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Organizing, Social Studies and Databases

A Computers in Education Chapter


      Generic to every problem processing encounter is a need to organize information, to give it the right structure that enables the problems that emerge to be effectively explored and hopefully resolved. The larger the challenge, the greater the need for effective organization. digital palette-text and problem processingIn the problem solving leg of the problem process model, organizing connects the first phase of looking for and brainstorming about information with the second phase of composing or evoking an effective response to the problem. The outline processor and the spreadsheet of prior chapters are text tools that that carries out this function on a small scale. Databases are often built of text, one of the major digital palette elements as noted in the graphic on the right, but many database applications can handle all media, all data types. Composing a database can lead to deeper and larger kinds of organizing. The composer of such prepares databases as a kind of well from which to drink for further inspiration and evidence. The very act of collecting and organizing information is an early step in understanding the situation. Such activity supports work in all content areas, but many of the examples of this chapter will draw on the social studies curriculum.

    The creation of databases is  a very multi-disciplinary activity and every discipline makes extensive use of them. Databases play a special role in the process and the study of civic affairs, an educational opportunity highlighted in the executive summary of NCSS (National Council for Social Studies), a link provided in the left column. "In essence, social studies promotes knowledge of and involvement in civic affairs. And because civic issues - such as health care, crime, and foreign policy - are multidisciplinary in nature, understanding these issues and developing resolutions to them require multidisciplinary education. These characteristics are the key defining aspects of social studies" (NCSS Executive Summary). When finished with this introduction, pursue the link in the Steps of the left margin to read the entire executive summary and examine how social studies methods and the LEAP problem processing model fit together.

     In brief, databases are organized collections of information. At the Look stage of problem solving, we search databases. Visit the Look stage tools of the CROP model and note the huge range of databases at each layer of the Information Pyramid. But because databases can be created by anyone, their greatest value for students is in their creation for organizing information, so databases are also one more element in the Evoke section of electronic composition tools. See the graph of the LEAP model on the right.

    Teachers and learners need to have answers to these basic questions when helping students work with databases. Why do we organize? Organizing helps us deal with complexity and quantity. Computer databases help us also discover relationships among the records. What role does organizing play in problem processing and teaching and learning? As information accumulates, our ability to access it declines as more and more is gathered unless some systemic approach is taken. When do you stop working with paper databases and use electronic databases? We need to move from cellulose technology to computer technology whenever we perceive shortcomings in our paper based systems of organizing. Paper databases make it easy to find one record organized by one indexing system in a small number of records, such as data on a class of students organized in alphabetical order by last name. Computer databases enable records to be organized by any category in the database.

    A computer database also enables the thinker to "see" through mountains of records by allowing searches using different words or numbers found in the records. This searching makes it possible to find and see larger patterns not visible through using a paper database.

    How large are these data mountains becoming? I've been in all the buildings of Library of Congress (LOC), have had the pleasure of searches there delivered to my LOC study desk and have a physical sense of its immense scale, an experience that I highly recommend for every educator. Building a freakishly large pile of books around your study desk in a short period of time would be trivial in such a place. One could joke about injury by book landslide as a possibility.  Building on that vision, consider what it means to do a search of the catalog of the LOC, something anyone can do from their computer. On average, one adult book is one megabyte of data. Even though most of the 24 million books of the LOC have not been digitized, it has been estimated that all of the information in all of the books (24 million megabytes) and other media of the several large buildings of the LOC holds around 25 terabytes (trillion bytes) of data. In comparison, the world's largest databases are already larger than this size. By the end of 2004 companies began to crack the 100 terabyte data level, some 4 times the size of the LOC, a Mt. Everest of databases. Such systems are tiny baby in comparison to the giants that are coming. The number which comes after terabyte is petabyte (1,000 terabytes), followed by exabyte, zetabyte, yottabyte, brontobyte and more. The CCLRC, a British science organization notes that  their "Atlas Datastore will be expanding in capacity to over a petabyte within the near future driven primarily by the requirements of particle physics computing but also by the growing data storage requirements of other disciplines" (CCLRC, 2004). Computer hardware is expanding to meet such demands. Researchers have produced a device that is 100 times more powerful in sensing magnetic fields enabling a thousand fold increase hard drive capacity. From the earlier reading on the knowledge society and its data explosion, we know that millions of hard drives of various sizes now hold well over 295 exabytes of data.

