ERIC Identifier: ED264167
Publication Date: 1985-11-00
Author: Parisi, Lynn
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social
Studies/Social Science Education Boulder CO.
Computer Databases: Applications for the Social Studies. ERIC
Digest No. 25.
Computerized databases, one of the more recent applications of computer
technology to education, are receiving increased attention from educators
because of their potential for helping students develop the very important
skills of logical thinking, problem solving, and information handling.
WHAT IS A COMPUTERIZED DATABASE AND HOW DO YOU USE IT?
Databases are files of information which have been organized and indexed for
quick and easy access to specific topics. Print databases such as the library
card catalog or READER'S GUIDE TO PERIODICAL LITERATURE are familiar to
everyone. A computerized database is organized similarly, but with files of
information loaded onto software disks or computer tape. With a computerized
database, the researcher calls up information by typing in established index
terms, numbers, or words.
The advantage of a computerized database over a print file is that the
computer can combine, delete, broaden, or narrow categories of data, enabling
the user to quickly obtain only the information that meets all his requirements.
For example, in a hypothetical "countries of the world" database, one could
search for all countries with a Gross National Product (GNP) of over one billion
dollars. That search could be further refined to identify only North or South
American countries with such a GNP or, further, just those American countries
with a certain political system.
Obtaining exactly the information one wants requires a clear definition of
the research question and decisions about relevant and extraneous information.
Searching a database effectively involves the skills of Boolean logic--the logic
of combining and deleting sets of information through the key terms AND, OR, and
NOT. Thus, the search outlined above might appear as follows:
Set 1 = GNP $l billion Set 2 = North America OR South America Set 3 =
republican form of government Set 4 (the desired set) = set 1 AND set 2 AND set
WHAT TYPES OF DATABASES ARE AVAILABLE FOR SOCIAL STUDIES?
Two types of computerized databases are currently applicable to the social
studies classroom: on-line databases and database software programs.
On-line databases are so named because the personal computer (p.c.) user is
linked by phone line to a distant mainframe computer storing documents or
information in its memory. On-line databases may contain bibliographic
citations, full texts of journal and news articles, or statistics such as stock
market prices or weather information.
Among the on-line databases relevant as student research tools in the social
studies are THE NEW YORK TIMES INFORMATION SERVICE, AMERICA: HISTORY AND LIFE,
HISTORICAL ABSTRACTS, FACTS ON FILE, ERIC, and MAGAZINE INDEX. Even the
ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA is now available as a computerized database.
To access on-line databases, a personal computer must be adapted for
telecommunications by using a modem, a communications interface, and
communication software. On-line databases are generally available on a
subscription basis, either individually, as with THE NEW YORK TIMES INFORMATION
SERVICE, or collectively through a database service. Three widely-known database
services are Dialog, BRS, and CompuServe.
All of these services provide access to a wide variety of databases (for
example, a Dialog subscription allows access to over 200 separate files) and
have low-cost subscription rates for personal computer users. The total expense
in using an on-line database includes the flat subscription rate, plus charges
for telephone service time, amount of time hooked into the mainframe computer,
and a slight reproduction fee for citations ordered. Prices range from
$30.00/hour for ERIC to about $l00.00/hour for THE NEW YORK TIMES.
Database software provides a computer program--a structure--for developing a
file of information on any topic. Such a program enables the teacher or students
to create custom-made databases for classroom use. Among the
commercially-available database software programs appropriate for student users
are: PFS FILE (Software Publishing Corp., Mountain View, CA), DATABASE JR.
(Intellectual Software, Inc., Bridgeport, CT), NOTEBOOK FILER (D.C. Heath,
Lexington, MA), FRIENDLY FILER (Grolier Publishing, New York, NY), and BANK
STREET FILER (Broderbund Software, San Rafael, CA). A number of rograms are also
available as part of integrated packages such as APPLEWORKS.
To design a database using these software programs, students or teachers
identify a topic and then define and label specific categories of information
(called fields) to be included in the file. To develop a database on "countries
of the world," a class would identify the countries to include, then choose
fields of information such as population, ethnic groups, language, type of
government, or major industries. The final step in database construction is to
collect information from available sources and enter it into the software
In the past year, a number of textbook publishers have introduced "file
package" software for use with database program software. For these packages,
the publisher has established fields on specific topics, compiled the data, and
entered it onto a separate disk. Together, this file software and the program
software form a complete database package on a topic. Database packages
developed by commercial publishers for the social studies market include:
--Scholastic's UNITED STATES HISTORY. This package contains three files,
"Expanding the Frontier," "Inventions and Technology," and "Twentieth Century
America." It is designed for use with PFS:FILE.
--D.C. Heath's fourth-grade social studies file. This package, to accompany
NOTEBOOK FILER, contains six files: "Northeast U.S.A.," "My Geography," "United
States," "Land and Water," "Natural Resources," and "Timeline." Other files are
available for grade 10th-12th social studies.
--Broderbund Software, Inc. is currently developing social studies files to
be used with the BANK STREET FILER database program.
WHAT ROLE CAN DATABASES PLAY IN MEETING THE GOALS AND OBJECTIVES OF THE
Software databases can be developed for any social studies content area, from
a local community file to U.S. presidential election statistics. On-line
databases of journal and newspaper articles currently exist in the fields of
U.S. history, world history, Middle Eastern affairs, religion, sociology, and
Databases provide a unique tool for integrating the teaching of social
studies knowledge, information skills, and higher order thinking skills.
Creating and using databases develops research and organization skills. By
searching databases, students learn to identify information needs, make problem
statements, retrieve and sort information, and design strategies for organizing
data (Lengel and others l985). Extension activities enhance critical thinking
Through teacher-initiated activities and projects, students can go beyond the
level of data input and recall toward evaluating what they find: forming and
testing hypotheses, recognizing trends in information, making inferences about
data, and solving problems ("Butcher Paper, Data Bases, and Higher Order
Thinking Skills" l985).
The national report, EDUCATING AMERICANS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY, stresses that
problem solving, information handling, and communication skills (all skills
involved in database applications) will be among the basic competencies of the
next century (National Science Board on PreCollege Education in Mathemetics,
Science, and Technology l983). While these skills have always been seen as
traditional social studies skills, Hunter (l985) goes a step further, tying
these skills specifically to computer literacy.
According to Hunter, as our society moves into the Infomation Age, in which
activities and institutions are based on the organization, storage, and
dissemination of information, the ability to sort through information provided
by computer and apply that information to problem solving must become a
fundamental part of learning. Already political scientists predict that the use
of information systems in the political decision-making process will make
computer literacy and "informatics" essential to intelligent political
participation (Glenn and Klassen l983).
Indications such as these, that database development and manipulation are
fast becoming essential skills of effective citizenship participation, provide
perhaps the most compelling rationale for incorporating this tool into social
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Hunter, Beverly. "Teaching for the Information Age." TEACHING AND COMPUTERS
McKenzie, Jamieson A. "Computer Research for Social Studies." THE SOCIAL
STUDIES TEACHER 6 (September l984):3.
"Butcher Paper, Data Bases, and Higher Order Thinking Skills." APPLE
EDUCATION NEWS (April-June l985):l0.
Glenn, Allen D., and Daniel L. Klassen. "Computer Technology and the Social
Studies." THE EDUCATIONAL FORUM (Winter l983):213-216.
Lengel, James, and others. COMPUTERS AND THE SOCIAL STUDIES. New York: City
College Press, l986.
National Science Board Commission on PreCollege Education in Mathematics,
Science, and Technology. EDUCATING AMERICANS FOR THE 2lST CENTURY. Washington,
DC: National Science Foundation, l983.