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PLATO@50: A Culture of Innovation

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Published on Jun 19, 2010

On June 3, 2010, the Computer History Museum hosted a 6-session conference on the PLATO learning system. Session 1 was entitled "A Culture of Innovation: What Don Bitzer Wrought."

Session 1 Description:
The Computer-based Education Research Lab, where the PLATO system was invented, was a caldron of innovation. Out of that environment, new technologies grew and lives were changed. What was it about the environment that stimulated innovation? Bob Sutton, management guru and scholar of innovation, leads a conversation focusing on the characteristics of a culture of innovation. What was special about the PLATO environment? What applicable lessons might be gleaned? Are there insights to be gained from CDC's efforts to commercialize an enormous project from an academic research laboratory, in an unproven market? Sutton conducts a discussion with Dr. Don Bitzer, the director of the PLATO lab and lead innovator, David Frankel and C.K. Gunsalus: two CERL alumni whose career paths have gone in quite different directions, and Bob Price, who led Control Data to the licensing and further development of the PLATO system.

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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