Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 38 / JULY 1983 / PAGE 146

Learning With Computers

Glenn M Kleiman

A Library At Your Fingertips

The ability to use computers to efficiently access, organize, and analyze information is becoming a critically important skill. In fact, knowing how to use computerized information bases is rapidly becoming as important as knowing how to use a library. People in many occupations – travel agents, bank tellers, librarians, stockbrokers, and insurance agents – already use computerized information bases every day. Doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers, and many others will be added to the list in the next few years.

There are many computerized information bases. In this column, I discuss my favorite one, which is called DIALOG. DIALOG is the world's largest computer storehouse of information available to the public. It contains over 170 data bases with a total of more than 75 million records of references, abstracts, and statistical data on a great diversity of topics. A simple set of commands lets you locate information quickly and easily. Widely used by libraries and businesses, DIALOG and its new cousin, Knowledge Index, can also be used by schools and individuals.

To use DIALOG, you need a terminal or a computer with the hardware (a modem and interface) and software to make it function as a terminal. You also need an account number on the DIALOG system and a telephone. Like other large data base systems, DIALOG uses special networks (Telenet and Tymnet) so you can access it with a local telephone call from most places in the United States.

An Example Information Search

I've recently used DIALOG to search for information about one of my main professional interests, the use of computers by children who have learning disabilities. There has not been a great deal of research in this area, and reports of the research that has been done are scattered in many different journals and books. A data base on the DIALOG system, called ERIC, lets me search an enormous body of literature for relevant references, and to do so in a few minutes.

ERIC is an acronym for Educational Resources Information Center. It is an index to the contents of more than 700 journals in education, as well as a large number of books, technical reports, conference papers, government agency reports, and other documents. It contains approximately 500,000 references, dating back to 1966. The index is kept up-to-date and about 3,000 references are added each month.

All the information about each journal article or document is grouped together into what is called a record. Each record contains the title, author, journal and date of publication (or other information needed to locate the actual document), the language in which it is written, a set of descriptive (subject indexing) terms and an abstract (short summary). The descriptive terms are keywords which characterize the contents of the document. There is also a Thesaurus of ERIC Descriptors which enables you to find the best descriptor terms for each topic.

The many volumes of printed ERIC indexes are familiar to many educators and researchers. For some of my articles and research projects in years past, I've spent hours scanning through many pages of small print, hunting for relevant references. I can now accomplish the same work in a few minutes via the computer on my desk.

After using a modem and telephone to connect my computer to the DIALOG computer, I enter my account number and password. My search for references about computers and learning disabled children then proceeds as shown below. (In some cases, I have slightly altered the computer's response, leaving out code numbers and other extraneous information and spelling out abbreviations for clarity.)

First, I tell the system I want to use the ERIC data base (which happens to be number 1). I enter:


(My commands will be underlined throughout this column.) The computer responds:

27 Feb 83 12:59:37 File:ERIC

This search, and the other examples in this column, were all done on February 27, 1983.

Next, I give the computer the words for which I want it to search. It searches through all the information in each record, including the abstract. (You can limit the search to the descriptor terms or title if you prefer.)


DIALOG responds:


I've told the computer to select all references about learning disabilities. It gives this set the number 1, so I can refer to it later. The number following the set number shows how many relevant records have been found. I then enter:


DIALOG responds:

2 16684 COMPUTER

So now I know that there are 4734 references about learning disabilities and 16684 about computers in the ERIC data base. But what I really want to know is how many are about both computers and learning disabilities. The appropriate command is:


DIALOG responds:

3 70 1 AND 2

This tells me that 70 references appear in both set 1 and set 2 (i.e., the learning disabled set and the computer set).

DIALOG also allows more complex combinations using OR and NOT. This provides tremendously powerful searching capabilities. I could, for example, further restrict the search to references that are about reading disabilities or language disabilities, while excluding references about hyperactivity. I could also restrict the search to particular years, journals, authors, types of publications, languages, or any combination of these. Since you work on-line with DIALOG, you can expand or restrict the search as you go. For example, if I find more references than I want on a topic, I usually restrict the search to articles published in the last year or two.

