SIGCIS 2010 Workshop Papers

Name:Christopher McDonald

Institutional Affiliation:Princeton University


Paper Type:Traditional

Paper Title:The PLATO Computer-Based Education System: Teacher's Tool or Teacher?

Paper Abstract:The history of Control Data Corporation's efforts to market its PLATO system exposes a basic tension inherent in computer-based education systems--was their purpose to enhance education within the traditional classroom framework, or to industrialize education, significantly shifting the balance of school budgets away from labor and towards capital? To sell PLATO to those responsible for its introduction into classrooms, teachers, CDC presented it as a tool that would allow them to teach better and more comprehensively. To justify its cost (about $1000 per terminal per month) to those responsible for paying it, however, CDC presented it as a teacher, or at least a replacement for a significant amount of teacher labor. Given the strength of teachers' unions, and the resistance of many parents to the idea of having their children taught largely by computer, the latter approach was a political non-starter, and PLATO found hardly any success in primary and secondary education.

Indeed, would-be reformers had tried for decades to revolutionize American schools through technology, whether it be film, radio, television, or teaching machine. In each case, they hoped to apply an industrial logic to schools, increasing the efficiency of teacher labor through the application of capital. In each case, they failed, and such technologies were instead incorporated into education as supplementary tools, used occasionally as teachers saw fit.

Unlike PLATO and other subscription-based time-sharing systems, personal computers succeeded in penetrating schools to a substantial degree. They were able to do so, ironically, because they were inexpensive enough to allow educational computing to follow the same path of "failure" as previous would-be technological revolutions. At a one-time cost of a few thousand dollars or less, an Apple II could be used as a teacher's tool without creating fiscal pressure to replace a teacher. The failure of PLATO in the schools and the (limited) success of PCs was therefore a product not just of economics, but of the intersection of economics and educational politics.