December 31, 2011
I’ve been working off and on as an instructional designer for a number of years now, and had always assumed that what we call “e-learning” or “online learning” was a fairly recent product of the dot-com boom of the ‘90s. Not so.
Before offering proof of this, it might help to answer the question, “What is an instructional designer?” Essentially, an instructional designer analyzes the learning needs of a group of people (safety for construction workers, for example), compiles information related to closing that knowledge gap, writes the text that will appear onscreen, and details the audio and visual elements which, when produced, are then delivered as lessons or courses to the identified audience. That’s the job description in a nutshell.
I researched and wrote the following article for my employer, but also to satisfy my own curiosity. I hope you find it interesting.
Thanks for dropping by, and Happy New Year!
PLATO: The Dawn of Online Learning
The use of the computer as a means of delivering training and instruction came about as a result of two factors.
The first of these was the passage of America’s G.I. Bill in 1944. This legislation, which was intended to reintegrate soldiers returning home from the Second World War, offered low-interest loans for ex-servicemen to buy houses and start businesses. One of the provisions of the bill also provided them with a free post-secondary education. College and university enrollments soared, and institutes of higher learning buckled under the strain of this massive new student body.
The second factor that contributed to the development of computer-based training came about largely as a result of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. When the Soviets successfully launched the Sputnik I satellite in 1957, U.S. government investment in technology soared.
By the time the original G.I. Bill was ended in 1956, 7.8 million veterans had participated in an education or training program. The need for a more efficient means of providing instruction was evident. Fortunately for the University of Illinois, some of that government money found its way into their fledgling computer research lab. In 1952, engineers developed the Illinois Automatic Computer (or ILLIAC), the first computer built and owned entirely by a U.S. educational institution. It weighed over five tonnes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, mathematicians and astronomers at the University of Illinois used the ILLIAC to calculate the orbit of the Sputnik I satellite within two days of its launch.
The ILLIAC system continued to evolve, and it was for this platform that Donald Bitzer, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Illinois, developed Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations (PLATO), the first computer platform designed solely for instructional purposes. According to Michael Szabo of the University of Alberta, “The primary function of PLATO was to provide a rich environment in which educators and trainers could create and deliver high quality interactive courseware to students in classrooms, homes, and offices with or without the presence of an instructor.” But that would come later. In its earliest incarnation, a single learner used a specially designed 16-button keyboard to navigate the system’s menus, which were displayed on a standard black and white television set.
The development of the more user-friendly PLATO IV marked a significant milestone. It moved the system—and the very idea of online learning—from the rarefied world of the computer lab and into the hands of the layperson. In addition to boasting quality graphics and an infrared touch panel display, PLATO IV also allowed for the connection of peripheral devices. One such device was a synthesizer that provided sound for PLATO courseware. This augmentation is widely considered to be the first multimedia experience in computer-based training. In 1967, the invention of the TUTOR programming language allowed instructors to design their own lesson modules. The rigid structure of the TUTOR language established the e-learning design with which we are familiar today: information is presented and is followed by questions that must be answered correctly before the user can proceed to the next “unit”.
In 1976, the company that owned PLATO began to market the system commercially. By the late 1980s, networked installations were connected in over one hundred cities around the globe, with thousands of hours of courseware readily available. Available lessons included Basic Skills for the Real World, Job Skills For the Real World, Math Expeditions, Reading Explorations, as well as a number of science courses.
Although the plug was pulled on PLATO in 2006, the system has been adapted for Windows and Macintosh, and can be downloaded for free from a number of websites.
November 17, 2011
Since I started working at the Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB), I’ve had unfettered access to their sizable library. I wrote the following article for the company’s intranet, and have been asked to contribute additional articles about the history of the WSIB. Someone even suggested that I write a book about workers’ compensation in Ontario. Who knows?
Origins of the Workplace Safety Insurance Board
By the end of the nineteenth-century, the full power of the Industrial Revolution had forever changed the way that people lived and worked, while continuing advancements and innovations in shipping, road construction, and railways hinted at greater things to come. City-based machine manufacturing substantially increased workers’ per capita income. According to the Toronto census of 1911, manufacturing was the single largest employer for the city’s residents. But the grim byproducts of such grand-scale efficiency were often overlooked. Working in crowded and unsafe factories resulted in horrific injuries and sometimes death.
The following passage from the April, 1, 1915 edition of MacLean’s magazine illustrates the dismal fate of the severely injured worker:
In the good-old-days when Peter Pennyman, head moulder of the local stove works had a leg and one arm pried off in the machinery the boys took up a collection. And Peter? Peter—he got better. He had no arm, no leg, but the bon dieu left him a stomach. So the end of the story was that P. Pennyman, injured moulder, sold bootlaces at the busiest corner of the main street for thirteen years and eleven days and when the time came to die was mourned by a wide circle of police.
Prior to the establishment of the Workman’s Compensation Act of Ontario, labourers injured on the job had few options when seeking redress. The existing Workmen’s Compensation for Injuries Act was heavily biased in favour of the employer. Merely by accepting a job, and thereby “voluntarily assuming the risks of employment”, a worker essentially waived his right to any compensation.
In 1910, at the urging of the emerging organized labour movement, the government of Ontario appointed William Meredith to lead the first Royal Commission to examine existing compensation laws and to make recommendations based on his findings. After studying the various briefs and evidence presented at a series of public hearings, The Meredith Report was released in 1913. Based on the belief that any compassionate compensation law must provide for the worker, his family, and by extension society itself, Meredith presented five basic tenets, which would become known as The Meredith Principles: no-fault compensation; collective liability; security of payment; exclusive jurisdiction; and administration by independent boards.
Manufacturers, eager to preserve the status quo, presented a united front against Meredith’s “radical changes” to the existing Act. A fairly typical objection can be found in one of the briefs submitted to the Royal Commission:
There does not seem to be the slightest shadow of justice in paying these dependants of the injured workmen if the accident was caused through no negligence on my part.
Despite the resistance of industry, the progressive government of the day enacted a law called The Workmen’s Compensation Act of Ontario, which incorporated all of Meredith’s recommendations. The Act became effective January 1, 1915. In that year, more than 17,000 accidents were reported, with benefits amounting to nearly $900,000.00.
This early testimonial from an injured worker provides evidence as to why William Meredith is still held in such high regard:
Now that I am able to write a little, I desire to thank you for your promptness in sending my cheques. I miss my fingers very much but through the Compensation Act it has certainly helped me, as being a soldier for two years a little money now counts.