Minnesota pioneers the use of computers in classrooms

Like a pioneer in the midst of the high-technology prairie, the Minnesota Educational Computer Consortium (MECC) is blazing a trail for educators around the world.

MECC, which is serving as a model for similar organizations in other states, offers schools a broad range of computer services: discounts on hardware, education software, teacher training, and maintenance.

In the process, the agency has broken new ground on two fronts:

* MECC has led a movement toward establishing computer equity in schools. According to a survey completed last fall by Market Data Retrieval, a market research firm, 29.6 percent of US schools had at least one microcomputer; Minnesota led the nation with 63.4 percent. Kenneth Brumbaugh, MECC's executive director, says one of the agency's principal aims has been to give every student in the state, from affluent suburban schools to poor rural schools, equal access to computer learning. Today, Mr. Brumbaugh says, every school district has instructional computing, giving the state more than 10,000 computers - one for every 50 students. MECC has also conducted more than 900 teacher training seminars.

* MECC is a leader in the development of education software. Three years ago, Brumbaugh says, the agency began selling its software programs (which it calls ''instructional courseware'') to institutions outside the state. Now, he says, ''in the neighborhood of a million copies of our materials (software discs and explanatory booklets) are distributed each year'' to members that include the US Defense Department and school systems in such far-flung places as Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and Australia.

This has spawned explosive growth. Case in point: In MECC's St. Paul headquarters, software programmers are so short of space that they are working on terminals packed into an old shower room - with the shower heads removed.

Originally drawing 100 percent of its funds from state coffers, MECC now recovers 80 percent of its costs through software sales.

Says David Moursund, president of the International Council for Computers in Education, ''MECC has provided exceptional leadership in the field of computer education, and in software development.''

Many are trying to follow MECC's lead.

''From more than 70 countries, and from every state in the union,'' says Brumbaugh, educators and government officials have come to see how MECC works.

As a result, ''many states now have educational computer consortiums,'' says Cliff Brown, director of the Iowa Computer Consortium. The ICC, Mr. Brown says, has helped Iowa schools acquire more than 2,000 microcomputers in the last three months. In Iowa, as in Minnesota, the emphasis is on getting computers and software into smaller schools, he says. Most new consortiums, however, don't approximate MECC. Some are regional, like those in Illinois, says Brown, and most don't receive direct funding from the state. ICC, he says, is supported by its member school systems.

To Brown, jointly funded consortiums make good sense: ''Marketing of microcomputers is very competitive now, so there's a lot of value in having a centralized office acquire them.'' In the past, he adds, ''school districts, especially smaller ones, were scrimping to get one computer. But the advent of consortiums across the country has made hardware and software affordable.''

MECC software - which ranges from lessons on cell-membrane diffusion to a program called ''Sell Lemonade'' for third-graders - has drawn high praise from customers. Gary Olin, an instructional computing consultant for schools across Indiana, says: ''We're very, very pleased with MECC software. Although it doesn't cover every subject, it's given our schools an excellent foundation to work on.'' Mr. Olin says one of the big selling points of MECC software is documentation.

''They provide a booklet with each disc,'' says Olin, which includes lesson plans and tells what grade level the program was intended to cover. ''This has been really valuable to our teachers, many of whom are not too familiar with computers. All that most publishers of computer software do is provide instructions on how to insert the disc into the machine.''

Unfortunately, says ICC director Brown, neither Iowa nor any other state consortium has been able to replicate MECC's success with software because of the high cost of developing such programs on a statewide scale.

State aid, says Brown, has been a key factor in MECC's success. Three weeks ago, the Minnesota Legislature appropriated $6.75 million to high-tech development, a large portion of that going to MECC. In Iowa, he says, the recent appropriation for similar research was only $250,000, and in Illinois it was $ 500,000. Brown attributes MECC's strong state backing to the presence of a large computer community that includes giants Honeywell and Control Data.

The other factor: experience. Ten years ago this July, Gov. Wendell Anderson initiated his plan to ensure equal opportunity in computer education. The University of Minnesota, the state-university and community-college systems, and the state Department of Education formed a board of directors, and with money from the Legislature, started MECC. Cooperation, says Brumbaugh, has been vital to MECC's growth.

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