Bridging digital divides

Lisa Weighton

It’s been touted as the great equalizer, promising access to information through shared online spaces—no matter who or where you are.

But does the internet actually level the playing field when it comes to learning and sharing ideas, knowledge and information?

It depends who you ask.

“Different people have different experiences online,” says Dr. George Veletsianos, Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology and professor in the School of Education and Technology.

Veletsianos’s research has uncovered social and cultural divides when it comes to online learning, and that has implications for online university courses and programs.

Although online platforms used for learning and scholarship are often purported to be democratizing forces, Veletsianos says the playing field is anything but even.

“A variety of factors—such as social networks, economic ability, and digital know-how—lead some people to benefit more than others. These are important factors we shouldn’t ignore,” says the avid blogger, who writes on topics such as online learning, student experiences, educational technologies and social media.

Since assuming the role of Canada Research Chair (CRC) in 2013, Veletsianos has focused on understanding both learners’ and scholars’ experiences using online learning platforms and social media.

Online education is one component of Royal Roads University’s learning and teaching model that makes it an attractive option for working professionals. Online learning allows students to engage in their course material while applying new skills in the workplace.

“We have a really interesting approach to education here,” Veletsianos says, referring to Royal Roads’ flexible admission criteria that acknowledge the value of both formal and informal learning.

“That flexibility is pretty important. It’s something to be proud of but we can always do better and that’s where my research fits in.”

With his CRC renewed until 2023, Veletsianos will spend the next five years learning more about the richness of online learners’ and academics’ day-to-day experiences.

“By better understanding what it truly is like to be an online student and what online students’ lives are like, we can develop programs and offerings that are better for the students, that are better for their learning, and that are more democratic in their reach,” he says.

Like students, academics also have diverse online experiences, Veletsianos says. Together with Assoc. Prof. Jaigris Hodson, he’s researching female academics’ experiences with online harassment.

He says screens and keyboards are incapable of shielding academics from gendered harassment.

“They’re experiencing harassment on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and so on, and there’s an impact not just on the scholarship itself—people might decide to stop writing about a topic because on the onslaught of harassment it invites—but there’s also a huge personal and emotional impact.”

Veletsianos and Hodson hope their research will assist institutions to develop policies that support faculty members who are attacked online.

Over the next five years, Veletsianos hopes to develop ways to improve student success online, to enhance flexible online learning, and to better understand the realities of students and scholars in order to enhance teaching and learning.