Online education in the 1960s

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.


As Dear tells it, students were far more interested in using PLATO to chat with one another than to complete their lessons. They even created their own emoticons by taking advantage of a feature within PLATO’s operating system that allowed them to stack letters on top of each other instead of typing them side by side. Typing the word “WOBTAX” in a stack produced a smiley face.

“This was a great pastime of many undergraduates, many of whom would flunk out of school for stuff like this,” Dear says. He adds that those early communities were also rife with problems that still exist today—including phishing, catfishing (sharing false information online about one’s identity), and password theft.

PLATO also included a feature very familiar to modern app users: a typing awareness indicator akin to the three dots that pop up in Facebook Messenger, Google Chat, or in iMessage when someone is typing. But instead of using dots to indicate that a message was being typed, PLATO revealed every single character that a person typed, as they were typing it.

Students also spent a lot of time playing games on PLATO—a pastime that Dear says proved somewhat embarrassing to the University of Illinois, which had invested heavily in building a serious system for educational purposes.

“Out of the top 10 programs on PLATO running any day, most were games,” Dear says. “They used more CPU time than anything else.” In one popular game called Empire, players blast each other’s spaceships with phasers and torpedoes in order to take over planets.

Dear himself worked with PLATO in 1979 as a freshman at the University of Delaware, which had 450 terminals on its campus. Then in 1984, he was running a PLATO lab for the University of Maryland when he noticed that someone else in an online chat room was using a terminal at his former desk in another lab on campus. He sent a message to that user; she would later become his wife.

Dear hopes that sharing the story of PLATO can clear up a few misconceptions about the history of computing and online networks. Among them is the mistaken belief that online education is a new idea. “You could take, in the mid-60s, for full college credit, several courses through PLATO,” Dear says. And though many people assume social networks only sprung up after the first personal computers were sold, online communities existed long before most people had a computer at home.

Dear also argues that with PLATO’s demise, the field of computing lost out on features and settings that could have been quite valuable today. For example, the entire PLATO system was designed with social sharing in mind, he says, whereas the modern Internet is more fundamentally suited to fetching websites and documents.

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