Opening up access to training: RSS embraces e-learning

Written by Web News Editor on . Posted in Features

Training is an integral part of what the Royal Statistical Society offers both to its members and to non-members. The current RSS training programme offers scores of short courses – some for professional statisticians to help them keep their skills up-to-date and some aimed at non-statisticians who need a basic knowledge of statistics and data analysis for their line of work.

These short courses – usually one or two days long – are hosted at the RSS headquarters in central London. However, the Society has started to hold courses in other locations; as well as running several courses at its annual conference in Manchester this year, the Society is offering a number of its courses in Edinburgh.

To extend its reach further, the Society has now begun to transfer some of its most popular courses into an online format that people can study from anywhere in the world with online access. The first to be made available is its very popular Presenting Data course, which already runs several times a year at the Society and elsewhere.

Presented by statistical consultant and Chartered Statistician Ed Swires-Hennessy, the Presenting Data course is one of the bedrocks of the Society’s short course programme. It’s aimed at anyone who is involved in communicating statistics or who reports on data of any description within their organisation to non-statisticians – either specific groups or the general public – to convey a message. The course covers the basic principles of presenting information in tables, charts, maps and text and then reinforces this through practical exercises.

The content of the new online version follows a similar format to what Ed teaches in his class. But it offers the advantages that often come with e-learning, including a flexible approach that can fit better into people’s busy schedules. 'Live learning events require participants to align their schedules to a training calendar,’ says Stuart McKendrick, RSS head of training. 'E-learning eliminates this because the course can be accessed anytime, anywhere.’

It’s also been shown that online learning can suit some learners better than being in a classroom environment. A 2010 study by the US Department of Education* found that, ‘on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.’ Using more than 1,000 empirical studies, the DOE found that time was the additive that helped students perform better as online learners spent more time on task than students in the face-to-face condition.

Furthermore, e-learning can encourage exploration and testing of ideas without fear of being seen to ‘fail’, as Stuart explains. ‘Let’s face it, real learning requires some failure, but no one likes to fail in a classroom full of other people. With e-learning, the worst case is you have to start over - something you can’t always do in class.’ Without the need to travel, there are obvious environmental advantages to e-learning too: a study by the Open University found that a distance learning course ‘consumes an average of 90% less energy and produces 85% fewer CO2 emissions per student than conventional face-to-face courses.’

The new online Presenting Data course joins the other two e-learning courses that the RSS developed a couple of years ago aimed specifically at improving journalist’s and scientists understanding of statistics. The earlier courses are available free of charge on the StatsLife website.

On joining the course, participants will be sent a copy of Ed’s book, Presenting Data, to act as a reference during and after the course. The course has five ‘lessons’ covering how to present numbers, tables, charts, graphs and numbers within text. There is also a resource at the end which covers data presentation on the internet. Users can scroll backwards and forwards through the lesson pages in their own time, and some of the lessons have accompanying exercises which are uploaded for comment by Ed. Users can also ask Ed questions at any time through the course forums.

As such, the online course offers a high level of interaction with the tutor. On completion of the course, participants will also be sent an official RSS certificate to confirm their new skills, as they would if they had attended the course in person.

The RSS hopes this new online offering will be the first of many as it plans to roll out more of its courses in a similar vein. The courses will help to further its mission to promote the discipline of statistics to the wider public as well as helping to foster statistical literacy and good statistical practice wherever it can.


* ‘Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning’, US Department of Education, September 2010.

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