If you were standing on either pole of the earth, and you were holding a compass, which way would the compass point?
The creation of PLATO,* a computer-based learning environment developed by physicists and engineers at the University of Illinois, represented the first use of a computer for pedagogy, the first time-shared education system, and the home of the first on-line community. "At its heart," PLATO historian Brian Dear declares, "PLATO was the first major social computing environment." Before Usenet, before Habitat, before The Well, PLATO users were logging millions of hours on the system, posting 3.3 million messages in an eight-year period.
Daniel Alpert (Physics) and Don Bitzer (EE) became interested in using computers for teaching in 1959, and with some colleagues, founded the Computer-based Education Research Laboratory (CERL) at Illinois as a CSL initiative.
Bitzer collaborated with Chalmers Sherwin (Physics) to design the PLATO hardware. A staff of creative eccentrics, ranging from university professors to high school students, few of whom had any computer background, wrote the software. Together they built a system that was at least a decade ahead of its time in many ways. More than 15,000 hours of instruction, based on B.F. Skinner's behavioral learning model, were developed for PLATO—representing perhaps the largest single investment in educational technology content ever made, even to this day.
PLATO was also one of the first timesharing systems to be operated in public. Both courseware authors and their students used the same high-resolution graphics display terminals, which were connected to a central mainframe. A special-purpose programming language called TUTOR was used to write educational software.
Throughout the 1960s, PLATO remained a small system, supporting only a single classroom of terminals. The first PLATO laboratory was located in Room 204 Loomis Laboratory, now the home of the Physics and Astronomy Library. About 1972, PLATO began a transition to a new generation of mainframes that would eventually support up to one thousand users simultaneously. The School of Music also used PLATO for pioneering work in computer-created music.
Online chat and bulletin-board notes features were added in the early 1970s, long before the Internet. In 1975, Control Data Corporation (CDC) entered the picture, establishing PLATO-IV as a commercial educational product that, by 1985, had established systems in over 100 campuses around the globe.
With thanks to Craig Burson, Physics '71, '73 for providing the image of the screenshot from a PLATO physics problem and for help in properly identifying the other images on this page.
*The name "Plato" was chosen for its connection to teaching, and although it was typically capitalized in written materials, it was not an acronym for anything originally. Subsequently, the backronym "Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations" was invented to fit the name.
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