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September 18, 2017

PLATO, Not Just Your Father’s Greek Philosopher

Filed under: EDDL 5101,Technology @ 12:47 am

Many years ago, in a land far, far away, (ok it was back in Ontario, not that far away but it was a long time ago), before I even considered getting into teaching, I worked in a position where computers and system support was one of my responsibilities. This included consultation with our information systems supplier Electronics Data Systems, EDS. (Anybody remember Ross Perot?)

What does this have to do with the history of Ed-Tech? Well, one of the things EDS provided us was an online learning system called PLATO. While I admit there was some value in what PLATO provided us, I cringed every time I looked at the I.T. budget and saw what PLATO was costing. Along with the usual technical issues and questions I solved on a regular basis I remember spending considerable time interpreting content and questions and providing learners support with material. At the time I would never have called myself an educator, but in retrospect it was a large part of what I did.

Fast forward 30 years, and I hadn’t thought about PLATO for 29 of them. Then I read both Bates and Watters referencing PLATO in their histories of ED-Tech. Bates maintains that “PLATO was a highly successful system, lasting almost 40 years, and incorporating key online concepts” (Bates, 2015) I was already predisposed to question Bates beliefs after he called the current iterations of the History Channel and the Discovery Channel “general educational channels”. (Bates, 2015). As interesting as I find “Curse of Oak Island” it’s scripted reality programming, not educational. So I question his definition of successful. Did it make its owners a ton of money? Yes it did. But I question how well it served its learners. All the other departments I networked with had a person like me, someone who performed at least some of the functions PLATO was supposed to provide. And providing feedback to the supplier to correct their material. I have to question who, or what, was educating who?

Bates was correct in stating that key online concepts were used in the PLATO system. In many applied technology courses I see developed today the concepts embodied in PLATO are still being used. Watters also recognizes that many of the features of PLATO are still incorporated into Ed-Tech today. (Watter, 2014) Provide material for learner to study, test learner on material, provide immediate feedback and supplemental information where required, assume learner has learned necessary theory. As I look at resources I have created I have unconsciously fallen into much the same pattern.

As I reflect on both my experiences from 30 years ago with budding online educational technology and my experiences from yesterday as I was uploading new material to Blackboard Learn one thing is clear. “Building new technologies is easy (or easy-ish) changing behaviours and culture is much, much harder” (Watter, 2014). This statement really resonates with me, and as I move forward through this program I resolve to not get caught in old behaviours, to not fall back on the “same old same old”.


Bates, A. (2015). A Short History of Educational Technology. Teaching in a Digital Age.

Watter, A. (2014). The Hidden History of Ed-Tech. In A. Watters, The Monsters of Educational Technology (pp. 7-31).





  1.   mpehkonen — September 18, 2017 @ 3:46 am    Reply

    Hi Brad,

    You have some great thoughts on education and technology and these two have not agreed completely on everything in the past! I have worked with some outrageously expensive technology that caused nothing but grief and frustration and did not serve its original purpose, which was to make teaching and learning more effective. Sometimes it seems there is not enough support considered when these expensive new platforms are launched, or effective support is difficult to find. Changing culture is much harder! I believe we should accept that there will be issues with whatever technology we are using but there must be valuable, thoughtful support systems set in place.


  2.   keith webster — September 20, 2017 @ 11:18 pm    Reply

    Hi Brad,

    I agree that the ‘educational’ cable networks have drifted far from their original goals or mandates. I think the Ontario and BC cable channels are still distributing some good material but the newer for-profit channels that sound like they could be educational are grasping at straws in the content they program. Knowledge Network in BC used to actually broadcast classes – we had a TV studio in the basement of the library at UVic where instructors would ‘teach’ live while students phoned in with questions.

    I still find myself working with courses that could have easily been offered a hundred years ago by post. Some programs or instructors will add a few ‘online discussions’ without much attention to how they are supposed to facilitate learning and call their course ‘online’. I think the trick with PLATO, and Blackboard Learn today, is how you design the activities that students will engage in. Even in an environment that can only offer student-content interaction, good design can support effective learning.

    Talk to you later,


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