PLATO LEARNING PHONE
Hands-on review by an 8th graderReviewed by VALENCY HARMS
When Atari's long-awaited Learning Phone cartridge for the Plato
online service finally arrived at Antic, the editors decided they
wanted a student user to write this review. Luckily for me, my name popped
up and I got to use Plato for quite a few hours.
I'm fairly typical of the potential Learning Phone user. I'm in the 8th grade, not a hacker but a frequent computer user (especially all the new games) and with pretty good grades. And as a female, I break the males-only stereotype of many computer users.
Developed over many years by the Control Data Corporation, Plato is the largest educational online service in the world. Over 200,000 hours of courseware covers topics such as languages, mathematics, computer science, physics, social science, etc. The catalog lists several hundred titles ranging from the elementary (Addition & Subtraction) to way beyond me (Numerical Quadrature Methods).
(Plato Rising, by David and Sandy Small in the July, 1984 issue of Antic, provides nearly seven pages of detail about Plato's structure, contents, technology and history -ANTIC ED)
The Atari is one of the very few personal computers that can connect with Plato. You need any 8-bit Atari computer and any Atari-compatible modem (300 or 1200 baud)-along with the Learning Phone cartridge that makes the Atari work like a Plato terminal. A printer is handy for printing out instructions.
And you'll need a major credit card in order to take advantage of the free 1-year subscription and 1-hour connect time ($32.50 value) that comes with the package.
Of course you also need a telephone to connect to all those programs on CDC's big computers in Minneapolis. In our family that was a problem. Imagine me telling my three sisters that they couldn't use the phone for a few hours because I was Platoing! If someone picks up the phone, you'll be disconnected. If you have call waiting, notify the phone company to disconnect it or suffer disconnects every time someone calls you.
Educational programs always seem expensive. Purchased programs cost $20-40 each. Plato costs $25 per year plus a user cost of $7.75 for each hour online. In my area, the phone call to the Plato access number costs an additional $6 per hour. That comes to $13.75 per hour-more than enough to quickly break my babysitting income!
Unfortunately, Plato isn't available until after 6 pm on weekdays. That means that I can't use it in my study time right after school. But it can be used just about all day on weekends and holidays.
I found that connecting the modem was simple and fully explained in the manual. Logging on was also easy to do and to remember-the manual was excellent on this topic.
Selecting programs was also fully explained in the manual, complete with pictures. The simple main menu included Plato Programs, Electronic Mail, Graphics Design, User Information, Text Processing, File Management, Reference Aids, and Other Features. Whew! Simple commands let me explore many sub-choices easily. (I was disappointed to find that the "terminal tickler"-an online joke- wouldn't work for me.)
Although it was easy to select a program, I found that some of the titles were misleading. For instance, I chose That's Entertainment and what to my wondering eyes should appear but a screen talking about Foreign Military Sales! And I hadn't even called the Pentagon!
Once into the programs, I found that some were more difficult than others. When I tried Factoring Quadratic Polynominals, I first tried to read the introduction. Unfortunately, it had yet to be written. At least, it was simple to back out-just press [SHIFT] [START] [S]. This set of keys was often used when I got bored with a program, or found out that the program I had selected was wrong for me.
I also used the Graphing Linear Equations set of programs. I liked them but found that using the same formula over and over was quite boring. I tried an English lesson on semicolons; it was very educational. Lots of the writing was script-fancy but illegible on our monitor. All in all, this was a good lesson with good content, but it got boring after a while.
On the 300 baud modem Antic loaned us, Plato's slowness made some programs boring. Letters echoed to the screen even slower than I type-and that's slooow! (Dad says Plato is as fast as most terminal programs, but that I had been spoiled by Atari's fast responses.) Plato's special graphic characters were painfully slow.
I tried a text file named Computer Notes and read on and on about Plato's disk file organization. Maybe it was useful for some but it was based on CDC's weird 6-bit bytes rather than the 8-bit bytes used in the rest of the world.
One of the harder problems I had to surmount was translating Plato's special command keys like [LAB] and [DATA] into Atari keystrokes. Most were simple, such as [START] [L] for [LAB]. Some were more difficult- [MICRO] was the Atari inverse video key, for instance. Then I had to remember to use [SHIFT] with some of the commands, and special character keys for mathematical and geometric commands. Looking up these keys in the manual took lots of time. Perhaps putting little labels on the keyboard would have helped.
The Plato games were mostly fun, once I got used to no color, no sound, no animation and only primitive graphics. The unique and most enjoyable part of the games was playing with other players. All players could see the same screens and talk to one another, yet take independent action. I had a problem learning the more difficult games (Mona and Empire) and found it impossible, at first, to talk and play. David Lepage of the Izbug users group tried to teach me Empire but I couldn't figure out how to talk back. Thanks anyway, David! Later, I read and practiced more and found the multiple player teams most fun-we had players from around the entire country.
There is much more to Plato than I have space or energy to describe. I didn't try all the programs (no one could!) or the electronic mail, text processing, graphics design and file management. Special features such as zooming in on a part of the screen seemed like fun too. Despite the drawbacks for the beginner, I found Plato a good learning source for kids and adults alike. I am sure that it would improve my grades. Since I was only testing Plato, I have to give it back. But my birthday is coming up really soon.
1196 Borregas Avenue
Sunnyvale, CA 94086
$24.95, 16K cartridge
With this professional writing debut of Valency Harms, the Harms
clan from Danville, CA becomes the first family to have three members published