I am writing an autobiography, mainly for my family, but it does cover some key moments in the development of open and online learning. I thought I would share these as there seems to be a growing interest in the history of educational technology.

Note that these posts are NOT meant to be deeply researched historical accounts, but how I saw and encountered developments in my personal life. If you were around at the time of these developments and would like to offer comments or a different view, please use the comment box at the end of each post. (There is already a conversation track on my LinkedIn site). 

I travelled a number of times to Canada during the 1980s and I cannot always remember each trip in detail, and particularly the names of people I met, so the following is correct overall but some of the events may have happened a year or two earlier or later than reported. If you were one of the people I met, and I did not mention you, please remind me via tony.bates@ubc.ca

Stumbling at a conference at Mirabel Airport, Québec

In 1982, I was awarded a grant by the British Council for a three week visiting lecture tour of Canada. I was told by Sandy Edington at the British Council that there was a lot of interest in distance education at the time in Canada, and the British Council felt that someone with expertise from the Open University would be really welcomed.

My first stop on my way from London was at Mirabel Airport, located about an hour north of Montréal. At the time, Mirabel was the largest airport in the world by designated area. The Federal government required all international flights to go to Mirabel, while Dorval Airport, within the city of Montréal, was designated the airport for domestic flights. They were about an hour apart by road.

I was to be a keynote speaker at a conference held in the Château de l’Aéroport-Mirabel, a resort-type hotel next to the main terminal. The conference chairman happened to be the bi-lingual John Daniel, who was at Athabasca University at the time. The conference was sponsored by the Québec Ministry of Education, so I had carefully prepared my presentation in French. However, I had hardly started stumbling my way through my notes when a hand shot up at the back.

‘Excuse me, everyone, but this is painful. Why don’t we let him speak in English?’ There was a general nodding of heads. ‘Yes,’ said John Daniel, ‘please go ahead in English.’

The problem was, my presentation was written down in French, so I had to translate back from French into English. It was not my best keynote.

The person who had intervened introduced himself at the end of the session.

‘Hi, my name is David Kaufman. I’ve read quite a bit of your work. I’m a course designer at the Open Learning Institute in British Columbia. I believe you’re coming to visit us. We’ll meet up again in Vancouver.’

Mirabel Airport turned out in the end to be a white elephant. Montrealers and international passengers making connections for flights within Canada hated the long trip between the two airports. Dorval was supposed to close once Mirabel was fully established, but there was not the desire to have two airports so far apart and Mirabel was closed to passenger travel in 2004, although it is still used for cargo flights and by private aircraft, but Dorval remains the main passenger airport for Montréal for all commercial flights.

Le Château de l’Aéroport-Mirabel Image: Wikipedia


My next stop was Toronto. There I met with Judith Tobin and Olga Kuplowski, research staff at TVOntario, a provincial government organisation that at that time provided an educational television service all across Ontario, using not only cable and terrestrial broadcasting, but also satellite TV to reach the remote areas of this very large province. I also met with an assistant deputy minister in the provincial Ministry of Education, who grilled me about the advantages and disadvantages of distance education. She was obviously sceptical but interested.

From Toronto, I flew to Saskatoon, to meet with Danielle Fortosky, who was Director of Educational Television Production at the University of Saskatchewan, which was one of the first units in Canada to use satellite broadcasting. The university had a very strong presence in the province through its broadcasts. More memorable though for me was a magical day spent in a canoe with Danielle and another colleague on a lake in northern Saskatchewan, a truly Canadian experience. Danielle later came as a visiting scholar to England and visited IET and the BBC, and became a very good friend as well as an inspiration through her leadership in educational television.

Then I took a small commercial flight in a Dash-8 to Regina and was fascinated to see out of the window the rectangular prairie farms stretching as far as the eye could see, with the farmhouses tucked into one of the corners. All the lines looked dead straight from the air, a tribute to the surveyors who mapped out the Prairies between 1870 to 1920.

Welcome to Vancouver

I had a brief visit at the University of Regina which included a presentation then I boarded the passenger train called the Canadian and headed out to Vancouver through the Rockies via Calgary and Banff (this service was discontinued in 1990). I remembered being surprised at the time it took to get to Vancouver once it had cleared the mountains at Hope, stopping at stations in seemingly endless small towns and suburbs from Mission onwards. My goal was to attend the International Council for Distance Education’s education world conference in Vancouver. The hosts were Athabasca University, John Daniel was again conference chair, and this would be my first visit to Vancouver. I was staying at the Holiday Inn on West Broadway, where I met up with my colleague from the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University, Tony Kaye, who was also attending the conference.

I remember clearly my first bus ride in Vancouver. I was running for the public transit bus from the hotel to take me to the conference at UBC, and instead of pulling away just as I got there (which seemed to be standard operating procedure in Britain) the bus actually waited! When I got on, the driver smiled and said ‘Good morning.’ When I fumbled for change to pay, the driver said, ‘That’s OK – just take a seat.’ I was dumbfounded – so different from Britain.

It was at this conference that the International Council for Correspondence Education changed its name to the International Council for Distance Education (ICDE), reflecting the move to more multi-media delivery and especially the impact of the growing number of open universities. I was a keynote speaker at the conference. John Daniel (again) was the conference chair, and it was here that I met for the first time Ross Paul, Jane Brindley and many others involved in distance education in Canada and from around the world. At the conference dinner, a team from Athabasca University, inspired by Ross Paul, gave a rousing and immensely funny rendering of a song about distance educators in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan.

