The National Data Strategy sets out how we will ensure the UK can harness data to fuel innovation and growth, and create jobs across the country to boost the economy. The Strategy recognises it is important for everyone leaving our schools and universities to be better prepared for data-driven lives and careers.
The Higher Education sector has a vital role to play in achieving this aim. Our Strategy tasked the sector to explore ways to teach a range of basic and technical data skills– including project management, governance and problem solving. To improve the teaching and learning of data skills, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) provided more than £300,000 in funding. The funding, through the Office for Students, enabled seven universities to test the methods of teaching in existing provision of foundational data skills to undergraduates whose subject does not contain significant data science elements.
A promising start
The seven pilot projects received funding from October 2021 to March 2022 and concluded delivery of their funded activity in May 2022. The Careers Research & Advisory Centre (CRAC) conducted an evaluation of the pilots and an evidence review to identify how education providers within and beyond the UK teach data skills.
The report shows there are a range of approaches that can be taken to teach data skills. This includes supporting students to learn data skills from embedded content, which combines data skills with other core parts of a course, to undertaking self-study data courses provided by third-parties.
Demonstrating the relevance of data
The findings provide plenty of food for thought for academics and the private sector. Emerging evidence from the pilots suggests that approaches to data skills learning that are embedded within a student’s main subject curriculum and taught by the main subject team, work best for undergraduates. The pilots also found that a number of the students were not aware of the value of data skills within their own potential career paths. This suggests that there is scope for more work to demonstrate the relevance of these skills to future careers.
Bridging the gap
There was evidence of a gap between the data skills employers are looking for and what students are taught at foundational level. Participants also struggled to engage large numbers of students in the research within the pilot’s timescale, limiting the investigations possible. This leaves lots to build on, such as the Higher Education sector undertaking further strategic consultation with industry to establish the types of data skills employers are seeking. Higher Education providers could also explore the scope for carrying out a longer-term evaluation of different approaches to data skills teaching.
Higher Education providers are already showing a desire to do more to enhance the teaching of data skills. All the projects plan to expand on the learning gained from the pilot programme. Some intend to create new courses, ranging from Level 4 to PhD level and others are intending to embed data skills into subjects they offer. All the projects have plans to share their findings further through speaking at conferences and through publications in peer reviewed journals.
There is a wealth of knowledge and insight from the evaluation report which can enhance the provision of foundational data skills. This in turn can contribute to our goal of ensuring people across the UK have the skills they need for a data-driven economy and data rich lives. We would urge colleagues across the Higher Education sector and other stakeholders to consider the findings from these pilots and engage with participants to learn from their experiences.
Please email the Office for Students if you have any questions about the pilots at PGconversion@officeforstudents.org.uk.
And please email the team in DCMS at firstname.lastname@example.org, if you have questions more broadly about work associated with implementation of the National Data Strategy.