Kenneth Komoski Helps Wary 'Consumers'By Evaluating Computer Products for Schools

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New York--P. Kenneth Komoski was giving a visitor a tour of his offices at the Teachers College of Columbia University when he paused before a row of cubicles that contained desktop computer terminals.

Here, he said, is where researchers evaluate the computer hardware and software that is marketed for educational uses. "Do you know what used to be here?" he asked, smiling. "Language labs."

Mr. Komoski, the executive director of a nonprofit organization called the Educational Products Information Exchange (epie), took great delight in the irony. His self-appointed job is seeing that educational applications of computers do not meet the same fate that earlier attempts to bring innovations into the classroom have.

To accomplish that, one of Mr. Komoski's highest priorities these days is convincing educators that epie is the place to turn to for sophisticated evaluations of all educational computer products--from hardware to software to printers to user manuals. epie's evaluations are now printed on large, shiny file cards, but, appropriately, they will soon be accessible electronically.

Early Signs

Mr. Komoski says he hopes eventually to be able to convince one-fourth of the nation's nearly 16,000 school districts to subscribe to the service.

And he has dreams of creating a databank that would integrate evaluations of all kinds of educational products--a project that would cost about $2 million per year, or about $25 for each public school, he estimates.

epie 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 epie-Consumers Union project has received a two-year, $300,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, $200,000 of which will be spent this year.

epie's $700,000 budget for this year also includes a $100,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation and about $400,000 in revenues from product evaluations and newsletter subscriptions.

Mr. Komoski says he has initiated negotiations with several state governments to sell the product evaluations in mass quantities--a process that has been helped by the availability of block-grant money.

With a full- and part-time staff of about 25 and more than 300 free-lance product evaluators nationwide, Mr. Komoski says he has the base necessary not only to keep a steady stream of evaluations, but also to increase his contacts with schools.

Elementary schools and smaller districts have been among the most receptive to epie's computer-evaluation services thus far, Mr. Komoski says.

Rather than eschewing evaluation altogether because their staffs are too small to warrant the investment, he said, they have come to view epie as their research department.

If epie gets the district subscribers it wants and creates the databank it dreams of, its influence over the sales of all educational products--which are already esti-mated at more than $1 billion annually--could be considerable.

Teachers Uneasy

Some educators are uneasy about using computers in schools, Mr. Komoski acknowledges. Teachers fear that computers are just another of what they have come to see as a long line of "fads." The earlier "fads'' included just about everything besides textbooks and chalkboards--overhead projectors, teaching machines, filmstrips, movies, television, and, of course, language laboratories.

Mr. Komoski and others founded epie in 1967 after spending years developing such now-spurned teaching aids. The idea, he says, was to ensure that educational products are evaluated, and when they are found wanting, to give the schools the information they need to demand better ones.

Mr. Komoski still has faith in the early innovations. To explain a point about the way teachers structure class time, he pulls out a plastic sheet with a grease-pencil chart, the kind used on overhead projectors. "These things are great," he says, waving the transparent sheet, "if you know how to use them."

The innovations of the 1960's, Mr. Komoski says, failed because schools acquired materials without knowing what to do with them and, consequently, there was no imperative for the manufacturers of educational products to make them fit the needs of teachers in the classroom.

There was a great influx of federal money for education in that era, Mr. Komoski explains, but much of it was spent without a clear sense of purpose. The clearest guidance came from the manufacturers, he notes, suggesting that that only added to the problem.

"That money was play money," Mr Komoski says. "The sales representatives in many cases became the partners in writing purchase orders and helping [the schools] through the federal labyrinth. It was very difficult to get across the idea that the money should be spent wisely."

The ideas behind the innovations, Mr. Komoski still says, were good. But, he adds, the products were hustled onto the market so quickly that most schools were not adequately prepared to judge which products actually were worthwhile.

Many of the teaching tools that had been lauded in theory by Mr. Komoski and others--as a way to help teachers better develop a curriculum, a way to give students more exact and personalized instruction--were soon collecting dust on school shelves and ridicule from critics.

Educators' Computer Needs

Although there are signs that computers might receive more of the scrutiny needed to assure effective classroom use, computer products to date have been ill-suited, for the most part, to the needs of educators, Mr. Komoski contends.

Evaluations by epie staff members of most educational computer products produced in the last few years have concluded that:

No large-scale software package is available for high schools, and most programs available are for drill and practice.

The major emphasis of most computer programs is on recall of previously learned facts. There is little emphasis on "higher-order skills," such as analysis and synthesis of material.

The programs that are available perpetuate a myth that computers largely are designed for mathematics applications. Ninety-five percent of the large, computer-managed packages are for arithmetic.

