Advancing Data Literacy for Adult Learners and Democratizing Data

wall of pie graphs with information written beside them

wall of pie graphs with information written beside them

By Alison Ascher Webber, Maria Jose Bastias, Maricel G. Santos

Foundational data literacy is a critical literacy to participate in and stay safe in today’s world and make decisions about all aspects of our lives – from health to housing, education to jobs. With technology increasing the collection and use of data to drive systems that affect us, data literacy is gaining importance for all members of society. Though there is increased attention to data literacy and analytics for the workforce — including for education and workforce practitioners and administrators to improve their teaching and programs– there is a pressing need to give sufficient attention to developing the foundational data literacy of adult learners.

As Catherine D’Ignazio, Director of the Data + Feminism Lab at MIT and an Associate Professor in Urban Studies, points out, working with data is an increasingly powerful way of making claims about the world, but there is unequal power between those who store, collect, and analyze data and those who do not. Inequity around who collects, interprets, and communicates data – versus who are likely to be the subject of data – makes a strong case for democratizing data and ensuring all of us are supported to develop foundational data literacy. Foundational data literacy isn’t just about collecting, interpreting, and presenting data – most often through numbers and graphs- it must include helping adults examine and understand data bias and the limitations of data.

While there are some exciting efforts in our field, and especially in libraries, and various adult educators incorporate data literacy into their instruction, there is far from enough attention and investment in supporting adult learners’ foundational data literacy. In this blog, we explore new challenges and opportunities for teaching and learning data literacy — including the overlapping and somewhat messy relationship to other literacies we already talk about in adult education, like digital literacy and consumer literacy. We then share the biggest opportunity we see for advancing data literacy. Opportunities to teach data literacy are everywhere, and adult learners get excited to learn to understand, collect, analyze, and communicate data when it is contextualized to the issues they most care about in their lives and communities.

Challenge: What and Where is Data Literacy?

One challenge to advancing foundational data literacy in education is that definitions and resources for it are not widely available and known. Though the following Oceans of Data Institute definition for data literacy is arguably one of the leading definitions and is used by the American Library Association, it is not well known by adult educators.

The data-literate individual understands, explains and documents the utility and limitations of data by becoming a critical consumer of data, controlling [one’s] personal data trail, finding meaning and taking action based on data. [One] can identify, collect, evaluate, analyze, interpret, present and protect data.”   —  the Oceans of Data Institute

And while curriculum standards related to data literacy have been pivotal in directing attention to the role of K-12 schools and higher education in skill-building, competencies related to data literacy are described in a variety of ways and embedded across various subject areas, making them harder to find.

Certainly, it is a potential opportunity in advancing data literacy that related competencies and practices are found in diverse subjects areas ranging from numeracy (probability, averages), information literacy (graphs in media literacy), reading (e.g. expository prose), or even digital literacy (e.g. data tools). However, this also spreads data competencies out too thin, making them invisible.

Although programs and practitioners are doing important work in the area, information and data literacy are not as visible as they need to be in the agendas of the main adult education  conferences and online communities. When they show up, it’s most often as sub-bullets in broader discussions on other competencies such as digital literacy or numeracy. This causes data literacy and information literacy to get lost.”    Alison Ascher Webber, Director of Strategic InitiativesEdTech Center @ World Education

Additionally, when data literacy skills are embedded as components of lessons in specific academic subjects, there can be a tendency for them to be taught decontextualized as specific skills and not as part of a critical and exciting process for adult learners to make meaning of the world.

Opportunity: It’s Everywhere!

The incredible opportunity we see in advancing data literacy is that meaningful ways to contextualize it for our learners are everywhere. Said Maricel Santos, Professor of English at San Francisco State University (SFSU),

The world is constantly offering lessons about data — how data is being collected on you, how data is used or misused to make decisions that affect you, or how you as an individual or your community can use data to improve your well-being. There are limitless authentic on-ramps to help adult learners get excited about data literacy.”

In Working with Data in Adult English Classrooms: Lessons Learned about Communicative Justice during the COVID-19 Pandemic, Maricel , doctoral researcher Maria Jose Bastias at SFSU, and their colleague Margaret Handley, a public health epidemiologist with University of California San Francisco (UCSF), describe the process they used to teach data literacy during COVID to primarily women immigrants and refugees that starts with learners’ interests. Maria Jose said,

My students are immigrant Latina and indigenous domestic and essential workers so during COVID they were having to make daily decisions about whether to go to work or stay home based on their understanding of risk. They were eager to understand data and learn how they could play a role in changing the way their community was being represented in the media around COVID and to save lives by communicating data more effectively to their communities.”

Their work serves as an example of the opportunity for authentic context in instruction to spark the interest and attention of learners and their communities in data literacy, while also driving social change. The approach to instruction in the article is based on a framing of “creative data literacy”, which broadens the definition of data literacy from an individual to a collective one, with communities– especially marginalized ones– becoming their own producers and communicators of data to advocate for representation and change.

A classroom of English language learners is hardly the image that comes to mind when people think of “data scientists”. At the same time, adult education learners hold powerful perspectives, voices, cultural competency, leadership skills, and more that must be brought into shaping the questions asked and strategies taken when collecting, analyzing, and communicating data.

Invitation to Advance Data Literacy for All

Data literacy is essential for making meaning of the world, for making decisions about our health, education, careers, finances, civic engagement and more. It’s also critical for protecting our privacy and safety. As adult educators, we must give more attention and focus on helping our learners develop their data literacy skills. When doing so, we will also be contributing to democratizing data. And if we take a “creative data literacy” approach, we can also develop learners’ leadership skills to use data to make informed and powerful claims about their world and advocate for the changes they want to see.

San Francisco State University and World Education are committed to supporting adult education practitioners and programs to advance data literacy more within our field and will be compiling resources and facilitating national conversations on the topic. As a start, we partnered on facilitating a study circle for a dozen adult educators this Spring, and invite you to join a new listserv on the topic. Both formal and informal educators are using this forum to share strategies and resources and align efforts to advance data literacy for all.

March 2024 Update: Please visit our new website: to learn about the Communicative Justice Initiative that this work is part of and find resources. Also see this new slide deck:

3-10-24 COABE 2024 Data Literacy & Communicative Justice


About the Authors:

Maricel Santos is Professor of English at San Francisco State University. Her research and practice explores adult education participation as a health-protective factor in transnational immigrant communities, as well as the ways that adult learners are agents of change in health care.

Maria Jose Bastias is a doctoral researcher at San Francisco State University also working in community-based settings. Her work in adult education combines research justice and participatory research for advocacy and leadership with a focus on identity around data for adult and English language learners and minoritized groups.

Alison Ascher Webber is Director of Strategic Initiatives with the EdTech Center @ World Education. She appreciates collaborating with like-minded colleagues at SFSU and UCSF on teaching foundational data literacy with intentionality towards democratizing data and advancing equity.


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