Image: Wikipedia/Tony Bates, 2024

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 challenge 

It is one thing to develop individual online courses (see previous post), but it is quite another order of magnitude to develop a fully online degree program, especially in a conventional, prestigious, campus-based university. (UBC is ranked in the top 40 universities world-wide and second in Canada after the University of Toronto.)

The book that I thought I had lost when my computer was stolen in Britain as I was leaving for Canada was eventually published by Routledge in 1995 as Technology, Open Learning and Distance Education. That year it won the Charles A. Wedemeyer Award for the most distinguished book on distance education.

Just before leaving OLA, I had been approached by senior staff at Tec de Monterrey in Mexico for permission to translate the book into Spanish. Tec de Monterrey is a major private university in Mexico that aspires to be the equivalent of MIT in the USA. Almost as soon as I arrived at UBC, I was then approached again by Tec de Monterrey. They had been contracted by the Mexican Federal Government to develop a master’s program on educational technology for school teachers. Would UBC, and in particular, DET, be interested in developing five courses for the program, with Tec de Monterrey developing the other five? Also, Tec de Monterrey was interested in a broader partnership with UBC, that would include exchange of faculty and students. This agreement was later agreed at a President to President level.

Most non-credit courses were offered by and the responsibility of Continuing Studies. These did not have to go to Senate for approval, provided that they were approved by the relevant Faculty, and Continuing Studies was free to employ its own instructors, often drawn from industry. This enabled Continuing Studies to be more flexible in its curriculum and meet more directly the immediate needs of employers. It also specialised in areas such as English as a Second Language, which were not offered by the mainline faculties. All Continuing Education courses had to be at least cost-recoverable and preferably profit-making.

I held a meeting with Dan Birch, the V.P. Academic, and Walter Uegama, AVP Continuing Studies, and offered to use DET staff to develop initially a self-financing post-graduate certificate in distributed learning through Continuing Studies that could be shared with Tec de Monterrey. DET would design and deliver the five courses in English, and Tec de Monterrey would translate and deliver the five DET courses in Mexico, and add five more courses of their own to develop a Mexican Master in Educational Technology. Staff from DET, such as Mark Bullen, Diane Janes, and myself would design and deliver the courses. The revenues from the courses would enable me to hire more instructional designers to backfill for our time.

However, Dan Birch advised that from the beginning, DET should get the support of the Faculty of Education and in particular, get the Faculty to academically approve the post-graduate certificate courses from the start. Fortunately, I had allies in Education, in particular professors in Educational Studies such as Dan Pratt, Kjell Rubenson, Hans Schuetze, and Roger Boshier, who were aware of and understood the importance of distance education for adult and lifelong learners, and who were in fact developing their own international distance education program in adult education. 

Reasons for the success of the certificate program

The Post-Graduate Certificate in Technology-Based Distributed Learning turned out to be very successful, for a number of reasons:

  • there was growing demand from post-secondary instructors, school teachers and governments for courses or programs in educational technology, but staff in many faculties of education (including UBC at the time) were either uninterested in or directly opposed to the use of technology for teaching, so there were almost no online programs available world-wide in this area when the certificate was launched in 1996;
  • also the program was available at a distance, online, and asynchronous, so could be taken from anywhere. Indeed, over half of the first cohort of students were international students from all round the world, besides the Mexican students (who were for the most part taught by Tec de Monterrey staff);
  • the program had the cachet of being from UBC and was designed by professionals in the field of learning design and distance education within DE, who were very enthusiastic about the program and who worked hard to make it a success;
  • the partnership with Tec de Monterrey provided a door to Latin America, limited risk by cost-sharing, and provided extra political support for the program within UBC;
  • the certificate courses were open; anyone could enrol. Students were warned that their English should be good and they would be examined at a high university level in order to obtain the certificate; in fact, most students who enrolled already had at least a bachelor’s degree;
  • students could ‘audit’ individual courses without having to enrol in the whole certificate program, but could accumulate all five courses into the certificate, if they wished;
  • The Faculty of Education accepted the five courses, once approved, for credit in their regular campus-based Master in Education, as long as students were already enrolled in the existing UBC Master of Education program, i.e. they met the university’s graduate admissions criteria.

