Network Connection: Live and Learn

By Philip Baczewski, senior director, University IT

Aug. 15, 2017 – Online learning seems ubiquitous these days. UNT has for years been a leader in online course delivery via course management systems like Blackboard Learn. Technologies such as Panopto can record a live lesson or lecture for easy playback by UNT students. Likewise, the university's subscription to the service provides thousands of online videos for instruction on topics from photo editing to project management. A google search will turn up YouTube videos on how to do just about anything, including multiple ways to skin a cat as horrific as that might be in actuality. (Further searching, however, indicates that there is no apparent accounting system for taste, other than one possible publication on the topic.)


All of these contemporary online models for instruction can trace their roots to work done at the University of Illinois in the early 1960s. A system named PLATO, Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations, was the first example of a programmable computer system for online instruction. PLATO first ran on the university's ILLIAC computer, itself a trail-blazing example of generalized computing technology. By 1972, subsequent generations of PLATO ran via a computer terminal featuring a touch-enabled plasma screen capable of character and vector graphics so that images could be drawn directly on the screen. This was amazing technology in 1972, when the primary mode to interface with computers was still the 80-character punched card.

There was an attempt to commercialize the PLATO system by a company called CDC that produced mainframe-style computers as a rival to IBM. However, the expense of operation was a major barrier to wide scale adoption of the PLATO system. Its programs had to run on an expensive mainframe computer which was less capable than your average smart phone today, but was a much rarer commodity in the 1970s. Most who used PLATO had to connect via phone lines and you had to have a dedicated line for each terminal you wanted to run. This was prior to the break up of the Bell Telephone System that was one of the primary monopoly components of the telecommunications market - i.e. phone lines were expensive.


One unique use of the PLATO system was brought to my attention while I was a graduate student in Composition and Music Theory at the then-named North Texas State University. Fred Hofstetter, working at the University of Delaware, adapted the PLATO system for music theory ear training drill and practice. He called the system GUIDO after the medieval music theorist, Guido d'Arezzo, but in best computer tradition, also standing for "Graded Units for Interactive Dictation Operations." The GUIDO system was able to use the available features of PLATO to present the graphical symbols and sounds necessary to support the skill acquisition of identifying musical intervals and chords that are a necessary foundation for formal music instruction. The limitations of GUIDO were the same as for PLATO, and while it was an extremely innovative use of computer capabilities, the expense was a limiting factor for general adoption.

Diagram of technology from the 1960s.AMUS

Perhaps not as well known in the history of computer-based instruction is the fact that UNT was an early innovator in the development of online systems and methodologies for music theory ear training. Professor Rosemary N. Killam joined the UNT Music faculty in 1976 with a specific charge to develop an online system similar to GUIDO, but supportable with local resources. The result was a system called AMUS (Automatic Music System) that could play multiple-part harmonic music with a control system that allowed for programmatic instruction. Both the lesson organization and musical sound generation were specified by a simple set of text-based markup codes that were interpreted by the main program running on an HP 2000 computer.

An innovative aspect of AMUS was that it was a hybrid system with a Motorola microcomputer in the communications path that supported the generation of the musical sounds. Each microcomputer was attached to a custom-made sound synthesizer developed by NT Computer Science professor Dan Scott. This was at a time before commercial microcomputer sound cards existed and digital sound production was still a developing technology.

I was lucky enough to participate in this project as a graduate student, but also had my first "IT job" thanks to this new technology. In 1979, I was hired as a graduate assistant to set up and manage the Music Computer-Assisted Instruction Lab in its location in the newly constructed Music Building. Even after moving on to a Teaching Fellowship in Music Theory, I remained involved in the Music CAI lab as a researcher and systems programmer. The AMUS system was later ported to an Apple II microcomputer platform and several of us redeveloped the training lessons written for the original system in the new platform. That system was sold to many music schools around the country as one of the first available microcomputer ear training CAI systems.

A Lasting Legacy

Forty years of technology development has made a big difference in the availability of online instruction. The miniaturization and increased capacity of today's computers and smart phones, along with the ubiquity of the internet, have made the delivery of learning resources something we routinely take for granted. Products now come with links to online instructional videos instead of extensive user manuals. Between online videos, references, and training materials, you can teach yourself almost anything thanks to the internet. It's nice to think that UNT made its own unique contribution to this new world of learning.