Next, I want to see the titles of some of the references:

DISPLAY 3/6/1-5

This command tells the computer to display the references in set 3. The 6 is a code number telling it that I only want to see the titles, not the other information in the record. The 1-5 tells it to display references number 1 through 5. The computer responds with:

1. Remediating Spelling Problems of Learning Handicapped Students Through the Use of Microcomputers.

2. Microcomputers: Powerful Learning Tools with Proper Programming.

3. Microcomputers: An Available Technology for Special Education.

4. How Can Microcomputers Help?

5. Instructional Technology for Special Needs.

Item 3 sounds interesting, and I haven't seen it before. I therefore tell the computer to print the full record:


This command says display from set 3 the full record (code 7) of item 3. The computer responds with:

Microcomputers: An Available Technology for Special Education.

Joiner, Lee Marvin; and Others

Journal of Special Education Technology, Vol. 3, number 2, pages 37-47. Winter, 1980. Language: English

Document Type: Journal Article; Teaching Guide

Abstract: The article describes the capabilities of features of basic microcomputer systems and describes special education applications: computer assisted instruction, testing communication, and enhancing personal relations. Problems such as the availability of authoring languages, high quality educational software, and computer safety are described.

My entire search took less than five minutes, most of which I spent examining the titles of articles. I next instructed DIALOG to print all 70 records about computers and learning disabilities, with the citation and abstract for each. To save time and expense, I had this done off-line by highspeed printers at DIALOG and mailed to me. The 25 pages of materials arrived a few days later. I then used DIALOG to order complete copies of several of the articles.

Other Data Bases

ERIC is just one of over 170 data bases available on DIALOG. There are data bases covering the sciences, business, law, current affairs, humanities, books, book reviews, foundations, biographies, patents, dissertations – an incredible array of information. Some of the data bases likely to be of interest to readers of this column are described below.

The Magazine Index covers 435 of the most popular magazines in North America, including all those indexed by the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature. It contains over one million records, dating back to 1969. Approximately 12,000 records are added each month. There is also a National Newspaper Index.

I was curious about whether magazines have reflected the increase in interest about computers in education during the last few years. I therefore checked the number of articles in the Magazine Index on computers and education for each year from 1976 to 1982. In about two minutes I obtained the following answer:

Year Computers & Education Articles
1976 2
1977 19
1978 9
1979 27
1980 39
1981 59
1982 145

Clearly, the number of articles has been growing rapidly.

Newsearch is an index of current news stories, information articles, and book reviews from over 1,400 newspapers, magazines, and periodicals. Newsearch is updated daily, so most items are added the day after they are published. At the end of each month, the information is transferred to the Magazine Index, the National Newspaper Index, and other relevant indexes.

The Books in Print index contains records on virtually all books published in the United States, including books that have gone out of print in the last few years and books that are to be published in the next few months. A quick check found 6,450 books on computers, 46,478 on education, and 168 about computers and education. There is also a Book Reviews index.

The Microcomputer Index is a new one which contains citations about the use of microcomputers in business, education, and the home. Magazine articles, as well as software and hardware reviews, new product announcements, and book reviews are included. Over 25 microcomputer periodicals are currently indexed, along with selected articles from other publications. A quick check showed 1,294 articles on education.

The International Software Database is another new one. It contains over 10,000 records on all types of software, classified by application, machine, operating system, vendor and price.

Classroom Instruction

The cost of using the indexes I have described ranges from $25 per hour for ERIC to $95 per hour for Newsearch. The cost of off-line printing is typically 20 cents for each full record. Since DIALOG makes finding information so efficient, I regard it as an excellent value for professional use. DIALOG has also introduced lower-cost special arrangements for schools that want to teach students to use it and for individuals who want to use the system during evenings, nights, and weekends.

The Classroom Instruction Program provides access to most of the DIALOG data bases at a special rate of $15 per hour. This rate is available only to academic institutions for instructional purposes. A special students' workbook is also available.

Knowledge Index is a new service which provides access to the most popular data bases at the reduced price of $24 per hour. It is not available during business hours, so this service is designed mostly for individuals. All the data bases I have described are available, except for Books in Print and Book Reviews. In addition, Knowledge Index includes data bases covering business, agriculture, computers and electronics, engineering, government publications, medicine, and psychology.

DIALOG Information Services, Inc.
3460 Hillview Ave.
Palo Alto, CA 94304
(800) 227-1960 (except California)
(800) 982-5838 (from California)