An enquiry into the use of numeric data in learning & teaching
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Within UK higher education the renewed attention to learning and teaching is an impetus for change. Advances in information technology create new space for learning beyond the traditional classroom lecture format. New initiatives are creating networked teaching materials for shared use across institutions. But little is known about the readiness of teachers and students to take advantage of these resources for teaching and study. Are universities providing the support needed for using these networked resources in classrooms, computer labs, and independent study? An academic Task Force on the use of numeric data in learning and teaching has issued a report on the barriers faced by teachers and students to using national data services across a number of disciplines, including but not limited to the social sciences. The enquiry focused on numeric data, which involves a higher number of skills to use than many other types of information resources. Results were analysed from a national survey of teaching departments in universities, and seven case studies of real-life teaching scenarios in both post- and undergraduate classes in several disciplines. The Task Force contributed views from their own significant experience of teaching in academia as well. The project is part of a national development programme on learning and teaching funded by the JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee). Its unique focus within the set of projects is on the value of introducing statistical data such as area census statistics, sample survey datasets, and economic trend data to the educational experience of students, particularly when students actively take part in analysing the data, and practice drawing conclusions from empirical evidence. The enquiry found that despite established use of quantitative secondary analysis of national datasets in research, a number of issues make its use in teaching and students’independent study difficult, and therefore rare. Whilst print tables and graphs are often used by lecturers in teaching empirical subjects, statistical files requiring ‘hands- on’ computer analysis are not commonly built into the teaching design, except in methods courses. Yet these are transferable skills needed by today’s graduates to enter the professions or advanced study. Only one-quarter of survey respondents who said they used data in the classroom had considered using the nationally funded academic data services provided by the Data Archive (at Essex), MIMAS (at Manchester), or EDINA (at Edinburgh) as a source of the data used in their teaching. The survey uncovered a number of barriers experienced by teachers in the use of these services, namely a lack of awareness of relevant materials, lack of sufficient time for preparation, complex registration procedures, and problems with the delivery and format of the datasets available. These problems were elaborated in open-ended comments by respondents and in the case studies of current teaching practice. A compounding problem is the lack of local support for teachers who would like to incorporate data analysis into substantive courses. A majority of the survey respondents said that the level of support for data use in their own institutions was ad-hoc. Peer support was more common than support from librarians and computing service staff, and over one-third received no support whatever. The top three forms of local support needed were data discovery/ locating sources, helping students use data, and expert consultation for statistics and methods (for staff). The Task Force analysed the results of the sur vey and the experiences expressed in the case studies and issued recommendations for UK higher education, summorised below: 1. A broad initiative is recommended to promote subject-based statistical literacy for students, coupled with tangible support for academic teaching staff who wish to incorporate empirical data into substantive courses. 2. The development of high-quality teaching materials for major UK datasets must be funded adequately, in order to provide salience to subject matter and demonstrate relevant methods for coursework. 3. The national data services need to improve the usability of their datasets for learning and teaching. 4. A more concerted and co-ordinated promotion of the national data services could then follow, which is responsive to user demand. 5. Universities should develop IT strategies that include data services and support for staff and students, and integration of empirical datasets into learning technologies.