The Airtrans monorail at Dallas-Fort Worth. 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.

This post is written for any of you who have had difficulties when travelling internationally – you are not alone!

NAFTA and distance education

On January 1, 1994, the new North American Free Trade Agreement between the USA, Canada and Mexico was implemented. It came with a number of Canadian Federal funding projects to encourage closer trade relationships between the ‘three amigos.’ However, I was still surprised to receive a call shortly afterwards from Ottawa. It was from the Department of External Affairs and International Trade Canada.

‘Dr. Bates, you have been suggested to us as the most appropriate person to represent Canada with regard to a distance education technology project proposal involving Texas A & M University and a university in Mexico. We need you to go to a meeting being held at Texas A & M and come back with a recommendation as to whether or not Canada should proceed as a partner in this project, and the likely financial implications for our department. We will of course cover all expenses – return economy air fare and one overnight stay at no more than a three star hotel. If you agree, you will be contacted directly by the project proposers.’ I was rather tickled. I had only recently acquired full Canadian citizenship, and here I was, representing Canada.

A week later I received a letter from Texas A&M University. It was very formal. It welcomed me as a member of the three person evaluation panel, the other two members being from the University of Texas at Austin and Universidad Nacional Autonomica de Mexico. There would be no documentation yet about the project proposal as it was still being worked on, but there would be a formal presentation of the proposal at 9.00 am on the day of the meeting, and the panel would then discuss the proposal. In the afternoon, we would craft a recommendation to our respective governments, and the meeting would end at 4.00 pm in time to get our flights back. The meeting would be held at the local Holiday Inn. A reservation had been made for me and I should check in the evening prior to the meeting. The letter ended with the sentence: ‘Texas A&M is located at College Station which is served out of Dallas-Fort Worth’. I should take the shuttle bus from the airport to the hotel.

I went ahead and booked a return flight on United Airlines from Vancouver to Dallas-Fort Worth and back.

Exploring Dallas

The outward flight arrived in Dallas-Fort Worth at about 6.00 pm, and I made my way out of the United terminal to the Holiday Inn shuttle stop. When the shuttle bus came, I climbed in.

‘Whe’re you going?’

I was puzzled. ‘The Holiday Inn.’

‘Yeah, but which one? There’s fifteen in the Dallas area.’

 A little frisson of worry crossed my mind.

‘The nearest, I guess.’

When I walked into the lobby of the hotel, that frisson became more pronounced. There was a waterfall starting around the twelfth floor that dropped into a pool in the lobby. It did not look like a three star hotel.

I approached reception. ‘I have a reservation under the name of Anthony or Tony Bates.’ The man behind the counter consulted his computer.

‘I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t have any reservation under that name. Let me check the other Hiltons in the area.’ After a minute or so, he looked up and said, ‘You’re not registered at any of the Hiltons in the Dallas area.’

Oh, shit! I dug into my bag and got out a copy of the letter from Texas A&M and showed it to the receptionist.

‘Ah, Texas A&M,’ he said. ‘One moment.’ He picked up the phone. ‘Jim, didn’t you go to Texas A&M? Where’s its main campus?’

The receptionist put the phone down. ‘My colleague’s just coming. He will explain.’

Jim arrived in a minute or so.

‘Texas A&M is at College Station – that’s the name of the town. It’s about an hour’s flight south of Dallas. Let me call the airport and see if we can get you a flight this evening.’

After a couple of minutes, he said,’ There are no more flights tonight but I’ve booked you on the first flight in the morning, leaving at 8.00 am. You’ll have to pay at the airport. It will get you into College Station at 9.00 am. The university is only 10 minutes away by taxi. In the meantime, would you like a room?’ (Thank God for credit cards.)

Swing low, sweet chariot

I got up early and took the shuttle to Dallas airport. I checked in at the desk and then started to walk – and walk – and walk. The gate for the flight to College Station was in the commuter terminal at the very end of the airport. I just got to the gate as they were boarding. I walked out to the tarmac where a tiny, single-engine plane was standing. When I got on there were just two other passengers, one of whom was a very large man wearing a ten-gallon hat. The cockpit was open to the passengers, and just after I arrived, a very young-looking pilot climbed aboard.

‘Good morning,’ he said, closed the passenger door and climbed into his seat. The cockpit was open to the passengers. I saw the pilot do a brief check then he started the engine. It went ‘cough-cough-cough’ then stopped. He did the same thing three times with the same result. He reached up above the windscreen and pulled down a thick manual and started leafing through it.

‘What the hell,’ muttered the guy in the ten-gallon hat. After a minute or two the pilot reached for his headset. Within a few seconds the passenger door re-opened and a mechanic climbed in. He reached across the pilot, flipped a few switches and then the engine coughed into life. With a thumbs up to the pilot, the mechanic started to leave.

