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  • Rediscovering Plato

    Posted by David Foster on April 12th, 2011 (All posts by )

    …not the philosopher, but the computer-assisted education system.

    This post notes that many of the concepts now being hyped as features of computer-based education were in fact initially developed as elements of the PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) system, which was first deployed in 1960. Surely, over the 46 years of PLATO’s operational life a great deal of knowledge was gained about what works and what doesn’t work when computers are directly applied to teaching. I wonder how much of this experience has been considered by, or is even known to, the current hypemeisters of classroom computing.

    Generally speaking, I think things in our society would go better if there were more awareness of history–not only general political and social history, but also specific history relating to particular fields, industries, and technologies. I suspect such lack of historical perspective is particularly strong in the educational field.

    (via Newmark’s Door)


    6 Responses to “Rediscovering Plato”

    1. Michael Kennedy Says:

      Computerized teaching and testing are widely used in medicine and have been for years. At one time, I was trying to learn enough graphics, especially animation, programming to develop a teaching system. I did write one program to teach students to learn to listen to heart murmurs. There are excellent teaching aids on heart diagnostics, the best by a cardiologist at Harbor General Hospital in LA whose son did the animation and who was working for Genentech a few years ago. The one weakness, which I was trying to rectify, is that it is very difficult for students to hear a murmur at a heart rate of 72. The entire interval is about 0.8 seconds and the murmur duration and timing is a fraction of that, perhaps 1/4. My concept was to slow the heart rate without shifting the frequency of the sound. They could listen at a rate of 20 until they could detect the murmur, then listen at a rate of 40, etc.

      Anyway, about the time I was working on this and taking some courses on AV programming, some guys in Irvine sold a similar concept to WebMD for $300 million.

      Another concept, this was before broadband was common, was to do online continuing education for nurses. There was already some for MDs. The nurse would log on to the system and get a DVD in the mail with all the big sound and video files, sort of like Netflix. She would pay via a browser, then log on, insert the disk and complete the course. At the end, assuming he/she passed the test, the program would print a CEU certificate. That is the concept the guys in Irvine sold to WebMD. Or very much like it. Not much has happened with it as my wife still has to take these courses and they are not yet online, only the test.

      There are excellent courses for specialties on rare diseases, complete with a video of taking the history from the parent. Pediatricians, I know, use these a lot for newborn diagnosis of anomalies. They are very sophisticated audiovisual programs. One of the people in the Medical Education department at USC showed my heart sounds program at a national meeting about ten years ago and there was a lot of interest. I sort of gave up after WebMD bought that other system but I may have done so too soon.

      Anyway, I’m too old now. Still full of ideas but short on stamina for execution.

    2. Shannon Love Says:

      Intellectual history in general is something we don’t teach very much. Learning how ideas evolve over time is very informative and gives you a lot of perspective about current debates.

      One of the intellectual problems with Leftists is that thier history of their own ideas is nothing but hagiography. Leftists cherry pick history to sort out only that tiny minority of Leftists ideas which stood the test of time and then create a history in which those where the only ideas Leftists ever had. This in turn leads them to believe that that all the ideas they have now must be equally absolutely correct.

      I suspect that we don’t study intellectual history to much because that would involve revealing how often our public intellectuals are stupidly wrong. Since public intellectuals write the histories, they don’t have much incentive to undermine their own market position.

      We could certainly benefit from an expansion of what we consider history. Over the last 150 years we have seen a shift away from seeing history as just a story of political elites, the Kings and Queens school of history, and more towards including more prosaic matters like the lives of ordinary people. Even so, much of the most important factors of life remain blank to history.

      For example, corporations are arguable the most important institutions in the modern world because they generate the material wealth of industrial society. Corporations are in many ways, the most discussed institutions in the world. Yet, you can find only a literal handful of books on the history of corporations. Virtually, no one knows how they evolved or what problems they are intended to solve.

    3. Michael Kennedy Says:

      In my reading about Coolidge, I am now reading a little book titled “Coolidge and the Historians.” It began as a PhD dissertation and was published in 1982 by Claremont Press. The author, in great detail, shows how historians, particularly Arthur Schlessinger, have distorted the story of Coolidge’s rise in politics and presidency. He includes lengthy quotes from such books as “The Crisis of the Old Order,” which I have in my library, and shows the misquotes, made up quotes and out of context quotes which have damned Coolidge for generations.

      Peter Drucker wrote “The Concept of the Corporation” in 1944 using General Motors as his example.

    4. David Foster Says:

      MK…Drucker remarked that most of his academic colleagues did not, at the time he wrote his GM book, consider the study of corporations to be a worthwhile scholarly field, one of them even writing (in a review) something along the lines of “It is to be hoped that the author will soon turn his considerable talents to a more respectable subject.” GM didn’t like the book very much, either.

      I wonder if any of the senior executives at GM now or in the past decade have read this book. Somehow, I doubt it.

    5. Petrer Says:

      When I read this, “cloud computing” comes to mind, as it is hyped so much, when it is really a form of
      “terminal computing.”

    6. Bill K. Says:

      Speaking of Plato, I remember having fun with a Plato installation at the U. of Illinois, Champaign, around 1979-80. It was in their physics lab that they had perhaps a dozen terminals, and we could boot up and play various physics games. The two I remember were artillery, using a fairly crude 2-dimensional sketch of terrain, over which we had to guesstimate in real time the vectors to get a parabolic shot to hit our enemy on the other side; and asteroids, where we had to ‘fly’ a spaceship to move about a 2-dimensional solar system and avoid asteroid collisions, under the influence of multibody gravity.

      Anybody else recall an almost punch-card-era program like that for teaching basic physics?