02/01/2013 04:16 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

Digital Exclusion in the Chicago Public Schools

I initially wanted to congratulate Chicago Public Schools on its social media campaign celebrated by Crain's Chicago Business. After a slow start, I was happy to see that my tax dollars were being used to reach out to the community. CPS used Twitter and other web-based tools to boost the number of people running in Local School Council Elections.

March saw a dearth of candidates running for seats on Chicago's local school councils - 2,060 people running for more than 6,000 spots. Through Twitter, someone suggested creating a Web app that marks the areas still in need of candidates, so CPS got to work.

It's important to note that besides the mayor, the only democratically elected school decision makers are members of Local School Councils. These bodies budget schools' discretionary spending, hire principals, and determine curricula. The elections are open to any Chicago resident meeting very basic criteria.

After thinking deeply about it, I found the accolades for this campaign problematic. As a social media community organizer, I understand the limits of its capacity. Local School Councils consist of members of school communities. If potential users are not opting into the information stream, they are left out. For many, opting in is almost impossible.

Eighty-seven percent of CPS students come from low-income families. Many of these families have no access to Internet or computers.

According to the New York Times:

[A] mere 4 out of every 10 households with annual household incomes below $25,000 in 2010 reported having wired Internet access at home, compared with the vast majority -- 93 percent -- of households with incomes exceeding $100,000.

CPS' website states 41.6 percent of CPS students are African-American and 44.1 percent are Latino. According to the same New York Times article,

Only slightly more than half of all African-American and Hispanic households (55 percent and 57 percent, respectively) have wired Internet access at home, compared with 72 percent of whites.

Large swaths of the CPS community did not receive these tweets. I will give CPS the benefit of the doubt when it reports that the Twitter campaign sparked the renewed interest in the elections, but if that is the case, CPS' methods could have effectively gentrified Local School Councils. When social media is used aggressively for community outreach without a plan for old-fashioned door knocking and phone banking, nearly half of the intended population is left out.

For those who want to stay informed but do not have Internet access, public libraries are an alternative. However, major cuts to the library budget place limitations on that resource. 160 Chicago Public Schools do not even have libraries. Where can people go to get access to what is supposed to be public information?

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about families without Internet turning to Wi-Fi provided by fast food chains. The cost of information could become diabetes and obesity.

This is not to say that social media cannot be an effective tool for community engagement. However, it needs to be part of a larger campaign that engages those without Internet access. With information constantly churned out, those without access are not connected to the rest of the world, which is a great disadvantage.

The bigger issue with digital discrimination and schools is how it affects student learning.

Nick Pandolfo, writing for the Hechinger Report, interviewed staff at one Chicago Public High School,

The Bronzeville Scholastic Institute ninth-graders were working on writing assignments in the school's homework lab, whose 24 computers are shared by nearly a thousand students from the three schools that occupy DuSable High School's campus on the South Side.

Bronzeville Scholastic Academy's student body is 99 percent African-American and 87 percent low income.

This problem is exacerbated by CPS's testing culture. Standardized tests are typically taken on computers. When a school has one computer lab, which is common in CPS, testing monopolizes it for weeks at a time.

This is no way to prepare students for the world of fast-paced information transmission. They need digital skills for college, the workforce and for basic survival.

Technology is great when it is used to connect people, but can be detrimental when used for its own sake. It's even more dangerous when it is used to exclude people who already feel ignored.