Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Using Spreadsheets and Databases in the Classroom

Considering the impact computer-based spreadsheets and databases have had on the business world over the past few decades, it is astounding how rarely they seem to be used in the classroom.

Sure, teachers these days often use spreadsheets or databases to record class rosters or digital gradebooks, and that's useful and great... but it doesn't address the fact that our students are growing up in the information age and will be finding work in a global knowledge-based economy. Because of this, it is more critical than ever that students know why and how to use tools that help them sort, organize, and explore the vast amounts of information that is being created and shared every day via the Internet.

This is where spreadsheets and databases come in.

Spreadsheets
Most teachers in classrooms today have at least some experience with Microsoft Excel. This is a spreadsheet program, but it is not the only one. There is a free online Google Spreadsheet program which is similar (but not as full-featured) as Microsoft Excel. There is also OpenOffice Calc, which is a free download to install on your computer and also reads/writes Excel files.

Spreadsheet software provides a large table of cells which can contain a variety of data -- text, dates, numbers, currency, etc. Although the spreadsheet can be used as a basic storage and organization system this way, its real strength lies in the ability to perform long or complex calculations as well as the ability to easily visualize data sets using charts and graphs.

Relative Advantages: Spreadsheets allow both students and teachers to perform calculations on large sets of numbers quickly and efficiently. One benefit is that the spreadsheet software allows for quickly creating visual representations of data using a variety of charts and graphs, which can sometimes help to illustrate disparity or similarity between numbers far more quickly or powerfully than the numbers themselves could. Another benefit of working with calculations and formulas is that students can quickly see how changing certain numbers affects the overall output or result of the formula. This allows them to focus on higher-level concepts (Roblyer, 2006, p. 132) but it is important, if students are new to spreadsheets, to teach spreadsheet concepts and familiarity before using it to teach math concepts (Thorsen, 2009, p. 237).

Databases
Database software seems to be much more daunting for teachers to approach, perhaps because they are a little more time-consuming and complex than Excel, or perhaps because teachers are not as familiar with their use since they would not be a likely tool as a class gradebook (they are, however, perfectly suited as SIS software: student information systems.) Many databases -- especially high-end ones used by businesses -- cost money. However, there are several smaller and easy-to-use databases, including FileMaker and Microsoft Access (part of the Office suite) as well as OpenOffice's free version, Base. Computer programmers who want to create database-driven websites often use a free and powerful database called MySQL.

It's really a shame that databases are underutilized in the classroom, because they are truly powerful tools and are useful for organizing, filing, and "making sense" of large quantities of data. A "database" is just what it sounds like: a "base" or place for storing and organizing data. Like spreadsheets, this data can include a variety of formats such as dates, numbers, and text. However, the grouping and relationships between types of data can be more clearly defined in a database. Unlike spreadsheets, databases are used less for calculations or visual representations and more for organizing, analyzing, and predicting by using queries or "questions" to ask the database about what types of records it contains in its tables.

Relative Advantages: The biggest benefit of using a database is that it allows people to quickly find specific facts or information and to organize that information in a way that helps them determine relationships or answer questions. For this reason, it is an ideal problem-solving and inquiry-based learning tool. Effective uses of a database would be lessons that require students to describe something unknown based on its characteristics; make a decision or analyze a problem; or make a prediction based on existing data (Thorsen, 2009, p. 203). Databases also allow multiple people to access a central repository of data, which eliminates redundancy of storage and helps ensure accurate and up-to-date content. However, it is important that students have structured guidance in asking relevant questions and analyzing the results (Roblyer, 2006, p. 139).

Example Academic Activities
Click here to see examples of activities that could be performed by students as young as elementary school as part of a thematic unit about transportation.

References

Roblyer, M. D. (2006). Integrating Educational Technology Into Teaching (4th Ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Thorsen, C. (2009). Tech Tactics: Technology for Teachers. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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