New Book Explores PLATO’s Impact on eLearning

By Cait Etherington
October 30, 2017

Although eLearning has rapidly expanded since the mid 1990s, its origins stretch back to the early days of computing. PLATO or Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations originated in 1959. Now, tech entrepreneur Brian Dear has written a book recounting PLATO’s fascinating yet still under-appreciated history and contribution to eLearning. For anyone interested in the history of technology and especially for anyone interested in the evolution of eLearning, Dear’s book, The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold History of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture, is bound to be a must read.

The History of PLATO

The first known experiment in eLearning was based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 1959, Daniel Alpert and Don Bitzer created Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations as part of a Computer-based Education Research Laboratory project. Without personal computers nor anything resembling the Internet, eLearning, in its earliest form, still required users to visit a computer lab on campus.

Early Computer at the University of IllinoisFollowing PLATO’s inception in 1959, developers set about turning their idea into an online educational system. By 1969, the computer, once combined to the University of Illinois camps, had reached students at nearby Springfield High School in Springfield, Illinois. In The Computer in the School, a 1975 book by Justin C. Baker, PLATO’s  goals are summarized as follows: “By far the most extensive computer-based system in this country, the PLATO goal is to connect 4,096 student terminals by means of telephone lines to the large central Control Data Corporation 6000 series computer system. In March of 1974, there were 450 terminals in the PLATO network.”

By 1980, Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations had already exceeded its early developers’ expectations: It offered 7,000 hours of instructional material covering more than 150 subject areas with 7000 thousand terminals offering courses in countries around the globe, including Australia, Belgium, France, Israel, Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Canada, and South Africa.

Dear’s book, however, not only delves into the history of PLATO but the excitement that accompanied its development: “As the system grew and evolved, it became, pretty much by accident, the first major online community, in the current sense of the term. In the early 1970s, people lucky enough to be exposed to the system discovered it offered a radically new way of understanding what computers could be used for: computers weren’t just about number-crunching (and delivering individualized instruction), they were about people connecting with people. For many PLATO people who came across PLATO in the 1970s, this was a mind-blowing concept.” In other words, PLATO wasn’t just integral to the rise of eLearning but perhaps more importantly to the rise of online communities and cyberculture.

Praise for The Friendly Orange Glow

Advance praise for The Friendly Orange Glow published in Publishers Weekly describes Dear’s history as “exuberant,” and offers the following summary: “Dear’s sprawling re-creation conveys the excitement of technological innovation and the freewheeling eccentricity of this vibrant scene—along with the tediousness of IT procedural nitty gritty.”

Early PLATO courseA recent of the book in Kirkus is also positive: “The author calls his book the ‘biography of a vision,’ and he’s quite right to do so.” The reviewer adds that this is “A readable tech history, but it helps to have a background in computers to get the most out of Dear’s account. As good an account of PLATO as we’re likely to get—or to need.”

One of the most fascinating things about Dear’s history of PLATO is the span of time over which it was written (about twenty years) and the depth of research (as detailed on Dear’s website, over one hundred people with connections to PLATO and early eLearning initiatives were interviewed for the book). While PLATO shut down just as many eLearning initiatives were taking off, there is no question that PLATO played a critical role in the development of eLearning over time, and its history is critical to understanding the current landscape of online learning.

The Friendly Orange Glow will be published by Pantheon in November 2017.

One Comment

  1. I am a former summit learning teacher in Holyoke, MA. I can tell you, unequivocally, that the entire platform stinks. It is not even a curriculum, it is a hodgepodge resources lifted from Khan Academy, youtube, Engage NY, IXL lessons, scanned textbook pages, and other unrelated sources. These materials are often not aligned to common core standards, they are often of poor quality, they include numerous broken links. Students are expected to independently take notes as they work, but no consideration has been given to the lexile levels of readings so the material is often completely inaccessible to students. The math curriculum is devoid of any meaningful direct instruction. Many students disengage within a couple of weeks and spend most of their time browsing the internet or gaming instead of learning. As they fall behind, they see their home screen turn more and more red, causing greater frustration and discouragement. Students become so screen addicted that they rebel any time a teacher attempts to give them direct instruction. Worse yet, the necessity of teacher training in the platform’s usage necessitates the hiring of several consultants and coaches, many of whom explicitly state that their primary objective is to prove the platform viable so that it may grow to more school districts. Ultimately, school administrators are pressured to increase scores of online tests (many of which students attempt literally dozens of times over), so they pressure teachers to take tests with their students to ensure a passing grade. Essentially, schools are falsifying data to ensure Summit’s growth. Given that Summit pitches its product as a turnaround model for struggling urban schools, its practices are essentially exploitative.