Data Literacy – Google | Making Sense of Data MOOC

Tuesday 18th March saw the start of Google’s Making Sense of Data MOOC.

This was the first MOOC that I’ve done with Google and my third MOOC in total. The first, Gamification (with Coursera) was a combination of video and activities with the opportunity of interaction for social learning on the fora. Much the same as this Google MOOC really. They share the sort of pedagogy that easily gets disparaged, but it suited me for a number of reasons, not least of all its asynchronicity. I appreciate that synchronous MOOCs have the capacity for a more interesting social pedagogy, but to commit to being in the same place for five Tuesdays in a row? Sorry, but I simply can’t manage that. The Open Badges MOOC that I dropped out of had an important synchronous element, and having missed two live sessions I just gave up.


Why am I doing this MOOC?

Screenshot 2014-03-18 at 16.43.27


Before starting the MOOC I read a new blog post by Anne Dhir about the launch of Open Glasgow’s data literacy project.

Citizens need to be able to articulate their needs and be part of the solution.

which, by coincidence (or not)  is a subject that I happened to briefly question Sally Kerr from Edinburgh City Council about when we were at OpenDataEDB #11. If the Wikipedia page is anything to go by ‘Data literacy‘  is a new literacy with not a lot written about it.

It was interesting to also compare the creation date and size of related literacy articles on Wikipedia

Screenshot 2014-04-08 at 14.07.00

and to also see that ‘data literacy’ isn’t featured in the encyclopaedia’s ‘New literacies‘ article. I had a brief look at what Doug Belshaw is doing with Mozilla’s Web Literacy Map and I need to look at that in more detail because there’s definitely  a basis there for constructing a unique Data Literacy Map, if one doesn’t already exist somewhere.

One thing that appears missing  from the web literacy map (or at least wasn’t staring me in the face) but which needs to be a feature of data literacy is the critical understanding of data. In a personal email Greg Singh from the University of Stirling captures this perfectly,

For me, data literacy would be a very deep-level understanding of data (how it is produced,… read, … understood and interpreted; how it can be transformed and shared). [T]hat would involve a skillset that would take in coding, a good understanding of networks, machine-readable formats etc., but also, crucially, critical understanding of the role of data and its use…In both cases (data literacy and digital literacy) the emphasis I think is on a critical understanding of the WHY as well as the HOW. 

Although the Google MOOC addresses some of the hands-on, ‘how’, skills it’s pedagogic goal wasn’t to altruistically raise the standard of data literacy. Wilkowski et al (2014) in their research paper explain that

Google, Inc. has been experimenting with MOOCs to teach members of the public how to use Google tools more efficiently and effectively. (p.1)

and thus the MOOC’s aim was to develop the skill-set to manage a particular Google product which in this instance was Fusion Tables.  This is MOOC as marketing device.

Is that unfair? Does it matter if Google provide some free training that lasts only a couple of weeks, and and that my overall data literacy has improved? Well, yes, I can imagine that it probably does. However, it’s not possible to do this type of work without also learning how to use somebody’s product. At any rate, for the present I’m happy with the trade-off. A basic guide to Google FTs is here. The product is in beta at present, and word is that it’ll remain an ‘experimental product’.

Why Google and not School of Data?

It would be an incredible project legacy if Open Glasgow could develop and improve data literacy across the city. It’s certainly featured in their Principles of Open Data. But with these thoughts about other people’s level of data literacy I thought I’d better get mine off home base first.

Why though has it taken this Google MOOC to get me started?

The School of Data introductory course is always open, always accessible, always available, there’s no start date – it’s just there. And that, for some reason, is difficult for me to handle. When should I start? Now? Well, perhaps tomorrow. Maybe at the weekend.It’s almost too easy to put off. It’s a bit like the gym membership that I bought in a moment of fitful, well-intentioned energy and which has fallen outside of the tunnel. So, oddly it seems that it’s not that the start date of the Google MOOC particularly suits me but that because there is an end date, and that if I really want to do this course I need to put the effort in, now.

My intention was to take the opportunity of the scarcity in order to focus on completing before the deadline of the course end date. Making Sense of Data was a short course that was scheduled to last a little under three weeks and was estimated to take somewhere between 10-15 hours of study to complete.  In my, admittedly limited, experience of what MOOC providers estimate in terms of time I reckoned that this would probably be an underestimation. Graham Atwell’s blog post ‘Some thoughts about MOOCs‘ suggests that my experience of time under-estimation is not uncommon, and that it may be a contributory factor in the format’s high drop-out rate.  We’ll wait and see.

In the end, things didn’t go quite to plan. I was unwell for the period of the MOOC, and the scarcity that I thought would help me concentrate began to work against me. In the words of Mullainathan and Shafir the scarcity magnified itself and having fallen into a scarcity trap I had to really tunnel my way out. Anyway, in the end I managed to successfully complete the thing.

Screenshot 2014-04-05 at 14.15.49

And I enjoyed it too, even though the illness meant that I didn’t really engage with it or the subject in quite the way I’d planned or wanted to.  Nice to have passed though. And having thought about time and scarcity and literacy levels I’ve finally managed to get started in School of Data.




Atwell, G. ‘Some thoughts about MOOCs’, Pontydysgu – Bridge to Learning, posted 14th August 2013,, accessed 21 March 2014

Dhir, A. (posted 26 February 2014) ‘Future City, Future Citizens?’, Future City, accessed 18 March 20

Mullainathan, S.,  Shafir, E. (2013) Scarcity: Why having too little means so much, Penguin Books, London

Singh, G, (06 April 2014) personal email correspondence, reproduced with thanks


Wilkowski, J., Deutsch, A., Russell, D.M. (2014) Student Skill and Goal Achievement in the Mapping with Google MOOC, L@S,, Atlanta, accessed 08 April 2014

The Open Manifesto: Future City Principles, (2013) future city | glasgow,, accessed 09 April 2014

Google logo,, sourced using the Google search tool for images that are licensed for re-use, accessed 18 March 2014

Mozilla, Web Literacy Map (1.1.0),, accessed 08 April 2014


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