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I was born in Catherine Booth Hospital in Montreal, Quebec, Canada on April 6, 1959, the first son of Bernard and Beverly Downes. Over time I would have four younger brothers: Allan, John, Gord and Bill. For a time we lived in Notre Dame de Grace, where I attended Rosedale School. In 1965 we moved to the south shore suburb of Candiac, where I attended Champlain Elementary School. Three years later, while I was in grade four, we moved to the small town of Metcalfe, Ontario, where I completed public school at Metcalfe Public School, and most of high school at Osgoode Township High School.

In public school I excelled at public speaking, winning in Grade 5 and Grade 8. I also won the chess championship for Grade 8. In high school I won at public speaking in Grades 9, 10 and 11. I was on the debating team and the Reach for the Top (a quiz show) team. For one year I was on the high school soccer team. I was involved in model parliament (leader of the Fascism Reform Party) and a model revolution (Movement for Autocratic Organization).

I played minor hockey throughout my school years. We won the championship once when I was much too young to appreciate it, and my hockey career thereafter is undistinguished.

I began work with a newspaper route for the Ottawa Citizen in 1970, absorbing the Ottawa Journal route in 1973. My first job experience was with Versa Services, with whom I worked in a variety of restaurant related positions at Lansdowne Park (now known as Frank Claire Stadium), the Glebe Centre, and Rideau Carleton Raceway.

Working for Versa didn't pay very much, and the work was not steady, but it was enough to enable me to move to a room on James Street in Ottawa in 1978. For a while I lived with a French family, the Parents, in Hull, Quebec, while I completed my Grade 13 at Nepean High School in the evenings. I moved back into Ottawa, left Versa in a labour dispute, went on welfare, worked three months for Northern Telecom, went on UIC, got a job as a security guard with National Protective Services, got a student loan, and enrolled at Algonquin College in the Computer Certificate program.

I learned some mechanics, electricity, chemistry, technical writing and a little Pascal. I survived for the year despite a running battle with the Ontario Student Loan Assistance program, got tired of abject poverty, and in May of 1980 moved to Calgary to get a job.

Which I got three days later with Geophysical Services Incorporated, a division of Texas Instruments, on the strength of my year in college. I started at G.S.I. as a computer operator and after a few months became the operations trainer. I wrote two training manuals while in this position and spent three months in Texas on an extended training course.

When it became clear that my advancement in G.S.I. was blocked by a lack of a university degree, I enrolled at the University of Calgary in 1981 as a physics major. I joined the staff of the student newspaper almost immediately. Mathematics was my downfall and the following year I switched majors to philosophy. I made a run at Student Council in 1982 but my undergraduate years would be dominated by the Gauntlet.

After a year on the staff of the Gauntlet I became the sports editor and covered the University of Calgary's first ever football championship. I was sent to a number of Canadian University Press conferences and became C.U.P. western region vice president in 1983. In December of 1983 I was elected co-editor, and in April of 1984 I was elected for a second term.

April of 1985 found me fighting with the Student Finance Board, but looking at only twelve months to get my degree, so I focussed on my studies and earned a BA in Philosophy with First Class Honours in Philosophy in June, 1986. This included a perfect 4.0 GPA in the fall of 1985 (only one course, a logic course, ruined a perfect winter session as well).

I finished my Masters in one year, riding on the focus from my preceding year and on the financial support of a graduate assistantship and two summer jobs in the field of developent education. The latter, at the Arusha Center and the Development Education Coordinating Council of Alberta, saw me coordinate a variety of educational programs and author three manuscripts, two of which were accepted for publication by DECCA.

While pursuing my Masters I also sat on the Graduate Representative Council and chaired the Ad-Hoc Budget Cuts Committee. We played a significant role in the 5,000-strong anti-cutbacks demonstration in 1987 and occupied the administration building. When I went to the University of Alberta that fall to pursue my PhD I immediately joined the Graduate Students' Association, being elected Publications Coordinator in 1987 and VP Communications in 1988.

While at the University of Calgary I was interviewed for a tutoring position with Athabasca University, and in October of 1987, in Edmonton, I was hired to teach Critical Thinking by distance education. My introduction to Athabasca University was also my introduction to the internet, beginning with email and later moving on to much more.

At the University of Alberta I completed my PhD coursework in one year, moving on to my comprehensive examinations in the next. These took me 18 months to complete, with one failure. After assisting and teaching logic for three years, the logic requirement was accomplished in one day. I had several papers accepted for publication and presentation at conferences.

In March of 1989 I was elected president of the Graduate Students' Association, and hence to the Board of Governors and a variety of other committees. I was re-elected in 1990. The GSA was an activist body, and in 1991 we sued the University for $860,000, eventually winning at the Alberta Court of Appeals two years later. We also organized a rally of 5,000 students for education funding on a -26 degree March fifth.

I completed my PhD candidacy exam in 1991, but not without some controversy, as my first proposal was rejected by the committee. I later turned in a proposal more to the committee's liking, but I was never devoted to it (I was devoted to my first proposal) and my dissertation lapsed as I got more involved in teaching and politics.

Continuing to teach with Athabasca University, in 1993 I moved to Grande Prairie to teach at Grande Prairie Regional College for a year. After a very successful year, I moved to a small log cabin in Eaglesham, about an hour and a half north of Grande Prairie, to focus on my work with Athabasca University. This bit of pastoral living lasted six months, at the end of which I was advised of a job too good to pass up on, and was accepted by Assiniboine Community College as a distance education design specialist.

In 1995, my first year in Brandon, I ran for mayor, losing rather badly, tried to start a Freenet, and joined the Board of the Social Planning Council. At the college, I designed the web site, trained staff in the internet, wrote a feasibility study for online learning, and developed the fifteen course General Business Certificate for distance delivery. The following year I led the team which produced Manitoba's first web-based course, Introduction to Instruction. I also developed Stephen's Guide to the Logical Fallacies based on some class notes I had written in Grande Prairie.

In subsequent years I focussed on internet course delivery, authoring a number of essays and articles on the subject, including Effective Interaction and Communication in Online Courses and How to Create a (Dynamic) HTML Course. I developed a model of online learning, The Assiniboine Model, which served as the foundation for a PERL-based course delivery system, Online Learning Environment (OLe). I served as Chair of the NAWeb Awards committee for three years.

Late in 1996 I moved from my downtown apartment to a gingerbread cottage house; having three bedrooms meant my cat got her own room. The following fall, I broke my ankle playing volleyball and hobbled around town (and through several airports) on crutches. In February of 1998 I travelled across the country by bus to attend my father's funeral. On St. Patrick's Day, 1998, I married Andrea Cummins in a small ceremony in the house. I had met Andrea online while living in northern Alberta; she moved from San Francisco to Grand Forks, and thence (after being caught in the Flood of the Century) to Brandon.

1997 and 1998 were busy years as we at Assiniboine developed a number of online courses, including an introduction to Computer Systems course, high school English, Mathematics and World Issues courses, Introduction to Accounting and Customer Service. I travelled a lot, visiting almost every major Canadian city at least once to give presentations, attend conferences, or tour distance learning facilities. In the summer of 1998 I wrote The Future of Online Learning. The essay received a widespread and favourable reaction, much to my surprise.

In need of a wider canvas and more institutional support than Assiniboine could provide, I began looking for another position in the fall of 1998 and in February of the following year was offered a position at the University of Alberta's Academic Technologies for Learning as an Information Architect. I accepted the position and the responsibility of designing a major online community, Muni Mall.

10 March 1996
Updated 15 August 1997
Updated 15 April 1999