"Allow me to introduce myself. My name is PLATO. What's yours? Thank you for talking to me - see you around!"
On first impression, it's like talking to HAL, the solcitious computer from the movie and the year 2001. Actually, it's 1978, and as the fellow says, his name is PLATO. PLATO, in this case, is not the ancient Greek Philosopher, but programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations. In other words, a computer used for teaching. And he (She? It? How can you call something "it" when "it" appears to be talking back to you?) is everywhere. Or at least as close to everwhere as you can get with thousands of terminals from around the country and overseas plugged into PLATO's networks. Through these networks, instructors - real flesh-and-blood people, incidentally - use PLATO to teach programmed courses, to students in just about aany major metropolitan area in the nation.
PLATO's presence in the Washington area for commercial uses is through the Control Data Corporation. With its administrative offices using the system internally, and its education subsidiaries marketing it commercially, CDC maintains over 30 sites for terminals around the nation and in several foreign countries. One is in a company headquarters in Rockville. The Control Data Institute in Arlington houses another with third, and "education services learning center," also in Arlington, slated to move downtown sometime this month. The company markets the services of PLATO through an agreement with the developer, the University of Illinois. The university also maintains its own network, connected mainly to schools and research organizations.
"This is great. I set my own schedule with PLATO, working around with slack periods," said Arnie Campbell, a senior consultant with CDC. "It's all very personalized, and I retain more this way than if I were in a regular stand-up seminar. PLATO runs progress tests on me every step of the way, another thing you couldn't do in a seminar."
Campbell is working through a personnel management course with PLATO as part of the 120 hours of schooling CDC required him to take. He is seated in front of the visible part of PLATO, a black desk-top box similar in size and appearance to a microfilm projector. Through a keyboard and an 8.5-inch square screen is connected to PLATO's "brain," a sophisticated computer located at Ardent Hills, Minnesota.
The screen is unlike most computer displays, which have a modified television screen. It consists of two closely sandwiched glass plates, filled with gas. A matrix of copper wires, 516 across and 516 down, generate an extremely fine image of glowing gas dots. Because of the fine image resolution of a dazzling array of graphics and animations can be made to dance across the screen.
Campbell is studying the screen, which shows the script form a hypothetical group discussion. One of the participants in the group has made a pointed remark aimed at another memeber. PLATO displays a series of possible replies, and asks Campbell to pick the most appropriate one.
"No. That response is too general," pops onto the screen, followed by an explanation of why it was wrong. "Try again."
"That's a good selection," says PLATO. Another detailed explanation of why it was the right choice follows.
Depending on the type of instruction being given and the type of pupil, PLATO might have said. "That's wrong, Arnie. You better review Chapter 10 of the textbook again," or asked him to type the reason for his choice, or even asked him how confident he was in his choice before revealing the correct answer. All of these responses are recorded by the computer and made available to the instructor so that he can analyze the student's progress. Grades for tests, given by the computer, are also stored on tape and can be printed out on paper.
The terminal has a "touch response" feature than can help keep the student's attention by requiring him to physically touch a desired response area on the screen."Show me the biggest angle in the triangle here.") Infrared light beams, cutting horizontally and vertically across the screen, tell the computer what area was touched.
The terminal can also project photographs and microcards onto the screen from a rear projector. Using computer-generated graphics and a random number selector, PLATO can run laboratory experiments, such as breeding fruit flies for genetic characteristics, in minutes right on the screen, rather than taking weeks in the lab.
Although the sophisticated hardware features are in themselves fascinating, the thing that makes PLATO so impressive is the "software," or programming capabilities. Most computer-based teaching programs are linear. Parts A, B, and C must follow in strict order, with little or no provision for deviating . A student may stay stuck on a difficult section, sometimes repeating it verbatim, until he shows the computer he has "mastered" the material by getting a sufficient number of correct answers. PLATO, on the other hand, can branch out at the request of either the teacher or the student. If at any point the student doesn't understand what's going on, he can punch a button literally labeled "HELP". PLATO then displays a selection of branching subroutine for the student to choose, ranging from how to operate the terminal to where to find the answer. There is also a note-taking feature. The student can store his own notebook on tape, leave a message or question for the instructor, or post a comment on the computer's equivalent to a public bulletin board.
