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Built originally by the University of Illinois in 1960, PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) was the first computer assisted instruction system offering elementary through university coursework to UIUC students, local schools, and other universities.

Donald Bitzer, a laboratory assistant at UIUC, is considered the Father of PLATO. At the time of its conception, 10 character-per-second teletypes were the standard yet even then Bitzer recognized that in order to provide quality computer-assisted instruction, graphics would be critical.

PLATO 1 operated on an ILLIAC 1 computer and included a television set for display and a special keyboard for navigating the system’s function menus. In 1961, PLATO 2 introduced concurrent user capabilities. By 1972, PLATO was in its 4th generation and used an orange plasma display designed by Bitzer that supported bitmapped graphics. His plasma display also included an infrared touch panel that provided the ability for students to answer questions by touching the screen.

PLATO also introduced revolutionary “collaboration” capabilities that we take for granted today. PLATO was the first system to provide instant messaging, e-mail, chat rooms, forums, message boards, remote screen sharing, online testing and yes, even multi-player games.

The stewardship over PLATO changed numerous times over the years but it continued to actively function for 46 years, an astonishing accomplishment by any measure. One of its earliest, longest and staunchest supporters was Control Data Corporation President, William Norris.

While a shrewd businessman, he was more concerned by the unrest of the late 1960’s than he was in the commercial market for PLATO (or at least equally so). Norris felt that much of the unrest was due to social inequalities and PLATO offered a solution by providing higher education to segments of the population that would otherwise never be able to afford a university education.

Global Societal Impact

PLATO’s reach extended well beyond the borders of the UIUC and the United States. In the 1980’s, Madadeni College in South Africa was a major user of the system. What makes the installation interesting from an anthropological point of view is that University had approximately 1,000 students of which 99% were of Zulu ancestry.

Madadeni was a teacher preparation institution and was extremely primitive compared to other learning institutions elsewhere in the world. None of the classrooms had electricity and there was only one telephone for the entire college, which had to be cranked for several minutes before an operator may come on the line. PLATO’s term-talk was oftentimes the only way students could communicate with the outside world.

Most of the Madadeni students came from very rural areas and the PLATO terminal was the first time they encountered any kind of electronic technology. Skeptics were vocal over their concerns that PLATO would be of any use to these students but within hours most had become proficient at using the system and were learning math and science skills. A few students used online resources to learn TUTOR, the PLATO programming language, and some even wrote lessons on the system in the Zulu language.

CDC invested heavily in the development of an entire secondary school curriculum on PLATO, but unfortunately as the curriculum was nearing the final stages of completion, CDC began to falter in South Africa partly because of financial problems in the U.S., partly because of growing opposition in the United States to doing business in South Africa, and partly due to the rapidly evolving microcomputer, something that CDC failed to anticipate.

Norris continued to be a staunch supporter and as late as 1984, he announced that it would be only a few years before PLATO represented a major source of income for CDC. The PLATO service was slowly killed off when Norris stepped down as CEO in 1986. The last production version of PLATO continued to actively function until shortly after Norris’ death in 2006.

Donald Bitzer’s baby had arms that reached around the world and PLATO still stands today as an enduring legacy of the enormous societal impact of technological innovation.

Experience PLATO

PLATO still has a thriving online community that was spawned by its PLATO Notes (Pnote) and other revolutionary communication features. Apply for a free PLATO account at Cyber1 and send me a Pnote at mbaylor\cerl3.

Celebrate PLATO’s 50th Anniversary

Attend the 2 day conference June 2-3, 2010 celebrating the 50th anniversary of PLATO at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA.

Special guests: Dr. Donald Bitzer, Father of PLATO and Ray Ozzie, Chief Software Architect, Microsoft Corp.