This fall starts the 35th year in which PLATO has offered courses to its members. Much has changed but the essence remains the same. In 1987, PLATO offered its first three courses: “Media and Society,” “Current Affairs,” and “Topic of the Week.” Called study-discussion groups, they followed a format that would be familiar to many members today. Led by a coordinator, they relied on member participation, ran two hours in either the morning or afternoon, and lasted 6 weeks. Each of the three groups was limited to about 15 members, which was sufficient to accommodate PLATO’s 39 members.
Topics of suggested future sessions sound similar to those offered now, such as “Energy Today and Tomorrow” and “The New Technology and Human Values.” PLATO almost doubled its membership to 72 by 1990 and increased the number of fall courses by 67%--from 3 to 5. Two years later, in 1992, membership and fall courses had doubled yet again. The 148 members had a choice of 12 courses and many of the subjects are still relevant today. Contemporary issues were covered in courses on Current Events and on Science and Public Policy. Members could choose a course where they could read and discuss writings by American Indian authors. The arts were heavily represented with courses on jazz, opera, biographies of classical composers, and motion pictures. A writing course allowed members to try their hand at writing reminiscences. There were also courses on philosophy and discussions on the works of Franz Kafka and Virginia Woolf.
By 1997, membership had doubled again to 329 and PLATO had begun experimenting with new formats. The group discussion remained the mainstay, but the curriculum committee reported that it received more ideas for courses than volunteers to lead them. They reported “the challenge is to convince members with good ideas that they are capable of being discussion coordinators.” In this era, new formats were being introduced. Retired UW history professor Norm Risjord offered a popular lecture format course, which became the model for additional offerings. Throughout it all, PLATO retained its distinctiveness from other learning in retirement groups. It did not pay course coordinators but “depended entirely upon volunteers largely from within the organization.” George Calden, one of the charter members, put it well when he said PLATO is “a do-it-yourself, grass roots university for retired people.”
PLATO’s membership doubled again to 685 in 2007 and grew to almost 1,300 in 2017. Courses numbers continued to rise. Between 2012 and 2019 annual course offerings rose from 76 to 105, with the fall session typically being the busiest, with between 40 and 50 offerings.
And then there was the pandemic. In spring of 2020, 46 in-person courses were suspended, but remarkably 7 continued meeting virtually. Even after the courses’ completion, some of the groups continued to hold informal meetings online without a break. Due to hard work and fast planning by PLATO members, technological solutions were found, training sessions were held for coordinators and members, and a group of determined members found ways to offer 36 online courses in the fall with a total of 81 for the 2020-21 year. The hundreds who took the courses had their own learning curve and mastered learning in an online environment.
Much has changed over the past 35 years, but the volunteer spirit has remained at PLATO’s core. The resilience, generosity and ingenuity of PLATO members continues to make it a vibrant place where the “Love of Learning Never Gets Old.”