Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
PLATO, an apronym for Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operation, was one of the first generalized Computer assisted instruction systems, originally built by the University of Illinois and later taken over by Control Data (CDC), who provided the machines it ran on. PLATO ran for many years at the U of I, but William Norris's plans to make it a major force in the computing world and a keystone of corporate social responsibility failed. Although the project was econonically a failure and supplanted by other technologies when it was finally turned off in the 1990s, PLATO nevertheless pioneered key concepts such as online forums and message boards, email, chat rooms, picture languages, instant messaging, remote screen sharing, and multiplayer online games.
Prior to the 1960s, university educations were limited to a tiny minority of the population. But the future trend to much larger enrollment in higher education was already clear in the early 1950s, and the problem of providing for an influx of new students was a serious concern. A number of people proposed that if the computer could increase the capabilities of the factory via automation, then surely it could do the same for education.
In 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, and the United States suddenly felt a collective sense of educational inferiority. The result was massive spending on science and engineering education; computer-based education along with it. In 1958 the US Air Force's Office of Scientific Research held a conference on the topic at the University of Pennsylvania, and a number of groups --notably IBM -- presented studies on the topic.
Chalmers Sherwin, a physicist at the University of Illinois, suggested a computerized learning system to William Everett, Dean of the College of Engineering. Everett recommended that Daniel Alpert, another physicist, convene a meeting on the topic that included engineers, educators, mathematicians, and psychologists. After several weeks of meetings the group was unable to suggest a single design for such a system. Alpert was unhappy with the results, but before announcing their failure he mentioned the meetings to a lab assistant, Donald Bitzer. Bitzer claimed that he had already been thinking about the problem, and suggested that he could build a demonstration system.
Donald Bitzer, regarded as the "father of PLATO", succeeded largely due to their rejection of "modern" educational thinking. Returning to a basic drill-based system, his team improved on existing systems by allowing students to bypass lessons they already understood. Their first system, PLATO I first ran on the locally-built ILLIAC I computer in 1960. It included a TV for display and a special keyboard to navigate the system's menus. In 1961 they introduced PLATO II, which ran two users at once.
Convinced of the value of the project, the PLATO system entered a major redesign between 1963 and 1966. The new PLATO III allowed "anyone" to design new lesson modules using their TUTOR language, brainchild of Paul Tenczar. Built on a CDC 1604 which had been given to them for free by William Norris, PLATO III could run up to 20 lessons at once, and was used by a number of local facilities in Urbana-Champaign that could be attached to the system with their custom terminals.
PLATO I, II and III had been funded by small grants from a combined Army-Navy-Air Force funding pool, but by the time PLATO III was in operation everyone involved was convinced it was worthwhile to scale up the project. Accordingly, in 1967 the National Science Foundation granted the team steady funding, allowing Bitzer to set up the Computer-based Education Research Laboratory (CERL) at the university.
In 1972 a new system named PLATO IV was ready for operation. The PLATO IV terminal was a major innovation. It included Bitzer's Plasma display invention which incorporated both memory and bitmapped graphics into one display. This Plasma display included fast vector line drawing capability and ran at 1260 baud, rendering 180 characters per second. The PLATO IV display also included a Touch panel allowing students to answer questions by touching anywhere on the screen, and a Slide projector that could display microfiche slides from behind the plasma panel.
Early in 1972, researchers from Xerox PARC were given a tour of the PLATO system at the University of Illinois. At this time they were shown parts of the system such as the Show Display application generator for pictures on PLATO (later translated into a "Doodle" program at PARC, an ancestor of Apple's QuickDraw), and the Charset Editor (which edited downloadable bit maps, an ancestor of MacPaint), and the Term Talk and Monitor Mode communications program. Many of the new technologies they saw were adopted and improved upon when these researchers returned to Palo Alto, CA.
By 1975 the PLATO System served almost 150 locations from a donated CDC 6600, including not only the users of the PLATO III system, but a number of grammar schools, high-schools and various colleges and universities. PLATO IV offered graphics and animation in addition to basic text-based services, and included a messaging service that allowed TUTOR programs to send data between various users. This later service was used both for chat-type programs, as well as the first multi-user flight simulator.
With the introduction of PLATO IV, Bitzer declared general success, claiming that the goal of generalized computer instruction was now available to all. However the terminals were very expensive, supporting 512x512 resolution overlayed on a powered color microfiche system for "background graphics" that changed slides with compressed air. Invariably the air tank ran out and the classroom would be rendered inoperable. As a generalized system PLATO would likely need to be scaled down for cost reasons alone.
The CDC years
As PLATO IV reached production quality, William Norris became increasingly interested in it as a potential product. His interest was two-fold. From a strict business perspective, he was evolving Control Data into a service based company instead of a hardware one, and was increasingly convinced that computer-base education would become a major market in the future. At the same time, Norris was upset by the unrest of the late 1960s, and felt that much of it was due to social inequalities that needed to be addressed. PLATO offered a solution by providing higher education to segments of the population that would otherwise never be able to afford university.
