• by Laurie Posner, MPA • IDRA Newsletter • August 2006 • Laurie Posner

Public engagement in public institutions is central to a thriving democracy. And it is the lynchpin of thriving neighborhood public schools. Gold, Simon and Brown suggest in Strong Neighborhoods, Strong Schools the transformation of public schools “will neither come about nor be sustained unless there is authentic parent and community engagement in reform” (2002).

When communities partner with schools, benefits can include upgraded school facilities, improved school leadership and staffing, higher quality learning programs, new resources to improve curricula and teaching, resources for after-school programs, and enhanced social and political capital among participants (Mediratta and Fruchter, 2001; Gold, Simon and Brown, 2002; Mapp, 2002).

Americans consistently rank education as a top national priority. It stands to reason, then, that public engagement can be a major force in strengthening schools.

Over just two decades, new information and communication technologies – the Internet, e-mail, listservs, web sites – have become a fact of life. Computer-mediated communication is changing not only the landscape of learning, but also the ways in which many parents and community members interact with one another and with their schools.

In the midst of school reform, new communication technologies have taken root within and beyond educational settings and are already informing change. Will these technologies support or diminish public engagement in schools? Will they help communities advance a vision for excellent public schools for all children? What lessons for school reform can be drawn from the broader debate on the role of new communication technologies in public life?

Net Worth: Is the Internet a Tool for Public Engagement?

In 2005, about 79 percent of people in the United States went online, spending an average of 13.5 hours a week on the Internet (Center for the Digital Future, 2005).

For many, the Internet is an unprecedented tool for gathering information and connecting with a broad social network. A majority of users consider the Internet their “most important source of information” (Cole, 2003). An estimated 60 million people in this country use online communication to gain input for making major life decisions (Boase, et al., 2006).

A survey of locally-elected public officials found that some 73 percent of online officials report that e-mail exchanges with constituents “help them better understand public opinion.” More that half (54 percent) say that “their use of e-mail has brought them into contact with citizens from whom they had not heard before” (Pew, 2002). Further, Internet users are far more likely than non-users to contact government officials (Horrigan, 2004).

While serious inequities persist, demographic patterns of Internet use are undergoing rapid shifts, in some cases closing gaps among the gender, race and ethnicity of current and new users (Fox, 2005). School-age children are leading this trend. By 2003, nine out of 10 children living in households with a computer used it (Day, Janus and Davis, 2005). A March 2006 student walkout for immigrants’ rights was largely orchestrated by text messaging and messages on myspace.com, a social networking web site that includes interactive networking, blogs and e-mails (Gonzalez and Gonzales, 2006).

Fueling or Depleting Community Engagement?

The advent of the Internet and its use as a means to facilitate civic engagement are relatively new social enterprises. While some theorists argue that “notions of [electronic] interactivity” have existed for at least four decades (Stromer-Galley and Foot, 2002), many date the emergence of an active, dynamic medium – the world wide web and studies on the Internet and public engagement – to the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Regarding the role of new communication technologies in the nourishment or decline of civic life, three general schools of thought have emerged. These can be loosely grouped as (1) “cyber-optimism,” (2) “cyber-skepticism,” and (3) “it’s too soon to tell.”

Cyber-optimists hail new communication technologies as new channels of communication that strengthen ties between citizens, civic and democratic institutions (Norris, 2001). Porto suggests that, from its infancy, the Internet’s founders recognized the potential for this medium to be used to promote social impact (2003).

Chew’s case studies on citizen empowerment document an increase in activism by residents involved in a community listserv addressing local public policy (2003). Katz and Aspden found that Internet users are more likely than non-users to engage in political activity (1998). Uslaner notes, “Rather than being a substitute for human connectivity, computer communications may well enhance… involvement [and] community” (2004).

Cyber-optimists note that as Internet use has expanded, so too have promising examples of web-based tools, products and initiatives designed to facilitate public engagement and meet the needs of under-served communities. These include the development of online library resources; transit services; support groups, unions and associations; job training and employment resources; childcare resources; and community calendars that serve as hubs of local information.

Many point to the emergence of new expressions of social capital and the proliferation of online activism as clear signposts of the benefit of citizen “connectivity.” Nachison, for example, reports that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, “The Internet became a disaster lifeline for evacuees” (2005).

Others note that the network of community technology centers around the country has expanded access not only to hardware, software and training but also to online literacy programs, multilingual web sites, portals, listservs, and blogs authored by youth, educators, parent groups and community leaders to serve their neighborhoods and communities.

Cyber-optimists also outline serious concerns about digital divides that prevent full civic participation by everyone and seek solutions to these inequities. They find hope for e-democracy in the increasing affordability of personal computers and the growing availability of new communication technologies in public spaces, such as schools, libraries and museums.