The overall result is a "versatile and effective tool for teaching," according to John Fitzgerald, manager of the Arlington CDI learning center. Fitzgerald, who is an educator and given to doing very un-compterlike things such as writing plays in his spare time, said that computers can "supplement but never replace" the personal interaction required to effectively educate a person. However, he said, computer-based teaching is a boon to both students and teachers. Students proceed at their own oace, and can repeat material or ask for help in provate, without embarrassment. Teachers can tailor course material to the individual needs of students, and are freed from rote chores to concentrate on individual help.
Using computers to teach is hardly a new idea. Programs were devised as far back as the 1950's, using fairly simple and straightforward approaches. In 1960, researchers headed by Dr, Donald L. Bitzer of the Computer-based Education Laboratory at the University of Illinois, began working on the system that eventually evolved into PLATO.
In early 1976 the Control Data Corporation, which had assisted in PLATO's development, announced that it would begin marketing the system under a licensing agreement with the university. By that time, an estimated 15,000 students at 55 colleges were plugged into PLATO through a network of over 1,000 terminals.
Although CDC has installed PLATO in schools, such as the University of Delaware, most if its marketing is directed outside the academic circle. First Maryland Bankcorp devised its own program for PLATO to train tellers. The Baltimore Gas and Electric Company sent its own people to CDC for training on how to develop courses. The Internal Revenue Service has several terminals at its Crystal City training center to teach a course for new employees.
Perhaps the most publized use of PLATO has been a pilot project at Walbrook Senior High School in Baltimore. Using terminals provided free under a social involvement program of the Commercial Credit Corporation (a CDC subsidiary), the school found students suddenly interested - eager is closer to the truth - in learning on the computer. Pupil demand for access to the terminals was so great that a group of enterprising scholars began breaking into the school at night to get at them. Of all things, many were drawn to the mathematics routines, usually one of the hardest subjects to keep pupils motivated in. The City of Baltimore has since provided funds to expand the program into two junior high schools.
Critics of computerized instruction point out that the cost per pupil is prohibitive, and say that the Walbrook project would probably never have happened if CDC hadn't provided the set-up free. Jim Ghesquiere, regional director of CDC's education operations, said that is true "only if you compare the cost-effectiveness on the basis of traditional classroom methods, with a teacher-to-pupil ratio of 1:30."
"Comparing individualized instruction to the traditional classroom is like comparing a Cadillac to a rusted-out Chevy," he said.
"Furthermore, if you assume that education costs in the public schools will continue to rise at the current rate of inflation, and that costs of computer-based individual education continue their downward trend, then by 1982 the cost for the state of Maryland to educate a student in a traditional classroom and the cost of giving computer-based instruction will be quite comparable," he said.
PLATO is also being used for job training of "unemployables". John Lantzy, director of the Control Data Institute in Arlington, said that CDC is negotiating with officials in Fairfax County, the District and Prince George's County over a proposed training program for 130 unskilled or semi-skilled workers. Called STIP (Skills Training and Improvement Program), the project receives federal funds, under the Comprehensive Employment Training Act. Trainess would receive a combination of computer assisted instruction from PLATO, written and audiovisual study materials, laboratory work and classroom lectures. Participating employers must make a good-faith commitment to hire the trainees upon graduation.
Another pilot project at a juvenile detention center in Red Wing, Minn., is being used to boost the self-confidence, motivation and skills of teen-age dropout's. As one enthusiastic 18-year-old there put it, "The machine never says 'You dummy.' You move faster and faster and when it comes back and you know the answer it says 'Congratulations.' That makes you feel real good. You can go at the pace you and the machine want. It has all the time in the world, and it's all for you.
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