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.

Screenshot from PLATO lesson titled "Rotational dynamics: a problem solving lesson in classical rotational mechanics" by Bruce Sherwood & Craig Burson, Copyright(c) 1972,1973 Board of Trustees University of Illinois.
Screenshot from PLATO lesson titled "Rotational dynamics: a problem solving lesson in classical rotational mechanics" by Bruce Sherwood & Craig Burson, Copyright(c) 1972,1973 Board of Trustees University of Illinois.

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.

from PLATO lesson =fly=, by Paul Tenczar
from PLATO lesson =fly=, by Paul Tenczar

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.


by Steve Silberman
4:46 a.m. March 12, 1997 PST

Alongside the much-hyped "birthday" celebration for HAL at this week's Cyberfest, an event of more far-reaching significance will be taking place. This Saturday, the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana will host the first official reunion of those whose lives were touched by PLATO - a time-sharing network offering email, newsgroups, real-time chat, multiplayer games, distance learning, audio, high-resolution graphics, and touch-screen interfaces, a quarter-century before the birth of the Web.

"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. Though PLATO prefigured so many aspects of the online world, its story has not yet been told in Net histories like Where Wizards Stay up Late and The Virtual Community. Alumni coordinator Judy Tolliver expects 120 PLATO people will "make the pilgrimage" to the reunion.

When Don Bitzer first conceived of PLATO in the age of Big Iron - 1960 - he didn't set out to invent the world's first online community. The crisis that Bitzer was trying to address, he recalls, was literacy.

"I'd been reading projections that said that 50 percent of the students coming out of our high schools were functionally illiterate," says Bitzer, who was a PhD student in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois. "There was a physicist in our lab, Chalmers Sherwin, who wasn't afraid to ask big questions. One day he asked, 'Why can't we use computers for education?'"

A committee was convened to answer Sherwin's question, but after months of deliberation, the prognosis was dour: Those who could teach didn't understand the technology, and those who understood the technology couldn't teach. Dean Daniel Alpert asked Bitzer to brainstorm for two weeks before the committee's recommendation was made final. Working with a programmer named Peter Braunfeld, Bitzer came up with the basic scheme for PLATO, which stood for "Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations." The first PLATO terminal, Bitzer told Wired News, was a US$10 TV set wired into a 16-key keyboard used for the Naval Tactical Defense System.

By 1973, Bitzer's Computer-Based Education Research Laboratory (CERL) had become a hub of creativity in Urbana, owing largely to the freewheeling atmosphere cultivated by Bitzer. One of Bitzer's student employees was David Woolley, a 16-year-old whose contribution to the PLATO system - the prototypical email and newsgroup system called "Notes" - linked PLATO users into a lively online community. "One of the key reasons that PLATO was so far ahead of its time," recalls Woolley, "was that the environment at CERL was so minimally structured. Bitzer collected a bunch of highly creative and eccentric people, and turned them loose to see what they would come up with. The prevailing attitude was that people with something good to contribute would find something interesting to do."

Woolley's Notes was originally intended as a bug-reporting protocol. After programmer Doug Brown gave PLATO users the ability to talk to one another on a split screen - which he called "Talkomatic" - system use skyrocketed. "It was more like a virtual water cooler than a telephone substitute," Woolley recalls in his memoir, PLATO: The Emergence of On-Line Community. "People would hang out in a channel and chat or flirt with whoever dropped by."

Chatting and flirting weren't the only features of the contemporary online world that sprouted up in the margins of this powerful computerized teaching tool. Pranksters who found a terminal that hadn't been logged out by the last user would post notes using the user's login name; this was called "derfing." ("Derf" is "Fred" backwards, Fred being the name of one notoriously forgetful user. The most frequent spoof message was "I are a derf.")

PLATO's response time was so swift - even by current standards - that "it was the ideal environment for creating games," says Dear. A hacker-like posse of local high school students would block senior users from signing on, so they could use PLATO for games like Spacewar, Avatar (a dungeons and dragons game), Airfight, contract bridge, and Empire (a Star Trek-inspired game). Eventually, the Urbana police contacted Bitzer, and asked him to institute a 9 p.m. curfew for all PLATO users under the age of 16. This weekend's reunion will feature an Empire tourney.

There was even gender switching on PLATO, with online affairs that lasted for weeks. The gaming, the Notes, and the real-time flirting made PLATO highly addictive, occasionally interfering with its role as an aid to education, says Owen Gaede, now the director of the distance learning program at Florida State University. "Many graduate students," Gaede reflects, "failed to complete their graduate program because of Empire."

The burgeoning community was also subject to the pressures of the Watergate era. One user started a discussion of whether or not President Nixon should be impeached; the discussion was shut down by Bitzer, says Woolley, because PLATO was funded by ARPA and the National Science Foundation, "and people were afraid the whole system would be erased."

In the late '70s, the Control Data Corporation attempted to market PLATO "as a carrot for their mainframes" says Woolley, but despite the tireless support of CEO Bill Norris, the marketing program was a failure. "It didn't fit in with the corporate culture at Control Data," Woolley claims. "Being assigned to PLATO was considered being exiled to Siberia."

PLATO systems did, however, take root all over the world. Gaede used PLATO to teach math and science at the Madadeni Teachers College in South Africa. Though most of the students had grown up in rural Zululand without radio or toilets, the students embraced PLATO immediately - in part, as a means of communication that routed around apartheid. "For many of them," Gaede recalls, "it was the first time in their lives they were able to communicate with white people as another human being."

Dear has been researching a book called PLATO People: The Story of an Online Community since 1985, having completed nearly 400 hours of recorded oral history. Though plasma-display screens modeled after the ones Bitzer developed for the system in the '70s are now being developed for HDTV, and the backbone of PLATO is thriving as NOVAnet - having given birth to such illustrious and various progeny as Lotus Notes, Notesfiles, the tin newsreader, TenCORE, and Macromedia's Authorware - this Saturday's reunion will be "bittersweet," says Dear.

"CERL was the Mecca of the PLATO world," Dear observes. "But now PLATO is dead on this campus, and the CERL building is like a ghost town.... A lot of the lessons learned are being forgotten."

"I was given a tour of the Chemistry Learning Center today, to a room where there had been PLATO terminals," Dear continues. "The cable for the terminals was literally hanging from the wall, the terminals have been replaced by IBM PCs, and the students were using the Web. With PLATO, if you asked a question, you got an answer back in less than a second. If you ask a question on the Web, it can take as long as 15 or 20 seconds to get your answer, while the Net clunks away. The students were falling asleep. I asked myself, 'Is this progress?'"

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