Open thread: Data visualisation in education?
Since launching my data visualisation training courses, I’ve found myself in numerous discussions about the potential scope of data visualisation as a subject in education. Specifically (and interestingly) a number of potential delegates have described their motivation being to learn the subject themselves and then find ways to impart the principles and methods to students in their schools, colleges or universities.
In recent weeks there has been a lot of focus, in the UK specifically, on the campaign to boost the teaching of computer skills in schools. Two articles were particularly spot on about this matter: a BBC piece from Rory Cellan-Jones and this follow up piece by John Naughton in the Guardian. Here are a few excerpts from these articles:
But the problem, according to those campaigning for change, begins at school with ICT (information and communications technology) – a subject seen by its detractors as teaching clerical skills rather than any real understanding of computing.
The ICT curriculum in our secondary schools has been a national disgrace for as long as I can remember. This is because it effectively conflates ICT with “office skills” and generally winds up training them to use Microsoft Office when what they really need is ICT education – that is to say preparation for a world in which Microsoft (and maybe even Google) will be little more than historical curiosities, and PowerPoint presentations will look like Dead Sea scrolls.
…they’re making the same mistake as those who saw ICT as a way of preparing kids for the world of work by training them to use Microsoft Office – ie designing a curriculum by looking into a rear-view mirror. What we ought to be doing is giving the kids the ability to operate in – and perhaps help to create – industries that nobody has even dreamed of yet.
The focus on this topic has made me recall my own education experiences.
When I was at school Computer Studies was the ICT equivalent subject, but in those days it was mainly about dry topics like mainframes, micro-computers and a fairly pre-historic approach to teaching BASIC. As a subject it did nothing for me at all. I recall the final, low-balling question on my GSCE paper went something like “What is the World Wide Web? Discuss it’s implications“. It was 1993 and nobody in my class had even heard of the World Wide Web, let alone be equipped with any knowledge about its implications (its position on the back page of the exam paper seemed to demonstrate its ‘afterthought’ status).
I’m too long out of the school education system to understand how teaching and the curricula is organised and delivered these days. Is school teaching still delivered and defined within separate subject areas or are there more opportunities for delivering cross-over subject areas? Which subject would data visualistion fall under in contemporary school education if it had to belong somewhere, presumably ICT or could it under Maths, or Art (I know, can of worms…)? What would be the appropriate level in terms of age to introduce the concepts of exploring and communicating information through visualisation?
University education is much closer to my experience, and there is a much clearer opportunity there for creating and delivering one-off modules that sit outside standard, defined subject programmes, whilst still being complementary. In my degree, Operational Research, the explorative analysis and communication of data was paramount to much of what I studied and yet there was zero coverage about the most effective means for achieving both these (it was 8 years after graduation before I even came across it as a subject). University education seems to lend itself perfectly to the concept of one-off, cross-cutting subjects to aid and assist students, not just in numerate disciplines, but across a wide range of subjects for which visual communication plays a key part in many types of student assessment.
So what do you think – how and where should the teaching of data visualisation sit within the education system? How can we most effectively equip future generations of professionals with the skills and knowledge of this vital subject?
Feel free to contribute your thoughts in the comments box below…