The Magee campus at the University of Ulster, Derry Image: Belfast Telegraph, 2021

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 and on X). 

A full list of the posts to date will be found toward the end of this post.

A troubled Northern Ireland 

In 1986, I had been invited to the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland to give two talks, one at the university’s campus in Belfast and one at the university’s campus in (London)Derry.

Two years earlier, Margaret Thatcher had narrowly escaped an IRA bombing at a Conservative Party conference hotel in Brighton. A few weeks prior to my visit in 1986, there had been a general strike in Northern Ireland by Unionists, accompanied by vandalism and attacks on the police, in opposition to a proposed Anglo-Irish agreement which later collapsed. The tension between Catholics and Protestants was in one of its most intense periods.

I was very well received at the University of Ulster. There were lots of British troops and armed Royal Ulster Constabulary policemen at the airport and major road intersections, but the centre of Belfast, where the university was, was quiet and reasonably peaceful. I gave my talk and had my meetings.

‘We have a car that will take you to Londonderry in the morning,’ I was told.

The car came to pick me up in the morning and I was surprised to see three of my new colleagues from the university in the car.

‘We’re coming with you,’ they said. The time by road between the two cities was about 90 minutes, but about half-way there, the car pulled into a lay-by.

‘We’re leaving you here,’ they said. ‘You see that car about 100 yards away. Walk over to that, and they will take you to the university. It was great to meet you and have a good time in Derry.’

I did as I was told, and was warmly welcomed into the other car, which also had three people in it.

‘Welcome to Derry,’ they said.

I was offered the front passenger seat. As we were coming into the centre of Derry, a British Army armoured car suddenly pulled in front of the car, a hatch in the armoured car opened, and a soldier appeared with a machine gun pointed directly at the windshield of the car.

‘Don’t panic,’ said my driver. ‘They’re just covering their arses,’ to laughter from the other two.

Again, I received an overwhelmingly friendly reception, gave my presentation and had my meetings.

‘OK,’ said Eamonn, my counterpart, at the end of the day. ‘How about a drink and something to eat? You have to try the local Guinness – it’s nectar from heaven.’

We walked out of the university building and around the corner to a local pub.

While we were having a drink and waiting for our meal to be served, I remarked, ‘It seems it’s awfully dark in here.’

‘Ay, well, that’ll be because if the shutters.’

‘The shutters?’

‘Ay, the pub put in the shutters because we’re next door to the police station and the IRA keep firing rockets at them.’

The Northern Ireland Troubles were terrible. Over 3,500 people were killed from their start in the 1960s to the Good Friday agreement in 1998, and many more suffered injuries, yet nowhere have I ever received such friendly and warm hospitality, from both sides. Ireland – north and south – is such a beautiful country with such hospitable people. The colonisation of Ireland by the British and the subsequent sectarian violence is one of the great tragedies of history.

The bun hurlers

In 1988, I received an invitation to speak at the post-conference dinner at a conference being organised by Lakehead University. The conference dinner was being held in the Fort William Historic Park in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

The conference organiser was Robert Sweet, an instructional designer at Lakehead University, also located in Thunder Bay. He had spoken to me on the telephone when inviting me.

‘Tony,’ he said. ‘We’re really complacent here in Canada. I’m looking for someone to shake us up a bit, to be controversial. I want you to take a critical look at Canadian distance education and particularly our use of technology for teaching. They are going to be tired at the end of the conference and I’d really like you to wake them up.’

When I arrived, it was February, it was terribly cold (hey, it’s Canada) and a raging blizzard was blowing. I got there in plenty of time, and set up my presentation. Everyone started to arrive, many delayed by the weather, and as soon as they had removed their external winter clothes, most of them headed straight for the bar.

Robert approached me. ‘There’s been a change of plan. Because we’re starting late, everyone’s hungry. Do you mind if you give your talk when dinner’s finished?’

Dinner was served accompanied by many bottles of wine. By the end of dinner, the audience was a little raucous. I began my talk by starting to list a number of criticisms of the distance education system in Canada, such as its fragmentation and the lack of scale for many of its programs, which was received with an increasing number of boos. Suddenly from the back of the hall I was attacked with a rain of buns. One particularly rowdy table was filled with some of the leading women distance educators in Canada, such as Lucille Pacey, Liz Burge, Erin Keogh, Judy Roberts and Judith Tobin. They were the bun hurlers.

I learned a lot from that conference:

  • never give a post-conference dinner speech, especially after dinner; people are tired and want to have fun, not listen to a boring speaker
  • never give a presentation when most of the audience has been drinking for at least three hours
  • never insult Canadians, and especially Canadian women
  • sometimes, small is beautiful; small programs can be nimble and flexible
  • Canadians put up with winter but it does sometimes make them ratty.

Up next

They say every immigrant has a story, so the next two posts in this series will cover:

  • my reasons for leaving England and coming to Canada (personal and professional)
  • what it took to actually get here (and this is quite a story).

The journey so far

Here is a list of the posts to date in this series:


  1. I recall when you arrived at the Open Learning Agency and I was so thrilled that you were there as I had read a lot your research, articles, and books. I recall doing my first presentation at a CADE Conference at the Hotel Vancouver in 1993 (I believe) and then attending quite the party at your townhouse in Kits. Thanks for agreeing to be part of few presentations for RRU students and also being involved in the ID workshop we first held here in Victoria. I’m now in my last year of work – 34 years in total. I have truly enjoyed my career and you were an inspiration indeed. You and my prof. at Concordia – Gary Coldevin. Solvig

  2. Dear Tony,
    There were only 2 bun hurlers that night at the dinner of your talk at Fort William Historic Park in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The two were France Henri and me. The women that cite did not participate and I’m not sure they were even at our table.

    The reason I began throwing buns at you was triggered by your joking comment that Canadian distance education was so bad that we needed an English man to keynote the event.

    I’m surprised you forgot that since we’ve laughed about it so many time subsequently. Hope you are doing well and congrats on your autobiography.

  3. I remember that night with fondness – for the talk, revelry and drinks (but I ate my bun). But more lasting impact was your talk. You noted the disconnectedness and very sporatic progress in this area in Canada (from leaders in some areas to “distance education doesn’t work with _____ (insert your current students).
    This was the first (but not last) talk I have enjoyed and learned from you Tony.
    Terry Anderson


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here