The Data Revolution



To an extent unimaginable 40, even 20, years ago, we live inundated with data. Increasingly many jobs require data analytic skills. Health and investment advice comes with a preliminary barrage of data. So do weather or political forecasts. Whether we like it or not, our shopping, travel and television-watching behavior is collected by corporations, institutions and governments. The result of searches on the internet is based on an analysis of data about our preferences that previous searches have revealed. How many times has an ad popped up on your computer related to something you have explored? The data-gathering abilities and the ubiquity of mobile phones, sensing devices and social media ensure that our society’s generation of data will continue to grow at prodigious rates.

The goal of a liberal arts education is to equip students to participate successfully in our society with the skills necessary to adapt to changing circumstances. They should learn to think imaginatively, to weigh evidence, to express thoughts clearly and to continue learning. Faculty members and curriculum committees at liberal arts colleges seek to ensure that graduates are numerate in the sense that they can manipulate, explore and draw inferences from data. In fact, a distinguished group of statisticians who teach at liberal arts colleges around the country are currently meeting at New College for a conference entitled “Liberal Arts and Data Science.”

The speakers include some of the first to realize that computation and powerful software have completely changed the practice of statistics. They have incorporated these insights into their classrooms. Others have popularized and helped develop the user interface for the powerful open source (and free) statistical computer program R. As a result of their efforts, the best introductory statistics courses have students examine real data sets from the outset and stress the key concepts of inference, randomization and simulation that are critical to using data to understand situations and to make good decisions.

Unhappily, despite the societal need, despite the work of these and other pioneers and despite what students actually require, most statistics courses in which students enroll have not kept up. These courses leave students ill prepared for our current data-saturated environment. The costs to students and their future employers are high. Providing support for current teachers of statistics to learn the new methods and to change their pedagogies would ultimately help their students acquire the skills necessary to navigate our increasingly data driven world. 

Dr. Donal O'Shea is president of New College of Florida.

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