    What does this mean for the cultural values that state legislators, educators and our curriculum should accent? Whatever the importance of all those facts that are on end of the year exams that determine teacher merit pay, those details are trivial in importance to the ability to sift and organize those facts in a variety of useful and creative ways to address human problems. This is not to say that teaching recall is worthless. They are an essential starting point. Knowing facts is the equivalent to putting on your football uniform. You can't play unless you can put on the uniform. But nobody will claim that you must have a great team if they have their uniforms on. Too many of our of exams check to see if students can get dressed for the game. The act of playing at a higher level than dressing in the locker room, of thinking, problem solving and imagining does not yet get the emphasis that is required to thrive in the twenty-first century. Isn't it time that the players are required to get out of the dressing room and be tested for what they can do on the field? Already just the Google.com database alone serves up billions of facts for free per second. What can your students do with that database capacity? Our social and economic future revolves around whether the players can thread together a problem with a collection of facts in a creative way to offer or build something of real social and economic value to others. How do teachers tap into that in every content area?

    There is no end of the opportunity to stretch human creativity. Do we? Recall that the world's knowledge doubles in size every couple of years and you further understand the relevance of databases to continuing the advancement of human culture. There was a period of time in the late 1800's that historians talk about the closing of the frontier, the end of the unknown space on planet Earth. Their imagination was inadequate to seeing the bigger picture. This physical frontier closed at about the same time that another frontier was being opened, the knowledge frontier and this virtual space has continued to expand ever since. Today the accumulation of data in databases grows faster than we can grow and prepare minds to explore it. Based on this understanding of the relevance of databases, can you make inferences about where economic value and regional economic development activity could go? Who is professionally required to prepare those fifth graders for dealing with the opportunities in the sky-high data mountains of their future? If you are reading this, that makes both you and I responsible. Our charge is to use our special skills is to teach our students to analyze this exploding frontier of data from multiple perspectives, including mathematics, science, language arts and social studies.

    Doesn't this make it not only logical but imperative that the creation or composition of databases needs to be regularly included in the types of assignment options in different subject areas? That is, database creation needs to be seen as educational activity which is as important and useful as writing a paper essay. Though databases with their tables and reports are often used to assist in research that proceeds the creation of essays and other documents, the creation of a useful database still involves research and writing and is a worthwhile end product in itself.

    Databases, like word processors and spreadsheets also need to be seen as more than text tools. The databases with which this chapter experiments are primarily text-based in nature, but modern databases that are commonly available can just as easily hold multiple different types of media, including images, audio clips and video clips.

    It should also be noted that the composing stage of database development does not end database activity. Instead composing using other composition tools such as the word processor and spreadsheet often stimulates a return to further additions to the design and content of a database. This leads to a generalization among the range of Evoke composition tools that applies beyond databases. Creating a database does not detract from using the word processor or a spreadsheet or vice versa. Among those comfortable with their use, any form of composition and expression stimulates other work in other composition tools.

    What might this mean at this point in our chapters? Once the basics of these digital tools are taught, educators should look long term at ways to thread such sequences through units of study. That is, curriculum should include sequences in which the creation of a database leads to spreadsheet formation and graphs which in turn leads to word processor activity which in turn may lead back to changes in the database and spreadsheet, which informs the creation of other media such as a video or animation. Most elementary teachers do not have this systemic problem, but in older grades with subject specific teachers, taking real advantage of this natural relationship in thinking development will require some aggressive communication among teams of teachers to build on the threads that each develops. For example social studies database development should lead to later spreadsheet and graph activity in math that should provide the foundation for writing activity in language arts which can lead to web site display with pictures included in a visual design that was set up in art class. Email responses to the teacher's email address from this display to the world may lead to further changes in each of the composition forms studied so far. Where computing resources are still limited to one classroom computer with intermittent lab access, such projects may have to be largely whole class in nature and may take months to complete. With increasing numbers of classroom computers, ever smaller teams of students can do their own database and spreadsheet activity in shorter cycles. As some examples are needed, the author requests that teachers who have or will engage in such threading to send email to this author that describes the nature of their project and their conclusions about its value. However this develops, for cyberspace tools and teachers and subject areas, a truism emerges. Each benefits from a growing relationship with the other.

    Activity that requires use of existing databases can provide numerous models of differing purposes and designs of databases. Teachers already have superb professional organized databases with which to work. An overview link to ERIC is an important link in the left column for this chapter. All educators need to be deeply familiar with the ERIC database of educational literature in both its design, content and search system and use it frequently throughout their career.

    Already completed databases help teachers and learners find the information that they need. Most school libraries have converted their card catalogs to electronic databases. Most library database vendors have options for enabling the school library to be searched online over the Internet. Even if schools have not paid the extra fees to enable Internet searching, most schools in our region have building networks. A building network makes it possible for searches of the school library system from the classroom. In most cases setting up the teacher's classroom for such searching takes just a couple of minutes. Such use makes teaching how to search the school library an important tool in teaching about databases. (See the link in the left column titled "Use the school library's electronic catalog system from your classroom" which describe the widely use software for school libraries by Follett). Becoming an effective user of electronic databases also requires skills with a special kind of logic, Boolean logic, the logic of AND, OR and NOT. Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that many school buildings have a building network, many educators can not easily teach the application of these basic information retrieval concepts and classes cannot search their school library from their classroom computer or computers because either the library software vendor does not allow it or it has simply not been turned on due to lack of awareness. This is an important issue for school building technology committees and teams to consider.