Cyber-skeptics, by contrast, argue that not only will the use of communication technologies do little to increase public engagement, it may even be the cause of disengagement (Norris, 2001; Kraut, et al., 1998). Seen to extend the pernicious effects of television, skeptics argue, the Internet will further “isolate us from others” and promote a society of “misanthropes who need to get a life beyond their computer screens” (Uslaner, 2004).

Kraut, et al., find the Internet “adversely affects social involvement and psychological well-being.” Collaborating on a survey with National Geographic magazine, Wellman, et al., find that while e-citizenship enhances some forms of civic participation, this tends to occur mainly among those who are already politically active, rather than to energize currently inactive citizens (2003).

Noveck also finds “no noticeable improvement in the democratic quality of political institutions” in “wired societies” but suggests that it may be possible to promote democracy if web sites are “architected” with these goals in mind (2000).

Further, some researchers suggest that the demographics of Internet use not only mirror existing social and economic disparities, but exacerbate them. Despite dramatic growth of the medium, as of June 2005, more than one third of U.S. adults had not gone online, many citing cost as a principal reason (Fox, 2005). Some note that while trends in Internet use are rapidly changing, e-citizenship is still more often exercised by White, middle-age males, who are relatively more educated and affluent, than by other demographic groups (Boase, et al., 2006).

In From the ‘Digital Divide’ to ‘Digital Inequality:’ Studying Internet Use as Penetration Increases, DiMaggio and Hargittai point out that the notion of a “digital divide” has been too narrowly focused on technical means, such as hardware, software and connectivity, when in fact, divisions also are shaped by a community’s access to training, support and unrestricted use (2001). Until the nation addresses these patterns of exclusion, some argue, the Internet will not be a net, but a snare, entangling us more deeply in longstanding patterns of inequality.

A third school thought that it’s-too-soon-to-tell suggests that new kinds of civic engagement facilitated by online technologies cannot be measured using traditional yardsticks. This position argues that the use of such technologies spurs new individual behaviors and social interactions not yet captured by traditional measures of engagement and political participation (Johansson, 2003).

Johansson argues that it may not be the case that civic engagement is in decline, but rather that “citizens have found alternative, new arenas for channeling their commitment and engagement.” To the extent that these alternatives are expressed electronically, Johansson suggests that traditional terms and measures both for the participation and use of technology may be inadequate.

Garton suggests that research on human-computer interaction, online person-to-person interaction, and computer-supported communication among small user groups misses the most important unit of analysis – the social network (1997). In early work on this observation, Garton suggested that information on social networks and computer-mediated communication must be collected by a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods, including questionnaires, interviews, diaries, observations and computer monitoring.

Work by Porto, Norris, Johansson and others proposes that questions about civic engagement, democracy and the Internet require a new, conjoined theory with new definitions, frameworks, measures and terms. Proposed hybridized names for this approach include: “the information society,” “the network society,” “electronic public sphere,” “electronic democracy” or “virtual political system.”

Fisher and Wright suggest that discourse surrounding the Internet can only be evaluated in light of the phenomenon of “cultural lag,” or gap, between the adoption of a new technology and our understanding of its impact (2001). Fisher cautions that cultural lag tends to engender “extreme and unrealistic interpretations of technology” that can cloud perceptions and research. Quoting Arterton’s work, Musso, et al., argue that debates about computer-mediated communication and democratic participation have “advanced little [because] ‘the causal connection between technology and political effects is so nebulous’” (1999).

Bringing School Reform Online

What can be gleaned from this debate about using new information and communication technology in school reform?

The cyber-optimistic view would suggest that new technologies offer tremendous potential for school reform and we should forge ahead in developing them to serve this end. This view posits that the Internet, even at this early stage, has facilitated precisely the kind of information-gathering, community linkages and action that school reform requires. By pro-actively developing these communication tools, communities and educators can share data on how children are doing in their local neighborhood public schools, develop networks that support communication and planning and assess how various reforms are influencing children’s achievement.

Cyber-optimism would have us craft new models of interactive technology that put school data directly in the hands of educators, community members, and parents and create online resources to facilitate and support partnerships for reform.

Cyberskepticism might temper a premature or overly-optimistic view about using new communication technologies to support reform. The cyber-skeptical view points out that communication technologies can never be a panacea, that information-sharing is only one facet of engagement, and that school reform efforts that rely solely on web-based communication risk disenfranchising the very communities that are now least well served.

Noting that any kind of communication technology shapes the nature of communication itself, the cyber-skeptical view warns against the risks of trading mouse-clicks for meetings and isolating education stakeholders when they most need to get together in the courthouse, classroom or school board meeting.

The viewpoint that the “jury is still out” would suggest that we have much more to learn about technology, community engagement and whether and how they impact school reform. This view implies that the use of online tools to support school reform might generate new forms of action and interaction, for example, by coalitions of constituents and diverse networks.

This “too-soon-to-tell” position emphasizes the need to measure the impact of multi-faceted, online efforts to ensure that they produce meaningful outcomes, for example, in education policy, school capacity and student outcomes.

