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PLATO@50: Innovations in Hardware

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Published on Jun 20, 2010

On June 3, 2010, the Computer History Museum hosted a 6-session conference on the PLATO learning system. Session 2 was entitled "Innovations in Hardware: Mission-based Developments Led Other Places."

Session 2 Description:
Early discussions at the University of Illinois on how to use emerging computer system technology for delivering quality education quickly led to the formation of a very exciting demonstration project called PLATO. This project was a highly "mission oriented" effort and used currently available technology augmented with a number of hardware and software innovations. These innovations were stimulated by the need to reach the clearly stated demonstration goals relating to student response time and cost per student contact hour. In four particular hardware cases, these innovations both enabled the development of a fully operational PLATO system and stimulated significant industrial investments by a number of highly successful computer and electronic component companies. The four cases which will be discussed by the panel members are: (1) system architecture concepts to support large, real time student populations, (2) the Plasma Display Panel (PDP) technology, (3) student touch input technology, and (4) intelligent modem technology supporting long distance data communication. The discussion panelists were Dr. Don Bitzer, Roger Johnson and Dr. Larry Weber with Philip McKinney moderating.

PLATO Overview:
PLATO was a centralized, mainframe-based system, with very sophisticated terminals connected to it. Its mission was to deliver education electronically at low cost. But it became much, much more than that. It quickly became home to a diverse online community that represented a microcosm of today's online world. Much of what we take for granted in today's hyper-active, always-on world of social media, blogs, and addictive computer games could be applied to what life was like on the PLATO system beginning in the mid-1970s.

PLATO, an acronym standing for "Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations," started as a project of the Coordinated Sciences Laboratory (CSL) at the University of Illinois in 1960. The original goal was to build on the mechanical "teaching machine" work of B.F. Skinner and instead see if it was possible to build a computer that could teach. In time they discovered not only was the answer yes, but computers could be extremely effective, and economically viable, at teaching large segments of the population.

In the 1970s, Control Data Corporation entered into a series of agreements with the University of Illinois to commercialize the PLATO system and bring it to the marketplace. The result was a great expansion of PLATO throughout the U.S. and the world, with systems installed in Canada, France, Belgium, Israel, Sweden, Australia, South Africa, United Kingdom, and elsewhere. Fifty years on, PLATO has left its imprint across a wide range of computing activities, from e-learning to social media, from online multiplayer games to major hardware and software innovations.

Catalog Number: 102702356
Lot Number: X5778.2010

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