Norris provided CERL with machines to develop their system on in the late 1960s. In 1971 he set up a new division within CDC to develop PLATO "courseware", and eventually many of CDC's own initial training and technical manuals ran on it. In 1974 PLATO was running on in-house machines at CDC headquarters in Minneapolis, and in 1976 they purchased the commercial rights in exchange for a new CDC Cyber machine.
CDC announced the acquisition soon after, claiming that by 1985 50% of the company's income would be related to PLATO services. Through the 1970s CDC tirelessly promoted PLATO, both as a commercial tool and one for re-training unemployed workers in new fields. Norris refused to give up on the system, and invested in several non-mainsteam courses, including a crop-information system for farmers, and various courses for inner-city youth. CDC even went as far as to place PLATO terminals in some shareholder's houses, to demonstrate the concept of the system.
In the early 1980s CDC started heavily advertizing the service, apparently due to increasing internal dissent over the now $600 million project, taking out print and even radio ads promoting it as a general tool. The Minneapolis Tribune was unconvinced by their ad copy and started an investigation of the claims. In the end they concluded that while it was not proven to be a better education system, everyone using it nevertheless enjoyed it at least. An official evaluation by an external testing agency ended with roughly the same conclusions, suggesting that everyone enjoyed using it, but it was essentially equal to an average human teacher in terms of student advancement.
Of course a computerized system equal to a human should have been a major achievement, the very concept that the early pioneers in CBT were aiming for. A computer could serve all the students in a school for the cost of maintaining it, and wouldn't go on strike. However CDC charged $50 an hour for access to their data center, in order to recoup some of their development costs, making it considerably more expensive than a human on a per-student basis. PLATO was therefore a failure in any real sense, although it did find some use in large companies who didn't want to staff up their teaching departments.
An attempt to mass-market the PLATO system was introduced in 1980 as Micro-PLATO, which ran the basic TUTOR system on various home computers. Versions were built for the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A, Atari 8-bit family, Zenith Z-100 and (later) IBM PC. Micro-PLATO could be used stand-alone for normal courses, or could attach to a CDC data center for multiuser programs. To make the later affordable, CDC introduced the Homelink service for $5 an hour.
In 1986 Norris stepped down as CEO, and the PLATO service was slowly killed off. He tirelessly supported it to the end, announcing that it would be only a few years before it represented a major source of income for CDC as late as 1984. Nevertheless he later claimed that Micro-PLATO was one of the reasons PLATO got off-track. They had started on the TI-99/4A, but then TI pulled the plug and they moved to other systems like the Atari, who soon did the same. He felt that it was a waste of time anyway, as the system's value was in its online nature, which Micro-PLATO lacked (at least to start).
Bitzer was more forthright about CDC's failure, blaming their corporate culture for the problems. He noted that development of the courseware was averaging $300,000 a module, many times what the CERL was paying for similar products. This meant that CDC had to charge high prices in order to recoup their costs, prices that made the system unattractive. The reason, he suggested, for these high prices was that CDC had set up a division that had to keep itself profitable via courseware development, forcing them to raise the prices in order to keep their headcount up during slow periods.
PLATO in South Africa
During the period when CDC was marketing PLATO, the system began to be used internationally. South Africa was one of the biggest users of PLATO in the early 1980s. ESCOM, the South African electrical power company had a large CDC mainframe at Vanderbilt Park in the northwest suburbs of Johannesburg. Mainly this computer was used for management and data processing tasks related to power generation and distribution, but it also ran the PLATO software. The largest PLATO installation in South Africa during the early 1980s was at the University of the Western Cape, which served a "coloured" population, and at one time had hundreds of PLATO IV terminals all connected by leased data lines back to Johannesburg. There were several other installations at educational institutions in South Africa, among them Madadeni College in the Madadeni township just outside of Newcastle. This was perhaps the most unusual PLATO installation anywhere.
Madadeni had about 1,000 students, all of them black and 99.5% of Zulu ancestry. The college was one of 10 teacher preparation institutions in kwaZulu, most of them much smaller. In many ways Madadeni was very primitive. None of the classrooms had electricity and there was only one telephone for the whole college, which one had to crank for several minutes before an operator might come on the line. So an air-conditioned, carpeted room with 16 computer terminals was a stark contrast to the rest of the college. At times the only way a person could communicate with the outside world was through PLATO term-talk.
For many of the Madadeni students, most of whom came from very rural areas, the PLATO terminal was the first time they encountered any kind of electronic technology. (Many of the first year students had never seen a flush toilet before.) There initially was skepticism that these technologically illiterate students could effectively use PLATO, but those concerns were not borne out. Within an hour or less most students were using the system proficiently, mostly to learn math and science skills, although a lesson that taught keyboarding skills was one of the most popular. A few students even used on-line resources to learn TUTOR, the PLATO programming language, and a few wrote lessons on the system in the Zulu language.
