The 99 at the UBC bus loop. The 99B bus service to UBC is the busiest bus service in North America in terms of daily passengers. It was also a great way to advertise distance courses to students. Image: Tony Bates, 2007

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.

Moving distance education online at UBC

The next few posts will cover my experience at UBC from 1995 to 2003. It was an exhilarating roller-coaster ride, not just for me but also my colleagues in DET (the Distance Education and Technology Unit). As quite a few of the players are still around, I’d be particularly interested in your/their comments, corrections and memories, particularly if they are different from mine.

Looking back, there were five areas of activity that I was involved in at UBC:

  • helping the academic faculties to develop distance education courses for credit;
  • the development of cost-recovery online graduate-level certificate and masters programs in partnership with academic faculties;
  • research into online and distance education;
  • help with developing policies for the use of educational technology at UBC, mainly through committee work;
  • external consultancy work on behalf of UBC, including facilitating an international partnership between UBC and Tec de Monterrey, Mexico.

In reality, these activities were all inter-locked. I will focus today on developing online undergraduate courses for credit. See below for the other topics I will be covering in later posts.

Undergraduate distance education courses for credit

When I arrived at UBC in September, 1995, all credit programs at UBC were the responsibility of the academic faculties, and ultimately Senate, whether on-campus or at a distance. DET’s role was to help the faculties develop distance education programs and ensure that in distance terms they were effective, but the academic department was responsible for the academic quality.

This meant that in most cases, full-time UBC academics were contracted by DET to develop and supervise the distance education courses. Where part-time or adjunct academics were used for development, this was with the agreement and approval of the Dean of the relevant faculty. The part-time tutors though who were the main contact with students, in terms of marking and feedback, were hired and paid by DET, but supervised ultimately by the academic faculty member.

In September, 1995, most of the distance education courses were print-based, and mainly at third of fourth year undergraduate level. Most DE students were in fact full-time students also taking courses on campus. However, classes were often capped in numbers (particularly to meet university ranking criteria) so students who had missed or failed courses earlier in their studies, or who could not get into a face to face class, were able to take additional courses at a distance. In addition, students taking OLA’s Open University courses were also enrolled in some of UBC’s for-credit distance courses.

Thus while these UBC courses were at a distance, they were not (with the exception of the OLA students) open access courses. The ownership of the DE courses by the faculties was important, as the UBC distance students took the same examinations and obtained the same qualifications as the on-campus students. No distinction was made on the degree transcript between on-campus and distance education courses.

Lastly, not all credit courses were offered through DET. Some faculties developed and distributed their own distance education courses, including for continuing professional education

This was therefore a rather messy context, in terms of the line management of distance education courses, reflecting history and different perceived needs across the university. It did though unfortunately result in considerable jostling and competition for resources, which later had serious consequences for DET.

When I first arrived, I had difficulty in finding the $1 million budget I had been promised. When Edith Kirkpatrick, my senior administrator, presented the budget to me, it had only about $200,000 directly allocated to DET. The rest was already re-allocated in blocks to different faculties or administrative units. Roughly $400,000 was re-allocated to the Faculty of Education to fly academic faculty round the province to give face-to-face classes to in-service teachers. Most of these classes had under 10 students, and many fewer than five. Another $200,000 was allocated to Media Services for the production of video for faculties, and for the print shop. Another $200,000 was used to pay the salaries of DE specialists within faculties that offered their own DE courses.

The challenge I faced was while there was a largish inventory of existing print-based courses (about 100), which needed to be maintained each year, there was little money available for new course production within DET. In particular, there was no money for the development of online courses. Also, I needed incentives to encourage new course development and the move to online learning.

It’s all about the money

First I had to free up some of the money ear-marked in past years. My first target was the $400,000 for the Faculty of Education. I had a stormy meeting with the Dean, where I informed her that I would be withholding the $400,000 for fly-in classes and re-allocating it to new online courses (for which the Faculty of Education was invited to apply). She stormed into the VP Academic’s office and threatened to resign if the money wasn’t re-instated. Dan Birch though was firm, and backed me. 

A little later, I was on a plane to Mexico with Dan to discuss the partnership with Tec de Monterrey (see the next post). He waved me up to sit in the empty seat next to him. 

‘Tony, I appreciate that you are making some big changes in distance education – that’s what we brought you on board for. But just a word of advice – before you take away half a million dollars from a dean, come and talk to me first.’

I also reduced the grant to Media Studies to reflect the move away from print materials to online learning, which did not endear me to the Director of IT Services to whom Media Services reported. He also happened to be the husband of the Dean of Education, although I didn’t know that at the time.

Developing a system of online course production and delivery

Finding enough money for a course development fund enabled me to strengthen the number of instructional designers (adding for instance Diane Janes) and hire other support staff. I made Mark Bullen responsible for co-ordinating and tracking course production. As well as existing staff, such as Beth Hawkes, Doug Cronk, Alan Doree, and Chris Crowley, we hired a web specialist (Chris Brougham) who designed the online software for students and for course production until we adopted Web CT, a student services supervisor (Cindy Underhill), and a course administrator and marketing specialist (Heather Francis). (If I have missed anyone, please let me know and my apologies.)

I set up an advisory committee with representatives from each of the faculties. Invitations were sent to every Dean to apply for funding for online course development. The Advisory Committee would agree on priorities for funding, taking some of the onus off my back for deciding which faculties should get funding. The members of the Advisory Committee also provided a useful channel of communication with their respective faculties and helped encourage course applications.

I used to take the bus from my house near West Broadway in Vancouver to UBC. The bus was always crammed with UBC students. (The 99B express bus service to UBC is the busiest bus route in North America.). The buses carry smallish advertisements above the passenger windows. We bought advertising space for an advert which said:

‘Same course, same professor, same exam – no bus ride. Take a UBC distance course from Distance Education and Technology.’ 

As a result of these various efforts, there was a rapid increase between 1996 and 2003 in the number of new, mostly online, distance education courses offered by DET. We developed on average about 10 new online courses each year so that by by 2003 there were 70 online courses out of a total of 100 active DE courses, across six faculties (Agricultural Sciences, Arts, Education, Forestry, Medicine and Nursing). Most of the roughly 5,500 students in DET courses were taking just one or two courses, so the total full-time equivalent being served by DET by 2000 was just over 700 (including OLA students taking UBC courses). Although this was just 2% of the approximately 35,000 FTEs in total at UBC at that time, we had moved most of the distance courses online, and 700 FTEs was the equivalent of a decent sized faculty.

However, I was at once both naïve and a bit of a bull in a china shop. Like any good government, I tried to do the difficult things early in my tenure, but not having worked in a conventional university before, I was ignorant of the prevailing culture. I crossed too many lines. My actions would come back to haunt me, but that is the topic of a later post.

Up next

Developing online graduate certificate and masters programs at UBC, including the partnership with Tec de Monterrey.

The story 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

A personal history: 16. NAFTA, video-conferencing and getting lost in Texas


  1. Thanx for this. At Deakin University all academics were employed by the faculties, in whatever mode they taught. Faculties bid for the allocation of resources from the distance education centre (you may recall Eric Gough), printery, library and other central units to produce or update distance education courses. Places in the distance education development schedule were allocated by a central university committee responsible for general academic planning and resource allocation.

    • Thanks, Gavin. It would be good to hear how other institutions handle the organisation of DE courses in universities and colleges, although as the boundaries become blurred between in-person and online, I suspect that fully online (i.e. distance) becomes now the responsibility wholly of the faculties.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here