The Turf Building, 475 West Georgia Street, Vancouver, which in 1990 housed the headquarters of OLA until it moved to its own campus in Burnaby. It was called the Turf Building because it also provided offices for the Hastings Racecourse

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. 

There has been a slight hiatus in this series as I have had to write quite a bit about the period 1990-1995 in my autobiography and I wanted to complete that before plunging into a blog post.

The Open Learning Agency in 1990

The Open Learning Agency was formed in 1988 by bringing together the former Open Learning Institute, which then consisted of the Open University of BC, the Open College, and Knowledge Network (the provincial educational television network), under the same umbrella organisation. It would also include basic adult education and an open school unit (see here for more information about OLA and its predecessors before 1990).

My designation of Executive Director, Research and International Development also came with a seat at the Agency’s Executive Council. When I arrived, the OLA Executive Council consisted of:

  • the President and CEO (Glen Farrell);
  • the Vice-President, the Open University of BC (Ian Mugridge);
  • the Vice-President, Open College (Dick Scales);
  • the Vice-President, Knowledge Network (Lucille Pacey);
  • the Vice-President of Administration (Sid Segal);
  • and myself.

I reported directly to Glen Farrell.

When I joined the OLA in the start of 1990, there were about 270 full-time staff and 180 part-time tutors. OLA had an annual budget of about C$25 million (equivalent to about $40 million in 2024), of which just over two-thirds came as a base grant from the Ministry of Advanced Education and the rest from contracts and other services.

I was appointed as Executive Director, Research and International Development. Research related to open education was part of the mandate of the Open Learning Agency as set out in government Bill 58 that established the new institution. The administrative structure of the OLA had been defined by a consultant, Larry McAuley. Within that structure McAuley had proposed that a small Development Directorate be established to carry out research, largely on a project basis. The Open Learning Agency was also engaged in a number of projects internationally, providing both consultancy services and program materials to countries in Asia and elsewhere. 

The OLA had a range of ‘deliverables’ or outputs that distinguished it from conventional post-secondary institutions. These included:

  1. Collaborative agreements: working with other organisations in the system such as the BC universities and colleges, to co-ordinate the development of open learning, was an important part of its mandate. Collaboration took a number of forms:
  • the BC Educational Credit Bank which enabled transfer of credit both between BC institutions and into the system (for instance for people moving into the province so their qualifications could be assessed and transferred); this function in now expanded and carried out by the BC Council of Admissions and Transfer (BCCAT);
  • laddered degree programs: the OLA had a unique arrangement by which students who had taken courses in a publicly funded two year college or institute of technology could take further third and fourth year courses either through the OLA’s own Open University courses or by taking third and fourth year courses by distance from the conventional BC universities – such students would earn a degree of the Open University of BC;
  • contracts with employers and other organizations; the Open College component in particular had a workplace training system that was tailored to the specific needs of employers;
  • Native Learning Centres (as they were then called): located in or close to indigenous communities, often in the more remote parts of the province, these centres provided OLA course materials and some also were connected by audio-conferencing for the delivery of courses from the OLA and other provincial educational institutions;
  • international contracts: the OLA also had contracts to provide assistance, materials and consultancy to other organisations moving into open and distance learning, particularly internationally; these included federal Canadian International Development Agency-funded projects.
  1. Instructional materials
  • Courses: in 1990, the OLA developed and delivered about 250 courses, split evenly between the Open University and Open College components;
  • Sale of materials: the OLA also sold its own and other course materials developed by other B.C. institutions. These sales amounted to over $1 million a year.
  1. Direct instruction

In 1990, the Open University and Open College components had about 20,000 individual enrolments, or about 2,000 ‘full-time equivalents’, split fairly evenly between the two components. Completion rates were between 42-46%, and 65 full degrees were awarded in 1990 by the Open University.

  1. Telecommunications
  • In 1990, the Knowledge Network component delivered 16 hours a day of television programming across the province, including about 1,000 hours of new programming and just under 300 hours of original programming in the year to roughly 500,000 viewers per week, in a province with a population then of just over 3 million people (by 2024 it had grown to 4.7 million).
  • The Knowledge Network ran a province-wide audio-conferencing network, although the great majority of the 1,000 hours a year were used by external clients and not so much by the Open University or Open College components.

These were the main ‘outputs’ from the OLA. (The inputs were mainly its revenues, which at that time were approximately $25 million). It can be seen that the Agency had a very wide remit, which, given its revenues, resulted in comments like ‘a mile wide and an inch thick’.

A challenging environment

The vision of the provincial government’s Minister McGeer and Deputy Minister Hardwick for a unified distance education system across the province that would provide credit and non-credit programs using modern technology was received with ‘skepticism and widespread ignorance of the nature and practice of distance education at the time; in some cases, institutions felt threatened by this new presence on the post-secondary scene.’ (Moran, 1993). Basically, there was a conflict between the McGeer/Hardwick vision of distance education for province, and that of many of the MLAs in the provincial parliament, which wanted an expansion of conventional universities and colleges within their cities.

However, the opposition among the established post-secondary institutions to OLA varied considerably. The three main universities (UBC, SFU and Victoria) quickly established a collaborative working relationship with OLI, then OLA, which worked surprisingly well. It was the newer colleges in particular that felt threatened. In reality, in a rapidly developing province such as British Columbia, both new conventional institutions and an integrated, province wide distance education system were needed. Indeed, over time, most major towns and cities in the province ended up with a community college, and some of these were transformed later into regional universities. However, there was still a major difference in emphasis, with OLA’s focus on lifelong learning, open education and distance teaching.