PLATO was also used fairly extensively in South Africa for industrial training. ESCOM successfully used PLM (PLATO learning management) and simulations to train power plant operators, South African Airways (SAA) used PLATO simulations for cabin attendant training, and there were a number of other large companies, as well, that were exploring the use of PLATO.
The South African subsidiary of CDC invested heavily in the development of an entire secondary school curriculum (SASSC) 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 back home, partly because of growing opposition in the United States to doing business in South Africa, and partly due to the rapidly evolving microcomputer, a paradigm shift that CDC failed to recognize.
The PLATO Online Community
Although PLATO was designed for computer-based education, many consider its most enduring legacy to be the online community spawned by its communication features. PLATO Notes, introduced in 1973, was among the world's first online message boards, and years later became the direct progenitor of Lotus Notes. By 1976, PLATO had sprouted a variety of novel tools for online communication, including Personal Notes (email), Talkomatic (chat rooms), and Term-Talk (instant messaging and remote screen sharing).
PLATO's architecture also made it an ideal platform for online gaming. Many extremely popular games were developed on PLATO during the 1970s and 1980s, such as Empire (a massively multiplayer game based on Star Trek), Airfight (a precursor to Microsoft Flight Simulator), and several "dungeons and dragons" games that presaged MUDs and MOOs as well as popular shoot-em-up games like Doom and Quake.
These communication tools and games formed the basis for a thriving online community of thousands of PLATO users, which lasted for well over twenty years. The history of this community has been documented in much greater detail in David Woolley's article "PLATO: The Emergence of Online Community."
In August of 2004, a version of PLATO (Cyber1.org) from the 1980-1985 period was resurrected online and word of its reincarnation spread rapidly. Within 6 months by word of mouth more than 500 former users have signed up to use this system. Many of the students who used PLATO in the 1970's and 1980's feel a special social bond with the Community of Users who came together using the powerful communications tools on PLATO (talk programs, records systems, and notes files.)
The original PLATO IV system had more than 12,000 contact hours of courseware, much of it developed by college professors for higher education. The knowledged embedded in this computer system is immense, even today.
CDC eventually sold some of the rights to PLATO to newly-formed The Roach Organization in 1989. In 2000 TRO changed their name to PLATO Learning and continue to sell and service PLATO courseware running on PC's. CDC continued development of the basic system under the name Cybis after selling the name to Roach, in order to service their larger commercial customers. The University of Illinois also continued development of PLATO, eventually setting up a commercial on-line service called NovaNET in partnership with University Communications, Inc. CERL was closed in 1994, with the maintenance of the PLATO code passing to UCI. UCI was later renamed NovaNET Learning, which was bought by National Computer Systems. Shortly after that, NCS was bought by Pearson, and after several name changes now operates as Pearson Digital Learning.
CDC, meanwhile, sold off their mainframe Cybis business to University Online, which was a descendent of IMSATT. UOL was later renamed to VCampus. With one remaining mainframe system still running for the FAA, VCampus granted non-commercial rights to run a Cybis system to a small group of people at Cyber1.org, running on a Cyber emulator running NOS, CDC's operating system, after limited rights to run NOS were granted by Symantec, which inherited the remainder of CDC's mainframe business. The Cyber1 system offers free access to the system in an attempt to re-build the original PLATO communities that grew up at CERL and on CDC systems in the 1980's.
PLATO courseware was fairly extensive, covering a full range of high-school and college courses, as well as topics such as reading skills, family planning, Lamaze training and home budgeting. However the most popular "courseware" remained their multi-user games and computer role playing games such as dnd, although it appears CDC was uninterested in this market. As the value of a CDC-based solution disappeared in the 1980s, interested educators ported the engine first to the IBM PC, and later to web-based systems. Today, however, even the web-based versions appear to have disappeared.
- Plasma display, circa 1964, by Donald Bitzer for PLATO III.
- Touch Panel , circa 1964, by Donald Bitzer for PLATO III.
- Show Display Mode, a graphics application generator for TUTOR software, precursor to Apple's QuickDraw picture language editor.
- Charset Editor, an early version of MacPaint for drawing bitmapped pictures stored in downloadable fonts.
- Airfight , circa 1972, a 3-D flight simulator written for PLATO by Brand Fortner; this probably inspired UIUC student Bruce Artwick to start Sublogic which was acquired and later became Microsoft Flight Simulator.
- Empire, a 30 person inter-terminal 2-D real-time space simulation, circa 1974.
- Monitor Mode on PLATO, circa 1975, used by instructors to help students, precursor of Timbuktu screen-sharing software.
- Notesfiles, a precursor to Unix Newsgroups and Lotus Notes, circa 1974.
- Panzer, circa 1977, a 3-D tank simulation that spawned Atari's Battlezone game.
- Think15 , circa 1977, 2-D outdoor wilderness quest simulation, like Trek with monsters, trees, treasures.
- Avatar , circa 1978, a 2.5-D Multi-User Dungeon (MUD), a precursor to EverQuest.
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