Graphics are rarely an integral part of the instruction. Mr. Komoski says that the visual representation of ideas is often easier for students to understand. But graphics usually are no more than supplements to the written text, and the graphics that are used are often are distracting.

Users usually cannot control more than the speed of the program and getting out of the program. There is little choice in the sequence of activities the student goes through.

The "diagnostic help" provided by most computer software is minimal. When a student makes an error, he generally is not told what went wrong. Programs often involve simply a series of cues and guesses through which a student can eventually get the right answer but learn little from the experience.

Past Problems--and Hope

Publishers, Mr. Komoski asserts, have never been held accountable for the materials they produce. The most telling example, Mr. Komoski says, is the story of how "Dick and Jane" readers were brought into schools--a clear case, he adds, of "industry-created demand."

Such texts using a limited number of repeated words, called "controlled vocabularies" by reading experts, were first used to teach English to adults in India, according to Mr. Komoski. Without conducting any research on their effectiveness, Scott, Foresman & Co. published a controlled-vocabulary reader for elementary schools that sold briskly. Other publishers followed suit.

Control over teaching devices must shift back into the hands of educators, argues epie's founder; he points to three developments that may encourage such a change.

First, the advent of the microcomputer marks a shift in the way the whole society conducts its business. Businesses and parents are demanding that schools get involved with computers and that school programs respond to the changing educational needs of students.

"Did you ever remember community leaders saying, 'We must have filmstrips, we must have overhead projectors'?" Mr. Komoski says.

Second, in era of budget-cutting, schools are more likely to subject purchases--including computers--to careful scrutiny.

Third, most teachers are willing to admit--and redress--their ignorance of computers. More than half of the respondents in a recent survey by the National Education Association expressed an interest in learning about instructional applications of computers, operating computers, and programming, and more than 80 percent said they would like to take a computer-related course. (See Education Week, Jan. 12, 1983.)

This last development is perhaps most important, Mr. Komoski says. Earlier epie studies and anecdotal evidence had suggested that many teachers would not or could not deviate from their lesson plans. One survey, for example, found that 90 percent of classroom time is devoted to a textbook-based curriculum.

"The teachers were saying [of the earlier innovations], 'Oh, I don't know. ... Is that any better than what we're doing now?"' Mr. Komoski says. "They became so dependent on the textbook" to plan classroom activities that they failed to understand the new products.

If computers are to be used wisely in the schools, Mr. Komoski says, teachers must not only learn enough programming to alter software, but also stop treating all pupils in the same way.

A drill-and-practice program, which is appropriate for students who have trouble organizing thoughts in a structured way, would be worthless to a student who is capable of learning "higher-order skills," Mr. Komoski asserts.

"Teachers have to learn to fit the students with [the proper program]," he says.

"I think teachers would rather do that than stand all day in front of a chalkboard."

Are teachers today able to develop more flexible attitudes about the structure of their lesson plans?

"I wouldn't have said so ten years ago, and I probably wouldn't have said so five years ago," Mr. Komoski answers. "But now you have this situation where things are changing so rapidly that teachers are saying, 'That's the way things are. I have to deal with it."'

Early Involvement

Mr. Komoski--educated at Arcadia University in Nova Scotia and the Union Theological Seminary--got involved in educational technology in the late 1950's through B.F. Skinner, the behaviorist who developed the teaching machines that were at the heart of educational innovation in the 1960's.

Then a teacher at the Collegiate School in New York City, Mr. Komoski and other faculty members learned to program the machines, which presented the student with questions and offered immediate responses to their answers.

"I became fascinated by the idea that the machines taught a lot about instruction," he says. "You have to know each step of the way what's going on, how to lead the learning. Every teacher should have to go through the steps to see what it is that works."

Eventually, Mr. Komoski says, he became disenchanted with the "incredible commercialization and oversell" of the products--and with Mr. Skinner's theory that learning occurs through a series of physiological responses to stimuli.

The problem with Mr. Skinner's approach, Mr. Komoski says, is the idea that learning progresses in small increments.

"Learning often takes place in larger chunks," Mr. Komoski says. "The way some of these people turned out these programs, kids could get through them and not learn anything. The machine didn't take into account the contingencies of the environment.

"What I'm saying is that you have to open the thing up and allow the programmer of the tutorial or the simulation to be somehow shaped by the learners' responses."

Out of the such failures of such educational machinery, Mr. Komoski adds, grew "my intense conviction that until we got consumers out there demanding that [producers] make better things, we weren't going to get any good out of technological change."

Enter epie.

Educators must demand better products, says P. Kenneth Komoski.

Vol. 02, Issue 19

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