PLATO@50: An Early Online Community

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On June 3, 2010, the Computer History Museum hosted a 6-session conference on the PLATO learning system. Session 6 was entitled "An Early Online Community: People Plus Computing Grows Communities." Session 6 Description: The developers of PLATO didn't set out to build an online community. So how did it turn into one? In 1972 few suspected that a human community could grow and thrive within the electronic circuitry of a computer. But two years later the world's first online community was flourishing on PLATO, using technologies that didn't become widely available elsewhere for decades: discussion forums, email, chat rooms, instant messaging, presence awareness, screen sharing, and multiplayer games. Today's social computing is different -- but not all that different than what existed "back then" on PLATO. This panel will explore the similarities and differences, including the early elements in place at PLATO that led to its success. How did the community organize itself? Why was it so successful? What was missing? What can we learn from these experiences? What's next? Discussion panelists are: Lili Cheng, Kim Mast and Dave Woolley. Moderated by Charlene Li. 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