‘Hey, wait,’ shouted the man in the ten-gallon hat. ‘If you know how to fly this fucking plane, you’d better stay.’ The mechanic just grinned, and left. The plane, now almost 20 minutes late, taxied to the runway. I knew I was going to miss the 9.00 o’clock presentation but was hoping to get there in time for the coffee break at 10.00 am but this was looking increasingly unlikely. Once the plane took off, the pilot kept it very low in the sky, no more than a thousand feet above the ground which was very flat and empty. I could see the occasional cows or horses on the ground. The guy in the ten-gallon hat leaned over to me.

‘He’s flying low in case the engine fails – it’ll hit the ground less hard from this height.’

Good try, guys

We landed in College Station at about 9.30 am. I rushed out and found just one taxi waiting. Fortunately, the guy in the ten-gallon hat headed in the opposite direction to the car park. I rushed into the conference area at the College Station Hilton just as people started to stream out of the meeting room. There was an unattended table by the door and I had just enough time to grab my name tag. I was lining up for coffee when a distinguished-looking man approached me.

‘Ah, Dr. Bates. My name’s George Bradley, the meeting organiser. I’m an engineering professor here at A&M. I hope you enjoyed your evening. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to greet you before the opening, but I had an urgent meeting before and had to make a couple of last minute changes to the schedule.’

I realised that I hadn’t been missed, despite arriving many hours late.

‘Now I’d like you to meet the other two panelists,’ and I was introduced.

George said, ‘Now which of you wants to go first?’

I said, ‘Why don’t I go last?’ I thought this would give me the chance to work out what the actual proposal was from what the two other panelists said about it. It was agreed that as Tec de Monterrey had put the proposal forward, the panelist from the U of T at Austin  would respond first, followed by the representative from the Universidad Nacional Autonomica de Mexico.

As I listened to their responses to the proposal, I was able to work out that Tec de Monterrey and Texas A&M were proposing the construction of a fixed cable connection between Monterrey and College Station to enable both universities to offer lectures to each other’s campus by videoconferencing. The total cost would be about $3 million, and they hoped the three governments would share the cost.

Fortunately, both panelists went over their allotted time, leaving me just 10 minutes for my response.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘I have some serious reservations about the proposal. Using videoconferences for lectures between different campuses is not new. This has been happening in the U.S. with state universities with multiple campuses for several years. The only difference is that this happens to cross a national boundary.

‘Second, I don’t understand why you have to lay new cable for this. You could lease a hell of a lot of video conferencing time from the public telephone carriers for $3 million.

‘Third, I don’t see how Canada can benefit from this. It involves only two universities, one in Mexico and one in the USA, about 500 miles apart. The nearest Canadian university is three times that distance from College Station and I didn’t hear of a link to Canada being proposed.’ (I sweated a bit on that, but it turned out to be correct.)

‘If Tec de Monterrey and Texas A&M want to partner on this, that’s great, but I don’t see how Canada can be involved with the proposal as it stands.’

Dilly-dallying in Dallas

That more or less summarised my report to the Federal government, but first I had to get back. I had booked a 6.00 pm flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to Vancouver, but that was on the assumption that the meeting was in Dallas. I had first to get from College Station to Dallas and the only plane available left at 4.00 pm, getting into Dallas-Fort Worth at 5.00 pm. However, I might just make it – a one hour connection.

What I hadn’t reckoned with was the size of the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. The plane from College Station was American Airlines but my flight to Vancouver was on United, so I had to get from one terminal to another. The only way was by the Airtrans monorail system that ran between the different terminals. However, this only moved counter-clockwise around the airport, so while the two terminals were next to one another, the train had to go almost the full 13 mile loop around the airport. It also went no faster than 14 miles per hour, so I had a frustrating journey getting from one terminal to the other. As a result I arrived at the gate for the Vancouver flight just after it had closed. There was no other direct flight to Vancouver that night.

A dog-leg home

I went to the United desk, and they said they could get me on a flight to San Jose, California, in 30 minutes and I could connect there for Vancouver, but I wouldn’t arrive until after midnight. Thank God for credit cards – again. I rushed to get the flight, and arrived in San Jose at about 9.00 pm. I had some time to wait so I phoned home.

‘Oh, hello,’ said my wife. ‘I was expecting you home about now.’

‘Well, I won’t be home until gone midnight. I’m waiting for my plane in San Jose.’

‘But isn’t that in California? I thought you were going to Texas!’

‘I did, but it didn’t go quite as planned.’

It had been a fruitless trip, but I told myself I had saved the Canadian government a million dollars, even if it had cost me several hundred dollars over the federal government’s expenses limit. This was in fact my first encounter with Tec de Monterrey, but it would be by no means the last. More on that in the next post.

Up next

Climbing Everest: partnering with Tec de Monterrey, and developing a fully online Master of Educational Technology at UBC.

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

A personal history: 15. How technology changed distance education in the mid 1990s


  1. Golly, what a dreadful tale!

    The Holiday Inn people seem great, and I love it that they had a graduate of Texas A & M on call.


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