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The Development of Computer-Based

Education in the Cold War United States

and Soviet Union

(Norberg Grant)

As a recipient of the Norberg Travel Fund, I visited the Charles Babbage Institute in the summer of 2016 to conduct research for my dissertation. My work focuses on the connections between Cold War research policies, behaviorist psychology, and the development of the first computers designed for teaching in the US and the Soviet Union.

I began my research on the first teaching computers in the summer of 2015 at the archives of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where I studied collections on one of the first teaching computers, cleverly named with the acronym PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations). Built in 1960 by a group of engineers and mathematicians headed by an electrical engineer Donald Bitzer at the University of Illinois, PLATO provided computerized, interactive, self-paced instruction in sciences and foreign languages. Its distinctive feature was that it allowed students to essentially receive instantaneous reinforcement of correct work as well as assistance when students were having difficulty. In the next twenty years, PLATO went through six revisions involving significant changes in its hardware and software. The transformation in the hardware involved replacing a cathode-ray tube with a touch-sensitive plasma display which included built-in memory. The changes in PLATO’s software were conceptually deeper and reflected important debates about human nature that took place in the scientific communities and in American society during the Cold War.

Control Data Corporation Learning Center
PLATO learning center

The courseware of earlier versions of PLATO made use of behaviorist theories of learning. Yet, beginning in the mid 1960s, Bitzer and his colleagues started to explicitly deny any connection between PLATO and behaviorism. I suggest that the acceptance of behaviorism and a later rejection of this approach reflect the growing competition between behaviorist and cognitivist approaches to human nature in the scientific communities and in American society. As historian of science Jamie Cohen Cole shows, in the mid 20th century, “cognitive science supplanted behaviorism as the hegemonic science of human nature” in the United States.1 The victory of cognitivists was possible due to the deep political connotations that both behaviorism and cognitive science developed. Since behaviorists denied that the self has any insight and, instead, posited that its actions solely depend on external stimuli, a behaviorist conception of the self came to be associated with totalitarianism. Meanwhile, cognitive science provided American society with a model of a democratic self that embodied such cognitive virtues as rationality, creativity, and autonomy. Cohen Cole’s account of mid 20th century American psychology helps to explain Bitzer’s denial of PLATO’s connections with behaviorism: he and his colleagues wanted to protect themselves from public accusations of PLATO promoting cramming, encouraging conformity, devaluing critical thinking and creativity, as well as making use of an ideologically marginal approach to human nature.

After my preliminary research of American psychology during the Cold War and its relevance for designing teaching computers such as PLATO, I became interested in whether the Soviet Union had similar ideological debates about the “right” psychological approaches to human nature and if the Soviets ever planned to build, or built, teaching machines that made use of behaviorism – a theory that was much despised by American liberals. In summer 2016, I came with all of these questions to the Charles Babbage Institute where I found myself lucky enough to find an ample amount of information on my topic.

My findings at CBI can be divided into two thematic groups: firstly, as I consulted the records of the Control Data Corporation (CDC) and papers of its CEO, William Norris, I learned about CDC’s crucial role in scientific and technical exchanges between the US and USSR as well as its efforts to sell PLATO to the Soviet Union. The second group of my findings contains information on behaviorist theories of learning which are documented by papers of the MOSAIC (Multi-User On-Line System for the Analysis of International Computing) group, an interdisciplinary collaborative effort to study the development and application of electronic digital computing in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and the People’s Republic of China.

While some may think the Cold War meant the lack of any contact between the United States and the Soviet Union in the field of science and technology, my study of CDC’s records provides a different perspective on this era.  In the early 1970s, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger promoted a number of bilateral agreements in scientific and technological exchanges between the US and the USSR as an attempt to improve relations between the two countries. CDC took advantage of the opportunities that these agreements opened up for academic institutions and high-technology firms. CDC’s executives viewed cooperation in the application of computers to education as potentially “the most significant program carried out under the agreement of 1972.”2  A crucial actor in Soviet and American exchanges in computer-based education, CDC demonstrated the PLATO computer in Moscow in 1973-1974.

PLATO was of deep interest to educational leaders in the Soviet Union, especially in the Soviet Ministry of Higher Education. As CDC considered the Soviet Union to be the only major industrial country with the same fundamental objective of education as the US — mainly, the highest quality for the greatest number of people — CDC planned to sell PLATO to the USSR and, most importantly, collaborate with Soviet scientists to develop new teaching techniques as well as work on programming and software development. CDC’s records indicate that while CDC projected the installation of 96,930 PLATO computers in the Soviet Union by 1985, only one PLATO terminal was installed in the USSR in 1978 and that only two more computers were installed in 1982.

At CBI I was struck by the amount of papers documenting deep anxiety and sheer anger that Americans (spanning gender and class) expressed about CDC’s technological exchanges with the Soviet Union. Along with selling PLATO, CDC planned on trading to the USSR its Cyber 76 computer. According to CDC’s executives, Soviets would use Cyber 76 for weather forecasting, yet a number of editorials and articles that appeared in American newspapers at that time insisted that Cyber 76 would allow Russians to build better nuclear weapons and more efficient missiles. CDC’s business plans caused a major public uproar and hundreds of American citizens wrote directly to William C. Norris accusing him of supporting totalitarianism and putting their country into danger. Yet, what caught my eye most of all, was a number of letters that made one and the same ideologically fraught claim. Several letters that Norris received claimed that by selling computer technology to the Soviet Union, CDC proved that capitalism is doomed. Such letters cited Lenin’s words about hanging the capitalists with the rope they would sell to the socialists. Viewing technology as an American national asset, the authors of these letters warned CDC that computer technology is that rope with which the Soviet bloc would strangle the West.

The second group of my findings involves surveys of Soviet projects in teaching machines documented by MOSAIC records. Soviet interest in teaching machines and programmed instruction originated long before the 1970s when CDC brought PLATO to the Soviet Union. I came across a 1964 survey of the Soviet Union’s development and use of teaching machines which indicates that Soviet interest in behaviorist theories of learning was stimulated by the 1961 visit of influential American behaviorist B. F. Skinner to the USSR. The survey states that Soviet work on teaching machines began in mid 1961 and that by 1964, the Soviets had developed over 40 different types of teaching machines that ranged from simple individual testing devices to complex instructing machines utilizing a digital computer to teach 20 or 30 students simultaneously. Teaching programs were developed for numerous courses, principally foreign languages and technical subjects such as electronic circuit analysis. All Soviet research on programmed instruction was the responsibility of the Ministry of Higher and Specialized Secondary Education of the USSR and of the Commission on Programmed Instruction of the Scientific Council on Cybernetics of the USSR Academy of Sciences. Research on teaching machines in the Soviet Union was part of the research in the field of cybernetics, an area that had received high level governmental endorsement and support.

During my visit to CBI I learned that computer-based education and behaviorist theories of learning occupied the minds of people in both halves of the divided world. What’s more, the US and the USSR cooperated in the field of computerized education under the bilateral agreements of the 1970s. These findings provided me with the grounds for a comparative study of Soviet and American projects in teaching computers. Before my visit to CBI, I had no information on any interest in computer-based education in the Soviet Union. Thanks to the Norberg Travel Grant and enormous help of Amanda Wick, the current CBI archivist, I got a hand on material crucial for my dissertation project.

Ekaterina Babintseva
University of Pennsylvania

1 Cohen-Cole, Jamie. The Open Mind: Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014),142.

2 The Charles Babbage Institute, “Comments for National Science Foundation,” January 1974, Control Data Corporation Records. William C. Norris executive papers, box 10, folder 22.

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