Data Literacy and General Education: A Potentially Perfect Partnership

In 2012, Harvard Business Review declared data scientist the sexiest job in the world.

No one ever has declared general education the sexiest anything in the world. 

The differences don’t stop there. Data-related skills are generally considered part of the ever-popular STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) field and are some of the most coveted skills in the workplace today. General education courses are often considered less valuable than technical or major-specific courses. Students and their parents sometimes question, for example, why someone majoring in business or planning on becoming a physician needs to study Shakespeare or anthropology. 

Still, data and general education could be just the pairing we need to improve data literacy in the United States.

Data literacy and general education defined

Being data literate is tremendously important for just about everyone, but what it means to be data literate is a little harder to determine.  First, there’s the terminology. I’m using data literate, but data fluency, graphicacy, and media literacy are also common terms. Then the definitions–there are many. I think data literacy executive Ben Jones’ thoughts are a nice place to start, in part because his definition focuses on data literacy as a process:

“Data literacy encompasses a wide variety of skills, but ultimately it’s the ability to read and understand data, and also create and communicate it. So there’s a receiving end and there’s also a delivering end. A transmission, if you will.”  

Ben jones

Be Data Lit suggests a different way of looking at data literacy. It provides more of a list rather than a traditional definition. According to the article, some signs of data literacy include “being curious about data” and understanding how to balance data with other things–such as critical thinking. The article ends with this critical point: “Data literacy is evolving and so, if you are committed to being data literate, know that it’s an ongoing journey and you must keep working and evolving.”

General education is a little easier to define, but sometimes it is harder to articulate its importance. General education courses are simply the required–or core–courses at colleges and universities in the United States. General education courses focus on essential, but not industry-specific, skills (often referred to as soft skills). Think problem solving, cultural awareness and understanding, critical thinking, empathy, writing, research, and oral communication. Specific courses might be in subjects like English, psychology, communications, or anthropology. While general education courses can’t be industry specific, they are valuable in that they are the courses all students seeking a bachelor’s degree in the United States take.

Data skills have become—much like what is taught in general education—things everyone needs to know. Despite this, data literacy is often seen as lacking in recent college graduates—particularly college graduates not majoring in subjects like data science or business analytics. Numerous businesses, organizations, and nonprofits are working to bridge this data gap.  Data visualization platform Tableau, for example, launched its Data Literacy One curriculum in September 2020 (followed by Data Literacy Two in 2021). They even have a Tableau for Kids curriculum designed to inspire “kids to explore the data that’s around them every day.” Their programming matches their message:  “We need all hands on deck to bridge the data literacy gap.”   

Sample activities from Tableau for Kids

General education needs to be one of those hands.

While data literacy and general education might seem like an odd pairing, here are three reasons the partnership makes sense.

Reason One: Data literacy and general education are both essential

General education is all about teaching essential skills, and it’s hard to argue that data literacy isn’t essential.  

A simple LinkedIn search validates that the ability to work with data is essential—over 1.5 million job postings on LinkedIn ask for some type of familiarity with data, strongly suggesting that working with data is no longer a discipline-specific skill or something only data scientists or analysts need to know. Instead, it’s simply another form of communication almost all professionals need to be successful in their chosen fields.  Business literature on the importance of data skills has become commonplace. Author and Content Manager, Paul Petrone posits,  “… today, data visualization is becoming an absolute must-learn skill. As all organizations become increasingly data-driven, the ability to work with data isn’t a bonus, it’s essential.” 

A few more examples:

  •  A recent Harvard Business Review article opens, “Data skills are now essential for almost every role in every organization. Companies need more people with the ability to interpret data, to draw insights, and to ask the right questions in the first place.”
  • An article from MIT cites Piyanka Jain, a data science expert and author, who says, “Everybody needs data literacy, because data is everywhere,” and further claims, “Data is the new currency, it’s the language of the business. We need to be able to speak that.”
  •  A post from BusinessWire notes not only the importance of data literacy but also the data gap: “The ability to make decisions from data is the number one skill employers require. But despite its importance, too many graduates are entering the workforce without sufficient data literacy.”

The articles, expert quotes, and surveys go on and on, and they all say the same thing—data literacy is essential in today’s job market.

Many of these same articles and experts go on to say American colleges and universities aren’t doing a very good job preparing students to work with data. 

Reason Two: Data literacy and general education have a lot in common

Data literacy would be relatively easy to incorporate into a general education curriculum because so many elements of data literacy are already taught in general education. 

Industry expert, Bill Shander, outlines four skills necessary to become a “dataviz unicorn.” These skills include being able to analyze data, being able to communicate effectively, having the creative skills to visualize data, and having the technical skills to “pull it off.” 

Analysis and communication are two cornerstones of general education curriculums. Creativity is often another. While software such as Tableau or PowerBI might be too industry specific for a general education course, effective visuals can be created in Canva, Excel, Adobe Illustrator, or PowerPoint—all platforms that are already frequently used in general education courses.

