Using a Remote Data Base in the classroom

By Roland Gesthuizen

After visiting Angle Park computer centre in South Australia I was impressed by the variety of information that the NEXUS database had. Particularly SAGE (CSIRO general news information) and AAP newspaper reports. Back at our school, we were able to get an account for $100 that would let us explore further any applications for student research and curriculum.

I have been very fortunate in my previous employment as a research scientist at ICI where technical literature searches were a normal part of answering technical questions or finding out what was going on. I was already familiar with setting up a computer, modem and searching an online database.

My first exercise was to use NEXUS as an example of a large online database with my year 1 0 Information Technology students.

During the morning recess I assembled the modem and IBM computer near the library phone line and tested a favourite communications program called TELIX. The modem was "borrowed" from the VASS Desklink system and TELIX was given to us by the Boronia School Support Centre.

After explaining to students what we were going to do I moved them to the library. I have found that when working with computers and kids, it is best to start off away from working on the computers or you will have lost their attention at the start of the class.

We moved all the available chairs, some st on the floor in order to see the 14 inch monitor on the computer, This gave those nearest a good view but it did require me to read out constantly the key things ~isplayed on the screen. I am never happy with this way of demonstrating computers but an overhead projection panel would cost anywhere from $600 and require more setting up. An option might be to divide the group into two but this would halve the time available or double the connection cost. I am interested in a network product that displays on all the selected monitors of a network, what is happening on any one terminal, so that teachers and kids can see what is happening on their own monitor.

We dialled NEXUS using AUSTPAC, a cheaper form of STD for computers that is charged more when more users are using it late at night from home I have noticed that it is cheaper to use. Telecom will pass the AUSTPAC billing to NEXUS to forward to the user. The cost of using NEXUS usage works out at about $1 O per 50 minute period. This is made up of about half NEXUS and half AUSTPAC charges.

After logging onto NEXUS and entering my user account and password we had a look at the main menu, unfortunately the display is black and white and rather plain to look at. This is because NEXUS has to cater for a wide variety of computers that dial in.

We started with having a look at what users are on line and sent HENRY (a NEXUS employee) a message sa~ing hello. Electronic mail is not one of NEXUS best features. It is expensive to use, only one student can use it at a time and it does not have the international connectivity that we are able to use at our college Mail Point that has run enormously successfully on all the computers at our college network.

By choosing menu options we were able to read the reports that have been filed by correspondents for AAP. I let the kids choose topics and the popular ones were sport and recent world events. One student was interested in the NBA basketball and another in the Yugoslavia civil war.

We conducted some simple searches that resulted in over 1 OOO items. After reading some articles and further refining our search we narrowed down our number of articles to about 1 2 that were keenly read. It was quite interesting sometimes to just look at the titles of the articles found during the initial search.

The entire session was saved on the school computer as a VERY large text file so I was able to review or progress for next time. This is a very useful feature of TELIX. I even printed out parts of the log that were requested by students.

I had managed to keep the kids attention up for over 40 minutes having a look about the system. I probably should have printed out earlier a list of the databases that are available for searching and I probably should have prepared some simple searches in advance for them to try out, but it was an interesting learning exercise.

With another group of year 12 chemistry students I was unable to use the library so I had to crowd 13 larger students into the small area of my staff room! We were interested in conducting search of SAGE for items relating to their chemistry research topics.

Using a simple proforma, I had previously asked the students to define their questions and write down the key words. I helped them to build this up into a search by using ( ) and the words AND, NOT and OR. this is well explained in the NEXUS manual. I had explained to them that they needed to be prepared to narrow down their search if they had too many articles selected by the system. A good rule was for them to aim for less than 30 articles.

A key step is refining your search by examining the initial search for miss hits or irrelevant articles and examining ways of rejecting them from your search. This is best learnt from experience or watching somebody else conduct a search.

I have noticed that students need a lot of guidance in conducting their first search but were quick to catch on. Students that use school CD-ROMs for their research should already have the sufficient experience in conducting searches.

I decided not to read all the articles and save the results as a log file. lnstead I used a HARDCOPY option from NEXUS and sent all the output to a printer for the kids to keep. Forests fell to keep them happy so I will have to think more about how best to manage this in the future. In all, a worthwhile exercise and I would like to thank Di Lewis for sharing her NEXUS experiences and giving me the opportunity to write this article. (For the technically minded, I am entering it at Syndal Secondary College on a Novell networked IBM AT clone where it will be file attached and transmitted to the Deakin University SECAP system, await Mt Scopus and Di to retrieve -­over to you Di).

Glossary of some terms used

  • NEXUS on line database found in South Australia A
  • USTPAC Telecom packet switching mail system for computers
  • TELIX shareware communications program
  • SECAP Deakin University Mail Point Computer

Roland Gesthuizen

Computer Co-ordinator

Syndal Secondary College in Victoria