Mind the gap: Let’s improve our use of data in teaching

School pupils can learn about data in fun and interactive teaching sessions that will help us tackle Scotland’s skills gap, writes Professor Judy Robertson, Chair in Digital Learning at the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education

Our world is swimming in data: we generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of the stuff per day. Taking photos, web searches, turning on your fitness tracker; all leave a trail.

Data is creating more and more opportunities for improved public services, industrial productivity, and the skillsets of our workforce. But there are also questions to address concerning loss of personal privacy, the perpetuation of inequalities through algorithmic decision-making, and automation making sections of the workforce redundant.

Society shouldn’t sleepwalk through this data revolution. The First Minister has spoken of the digital skills gap that is holding back growth ; it is estimated that we need an extra 12,800 workers each year with digital skills.
The sooner we address this within our education system, the greater the benefits will be for the economy, our communities, and even the quality of our democracy. Few countries currently approach data education in this way (apart from Canada), so Scotland has the opportunity to reassert itself as a nation of innwwwovators.

That is one of the reasons why the University of Edinburgh was involved in the Newbattle High School Digital Centre of Excellence in Midlothian. From my own perspective as a digital learning specialist, it was hugely rewarding to work with teachers on developing a curriculum designed to address these issues.

Learning about data doesn’t have to be dry. At pilot training sessions, pupils from Newbattle were learning about predictive analytics using boxes of Smarties and Spotify playlists. They also had a go at writing programs to display data collected from hardware sensors they had built themselves.

Greater access to data can make learning a much more engaging experience for everyone. Imagine school projects where pupils use Internet of Things sensors to collect data from their local area, creating graphs about wildlife populations or air quality. They’ll get curious about what causes changes in the environment they care about. A classroom visit by the local MSP could be a lot more interesting if pupils asked questions based on information from open data sources. Our children could contribute to citizen science projects, identifying and classifying new galaxies – all in a day at school. The opportunity is tremendous.

Learning about data involves technologies which didn’t exist even five years ago. But it also goes back to the fundamental purposes of education: to encourage young learners to be curious, to master new skills, to take responsibility for the future, and to answer the big questions that our generation didn’t think to ask.

That’s why the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal includes an ambitious skills programme to help all pupils in the region prepare for the challenges and opportunities of the data revolution. Let’s make the most of this unique chance to make a difference.


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