    Existing databases range from the most simple, such as a state animals database to those that address the most fundamental problems faced by mankind. See the left column link to The GeoURL database locates web sites in physical space and the ERIC database. The online Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential noted in the left margin is a massive global effort to organize humankinds most pressing problems. The databases that grow out of this global effort also provide authentic curriculum problems for nearly every topic and curriculum strand ever taught and contribute significantly to multicultural knowledge. The GIS system introduced in earlier chapters is a database of text and spatial coordinates linked to maps (see the left frame link to GIS in the classroom for more on this topic). But databases can also be organized and made Internet accessible, databases which store classroom and community problems, thereby creating local and personal context to community relationships and the development highly motivational authentic curriculum. The SUP system of the CROP design  and its extension into the Wonder Web course team arrangement are examples. The left frame link to CROP processing leads to four ways to think about ethink and problem processing with four links at the top of each of these pages that leads to each of the four different perspectives.

    The Google Answers database system (see their "social studies" questions section) was an example of how educators could extend the concept of the Wonder Web to actually lead local and regional economic development instead of waiting for local business to see and act on the power of cyberspace and the age of knowledge. A sample screenshot is to the right. Now the problem finding branch of the CROP model shows dozens of online databases designed in a question and answer format. If ever there was an age waiting for educators to become entrepreneurs by building on their leadership skills and their professional knowledge (e.g., requirements to know cyberspace), this is the age. Sometimes the response to a problem is finding the best idea and sometimes it is finding or inventing the right product. Many good writing and mathematics exercises can come from using the many comparison-shopping and product databases, copying prices to spreadsheets for analysis and graphing, and seeking product reviews. Not finding the right product at the right price might lead to entrepreneurship, the formation of a new business. Databases can be used to store our questions, and they can be used store ideas and products. It takes human intelligence to make effective connections between the two.

    There is a danger, however, in focusing on just the reading of the already rich collection of powerful and educationally useful databases. As valuable as awareness and use of a wide range of databases has become, it can still become a form of second class citizenship in the twenty-first century.  Just being able to "read" databases through sorting, searching and skimming table designs is just as insufficient as being able to read a paragraph but not being able to compose one. Unfortunately, too many classrooms lack the degree of access to desktop computers and database software that make such database composition activity practical. (Image courtesy of USGS.) With so many classrooms lacking whole class access to computer technology on an hourly basis, paper technology provides a solid place to begin. A common and familiar example of a paper database is the rolodex. The rolodex is a kind of roller or tray with attached cards that can be flipped quickly to find people's telephone numbers and other important contact information. Teaching students how to create a rolodex with paper cards of classmates telephone numbers or classmate's favorite animals provides both a concrete example and a good model of the most basic nature and value of databases. They can also be used to create study and review database systems for the recall of many kinds of information from learning new words to people, events and places. Rolodex devices and the required paper cards are readily available in business supply stores for a few dollars. (Image courtesy of NIH.)

    Handheld computers, whose older models sell for as low as $40 each in street prices (e.g., consumerdepot.com and pricewatch.com), can provide a next step up from paper rolodex devices in integrating databases into classroom activity. The address information system that comes built in to every PDA is a classic database. Free and inexpensive handheld database software systems can be obtained and teams can beam database records to each other as research is completed on different records. The same database can be imported into the teacher's classroom desktop computer using the cradle or synching device that comes with each handheld. (Palm III PDA)

    Creating databases for students and teaching students to create their own databases teaches organizational skills and that includes skills with higher order thinking. That is, it is impossible to organize and then search a database without also addressing the higher order thinking skills of analysis and comparison. For example, the labels that emerge to define the similarities in the data become the fields or categories of the database. That is, all states would have the potential database fields of capitals, major products and populations. The data within those fields helps define the degree of difference from one database record to the next. For example, the state of New York is bigger than North Carolina. The creation of the categories or fields is an act of analysis. Once organized, one further break down the data into other elements using the concepts of univariate analysis and sort commands that were previously discussed and will be discussed again in this chapter. Doing a search that retrieves data using Boolean AND and OR logic from more than one category of data is a form of bivariate or multivariate analysis. See the left frame link to Database Study Tutorial for specific hands-on work and downloadable databases with which to practice. See the left frame link to Section 5-Databases for an example of teacher technology skills needed with databases.

    To discover more about databases and their uses, follow the links down the left column of this page. This chapter begins with a focus on the use of existing databases. Later parts addresses their creation and development.

Database chapter Home       Page author: Houghton

Last Update: 4.4.2011