Networking for Action

Collective action for school reform extends from a family’s and community’s inherent strengths, relational power, and capacity to strengthen schools, promote accountability and support positive change (Gold, Simon and Brown, 2002).

New communication technologies have tremendous potential to support such action, but only if they are pro-actively designed for this end. Such a design must, at minimum: (1) be a model of inclusion, ensuring that new tools are accessible to and authored by a full spectrum of adult, student, cross-race and cross-sector stakeholders – combining in-person gatherings with online connectivity to expand public access and participation; (2) be a portal to credible, high quality data and information that can focus community-school planning for reform and assessment of outcomes; (3) close communication gaps – rather than create or deepen divides – and join efforts to bridge gaps in access and use, through, for example, community-based technology centers; and (4) serve a civic – not commercial or ideological – vision for schools and children.


Boase, J., and J. Horrigan, B. Wellman and L. Rainie. The Strength of Internet Ties (Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet and American Life Project, January 25, 2006).

Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School (2005).

Chew, F. “Using Internet Polling as a Means of Civic Engagement for Policy Decisions” (Zurich, Switzerland: World Association for Public Opinion Research Conference on Polls, Public Opinion and Policy, June 2003).

Cole, J.I. The UCLA Internet Report – “Surveying the Digital Future” (Los Angeles, Calif,: UCLA Center for Communication Policy, February 2003).

Day, J.C., and A. Janus J. Davis. “Computer Use and the Internet in 2003,” special studies, Current Population Reports (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, October 2005).

DiMaggio, P., and E. Hargittai. “From the ‘Digital Divide’ to ‘Digital Inequality’: Studying Internet Use as Penetration Increases,” working paper (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 2001).

Fisher, D., and L.M. Wright. “On Utopias and Dystopias: Toward an Understanding of the Discourse Surrounding the Internet,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (January 2001) 6(2).

Fox, S. Digital Divisions (Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet and American Life Project, October 5, 2005).

Garton, L., and C. Haythornthwaite, B. Wellman. “Studying Online Social Networks,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (June 1997) 6(2).

Gold, E., and E. Simon, C. Brown. Strong Neighborhoods, Strong Schools (Chicago, Ill.: Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, 2002).

Gonzalez, H., and E. Gonzales. “Young People Bring New Energy to Immigrant Rights Movement,” New America Media (April 3, 2006).

Johansson, Y. “Civic Engagement in Change – The Role of the Internet” (Edinburgh, UK: European Consortium for Political Research, 2003).

Katz, J.E., and P. Aspden. “Social and Public Policy Internet Research: Goals and Achievements,” presentation (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 1998).

Kraut, R., and M. Patterson, V. Lundmark, S. Kiesler, T. Mukopadhyay, W. Scherlis. “Internet Paradox: A Social Technology that Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Wellbeing?” American Psychological Association (Pittsburgh, Pa., Human Computer Interaction Institute, September 1998) Vol 53, No 9.

Mapp, K.L. “Having Their Say: Parents Describe How and Why They are Involved in their Children’s Education,” paper presentation (New Orleans, La.: American Educational Research Association, 2002).

Mediratta, K., and N. Fruchter. (2001). “Mapping the Field of Organizing for School Improvement: A Report on Education Organizing in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, the Mississippi Delta, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.” (New York, N.Y.: The Institute for Education and Social Policy, New York University, 2001).

Musso, J., and C. Weare, M. Hale. Designing Web Technologies for Local Governance Reform: Good Management or Good Democracy? (April 1999) 17(1).

Nachison, A. “Social Capital in the Connected Society,” The Evaluation Exchange (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Family Research Project, Fall 2005).

Norris, P. “Can the Internet Change the National Distribution of Power and Income?” (Cambridge, Mass.: John F. Kennedy School of Government, 2001).

Noveck, B.S. “Paradoxical Partners: Electronic Communication and Electronic Democracy,” Democratization (2000) 7(1), 18-35.

Pew Internet and American Life Project. “Demographics of Internet Users,” tracking survey (September 2005).

Porto, L. “The Internet as a Tool for Community Organizing and Democratic Participation” (2003)

Stromer-Galley, J., and K.A. Foot. “Citizen Perceptions of Online Interactivity and Implications for Political Campaign Communication,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (October 2002) 8(1).

Uslaner, E.M. “Civic Engagement and the Internet” (College Park, Md.: University of Maryland, Department of Government and Politics, 2004).

Wellman, B., and J. Boase, W. Chen, K. Hampton, A. Quan-Haase, I. Diaz de Isla. “Networking Community: The Internet in Everyday Life” (NetLab, Centre for Urban and Community Studies, University of Toronto, 2003).

Laurie Posner, MPA, is a special assistant to the IDRA executive director. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at: feedback@idra.org

[©2006, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2006 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]