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Plugging in: some colleges require personal computers

College freshman George Dotterer's newest ''roommate'' glows an unearthly shade of green . . . unless it's switched off. That's because this roommate happens to be a personal computer, an item fast on the way to becoming as common in many college dorms as calculators and Frisbees.

In the last year, several colleges and universities have unveiled plans to put microcomputers into the hands of students and teachers. Projects are under way at such well-known universities as Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh and Drexel in Philadelphia. Many other schools are watching these campuses closely, hoping to snag ideas for their own use of the technology.

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Students have long been using computers for certain course work such as learning computer programming or solving advanced math problems. But with microcomputers, some of the work once done in overcrowded computer centers can be shifted to dorms and offices.

In addition, although the technology is still relatively undeveloped, personal computers promise to open a smorgasbord of educational options in years to come - from large-scale word processing to Russian history classes carried on via computer screen. To make better use of the machines, some schools are even redesigning their basic curriculum.

For students such as Mr. Dotterer, an electrical engineering major at Clarkson College of Technology in Potsdam, N.Y., the computer means convenience. With a gadget called a modem, he can use phone lines to tap his microcomputer into the college's main computer.

''It brings the power of a mainframe (computer) right into my room,'' says Dotterer.

Clarkson was one of the first colleges in the country to announce that students would be required to own computers. Under the plan, next year's freshman class will buy Zenith's new desktop computer, complete with a bundle of software and 13 instruction manuals. The cost: $400 a year, plus a one-time maintenance fee of $200.

At the end of four years, students will be able to keep the computers. If they transfer or drop out, however, they forfeit the machine. To hasten the introduction of microcomputers, the school is already selling them to any student who wants one - about 400 have been sold so far.

Most schools are developing four-year financing plans along the lines of Clarkson. Costs for the microcomputer packages vary by brand of equipment and accessories.

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The computer industry, for its part, sees dollar signs in the development of the collegiate market. As a result, companies such as International Business Machines and Digital Equipment Corporation are offering plum deals to lure universities into exclusive agreements.

Rochester Institute of Technology, for instance, has an arrangement with Digital which allows students to buy personal computers for $2,800 - about 40 percent off list price. Most schools are reluctant to talk about the financial incentives built into the deals, since a certain amount of bargaining goes on behind the scenes between colleges and computer companies.

''Zenith doesn't want us to reveal all the financial details for marketing reasons,'' says David Bray, dean of educational computing systems at Clarkson. ''We're buying micros by the thousands and are given a price accordingly, while another school may only want to buy a few hundred.''

So far, most of the schools hatching plans and making deals are already well rooted in computer technology. Carnegie-Mellon, for example, now has 800 time-share terminals plugged into the school's hefty mainframe computers.

Earlier this year, Carnegie-Mellon signed a contract with IBM to develop the world's largest computer network. Officials say the system will eventually link as many as 10,000 personal computers into what has been dubbed an ''Integrated Computing Environment.''

This program is widely recognized as the most ambitious in the nation, since it would be the first to develop a fully integrated campuswide network.

The hardware, now being developed jointly by university researchers and IBM, would be among the most sophisticated on the market. It would allow users to share information among themselves while only having to link up with central computers to obtain specific pieces of information.

When the system is complete, students will have ready access to computerized portions of the university library, as well as major national data banks. In addition, students will be able to submit homework directly to professors via computer and take individualized tests from their dorm rooms.

But for all the glitter of the technology, some observers question how the machines will be used.

''There are an awful lot of schools making noise about requiring students to buy computers, but they aren't saying what they're going to be using them for,'' says Judah Schwartz, a professor of engineering science and education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Professors are still trying to figure out what, if anything, the machines contribute to the substance of what's being taught.

Dr. Schwartz contends there are valuable uses for microcomputers, such as word processing. ''But if you stop and ask how can I teach something like the Civil War or Newton's Second Law better with these machines, then the answers don't come so easily,'' he says.

Many top-flight research universities, including MIT and Stanford, are taking what amounts to a wait-and-see position. The schools already have powerful computer systems, mostly focused around large mainframe computers.

''We're definitely planning to make micros a more important part of our students' arsenal of tools at some point,'' says Frank Perkins, associate provost of MIT. But whether this means the school will supply additional machines or require students to buy them is still unknown. Dr. Perkins says any large-scale action is still ''several years down the line.''

Each year, a growing number of undergraduates arrive at MIT with their own microcomputer terminals, Perkins says. About 15 percent of last year's incoming class, for instance, owned their own micros.

''But it's clearly not enough for everyone to arrive with his own machine,'' Perkins says. There is also the matter of compatibility, making sure the machines can be joined together into larger networks. They also have to be made relevant to the course work being done.

Each school has its own notion of how microcomputers should be introduced. Some say it's important to include all students. Others contend they should first be required for those in particular fields, such as engineering or math.

Last fall, for instance, Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey began requiring freshmen majoring in science or systems planning and management to buy Atari home computers. Students working in these subjects are given homework assignments that use the microcomputer. The school is now considering expanding the requirement to include all freshmen majoring in engineering.

But while science and technical courses lend themselves easily to computer applications, some colleges are eager to integrate the humanities.

''We're redesigning all our courses to take computer applications into account,'' says Clarkson's David Bray. Freshman English, for instance, will soon include computer-based reading comprehension drills and a computer program that helps stir ideas for thesis papers.

While approaches vary, most experts agree microcomputers will play a more integral role in student life in years to come. The universities that now have ''computer literacy'' requirements for graduation underscores this.

''It's important to show students that computers aren't just for the educational elite,'' says Allan Smith, a chemistry professor at Drexel who is helping to select computer hardware for that school.

A major stumbling spot in the large-scale use of microcomputers is their relatively limited capabilities, compared with large systems.

''What's currently available in micros just can't measure up to what you get from a high-quality time-sharing system,'' says vice-provost Douglas Van Houweling of Carnegie-Mellon. He says the solution would be new technology.

Some students, meanwhile, strongly object to being required to buy computers. They also complain that the costs are too high in an era when tuition and room and board tabs often exceed $10,000 a year. Others object to the ''dehumanizing and isolating'' influence of having a computer in every room.

''It's good to have some computer background,'' says one Clarkson student. ''But you don't want to live and sleep computers.''

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