I also fell in love this time with the City of Vancouver. Nestled around a wonderful natural harbour and bordered by the high mountains of the Coastal Range, and with not a building standing constructed before the 20th century, Vancouver seemed to me like the perfect place to be. After coming from first London, then Milton Keynes in Britain, Vancouver felt just the right size – not too big or busy and yet large enough to attract people from around the world, with its beaches and forests and Stanley Park. It had all the facilities of a large city, such as good restaurants, theatres and cinemas, but the feel of a small, friendly town.

Although the streets are wide, I was amazed that cars would stop where there were no traffic lights if a pedestrian was waiting to cross the road. I feared that Vancouverites visiting Europe would be mown down by the dozen. The population of metro Vancouver in 1982 was about 1.3 million (it is double that today). Vancouver had space and light and a relaxed feel that was different from anywhere else I had been. You could ski and golf the same day if you wanted to (and had the energy). In fact I played my first round at the University Golf Club on this trip: a university golf course, open to the public, no less! Another wonder, compared to Britain. Vancouver has changed a great deal in the last forty years (don’t try crossing the road without a traffic light), but I still wonder at its beauty.

The Open Learning Institute

My last visit on this trip was to the Open Learning Institute of B.C. at its offices in Richmond, B.C., where I met staff and gave a presentation. OLI had been established in 1978, so was still fairly new. Ron Jeffels was the President, but I also met for the first time John Bottomley and Ian Mugridge, as well as David Kaufman again.

The OLI was created by the political vision and willpower of two politicians. Pat McGeer, who had become the B.C. provincial Minister of Education in the right of centre Social Credit party, and Walter Hardwick, his Deputy Minister (chief civil servant in the Ministry), were both former UBC professors. Both had visited the British Open University in 1976. Both were concerned about the concentration of higher education institutions in the Lower Mainland, and saw the OLI as a means of bringing post-secondary education to all people in the vast interior of the province. At the time, there were just three universities in British Columbia: UBC and Simon Fraser University in the lower mainland, and the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island. Apart from a very small number of two year community colleges, there was no other form of post-secondary education for the 46% of the population in the non-metropolitan areas of the province.

Several options were considered before the decision was made to establish the OLI, including getting the existing universities to expand professional programs through distance education, and to establish local regional centres that would provide classes through ‘fly-in’ professors, but the range of courses that could economically be provided this way was very limited, and not helped by UBC and SFU refusing at that time to share courses.

McGeer and Hardwick’s vision was different. They wanted not only university programs but also vocational and technical training and adult basic education programs to be available throughout the province. They also wanted to use new technologies for distribution such as educational broadcasting and telephone conferencing, and wanted to reach in particular those who were unable to get training or re-training because they were already working or geographically remote from such training opportunities. Despite a number of demonstration projects, such as a satellite tele-education project (STEP), there was considerable resistance in academic circles to even the concept of distance education (surprise, surprise.) This just made McGeer and Hardwick even more determined to create a completely new and different institution, with its own degree and credentialling powers.

Initially, the plan was to have a working partnership with the UK Open University. McGeer at one point suggested that the UK OU should establish a ‘branch’ in BC, and Hardwick even purchased over $300,000 worth of Open University course materials, but the structural differences (for instance the difficulty of equating UKOU credits with North American ‘Carnegie’ credits) made a formal partnership unrealistic. Instead, McGeer and Hardwick proposed a British Columbia Open Learning Institute that would use distance education methods, including printed materials, radio, audio-conferencing, cablevision and tutors in regional colleges to offer programs in university, technical, career and vocational subjects.

However, after the first staff were appointed, a more cautious approach was adopted. Television coverage in the interior of the province was sporadic, so initially OLI courses were mainly print-based, supported by audio-conferencing and correspondence tutors. There was a line in the budget for television, but it remained at $1 for several years. McGeer and Hardwick decided that OLI would not hire its own faculty (apparently on the advice of the OU’s Walter Perry), and would contract course writers from the faculty of the regular universities. Importantly, it would offer its own credentials, such as degrees and diplomas.

This was the situation when I first visited OLI in 1982. The building in Richmond resembled a warehouse and was in fact a former car dealership. It was mainly an administrative building, with storage for printed material, and offices for instructional designers and managers of educational activities, such as tutors, and student services, and the registrar and IT services.

As my visit was coming to a close at OLI, a couple of staff asked if I would like to go for a beer with them. We went to a bar in a nearby hotel. There was a small oval space for a dance floor in the middle of the bar, and half-way through the first drink, Tony was surprised to see two young, scantily dressed women appear to loud applause, some music was played and a very half-hearted form of strip tease took place – at 4.30 in the afternoon! It was clearly time for me to go back to England.

This trip was my first real look at open learning and distance education in Canada. I was impressed. There was a lot of experience, and a perceptible enthusiasm for innovation and change across the country, wherever I went.

Up next

I will be writing over the next few weeks about further visits to Canada during the 1980s, including

  • my personal introduction to the Internet in 1986 in a basement in Vancouver
  • the World Congress on Education and Technology and Expo 1986 
  • being attacked with buns from the audience at a CADE conference at Lakehead University (you will be named)
  • experiences at UBC summer schools 
  • why I turned down a job offer at Athabasca University
  • the transformation of the OLI to the Open Learning Agency of BC
  • what lead me to emigrate to Canada


For an excellent account of the establishment of the Open Learning Institute, see:

Moran, L. (1993) Genesis of the Open learning Institute of British Columbia Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 8, No. 1 J


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