Joshua Ryan-Saha: Universities must reimagine learning for data age

In today's digital world, we should look at our traditional institutions and ask whether they will meet the demands of the future, says Joshua Ryan-Saha

Students must embrace new ways of learning, says Joshua Ryan-Saha. Picture: Jane Barlow
Students must embrace new ways of learning, says Joshua Ryan-Saha. Picture: Jane Barlow

Scottish universities are still world leaders and, in many exciting instances, they are driving disruptive change.

However, when it comes to teaching and learning, the old ways are too frequently seen as the best – lectures, essays, exams, with students mostly working on their own.

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The well-documented STEM skills gap becomes a chasm for data-skills.

The issue is not just related to the number of students studying these subjects but how they can use their knowledge to drive positive change in a fast moving, technologically rich environment.

The old ways of university teaching don’t equip students effectively with the skills to do this.

Universities’ monopoly on high-end teaching is increasingly being challenged by the vast array of new open and free ways to learn.

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YouTube should be considered one of the world’s biggest global education providers. If you want to learn something the chances are you can find an online course that meets your needs.

To stay relevant traditional university models for teaching and learning need to change. Now is the time for Scottish universities to embrace challenge-driven learning.

Challenge-driven learning is where courses are designed to develop students’ skills by posing difficult problems and challenges to them for which there may be no pre-existing answers.

To solve these problems, students need to work in teams, draw on a range of connected disciplines and collaborate with unknown partners. Expert academics still play a pivotal, but more flexible role - guiding students to relevant research and mentoring them.

This is much more than the typical work placement within a traditional university course. It is learning by doing. It is addressing real world challenges in a supported environment. It is forging a clearer link between what is learned and how that learning is used positively in the real world.

The potential of challenge-driven learning is most keenly felt in the area of data and computer science. It is also where it is most-developed. Hack-a-thons – a shorter more-intensive example of challenge-driven learning - are now common-place.

Challenge-driven learning has been incorporated into The Data Lab MSc education programme for 90-funded data students at universities across Scotland.

Working with Product Forge, the Challenge Competition comprises three weekend hack-events allowing students to interrogate datasets from Visit Scotland, SEPA and other sources of open data to develop something that has an economic or social benefit for Scotland.

Abertay University’s long running ‘Dare to be Digital’ programme – a competition for university students to develop video games - is another exciting example.

There are more great examples of Scottish universities embracing challenge-driven learning models but it is not yet embedded across all universities and subject-areas. More need to embrace the opportunity.

To adequately train engineers, data scientists and other skills required to build Scotland’s future, perhaps now is the time to open a new challenge-led university in Scotland.

Joshua Ryan-Saha is Skills Programme Manager at Scottish innovation centre, The Data Lab