Data and the Swansea Degree

At the end of last week I was approached to be part of a survey on the way in which data security and freedom of information were taught within the various degree programmes at Swansea. I am not sure whether I was able to give the right answers, it was not something that I had really thought about. I was clear that I did not know about current practice and said that these are things that should certainly be taught as part of professional orientated degree programmes and those that had a strong emphasis on preparing students for work in management and law. There are also, potentially, elements of this in programmes and modules that deal more directly with data analysis and computational skills.

I then noted, in last week’s THE an article that was advocating the inclusion of data analysis skills within degree programmes of all subjects. Anthony Monaco, president of Tufts University, says:

‘Ideally, every undergraduate would be compelled to take a basic data science course, much as most institutions now require proficiency in writing and a foreign language in order to obtain a bachelor’s degree. Such a course would prepare students to analyse and interpret big data, while also making them conversant in the critical ethical, legal and social issues raised in doing so’ (see the full article here).

The emphasis on the ethical, legal and social issues goes straight back to the survey I completed the previous week, and it is interesting to see that an advocate for the teaching of skills in ‘big data’ or wider data analysis clearly recognises the importance of these ethical, legal and social issues alongside the basic skills.

All this raises the question of the kind of ‘professional skills’ that we currently, or might we want in the future to, require of our students within their degree programmes. We have been discussing with colleagues, in different colleges and subject areas, whether it is possible to offer specific professional skills such as project management, leadership, entrepreneurship, language skills, data analysis, digital communication, quantitative methods, or whatever it is, within a programme, or a suite of programmes, and to provide a specific certificate alongside the degree that shows that a student has these skills. I would like to explore that much further and to ask how this can be rolled out, in some form, across the University.

There are two questions, however, that arise out of this way of thinking. The first is to identify the kind  of professional skills that students might want, or might need in order to get employment, or might appreciate as part of a wider degree in, say, engineering, management, geography, law or creative writing. In principle, as long as the skills are presented in a way that is appropriate to the subject then they could be seen as valuable to a wide range of degree programmes. Creative writers, lawyers, engineers and many others could all benefit from basic entrepreneurial skills in order to make the most of the subject content that they are being taught, and to enable them to branch out as self-employed, or as valuable contributors to partnerships or larger companies. Are we able to identify the range of such professional skills that it might be appropriate for the university to offer? Could we actually find the staff, with the appropriate knowledge and expertise to teach a wide range of such skills?

The other kind of question goes back to the survey and the reference to ‘ethical, legal and social issues’. This is to ask what it is that we would actually teach and the context and framework within which a wide ranging professional skills programme might function. The question, in my view, relates to the term ‘professional’. We can teach skills. We can teach educational skills, showing how these skills can help to improve the student’s final marks. If we say that we are teaching professional skills, however, I think that we are doing something very specific. To teach data analysis, or French, for the enjoyment of the learner, is relatively straight forward. To teach either of these skills in order to help the student in their studies takes a different kind of approach. If we wish to teach data analysis, or French, or digital communication, or project management, or whatever it might be, as a professional skill then I believe that it is imperative on us to offer teaching on the ‘ethical, legal and social issues’ alongside, and fully integrated with, the teaching of the skill. If the aim is to provide students with skills that they can take with them into the world of work then this ethical, legal and social issues are absolutely essential, and knowing about them will give any of our students an edge in the employment market that simply learning the ‘skills’ can never achieve.

I do want to begin a debate during this academic year on the place of professional skills across all of our degree programmes. This is not something that should be prescriptive. What is right, or appropriate, for one subject will not be for another. It has to be tailored to local needs. It goes hand in hand with the embedding of employability within our programmes, and will need to engage with the employability strategy developed by SEA and individual Colleges. To take this agenda seriously, however, and to link it to work placement (which are now common across the University), as well as to our clear emphasis on impact within so much of the excellent research undertaken in all our disciplines, is something that has the potential to set Swansea apart from the sector and to enhance our position as a world leading University.

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