Donald Bitzer was an electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of Illinois who ran their Computer-based Education Research Laboratory (CERL). In 1960, Bitzer and his lab created the computer-based learning system PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) which Watters’ (2014) refers to as the introduction of many aspects of online learning we use today, such as discussion boards, chat, and even games. What’s more, Bitzer’s work on PLATO led him to co-invent the modern plasma display, an invention for which Bitzer was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Yet these technical contributions are not why I selected him; it is because of his methods that are revealed through an article he wrote in 1973 and a panel discussion he was a part of in 2010.

In his article, Bitzer (1973) provides examples of ways PLATO could be used to enhance teaching, and they are all applied to promote student exploration and discover, facilitating learning in ways that would fit individual learning needs. At a conference, Bitzer was part of a panel discussion about the culture of CERL, and it was evident that Bitzer fostered a culture of inquiry and experimentation. His innovations and lab aimed to provide students with learning through exploration; a goal that I think is sometimes lost through attempts to automate the learning process. Despite the eventually demise of PLATO, these principles that underpinned Bitzer’s work would influence technology developed in subsequent years by CERL alumni like Ray Ozzie, and I’m sure there are countless untold impacts we will never know about.


“The real winner is the student. The patience, availability, and nondiscriminatory nature of the computer makes computer-based education attractive to all types of learners. Students can learn in a manner best suited to them at a pace that they determine—a pace that, on average, requires less time to learn material than when it is presented in an ordinary classroom manner. This means that more, not less, time is available for human discourse and genuine personal interaction with the teacher.” (Bitzer, D. L., 1973, p. 178)


Bitzer, D. L. (1973). Computer Assisted Education. Theory Into Practice, 12(3), 173–178.

Computer History Museum (2010, June 3). PLATO@50: A Culture of Innovation [Video]. YouTube.

Watters, A. (2014, June 18). Un-Fathom-able: The Hidden History of Ed-Tech #CETIS14. Hack Education.


Photograph by Mtnman79, distributed under a CC BY 3.0