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Best use of school hardware and software EPIE's aim

Ken Komoski has seen a number of innovational teaching aids wind up in academic limbo. In many schools, overhead projectors, teaching machines, flimstrips, movies, television, and language labs loudly extolled and hastily purchased are now collecting dust.

As executive director of a 15-year-old nonprofit organization called the Educational Products Information Exchange (EPIE), Mr. Komoski's self-appointed mission is shepherding the classroom introduction of computers and their educational applications. He wants to make sure that the newest technologies are shielded from the kind of rejection some earlier innovations have met.

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Mr. Komoski hopes to convince schools, colleges, and parents' groups that EPIE, not the supermarket sales clerk, is the place to turn for sophisticated evaluations of all educational computer products, from hardware to software to printers to user manuals.

He says three factors encourage him to believe computer education will continue to expand in schools:

* The microcomputer marks a shift in the way our whole society does business. Companies and parents are demanding that schools teach students how to use them. ''Did you ever see community leaders saying, 'We must have filmstrips, we must have overhead projectors'?'' he asks.

* In an era of budget-cutting, schools are subjecting all capital purchases - including computers - to careful scrutiny.

* Most teachers accept that computers will be increasingly important in the future and that they and their students must know how to use them.

EPIE's goal is to have at least one-fourth of the nation's nearly 16,000 school districts subscribe to its computer-product evaluation service. And it has taken a major step toward its goal by joining forces with Consumers Union, the national organization that evaluates consumer goods, to study computer products.

The two nonprofit organizations will provide subscribers with detailed reports, to be called Pro/Files, on computers, monitors, printers, and courseware (the term for computer programs for education). They will also publish Microgram, a monthly newsletter on the microcomputer field.

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''We had the technological expertise, and Consumers Union had the name recognition,'' Mr. Komoski says. Funding from the Ford Foundation and Carnegie Corporation, plus assistance from Columbia University Teachers College in New York City, have lifted the EPIE-Consumers Union project to the point where it hopes to have significant influence over the sales of computer-education products - estimated at more than $1 billion annually.

Currently a group of urban school systems participate in a techonology review with EPIE: Alburquerque, Cincinati, Detroit, Houston, Salt Lake City, and Boston. While New York City public schools evaluate their own software, they and EPIE have agreed on the same criteria for software.

''No single district has the money or talent to cover the some 700 to 1,000 software companies we estimate are producing courseware,'' Mr. Komoski says. These companies range in size from major publishers to mom-and-pop, one-person programming shops.

As part of its work EPIE asks that new educational software be sent to it for evaluation at no cost. ''Otherwise courseware will merely be bought to fill a vacuum called a microcomputer,'' he says.

Its full- and part-time staff of 25, and more than 300 free-lance product evaluators nationwide, give EPIE the expertise not only to handle a steady stream of evaluations, but also the means to increase its contacts with schools.

A standard courseware evaluation consists of three independent specialists reviewing, for approximatley 10 hours each, the academic content and computer-learning advantages of each program. A fourth staff coordinator then compiles and ''grades'' the information.

Elementary schools and smaller districts have been among the most receptive to EPIE's computer-evaluation services thus far, Mr. Komoski says. ''Due to their not having adequate staff, they have come to view us as part of their research department,'' he says.

(For other ways of assessing computer educational products see related stories and box on page B16.)m

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