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Partnering to advance data science education

September 28, 2020

In close collaboration with Peruvian social impact platform Aporta, IDSS has developed a virtual tool to help assess learners’ readiness for rigorous online courses in data science.

Learning probability and statistics requires some familiarity with algebra and calculus. More advanced data analysis techniques, like machine learning, build on concepts of computing, and are easier to learn with some experience reading and writing code. As demand for data skills increases, new learners often come up against a critical question: am I ready to take on a rigorous data science education?

Aporta, a Peruvian social impact platform that is part of Breca Group, has developed an ‘Advanced Program in Data Science and Global Skills’ that faces a similar challenge in their recruitment. When putting together a cohort of learners, some of whom are offered financial support, Aporta looks for the most talented applicants. A technical skills assessment developed by IDSS in partnership with Aporta helps surface that talent with questions that not only test for prerequisite knowledge, but challenge learners to think critically and solve problems.

When Aporta shared some of the challenges of having a scalable and robust technical assessment as a part of the recruitment process, IDSS took on the charge of developing a new test for them to use.

Aporta’s project uses the MicroMasters Program in Statistics and Data Science as the backbone of their educational program, combining it with non-technical skills. IDSS faculty created the program as part of the IDSS mission to advance education in high-impact, high-demand data science skills — a mission Aporta shares for Peruvians. Since its launch in 2018, the MicroMasters Program in Statistics and Data Science has attracted tens of thousands of learners from around the world, including Aporta’s learners in Peru.

As an education partner, IDSS supports Aporta’s learners with additional recitations, tailored learning materials, and exam preparation from expert instructors. But IDSS also collaborates carefully with partners to ensure broader success. When Aporta shared some of the challenges of having a scalable and robust technical assessment as a part of the recruitment process, IDSS took on the charge of developing a new test for them to use. The project was spearheaded by Assistant Director of Education for the IDSS MicroMasters Program Karene Chu.

“Am I ready to start this MicroMasters Program? Is my math and programming background sufficient? We get a lot of these kinds of questions,” says Chu. But Aporta had other considerations. Since their test is used for recruitment, it needs to be secure. On top of helping learners assess their readiness, it would need to surface those with the most talent. And it would need to scale as Aporta grew their cohorts. “Aporta had a recruitment process including a technical test for their first cohort, but they wanted it to be systematized,” says Chu. “After discussion with our partners, we could see that the test needed to be rigorous, secure, and also scalable to a larger pool of applicants. We thought an auto-graded test with randomization would be the right thing.”

Chu built the test in the edX platform: 25 questions covering calculus, elementary linear algebra, and basic programming in Python. Aporta began using the tool to recruit learners soon after, and found the process much improved.

“Previously our administrative process was cumbersome, and the model we built to check applicants’ code needed regular monitoring,” says Luz Fernandez Gandarias, Director of Aporta’s Institute for Advanced Analytics & Data Science. “The biggest advantages have been how the edX platform simplifies access, and automatic correction. I think the result has been really good.”

In addition to designing and building the test, IDSS also helps administer it. “It’s not just the test that helps, it’s the teamwork and support,” adds Gandarias. She says learners find the test challenging — and that this is also beneficial. The assessment is much more than tricky math questions; it pushes prospective learners to think critically and solve problems. “The test was customized for the type of talent that we search for. And future data scientists love a challenge. This gives them a taste of the rigor of the program and piques their interest.”

For Aporta, the test structure provides data of its own that can help in their learner analytics. By comparing scores to program performance and other variables, they can continue to refine their approach to recruitment while IDSS learns more about how to support MicroMasters learners.

Chu works closely with learners and instructors day-to-day, and says the relationship with Aporta, a strategic education partner for IDSS, is mutually beneficial. “Aporta’s need for this assessment has helped push us to improve our MicroMasters program and make it more complete,” she says. “Aporta has valuable perspective and experience from building their program for people who are starting or advancing their data science career.”

IDSS director Munther Dahleh agrees. “Aporta and IDSS share a mission to champion the education of analytical skills that can make a big impact not only in industry, but in society,” says Dahleh. “Together we are learning how best to prepare and support learners in acquiring these skills.”

Aporta helped to initiate creating the assessment, and provides useful feedback as they pilot the test with their learners. Armed with this knowledge, IDSS is exploring how a similar assessment could be made public to help the thousands of global learners interested in the MicroMasters Program in Statistics and Data Science assess their own readiness.

“We’re building something that not only shows learners where they need to refresh, but actually helps them do it, like a mini prerequisite crash course,” says Chu. “It would help people who have learned the material, but haven’t used it in a while.” This assessment and refresher tool is in development and should be publicly available by the spring of 2021.

MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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