Open Learning Agency building in Richmond, BC. Image: Wikipedia

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.

The creation of the Open Learning Agency of British Columbia

In late 1987, I received a visitor to the Open University from Canada. He was Walter Uegama, then the Director of Adult Basic Education at the newly created Open Learning Agency (an enlargement of the Open Learning Institute). Walter and I instantly hit it off. Walter was a jazz fan and I got tickets for us both to go to the Royal Festival Hall in London to see George Shearing and Dave Brubeck play together.

Then in 1988, the International Council for Distance Education conference was in Oslo, Norway. I was very pleased to be back in Norway. During the conference I was approached by Glen Farrell, the President of the Open Learning Agency. With him were Lucille Pacey, Vice-President in charge of Knowledge Network, and Ian Mugridge, Vice-President of the Open University of BC. I was asked if I would like to come to work for the Open Learning Agency as Executive Director, Research and International Development.

The Open Learning Agency had just been created by merging the Knowledge Network with the Open Learning Institute, which included the Open University and Open College of British Columbia. The government, the OLI, and universities in British Columbia had set up in 1984 the Open University Consortium of B.C., which enabled the Open Learning Institute to build Open University degrees through a combination of its own courses and distance courses from the three main universities, University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and University of Victoria. The OLI, later OLA, provided the first year courses and worked with the three universities to fill the gaps so that students could take full degrees at a distance. The degrees were awarded by the Open University of B.C. This was an early example of credit transfer between institutions.

The Open Learning Agency was broadened to include not only Knowledge Network, the province’s educational broadcaster, but also a new Open School, which developed distance courses, mainly for Grades 11 and 12, for the province’s school system, given that many rural high schools were isolated and small in the province and were not able on their own to offer a full range of courses. As well as credit transfer, the OLA enabled assessment for prior learning and an open admissions policy for its courses. It also offered basic adult education courses (Walter Uegama’s responsibility) at a distance, and, through its Open College, career, technical and vocational education. Knowledge Network’s role was primarily providing non-credit continuing education through educational television.

The credit courses were delivered mainly through print materials delivered by mail and supported by part-time telephone tutors. The courses were created jointly by contracted academics, mainly from the three universities, working with an instructional designer and a print editor. The OLA had its own printing, warehouse and mail room in its headquarters in Richmond, and later in a purpose built facility in Burnaby. Altogether in 1988 there were more than 15,000 students registered in different credit programs, as well as the audience for its television programs.

Dealing with Canadian Immigration

My wife Pat and I immediately put in an application for Canadian citizenship through the employer sponsored program. There were points for level of education, age (younger the better), language (English and/or French – both was better), type of employment and employment experience, connections to family in Canada, and employer sponsorship. There was a time limit though of two years for employer sponsorship.

An official in the visa office in the Canadian Embassy in London assured us that we should qualify for an entry visa for permanent residence with our qualifications and employer sponsorship. After the minimum period of three years permanent residence in Canada, we could then apply for full citizenship.

Then followed a very frustrating experience, probably common to all immigrants applying for entry to Canada: waiting for a response from the visa office. It was impossible to get anyone on the phone at the visa office, and written requests asking for an update on the status of the application were returned with a statement saying that for privacy reasons, no information could be given while the application was under consideration.

By the end of October, 1989, there was still no news from the visa office. We needed to resign our jobs and we also needed to sell the house, but were reluctant to do so without being sure of entry visas for work. I contacted Glen Farrell, and he promised to contact one of the Senators from British Columbia to see what the hold-up was. In the meantime, Pat got so frustrated that she went down to London and sat in the visa office and refused to move until someone pulled the file. Just before the office closed, an official called her to the window.

He took her details then entered them into a computer.

‘It appears that we are still waiting for the police statement required to confirm that you have no criminal records.’

‘But that was sent to you months ago!’

‘OK, let me check the manual file.’

He went away and after about 15 minutes he came back.

‘You were right. The letter from the police is in the file, but for some reason it has not been entered into the computer as having been received. I’ll correct that and you should get the visas shortly. But be aware that these visas require you to land in Canada before December 31st.’

The Canadian Embassy was near to Regent Street. Pat promptly went to a store and purchased a very expensive grey cashmere coat to celebrate, which she wore for nearly 15 years.

A catastrophic event

Once the visas were received, we quickly sold the house. The removal people were coming to pack everything for shipment to Canada in the week before Christmas. The OLA had found a house in the Dunbar area of Vancouver for us to rent while we looked for a house in Vancouver while our furniture was making its way to Canada via the Panama Canal.

We booked one way airfares for December 27 on WardAir, direct to Vancouver. We were taking our dog and two cats. The one last thing I needed to do was to get a certificate of health from the vet for the dog and two cats so they could enter Canada. This meant loading them into a taxi and taking them to the vet. I had them booked in to the vets for December 21.

On December 21, the removers were finishing packing and loading our furniture from our house in Stony Stratford. When the packing was finished we were then going to stay with Pat’s family over Christmas. I had been contracted by Routledge to write a book on technology, open learning and distance education, which was nearly finished and on my computer. At that time had I had my own computer, a 16 pound portable Apple which had cost me over £5,000. I put the computer and a hold-all with the passports, air tickets, entry visas and back-up computer discs in the hallway near the front door, ready to take them up to Pat’s parents when the removal had finished. I then went to take the pets to the vet.

When I got back, the front door was open. The removal men were in the house. Then I noticed that the hold-all and computer were missing. I shouted up to the removal men.

