The Heidelberg CD102 – a typical off-set printer in 1996 Image: Press City

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 paradigm shift in distance education

The early to mid 1990s was probably the most innovative time with respect to technologies that enabled online distance education. This resulted from the digital convergence of a number of previously separate technologies, enabled primarily by desk-top computing, developments on the Internet (particularly the World Wide Web), and technical standardisation. The effect not just on distance education but education in general was transformative. Let’s unpack this a little.

The print production process

When I took over Distance Education and Technology (DET) at the University of British Columbia in September 1995, the core technology for distance teaching was printed materials mailed to students. A few courses had video programs distributed on cassettes. The courses were designed by faculty, mainly from the main academic departments at UBC, on contract from DET, with the assistance of a print editor. The academic would prepare the materials on a personal computer, using software such as Word or WordPerfect, which was then recorded on a floppy disk  and handed to a DET print editor. After review and consultation with the academic, the material on the floppy disk would be taken down to the print room in Media Services where it would be inserted into a specialist electronic printing machine. The printed material would then be mailed to students as a course package.

Faculty were able to prepare their course materials using word processing software such as WordPerfect or Word, but it was not possible to attach these documents to an email until the MIME Internet standard was introduced in 1992, and the TCP/IP protocol that allows for user-friendly Internet connection between a personal computer and an electronic printer was not developed until 1989.

Since my experience with DT200 at the UK Open University in 1989, I had always believed that the future for distance education was in online courses, so I made this my priority when I moved to UBC.

Course delivery

When I arrived at UBC, students studied in a cohort with an individual part-time tutor on contract, who would communicate with students mainly by email or telephone. The tutors were overseen by the central academic. Students completed written assignments for marking by the tutors. Sometimes students were given a grade at the end of the course based on the assignments during the course (formative assessment) but in most cases took a supervised exam at the end of the course either at UBC or at a local partner institution. Usually the exam was the same as for on-campus students.

Distance students generally paid the same tuition fees as on-campus students, but the money went directly to DET to pay the contracted faculty and tutors. Other costs, such as the DET staff and print and mailing costs, came out of the $1 million operating fund.

The move to online learning

Although done in-house, printing was a major cost, and the need for copy editing also slowed down production. In particular, it was always a struggle to get the academics to deliver the course material in time for it to be checked by the print editor, then printed and mailed before the courses started. This was a particular problem for courses beginning in September, as faculty were often away on vacation in August.

When I took over in September 1995, Mark Bullen was the only one with experience as an instructional designer, but there were several print editors and a video producer. I neither wanted to nor was able to fire staff, so I set about re-training the print editors to become instructional designers, and started to hire some new instructional designers, such as Diane Janes and Jeff Miller. I soon made Mark Bullen responsible for course production.

By 1995, it had become possible to send text documents in Word or WordPerfect as attachments, so DET gradually reduced the number of course units going to printing, and sent the course material as file attachments.


In January of 1996, I got a call from Dan Birch, the VP Academic at UBC.

‘Tony, we have a bright young lecturer in computer sciences who is developing software that will allow him to put his course online, but he needs a bit of money to pay for some programming for a research assistant to finish the project. Is there any chance you could let him have something from your DET development budget?’

I took down the name and called the lecturer. His name was Murray Goldberg. The World Wide Web had been released by Tim Berners-Lee in 1991, and Murray was developing his software to run via a browser on the Web. I provided Murray with the necessary funding for his research assistant. Murray released the product in the spring of 1996 and called it WebCT. It was the first learning management system and was immediately popular. UBC helped him set up a company and by 1999 it was being used by 2-3 million students in 30 countries. UBC in 1999 sold the company to US venture capitalists and in 2006 it was acquired by Blackboard, and eventually morphed into Blackboard Learn. DET of course started to move all its courses on to WebCT from 1996.

Why the move to online was so important

The advantages of moving from print to fully online delivery are now obvious. First, it speeds up considerably the course production and delivery process. Less well understood is how this really helped dual-mode institutions (campus-based universities who offer some distance courses as well), compared with open universities. Print depends heavily on economies of scale, so the high cost of print production can be spread across a large number of students – an industrial model of distance education that really suits open universities with very large enrolments.

Most distance courses in dual mode institutions on the other hand usually have relatively low numbers of students. There are no direct distribution costs for online students, and the online course production process becomes much simpler and less costly, so online courses are much more cost-effective than print-based courses for dual mode institutions. Even today, many of the large open universities are still locked into print production and delivery, and have found it difficult to move exclusively to online learning. They have too much capital investment in the legacy technology of print, and they also have to take into account that many students may have difficulty with the cost of and access to digital services (this was not a big issue at UBC).

Why it happened

Moving DET’s courses online in 1996 was made possible by the convergence of low-cost desk-top computing, standardisation protocols that allowed inter-operability between desktop computers over the Internet thus enabling free connection between students, tutors and DET, and above all by the World Wide Web as a platform for learning management systems which formed the framework for online courses.

However, the technological developments alone were not enough. It required staff retraining (and to a lesser extent new hires), a willingness by my staff to change radically their method of working, and support for the strategy from the senior administration.

For me, it was a question of being in the right place at the right time, with the right people to support me.

Up next

I will be discussing the development of a partnership between UBC and Tec de Monterrey in Mexico resulting in a joint online Master of Educational Technology delivered entirely at a distance in both English and Spanish, and the institutional barriers to online learning that needed to be broken down.

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

A personal history: 12. My first two years at the Open Learning Agency

A personal history: 13. OLA and international distance education, 1990-1993

A personal history: 14. Strategic planning, nuclear weapons and the OLA




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