Data Literacy Education at the College: More than Learning Programming

2023-01-23 Since 2018, all first-year students at the College have been learning to program with Python. The project "Comprehensive Data Literacy Education at the College" (UDLE), funded by the "Foundation for Innovation in Higher Education" (StIL), aims to expand on previous approaches to embed the technical course offerings in the philosophical, social and political contexts of a critical engagement with data.

"As part of DATAx, all first-semester students go through a basic course in programming, mathematics and statistics," explains Dr Juliane Reichel, UDLE project coordinator. "Understanding what data is and learning how to handle it are considered key future skills." Thus, the increasing importance of data is also the background for the curricular speciality at the college and has been established with the interdisciplinary format "Data driven X, in short: DATAx" for several years. Economy, politics and society are permeated by data - neither the financial market, nor global supply chains or political moods function today without the internet and the exchange of data. Yet very few people know what actually happens in technical terms when films or games are streamed on the internet, information is posted on social media channels or online bank transfers are made. Learning the basic functions of programming, mathematics and statistics is an important building block for gaining a deeper understanding of the technical connections in relation to data. "Since the programming course has been running, however, we have had to realise that it is not enough to familiarise the students only with the technical perspective," Juliane Reichel notes. "Especially for those students who have no affinity with computer science, programming is often challenging." But it is not only the lack of technical affinity that has prompted the college to put programming learning into a broader context.

After all, data is anything but neutral. "In the philosophy of technology, there is the idea that technology as such is neutral to begin with. To give a drastic example - I can use nuclear fission to generate electricity or use it to build a nuclear bomb - depending on how I use it, it can be positive or negative. Leaving aside the fact that one should fundamentally question the neutrality of technologies. But data is definitely not," says Juliane Reichel. "Data always already carry information content that comes from certain cultural contexts." The collection or gathering of data is always done in contexts that consciously or unconsciously incorporate assumptions, prejudices or opinions. For example, in a working world still dominated by male software developers, many programmes are designed for male "contexts". This can be the speech recognition of digital audio systems, which reproduce the lower male pitches better than the higher female pitches. Or so-called "self-learning" artificial intelligence controlled by algorithms, which is used by the police in some countries to fight crime and which disproportionately identifies people of colour as potential criminals due to the initial data situation. Getting to the bottom of this structural discrimination through data is the goal of "Critical Data Studies". "We want to curricularly expand our programming course to include these critical data studies, because this is important for critical education in dealing with data," says Juliane Reichel.

To this end, the one-year project will work out what exactly is meant by comprehensive data literacy education at Leuphana College and which teaching-learning innovations can be used to anchor this curricularly across disciplines. These questions will be explored together in workshops with colleagues, students and those responsible for the study programmes. "I think that at the end of the project we will have a solid concept to pick up those students who have difficulty with programming. But of course we will also be able to show tech-savvy students the social consequences that careless programming can have. I would very much like all of our first-semester students to develop an appetite for a critical and reflexive engagement with data," Juliane Reichel sums up.

about th project

The project "Comprehensive Data Literacy Education at the College" is funded by the funding line "Freiraum 2022" of the Foundation "Innovation in Higher Education" (StIL) in the period from September 2022 to August 2023.