Abstract: The digital divide was once understood as a generational divide created by the challenges of integration of digital technology into daily life. As computers are becoming the basis for many educational practices, it unfolds itself as a possible educational problem, as students without access to hardware and an internet connection, or the skills to use them, and teachers trained on their effective use may be hindered. It is vital to understand and discuss this new form of inequality to address its effects.
The widespread use of computers connected to the internet is changing daily life, the way people work, socialize and even exercise their citizenship. As older generations struggle to adapt to these changing times, the concept of a digital divide stated that new vital competences are being developed, creating a generational gap. But, as times go on, these technologies eventually became central to the education itself, and the divide has to be re-conceptualized as a social division existing in the access to both Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) infrastructure and the competences and knowledge required to use them. This form of inequality can hinder the development of crucial skills to live in the digital society, even if schools start promoting digital literacy in their curricula.
We would argue that this is a critical problem that creates new learning difficulties.
First, students without digital skills may not only lack competences needed for work or social life but may also be lacking skills needed for the development of their own education. How can a student with no previous experience on the use of any kind of digital device keep up with a class that uses computers as a basic educational tool? Since, there is no single digital methodology for instruction, a single tutorial or introduction class might not be sufficient to prepare students to learn using all digital pedagogical techniques.
Second, students without access to specific technologies will not be able to experience certain methodologies and styles of learning, like multimedia resources, distance learning, simulation and virtual environments. This may cause a lack in the quality of their education since they will need to use specific unplugged methodologies and resources that may not be the most effective to their needs. It can be even more worrisome if we take an optimistic look at intelligent learning systems that can adapt themselves to the needs of their users, will students with no access to these tools be able to compete with those who have them?
The digital divide can also express itself as a competence-based divide. Even if the students have the skills and resources needed to engage in digital learning objects and platforms, sometimes teachers and other professionals may find their current methods hindered by them. Sometimes this will be caused by a lack of knowledge to operate them with confidence, but there may also be cases when the technology contradicts specific teaching methodologies or principles, its interfaces and design principles hindering, or even blocking, some practices. Once again, there is a need to address technology in education undergraduate courses promoting transversal skills that can be used in a number of different resources, freeing the teacher to work with a diversity of tools and to be creative in their use.
Finally, there is also another way the digital divide can unfold. Traditionally, a classroom can be thought of as an environment inhabited by teachers and students engaging in education. As the digital technologies enter this space, new elements are coming to the teaching and learning relationship. It is not only about competences, access to equipment and adequate methodologies, but also of responsibilities and resources to address new problems that may arise. What happens when the technology breaks? Is it acceptable for a class to be canceled because the platform stopped working? There is a divide in the access to reliable and continuous technical support, a problem that also extends itself into the working of the technology. If we take another look at intelligent systems, what are the impacts on the student education that an unknown bug or a bias in the program may cause, or even the use of a specific algorithm?
As computers and ICTs are becoming widespread in education, and sometimes a vital infrastructure, the educational digital divide must be addressed. As an example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, schools had to adapt to social distancing, and many had to improvise their remote learning practices. In Brazil, as a fifth of the population has no access to the internet and another third has a very limited access to it (sometimes through a single family-shared smartphone), the grave impacts of the pandemic were considerably worsened for a significant portion of the population because of the digital divide.