There had also in the past been strong tensions between OLI and Knowledge Network, each seeing the other as overlapping with its own mandate (particularly regarding the choice and use of technology for distance teaching). The amalgamation was meant to overcome such tensions.

However, when I started attending the Executive Council meetings, these tensions were still obvious. The three ‘components’ (Open University, Open College, and the Knowledge Network) each had strong, combative leaders. The OLA’s mandate was extremely broad and its resources, particularly funding, extremely limited, given the breadth of its mandate, from k-12 schools to a general television audience, with everything in-between. In particular, the staff of the Knowledge Network felt that they had been forced into a marriage they did not want. Many of the KN staff saw Knowledge Network as primarily a television network, even though its original mandate had been broader to include all tele-communications technologies. The individual components were often much better known to the public than the Agency itself, and Glen Farrell, as President, was very frustrated at the difficulty of developing synergy between the three components. 

A consequence of these internal tensions was that I came to dread Executive Council meetings. These were held weekly, usually on a Monday morning, starting at 8.00 am. This was first of all a cultural shock to me. I was not an early riser. Before I came to Canada, I was barely aware that there were two seven o’clocks in the same day. I was always scrabbling in about five minutes late, much to the annoyance of Glen, and was only saved from worse approbation by Lucille Pacey, who was often slightly later in arriving.

(Compare this to the U.K. Open University. At an initial meeting of a new course team, the Chair asked for a decision on which day of the week the team should meet, and suggested Fridays.

‘No,’ said one academic, ‘that would spoil the weekend.’

‘OK,’ said the chair, ‘what about Mondays?’

‘No,’ said another academic, ‘that would spoil my weekend.’

In exasperation, the Chair said, ‘All right then, we’ll meet on Wednesdays.’

‘No,’ said another wit, ‘that would spoil both weekends.’)

The OLA Executive Council meetings were the main forum for deciding on policy, but they quickly turned into disputes over everything from allocation of funds to market branding (weeks were spent by the Executive Council deciding on a logo for the Agency). There were sometimes conflicting policies between the Open University and the Open College, and there was a feeling from some on the Council that the Knowledge Network was a ‘favoured child’ (staff at the Knowledge Network were non-unionised and had different conditions of service, and the ‘brand’ was much better known throughout the province). The Knowledge Network was mandated previously to be responsible for telecommunications in general, including audio-conferencing, but there was little interest in 1990 from the OU or OC in using anything other than print.  

As well as the structural challenges, the personalities of some of the Council members were also an issue. The heads of the three components were fiercely loyal to their own component and inclined towards belligerence or stubbornness rather than conciliation as an executive style. Glen on the other hand tried to build consensus between ‘the kings of the mountains.’

The main issue I felt the Council should be addressing was: what was the added value the Agency as a whole could provide compared to the mandates of the individual components? However, because of overlapping areas of interests and responsibilities, and the historic differences between the three components, any decisions that may have impacted on another component tended to get referred up to the Executive Council. This resulted in an impossible list of agenda items and often long discussions about whether an item was even appropriate for the Council to discuss. Most of the time, I was an inactive participant, not being directly involved in most of the items that came to the Council. Glen in particular would get very frustrated with the failure of the Council to get into strategic matters, and by being constantly sidetracked by urgent but relatively minor issues.

Quite often, as a result, some key operational decisions were made outside the Council. In particular, Sid Segal, the Director of Administration, was smart and powerful. He controlled the strings of the budget and often acted, sometimes behind the scenes, in crucial decisions regarding allocation of resources. However, it was as well that he did, otherwise things might have ground to a halt if consensus at the Executive Council had been sought.

At one time, Sid sent an order around the senior management that fax services were to be centralised, to save money, and the fax machines were to be returned to the administration. At this time, email was not widespread, and particularly for me, who had overall responsibility for several international projects, the fax machine was crucial for communication. Rather than give up my fax machine, I hid it in one of the draws in my desk. One day, Sid came into my office, and the fax machine in the desk began chattering. Sid looked around the room.

‘Is that a fax machine I can hear?’

‘I’m sure you’re mistaken, Sid. You must be hearing it from another room.’ Fortunately, the chattering stopped almost immediately. I think I got away with it, although Sid was not convinced.


However, what was surprising was that despite the dysfunctional Executive Council, the OLA was very successful in delivering services and programs to a specific but diverse audience of lifelong learners throughout the province. This was due to the professionalism of the middle management and the specialist staff, such as instructional designers, print editors, TV producers, project managers and so on, who were nearly all committed to serving their specific client base and to the concept of equal access to education for all in the province, so in that sense there was a shared vision within the staff of the Agency.

In the end, because of the difficulties encountered with the Executive Council, in 1991, consultants were brought in to suggest a re-organization of the Agency. I will discuss this and other developments at OLA in later posts.

Up next

There will be two more posts on the OLA, covering my time there until I left in 1995, and I will also look at the state of educational technology in the period 1990-1995, which contained some very interesting developments.

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

A personal history: 11. The creation of the OLA


In 1992, Mark Nielsen, a Program Director in the Open College of OLA, conducted an excellent M.A. thesis on the 1991 re-organization and its results, which included a  detailed before and after analysis. As well as my own experience, I have drawn heavily on Mark’s thesis. Louise Moran, a visiting scholar from Australia has also written a good description, particularly of the early days of OLI, on which I have also drawn.

Moran, L. (1993) Genesis of the Open Learning Institute of British Columbia, International Journal of e-Learning and Distance Education, Vol.8, No.1

Nielsen, M. (1992) The Restructuring of the Open Learning Agency: A Predictive Analysis Vancouver, BC: The University of British Columbia (MA thesis)


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