As the school year begins in Minnesota, hundreds of students are entering classrooms with computers. Tech has a nearly constant presence in today’s schools, but the integration of education and technology we see today didn’t always exist.
Forty years ago, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) pioneered the idea of bringing computers to classrooms. The company was founded by a group of Minnesota teachers in the early 1970s, and eventually grew to a state-owned corporation that developed a variety of educational games, their most popular being Oregon Trail.
MECC’s presence, along with that of other companies like Plato Learning (now Edmentum), turned Minnesota into a major hub for education technology during the industry’s early days. Eventually, it was consolidated into a just a few players. And nearly three decades after MECC emerged as an industry leader, the company shut the doors of its Minnesota office in 1999.
Minnesota played a major part in creating the education technology industry. And although it started here, it didn’t stick around.
“There’s challenges to succeeding as a K12 software company, and you see a lot of carcasses along the way,” said local serial entrepreneur Casey Allen. “[Ed tech] is an example of how we were a pioneer, but that didn’t manifest to staying power.”
As the Twin Cities startup ecosystem has grown over the last decade, the EdTech community has reignited and grown along with it.
Educelerate North, a local EdTech networking group, estimates that there are currently around 70 EdTech companies in Minnesota. Some are legacy companies like Edmentum, but the majority are small to mid-sized startups founded in the last 10 years.
“EdTech has gone from fad to flame out to really serious opportunity again,” said Kidblog CEO and co-founder Matt Hardy.
One of the first people to see opportunity in EdTech was Dale LaFrenz, the former CEO of MECC. LaFrenz was a high school teacher in the Twin Cities during the late 1960s when he witnessed early tech superpowers like Honeywell, Control Data and IBM setting up shop in Minnesota.
LaFrenz, along with other educators in the area, saw a powerful new industry growing around them, and knew that they wanted to get technology into the hands of their students.
“You saw this concern emerging in Minnesota about kids, computers and the future,” LaFrenz said. “Our vision was cloudy, but we had an idea. We knew something was going to happen, we just didn’t know what it was.”
In 1968, LaFrenz and his colleagues joined nearly two dozen other Twin Cities schools to form an organization called Total Information for Educational Systems (TIES). Five years later, TIES joined forces with similar groups in other corners of the state to form MECC. LaFrenz served as CEO from 1985 to 1996, when the company went public.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, microcomputers like the Apple II started to gain traction as popular alternatives to the cumbersome, room-filling mainframe computers. MECC latched onto the trend.
LaFrenz said that he and other MECC executives met with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in their California garage to take a look at the early Apple computers. LaFrenz and his colleagues were impressed with what they saw. And Apple’s mission to put a computer in every American home aligned with MECC’s goal of getting one in every school. After that meeting, MECC bought five Apple computers.
“You saw this concern emerging in Minnesota about kids, computers and the future.”
Education became one of the first markets Apple entered, and eventually dominated. MECC became Apple’s biggest reseller for a time, LaFrenz said. Microcomputers were commonplace in the majority of Minnesota schools by the mid-80’s.
MECC’s popularity and traction didn’t last. Shortly after going public, it was acquired by educational software company SoftKey for $370M in stock. SoftKey rebranded MECC to The Learning Company. After a series of subsequent layoffs, the Minnesota office was shuttered in 1999.
Since then, The Learning Company has changed hands several times. It was acquired by Mattel in 2000, then sold at a major loss to Gores Technology Group. In 2014, Education publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt scooped up the Learning Company brand and IP. Today, The Learning Company is headquartered in San Francisco.
LaFrenz stayed in the game after leaving MECC, and continues to work in EdTech today. Five years ago he cofounded RE@L with other ex-MECC executives. RE@L has largely been bootstrapped, and distributes software for STEM programs in schools.
“It’s not just this esoteric, ‘Let’s combine science and math’ thing,” LaFrenz said. “We wanted to help students really find a better, deeper understanding about the careers and opportunities available to them.”
TEACHERS TO TECHIES
Entrepreneurs aren’t the only ones embracing the energy of the Twin Cities startup scene. Area educators are leveraging the ecosystem to convert their classroom exercises into real businesses.
That was the case for Matt Hardy, who started Kidblog, a student publishing site, while he was a teacher at Cedar Ridge Elementary in Eden Prairie. Hardy was looking for a new way to get his students interested in writing. He used his computing background to engineer a WordPress-backed site so students could start blogging. Eventually, this grew into Kidblog.
“Disruption is recognizing what’s been there all along, and that’s the student teacher relationship.”
Hardy said that the support of both the education community and startup ecosystem pushed him to start thinking of himself as both an educator and entrepreneur.
“It was obvious that there was a really enthusiastic group of people here both welcoming and serious about their approach to solving problems with tech,” he said.
Hardy, along with other EdTech entrepreneurs, believes it’s important to work with teachers and students in classrooms. Their intention isn’t to disrupt their industry, but to collaborate with those working in it.
“For EdTech, disruption is recognizing what’s been there all along, and that’s the student teacher relationship,” Hardy said. “We need to amplify the power of teachers and students as opposed to completely upending a longstanding institution. A robot tutor isn’t going to cut it.”
Steve Wellvang is a local attorney who has advised clients in the education and tech sectors for more than two decades. In 2013, Wellvang joined forces with other members of the EdTech community to create a Minnesota chapter of Educelerate, a networking group for teachers and EdTech entrepreneurs.
Wellvang watched the rise and fall of early Minnesota EdTech firsthand. As he saw EdTech reigniting in the Twin Cities years later, he wanted to get involved. Wellvang left his job at his law firm to help start Educelerate North.
“I saw the innovation that was going around the country and in Minnesota with EdTech,” he said. “And I thought the Cities could be more of leader as it once was.”
Today, Wellvang is back at his law practice, and continues to lead Educelerate North on a volunteer basis. Wellvang calls himself a “reluctant catalyst and organizer,” who never had the goal of creating a startup networking group. Area EdTech entrepreneurs credit the organization as a key supporter for their businesses.
“we’ve got a long way to go to keep supporting more innovation in education.”
“From my perspective, the community is vibrant and active,” said Peter Bohacek, a local high school teacher who founded science video startup Pivot Interactives. “There are a lot of young companies just developing, and Educelerate is a big part of that reason.”
The local startup ecosystem has produced dozens EdTech startups in the last decade, and a handful have raised large rounds of funding. Flipgrid, a video creation app used in schools, raised $17M from angel investors in 2015.
Wellvang acknowledges that Minnesota is not a hub for EdTech, but he believes that the Twin Cities has the potential to reclaim its legacy.
“Both the market and technology itself weren’t as significant then as they are now. It’s almost not even apples and oranges,” Wellvang said. “But EdTech is getting stronger. It’s coming back, and we’ve got a long way to go to keep supporting more innovation in education.”