Adapting Problem-Based Learning to Database Courses in the Digital Age

Adapting Problem-Based Learning to Database Courses in the Digital Age

Samuel B. Fee (Washington and Jefferson College, USA) and Thomas E. Lombardi (Washington and Jefferson College, USA)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 18
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2101-3.ch007
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Over the course of the last two decades, the United States government has pursued a program of democratizing data. Public services have been transformed into data-driven enterprises. This enthusiasm for data collection, analysis and public reporting has important consequences for computing education. This chapter outlines a pedagogical strategy for educating citizens in the competent and responsible use of the data currently defining our national agenda. Specifically the authors argue that problem-based learning (PBL) provides a strong framework for introducing database concepts to a broad range of students. The design of databases constitutes complex problems with multiple solutions. Database problems are necessarily interdisciplinary involving both problem domain and technical expertise. Moreover, since databases support some real-world objective, problems in database design are inherently authentic and contextualized. These properties hold consistently across a range of problem types. Thus, common problems in the database domain are aligned with PBL definitions of good problems.
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My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government. (Obama, 2009)

In recent years, many public institutions have embraced open data as a vehicle for promoting citizenship in the digital age. President Obama’s memorandum to leaders in his administration quoted above placed open government at the top of the national list of priorities. Although the word ‘data’ does not appear in the short memorandum, the transparency, public participation and collaboration at the heart of President Obama’s message have frequently been translated into the data-driven technologies so familiar to U.S. citizens in the 21st Century. For example, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, 2009) supports investment in the data collection, information exchange and reporting capabilities of educational and health institutions. U.S. state and local government agencies have mirrored President Obama’s leadership by collecting and publishing large volumes of data in the domains of crime statistics, emergency planning, and housing services among many others (Kalin, 2014). By no means is this phenomenon unique to the United States: The United Kingdom (“Government Digital Service,” n.d.), the European Union (“European legislation on reuse of public sector information,” n.d.) and the G8 (“G8 Open Data Charter and Technical Annex,” 2013) have all established comparable commitments to open data and its associated technologies.

Given the new civic context for data, this chapter suggests that educators shift the focus of database courses from their current professional orientation to more civic-oriented goals. By promoting open data, governments have juxtaposed data and citizenship in a new way that exposes some challenges and opportunities for educators in the computing disciplines. In particular, open data offers educators an opportunity to revisit the common approaches to the teaching of data-oriented courses and database courses specifically. Databases have traditionally been taught from the perspective of professional development, rather than in a civic context. If citizens around the world are expected to use open data effectively (Gurstein, 2011), the educational system will need to make major adjustments to accommodate this new demand. Database courses often focus on technical or engineering problems, rather than the important civic problems associated with data. For example, issues such as accounting for gender pay equity and recording racial and ethnic identity require a deep understanding of data collection and analysis. Moreover, since databases are always developed for and deployed in some real-world context, the teaching of databases can incorporate these real-world problems in a natural way. Some database educators have adopted constructivist approaches to their teaching as a way to enhance student comprehension of the material (Connolly & Begg, 2006). These approaches, particularly problem-based learning, provide a useful vehicle for introducing database concepts from a civic perspective. The recent trends in open data invite a reconfiguration of database education from the ground up as a branch of civic education for the digital age.



For the purposes of this chapter, the term “databases” refers to a set of concepts and technologies for organizing data efficiently and effectively in a computer. Conceptually speaking, normalization is the process of reorganizing data in a computer to reduce the redundancies that compromise the accuracy and efficient storage of the data. Database design and data modeling involve designing database structures to capture the salient features of real-world entities with data.

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