Final Paper for History and Foundations of LIS

Final Paper for LIS 590 HF – History and Foundations of LIS (Fall, 2013)

Learning from PLATO: Lessons in Early Online Community Building


PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) is a computer-assisted instruction system, first developed at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1960. By 1968, hundreds of computer programs had already been written to operate on this new system, ranging from basic computer operations tutorials, to nursing lessons, to early-childhood math and language instruction (Lyman, 1968, p.1). Although not initially part of the system, in 1973 and 1974, a set of official communication tools were added which allowed users to communicate either directly or through message boards, while other users created their own social programs. These new tools helped users develop a sense of community whether or not they were in the same geographic location. Since the first creation of PLATO, many new computer-assisted instruction systems have been developed, with many in use today. An exploration of this early form of “online” community building is important because the community building process that developed in PLATO is directly related to much of the community building seen in modern online education systems.

This paper will address a series of questions related to PLATO. First, it will explore how the PLATO system came into being. Second, it will examine the mechanics of the PLATO system. Third, it will present the instructional design and pedagogies that informed PLATO. Finally, the creation and implementation of PLATO’s different communication tools will be discussed. Together, these questions will help to provide a better understanding of how and why the PLATO experience shifted from a solitary interaction with a terminal to an active, interactive community, and what lessons can be learned from PLATO that may impact future online learning community building.