‘Have you loaded a computer and hold-all into the van? We need that out.’

One of the removal men came down. ‘No, we’ve not touched any luggage – we’ve been moving the cupboards.’

The house front door opened straight on to the pavement, and was shielded by the large removal van parked by the pavement. Tony raced around the house, shouting at Pat to ask if she had moved the hold-all and computer. Nothing was found even after a thorough search of both the house and the removal van. If the door was left open, anyone passing would have seen the computer and hold-all and no-one would see them taking it.

I started to run around like a headless chicken. ‘They’ve gone – everything!’ It was two days before Christmas, and we were due to fly out immediately afterwards. 

Pat said, ‘Calm down, let’s think.’ She immediately called the Canadian visa office and explained the situation.

‘You need to get new passports. If you can get here with your new passports, we will issue you with duplicate visas and a letter which should get you into Canada, but we close for Christmas at 3.00 pm tomorrow.’

I phoned the British passport office in London, but was told there was no chance of getting a passport before Christmas as they were overbooked, but I could try the passport office in Peterborough. I would also need to get duplicate birth certificates from the General Registry Office in central London, as the birth certificates were also in the hold-all.

I was up at the crack of dawn and took the train down to London and was standing outside the Registry Office at Somerset House on the Strand as it opened. I got the duplicate birth certificates then raced to Kings Cross to get the next train to Peterborough. Peterborough is 85 miles north of London but a fast train could get there in just under an hour. I arrived at the passport office at 11.45. Fortunately, there were only three people ahead of me in the queue. When I explained to the the passport officer the situation, I was told to relax. It would take about an hour to process the passports.

‘There’s a nice pub around the corner – go and have a beer and something to eat and they’ll be ready when you come back.’

I then raced back to the station and caught the next train to King’s Cross. It arrived in King’s Cross at 2.30 pm. I grabbed a taxi and arrived at the visa office at 2.57. The office was covered with Christmas decorations and the staff were ready to party when I arrived. I breathlessly explained why I was there.

‘Just a minute,’ the visa officer said and went off.

I waited an excruciating several minutes as the staff closed and locked the office door. At last, a manager appeared with two yellow envelopes.

‘Here you are,’ she said. ‘We were expecting you. Welcome to Canada and Merry Christmas.’

Somerset House, London, the former General Registry Office: imagine having to find the right room in a hurry. Image: Wikipedia

On December 27, we arrived at Gatwick airport with two large suitcases, and a dog and two cats in carriers. They were coming as accompanied baggage. The vet had given me something to tranquilise them with so they were no trouble in Gatwick. We took one of the last Wardair flights before it was sold to Canadian Airlines. Wardair offered great service, including excellent meals and comfortable seats.

However, I was still worried when we arrived at Vancouver Airport. On previous trips to Canada, Canada Immigration had always been difficult, especially if I was teaching summer school or being paid a conference fee. Once they had to issue a special Minister’s dispensation (whatever that was) to let me in.  So, arriving with duplicate passports, visas and birth certificates and two cats and a dog was bound to cause problems.

When I got to immigration, the officer looked at our passports then went on to the computer. He spent a long minute or so looking at the screen before saying:

‘Welcome to Canada. We were expecting you. However, if anyone else turns up with your passports and visas, they won’t be coming in.’

There was still customs to get through, with two large suitcases, and two cats and a dog. The effect of the tranquillisers had worn off. Guinness was alternately whimpering and barking, and one cat had crapped all over his container and was snarling. The other cat, as always, was quiet and timid, probably scared out of her mind. But when we got to customs, we were all waived straight through, probably because of the disgusting smell from Smokey’s carrier.

Amazingly, we were on the curb outside the terminal in less than 30 minutes from landing. OLA had appointed an executive assistant for me, Denise Hartmann, who had found the house to rent and was going to pick us up, but I had foolishly told her to pick us up an hour after the plane landed, expecting trouble at customs and immigration. Nevertheless, she was there waiting for us when we came through customs, and she drove us to our new temporary home on Dunbar Street.

At least the book was saved

Although the loss of the computer and hold-all was reported to the police, they were never found. However, three months after I arrived in Vancouver, I was contacted by Paul Lefrère, a colleague at the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University. Paul had just heard about the loss of my computer. Before I left for Canada, Paul had requested access to some of the data I had collected for the book. I must in haste have copied the whole draft of the book on to the compact disc I gave to Paul, and Paul was thus able to send me back a duplicate copy. The book was eventually published by Routledge and went on to win the University Council for Educational Administration’s Charles A. Wedemeyer award for the best book on distance education in 1995.

So always to remember to back up your computer – and never leave the back-ups and computer together, even for 30 minutes, as I did. And thanks to all the individuals at UK Passport, Paul Lefrère, and the Canadian visa office in London for helping out in an emergency. 

Up next

I will cover my five years at the Open Learning Agency between 1990 and 1995, which includes the creation of the World Wide Web and the early use of the Internet for teaching and learning. This may take a few days as I have yet to remember and think about this.

The journey so far

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


A personal history: 5. India and educational satellite TV

A personal history: 6. Satellite TV in Europe and lessons from the 1980s

A personal history: 7. Distance education in Canada in 1982

A personal history: 8. The start of the digital revolution

A personal history: 9. The Northern Ireland Troubles and bun hurling at Lakehead University

A personal history: 10. Why I emigrated to Canada


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