 2021, with the ultimate goal of everyone becoming data literate over time” by developing resources, training teachers, and making sure data literacy is incorporated into educational standards.
The report draws on the work of a panel of education, science, and business professionals who work in “big data” that was convened by the Oceans of Data Institute and IBM. The group met in late 2015.
Here’s the definition the panel developed:
The data-literate individual understands, explains, and documents the utility and limitations of data by becoming a critical consumer of data, controlling his/her personal data trail, finding meaning in data, and taking action based on data. The data-literate individual can identify, collect, evaluate, analyze, interpret, present, and protect data.
Well, Kochevar said, such skills are necessary in a world where we all have access to what’s referred to as “complex, large interactively accessed, professionally collected data” and need to make sense of the stories about it that are being presented to us all the time, whether in presidential campaigns or news stories about local crime.
The report also lays out the knowledge and skills the panel determined were part of data literacy, including analytical thinking, algorithms, and data modeling.
Kochevar said the group focused especially on the sciences, where students can practice data interpretation skills they might traditionally learn in a math class in context.
Of course, students themselves are also part of the “big data” picture: Some schools are teaching students how to interpret data about their own academic trajectories as part of the formative assessment process, while at the same time some parents and advocates are raising concerns about data privacy as schools collect more information on students’ academic and personal lives.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.