Thompson Rivers University’s Open Learning Division, known informally as Open Learning (OL), is celebrating its 40th anniversary. OL has been around in different forms since 1978, when it was established as the Open Learning Institute (OLI) in the province of British Columbia, Canada. OLI was inspired in large part by the model established roughly a decade earlier at the UK Open University, including the use of distance education print packages, educational broadcast television and course development teams and technologists to make education more widely available to those who were unable, for a variety of reasons, to attend a university campus.
OLI was established by BC’s Social Credit government — known for its unique flavor of western Canadian right wing populism of that era — in part to address geographical isolation and other circumstances that prevented attendance at regular post-secondary institutions across the province. The advanced education minister at the time, Dr. Patrick McGeer, promoted the idea that broadcast media and other technologies could have an important role to play in higher education. Along with being an accomplished physician, neuroscientist and UBC university professor, as well as a controversial politician, he had an experimental mindset and advocated for an open sky policy promoting better access to satellite television signals, and built his own personal satellite dish out of plywood and wire mesh to encourage British Columbians to do the same in an act described in the provincial legislative assembly debate record as “a little civil disobedience.”
While his push for an open sky satellite signal policy was perhaps related mostly to federal-provincial relations and an anti-regulatory mindset, his interests seemed to align well with the need for better access to higher education across BC. The complex and turbulent educational, social and political context of these early years is well told in a journal article by long-time open and distance education researcher Dr. Louise Moran.
My earliest work in open and distance learning was at the original OLI building, soon after it opened in a converted warehouse in Richmond, BC, where we designed and developed a variety of distance education course packages in course teams, burrowed among cubicles on the second floor of this industrial site, with airplanes roaring overhead in their approach to Vancouver International Airport. It was one of those areas where you could get your coffee and morning donut from a coffee truck that blew a loud horn as it rolled into the parking lot.
At the time we worked on Wang mainframe system terminals, plunking away on heavy monitors with flickering green screens.
Our course teams consisted of instructional designers, content experts, editors, proofreaders, graphic artists, typographers, media specialists and technicians in the print shop. While our courses were largely print based – we paid a lot of attention to page layout and design – we also used video and audio cassettes, experimented with radio, and had access to late night television broadcasts.
Of course this was long before the introduction of the Internet; courses went out through the postal service in pizza boxes, containing any or all of a bundle of bound booklets, manuals, textbooks, video or audio cassettes, and other such resources required to complete a course. Personal computers were even sent to students who were studying computer programming.
Since those early days, Open Learning has been through many changes, ups and downs, including a stint as the BC Open Learning Agency, which operated the BC Open University. These developments culminated in its merger with the University College of the Cariboo as part of the formation of today’s Thompson Rivers University. And that is where I returned around eight years ago to spend the latter part of my career in higher education and distance/open education.
Today Open Learning has 13,000 students online, and implements an impressive variety of open educational practices such as the use of OER including open textbooks, open access courses and programs, experimenting with open tools and pedagogies, asking for minimal prerequisites and residency requirements and supporting a highly regarded prior learning assessment and recognition policy.
This story could go on a lot longer, but I’ll just leapfrog to the present and conclude by congratulating Open Learning and its amazing faculty and staff for their huge contributions to learners and open educators in BC, across Canada, and around the world. I’m glad to have been part of it, both early on and most recently. May the next forty years for Open Learning be even better.