When listing skills needed to become a dataviz unicorn, Shander doesn’t mention empathy, but plenty of other articles do discuss the importance of empathy or humanizing data. Consider, for example, Andy Krackov’s thoughts on persuasive data narratives:  “In my mind, the purest form of data storytelling is when you relate a story about an individual and use data to describe how this issue impacts more than just this one person. A persuasive narrative is one such way to humanize the data, telling an individual’s story from problem to potential solution.”  Imagine an English composition course that assigned a persuasive data narrative instead of a personal narrative. This  easy switch would not only teach everything, or almost everything, learned from writing a personal narrative, but it would also supply the added benefit of incorporating data skills.

Data literacy can be approached in many ways–via specific assignments or more comprehensively. It doesn’t always have to be about technical skills, such as R, SQL, data extraction, or creating really cool visuals. As Laurence Bradford, Forbes contributor and founder of Learn to Code with Me, notes, “Becoming data-literate isn’t necessarily about tools, software, or programming languages. Rather, it starts with a holistic view of how to think about data and what questions to ask.”  

Data executives, Josh Bersin and Marc Zao-Sanders, agree that the missing skills aren’t necessarily the technical ones. Instead Bersin and Sanders’ research found that employees lack “the skills to

  •  Ask the right questions
  •  Understand which data is relevant and how to test the validity of the data they have
  •  Interpret the data well, so the results are useful and meaningful
  • Test hypotheses using A/B tests to see what results pan out
  • Create easy-to-understand visualizations so leaders understand the results
  •  Tell a story to help decision-makers see the big picture and act on the results of analysis.”

This more holistic view of data literacy fits nicely into general education. Asking questions, problem solving, finding relevant sources, and storytelling are all hallmarks of classic general education curriculums. Assignments related to interpreting data, data visualization, and data storytelling could easily be worked into composition, anthropology, psychology, and public speaking courses, and most likely other courses as well.

That said, entire courses dedicated to subjects like data storytelling and data visualization could just as easily be created for general education departments. These courses could not only provide hands-on instruction related to data literacy, visualization, and storytelling, but could also provide a forum to look at the history of data visualization, explore theoretical approaches to data, and read books such as W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America and Data Feminism.

Reason Three: General Education could use a rebrand

I don’t want to understate the valuable contributions general education courses currently make in education today. Serious industry research, such as that done by the U.S. government, confirms most of what is taught in general education courses is valued by employers. Educators from general education departments would likely also argue that what they teach makes students better and more engaged humans. That said, advocates of general education curriculums (often in this context referred to as liberal arts or the humanities) constantly seem to be on the defensive. Books and articles written on both sides of the debate flood the marketplace and the internet, often with titles like The Washington Post’s 2020 article “Liberal Arts Education: Waste of Money or Practical Investment? Study’s Conclusions Might Surprise You,” but some of the harshest criticisms come from the students themselves.

Just Google “gen ed waste of time” to see the number of op eds published on the subject in college newspapers. Common complaints are that general education courses make up too much of the overall curriculum, thus increasing the cost of a degree as well as the amount of time it takes to complete a degree. Other student critics of general education argue courses simply repeat information covered in high school. As noted in The Atlantic,one particular student tweet went viral (almost 70,000 retweets and over 200,000 likes) after claiming, “Unpopular opinion: general education courses in college are a complete scam for your money to keep you paying for 4+ yrs. If gen ed courses weren’t a requirement, majors really only require 2 yrs of classes. All of high school was gen ed- it’s simply unnecessary.”

While some students may not appreciate general education, study after study does support its inclusion in college curriculums. However, perception is also important and including data literacy in general education courses might help change the perception some students (and, let’s face it, their parents) may have concerning the value of general education course offerings. To be clear, I would never suggest adding something to general education that I didn’t think belonged in the curriculum, but including data literacy provides multiple wins. It’s a great fit for general education, and it could be a clear sign that programs can evolve with the times.

Final thoughts

Including data literacy in general education won’t eliminate the data gap, but it will accomplish some important things. It will ensure all students have at least a foundation in data. It will signal that academia recognizes data literacy as a fundamental skill—like writing, oral communication, and critical thinking. Additionally, including data literacy in general education may make it easier for faculty in major-specific courses who need to teach more advanced or industry-specific data skills. These faculty will know that students have had an introduction to data and can then move into more sophisticated content more quickly.

Ultimately, including data literacy in general education courses can only be one step in a much larger educational process, but as we all move forward on this data journey, one where precious few people can afford to be data illiterate, it is a good step.

After graduating from Auburn University, Catherine Ramsdell became an educator. Her interests are oddly varied, but she enjoys teaching anything that involves a good story—from brand storytelling to mythology to data journalism.

CategoriesData Literacy