A multi-cultural challenge

Nearly all the students enrolled in the post-graduate certificate program turned out to be of very high quality. Teaching the courses was fascinating with such a mix of international students and raised a number of multi-cultural issues.

In one course I was teaching, there were more than 20 students with Chinese names. A particularly important part of the course (on planning and managing distance education) was the online discussion forum. I noticed that a small sub-group of about five Chinese students were not participating, despite my requesting each individually to participate. No marks were given for participation but the topics were ones on which the examinations would be set.

Fortunately, DET was hosting a foreign scholar from China, who was taking a sabbatical from an Inner Mongolian Teachers College where she was the Dean. She pointed out that all five students were located in mainland China and being mature students had probably grown up during the Cultural Revolution. and were therefore reluctant to offer opinions or criticise others. (It turned out that the 20 or so students with Chinese names ranged from Canadian students whose families had been in Canada for generations, more recent immigrants from mainland China, students living in Hong Kong, and the five students from mainland China. It was not possible then to treat them all as a single group).

The visiting scholar suggested that I should invite the five mainland students to get together (online) to compose a group response to the discussion topic to be sent first to me for my approval before it was published in the group forum. For the following topic, they should each submit by email an individual response to me for approval, then for the third topic they should directly post their own contributions. This worked perfectly.

In contrast, the Mexican students (some of whom chose to take the English version from UBC) were in general enthusiastic online discussion participants, although not always on topic, so I set up a separate online ‘cafe’ so students could discuss anything they wanted without diverting from the academic topics for discussion. (Football/soccer was a topic that was popular across many countries.) It should be remembered that this was long before Facebook or other social media.

Logistical problems

Although the courses were online, the courses also depended heavily on students reading conventional printed material, such as textbooks and journal articles (many of which were not online at this time). Getting this printed material to international students on time for their studies was a major logistical hurdle. Sometimes the materials were held up in customs, or publishers were slow in meeting orders for international delivery. UBC was not set up for handling payment from students located abroad. For this reason it was decided to roll the cost of materials and the student fee into one payment. This required a DET administrator then to manage both the financial and the logistical challenges.

On one occasion, I received an assignment a few days late from a student in Serbia, with the following apology:

‘I’m sorry my assignment was late but I was without electricity for five days as NATO planes bombed the local power station.’  

She successfully completed the course, eventually emigrating to Canada and becoming Director of Learning Design in the Faculty of Education at UBC.

Developing the Master in Educational Technology

By 2000, the PGCE program was so successful that DET and many of the students wanted UBC to extend it into a full Master of Educational Technology program, by adding a further five more advanced or specialist courses to the five core courses.

However this would turn it into a UBC credit program, and would need to be approved by both the Faculty of Education and the Faculty of Graduate Studies. It would also require the Faculty of Education to take responsibility for the program and for the students to meet the Faculty of Graduate Studies admission requirements. Even though students had passed all the certificate course examinations, they would not be allowed to take the Master’s program if they did not meet the Faculty of Graduate Studies’ admission requirements, which were very strict and limiting. This immediately resulted in the loss of many foreign students once the master’s program was approved by Graduate Studies.

There followed almost four years of maneouvering the program through the Faculty of Education and the Faculty of Graduate Studies. Although several faculty in the Department of Educational Studies were supportive, in other departments there were some faculty who were strongly opposed. The objections were of several kinds:

  1. The proposed five core courses (from the post-graduate certificate) had been developed by staff in Continuing Studies, who were therefore not considered qualified to offer education courses (despite the fact that I was an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Education, and Mark Bullen had earned his Ph.D. from the Faculty of Education).
  2. Some faculty were opposed to the need for a Master of Educational Technology. They did not see it as a priority for the Faculty, and feared it would take staff and resources away from their own program areas.
  3. There was a fear that there was high financial risk for launching an online program in this area.
  4. The students in the certificate program (particularly the international students) were seen as a problem. Many did not meet the admission criteria for graduate school at UBC, because they did not have the necessary Canadian qualifications.
  5. Some faculty had ideological or philosophical objections to a program on educational technology. In particular, some criticised the certificate courses as being too ‘functional and logical-technical’; they were not sufficiently ‘deconstructional’. Although it was correct that the certificate courses focused on the how and what of technology-based teaching, it was argued that by expanding to a master’s program the issues of why technology should – or should not – be used for teaching and the social implications could be addressed across the remaining five courses, which would in any case be the responsibility of the Faculty of Education.

In all, over 20 meetings involving nearly all the faculty in Education were held before the Master of Educational Technology program was approved. One faculty member launched a formal grievance with the BC Labour Relations Board, because when the final meeting was held that voted to go ahead with the program, she was away on sabbatical in Australia and could not attend (the grievance was dismissed, but not without a lot of time and energy expended). Nevertheless, although DET staff contributed to some courses for many years, the program became fully adopted by the Faculty of Education, and opened in 2002.

Success factors

DET had conducted a careful market analysis and found there were no equivalent online master’s programs in educational technology at that time in North America, and only one on-campus program in Canada (at Concordia University in Québec).

I had also developed a detailed business plan for the program. It assumed the same fee as for on-campus graduate students. The full cost of developing and delivering courses was included. The business plan allowed for the hiring of new tenured professors, either to teach the new program or to back-fill for existing staff, and identified the break-even number of students each year needed to cover all costs. If these numbers were exceeded, the university agreed the profit would go to the Faculty of Education, not into general revenues. UBC generally charged overheads of 40% for cost-recovery programs, but I went through the university’s overhead charges line-by-line, and got the figure down for a fully online program to 20 per cent, arguing that line items for campus heating and lighting and building maintenance, for example, did not apply to distance students.

As well as providing strong support overall, Dan Birch also helped specifically at a critical point. Because of the up-front costs of developing online courses, there was a financial gap between the cost of developing programs and the collection of fees for the course. For a full program, that meant finding almost $500,000 which would then be covered when the students arrived.

Dan suggested I go with him and talk to UBC Treasury. I had never heard of the UBC Treasury, but apparently, UBC always had a fair amount of unspent funds waiting for building permits or to be spent on research which had not yet started. UBC’s Treasury invested these funds in short-term government bonds. The Treasurer met with Dan and me, and agreed to make available up to $500,000 at 5% interest to be repaid within one year. This would take all the financial risk of the program off the shoulders of the Faculty of Education. As it happened, the money was never used as it took almost a year for the first year costs to be paid, by which time the tuition fees had been processed, but the ‘loan’ was an essential tool for getting the Faculty of Education to approve the program.

The MET was launched in 2002, and has been a great success ever since. It held its 20th anniversary in 2022 when it reported that MET students located in 61 different countries have earned 1324 graduate degrees and 251 graduate certificates.

At the same time that the MET was launched, the Department of Educational Studies also launched an online Master in Adult Learning and Education, in partnership with several international universities. As well as the MET, DET worked with several other faculties to develop fully cost-recoverable online masters’ programs, for example in Rehabilitation Sciences and in Creative Writing.

More importantly, the MET program challenged UBC to develop full business models for new programs (and not just online ones), and to adjust its admission policies, library and administrative procedures for students living abroad, which prepared it well for the later influx of foreign students on campus.


For a more detailed account of the partnership with Tec de Monterrey for the joint certificate and master’s program, see

Bates, A.W and Escamilla de los Santos, J. (1997) “Crossing Boundaries: Making Global Distance Education a reality” Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 12, No.1/2.

For details of the business plan for the MET, see:

Bates, A. and Sangrà, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley, pp. 162-179

Up next 

  • Research in online and distance education at UBC, 1996-2003
  • developing policy and strategies for educational technology at UBC

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

A personal history: 17. Innovation in distance education at UBC


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