Hands-On Database Exploration

Big data is everywhere. We are using it to identify business trends and get ahead of the competition, understand how people learn and make decisions, and track health patterns to anticipate epidemics earlier. The ability to use, create and manipulate databases has become a necessary and important skill. However, despite its tremendous utility, database systems has yet to draw excitement as a topic for undergraduate curricula.

While textbooks become more expensive, tablets and smartphones are finding their way into classrooms. Given the ubiquity of powerful smartphones and tablets, we envisioned a free, modern, electronic textbook that would be interactive and engaging.

As part of the GestureDB project, we had developed an interface for exploring databases without keyboards. The intuitive nature of this interface led us to wonder if could we use these ideas for teaching in the classroom. We introduced a novel blend of a textbook and an interactive database query interface. Our new interactive e-book aids students to understand relational algebra by exploring these data. The e-book allows students to issue queries interactively, observe the query process, and grasp a better understanding of the underlying database concepts.

As a start, we focus on relational algebra, a topic that is typically difficult to teach in databases. All elements of the text, e.g., formulae, figures, and long-form explanations, are fully interactive. For example, to explore the projection operation, tapping on one or more attributes of a relation generates a new projection, with the corresponding text-based expression being rewritten on the screen. Unlike canned animations with exactly one outcome, the user can try all possible combinations and internalize the principles of the projection operator.

In contrast to traditional textbooks, our focus here is on interacting with fundamentals and the data, allowing the user to intuit and internalize the concepts, instead of learning by rote. As described in our recent publication at CHI 2015 in Seoul, Korea, preliminary survey results from an in-class trial of a prototype show that most students found the interface highly engaging and fun to use in the classroom.

Our e-book proof of concept was built by students at Ohio State with the support of an NSF CAREER Award IIS-1453582 and an ODEE eLPD Grant.