Don Bitzer saw a new way to aid education and learning through the use of innovative hardware and software in 1960. PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) was a computer-based, interactive communication system developed to connect a variety of students, instructors, and resources. It existed before the ARPANet and social media which would eventually have much in common in PLATO.
The system allowed lessons to be stored in the computer and accessed by students at their convenience. It was also a distributed system which allowed access by multiple users in multiple locations. Eventually, a communication element was added called Notes, which allowed user-to-user discussions that didn’t require any action by the administrators.
To aid in learning, two other sensory interactions were enabled. Audio was provided that helped language instruction. Touch was added so students could select words or figures and learn more about them.
PLATO is equally well known for the consequences of its creation.
Many of PLATO’s connectivity features were eventually echoed in the ARPANet and subsequently the internet. It took ARPANet about a decade to exceed PLATO’s traffic.
The Notes program became one of the first online communities, an ancestor of online bulletin boards and social media. It and its architecture enabled game play among multiple users, similar to today’s online games.
Don Bitzer is particularly known for the invention of the gas plasma display that was developed for PLATO. The addition of touch enabled more direct contact for the student. That ability and technology went on to create the gas plasma display industry. While PLATO’s goal was to improve interactivity, the television and monitor manufacturers were drawn to such displays to be thinner than conventional displays. In that regard, Educational Technology is like any other technology, advances in one field can have far greater impacts on other fields.
Don Bitzer is currently a Distinguished University Research Professor at North Carolina State University after having taught for several decades at the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois.
Additional information is available on our wiki.
Several of his videos have also been added to our HCLE Pioneers playlist on YouTube.