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Universal U: Wired in Crookston
By Bob Reha, February 2001
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The Crookston campus of the University of Minnesota traces its roots to 1905. Originally a high school, Crookston has evolved from a two-year technical school to one of three non-metro campuses of the U of M offering four-year degrees. But Crookston is a unique institution that produces computer literate and highly employable graduates. Some say the U of M at Crookston is one of the state's best-kept secrets.

Dana Prudhomme and Cameron Bauer are two students at the U of M in Crookston. They say the emphasis on technology is what attracted them to the campus. (Listen)
(MPR Photo - Bob Reha)

A WALK THROUGH THE STUDENT UNION on the University of Minnesota, Crookston campus reveals a scene that could be found at any college. Students are sitting around tables, talking and working on assignments. These students are of many nationalities and backgrounds. But they have one thing in common - every student and faculty member has a notebook computer.

"We started that back in 1993," says Andrew Svec, University of Minnesota, Crookston's director of communications. "We're widely recognized as the first college in the world, probably, to provide every single student and faculty member with a notebook computer. "It's really changed the environment."

Prior to 1992, the University of Minnesota, Crookston was known mainly as an agriculture school. Its reputation was built on its high quality programs in equine sciences. But the outlook was bleak for the Crookston campus in the early 1990s. At a time when the University of Minnesota system was looking at major changes and places to cut costs, Crookston faced major cutbacks or possible closing. The campus needed to refocus its mission.

"Even in 1992, it became apparent there was a lack of computer literacy in the work force," says Crookston Chancellor Don Sargeant. He says the school turned to the community for guidance.

"Employers really could see the need for more computer literacy in everyone that they hired. And they always felt that the college graduate that didn't have work experience was not going to be good as the college graduate that had work experience," says Sargeant.

Sargeant says administrators decided UMC would continue to offer classes in traditional fields like agriculture, math, English and speech. But they decided to place new emphasis on learning through the use of computer skills. School officials negotiated a deal with IBM to supply top-of-the-line laptops each year with up-to-date software.

The entire campus took on a new look and feel. In the era before laptops, classes were taught with lectures, overhead projectors and other methods developed decades ago. Today, students walk into a classroom, pull out a laptop and log onto the Internet. Instructors use Power Point presentations, post lectures on Web sites, and require students to do research on the World Wide Web.

All the classrooms on campus are wired to the Internet, and 80 percent of the classrooms have an Internet hookup for every seat. All the residence halls have Internet connections. The abundance of connections means students aren't limited to using their laptops in the classroom. They're mobile.

1905: Northwest School of Agriculture, a high school, is founded in Crookston.

1966: Northwest School of Agriculture begins transition to University of Minnesota-Crookston: becomes a two year school.

1993: University of Minnesota-Crookston transitions to a four-year college.

1993: University of Minnesota-Crookston issues laptop computers to all students and faculty.

2001: University of Minnesota-Crookston receives the Ubiquitous Computing Pioneer Award.

At the student union, freshman Jerry Christensen of Fridley does some homework.

"It's nice. It helps a lot when it comes to doing homework, taking notes and stuff. It's easier to read and understand notes, since I don't have very good handwriting," says Christensen.

Internet companies like Yahoo! have recognized the U of M, Crookston for embracing computer technology. Representatives from Stanford and some Ivy League colleges have visited to learn how to improve their computer literacy programs.

But professors at the Crookston campus say providing a laptops to students doesn't necessarily mean they'll make good use of the technology.

"With all this information available on the Internet, it is the role of faculty members to serve as guides, as mentors," says Diane Moen, UMC's Chief Information Officer.

Crookston Chancellor Don Sargeant says the focus on technology education was spurred in part by employers, who see the need for computer literacy in everyone they hire.
(MPR Photo - Bob Reha)

The role of instructor has changed in the age of the laptop. As mentors, faculty members help students develop the computer skills needed to access and process information. They keep the students focused so they don't spend all their time playing computer games or downloading music. Officials say while some faculty resisted the changes, most realized the technology can open windows to new sources of information for their students.

The overhaul of the Crookston campus has made the school more attractive to a wider array of students. Traditionally, the school has drawn students from the Red River Valley. But now Crookston is enrolling more and more students from the Twin Cities, St. Cloud and beyond.

Cameron Bauer, a sophomore majoring in Information Network Management, is from Ellendale, near the border of North and South Dakota. He says the education he is receiving will help him develop the skills he'll need to get a good job, and allow him to remain close to his home.

"I can sit at home in the middle of nowhere, with a satellite connection to the Internet, and do what I want to do. In the future I can work on Web sites and marketing right from my home in the middle of the country. I think that's the future," says Bauer.

Like the rest of the University of Minnesota system, the Crookston campus is vulnerable to budget cuts. Enrollment at Crookston is at an all-time high. Total enrollment is 2,200, with 1,750 of those students living on campus. More and more students from outside the region, from places like California and Florida, are discovering the school. There are even plans to build a new dorm to accommodate the new students. Today, no one is talking about closing the University of Minnesota, Crookston.

The University of Minnesota has two other non-metro campuses offering four-year degrees. Visit them.

The University of Minnesota, Morris

The University of Minnesota, Duluth

Bob Reha covers northwestern Minnesota for Minnesota Public Radio's Mainstreet unit. Reach him via e-mail at