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Student Data & Privacy

Autopsy for the Failure That Was inBloom

 Autopsy for the Failure That Was inBloom

When the well financed organization inBloom shuttered its doors just a year after its official launch, many in the ed tech industry were surprised. How could something that started with such promise to help schools and districts get their arms around the use of data for improving student outcomes dissolve so suddenly? A new report has suggested, however, that failure was almost inevitable.

The autopsy to determine the cause of the demise of inBloom was undertaken by Data & Society, a research institute in New York City that examines the issues that arise in data-centric technology development.

inBloom was a "go big" $100 million project mainly underwritten by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create an open source platform for data sharing, learning apps and curriculum. At the heart were web-based services that would allow districts and states to maintain data from multiple systems in a common location with a set of application programming interfaces. The idea was to take over the under-the-surface operations or plumbing aspects of education technology to accelerate the development of useful tools for educator purposes.

As "The Legacy of inBloom" pointed out, state departments of education came together to pilot the early work that led to inBloom because they believed it could support their Race to the Top efforts in innovating education with the smart use of data.

However, explaining the work being done by inBloom was a challenge. "Throughout its brief history, the organization and the product seemed to embody contradictory business models, software development approaches, philosophies and cultures," the report stated. "There was a clash between Silicon Valley-style agile software development methods and the slower moving, more risk-averse approaches of states and school districts. At times, it was as though a team of brilliant thinkers had harvested every 'best practice' or innovative idea in technology, business and education — but failed to whittle them down to a manageable and cohesive strategy."

The timing of the introduction of inBloom in 2013 during an atmosphere of mistrust of data use didn't help either. That was the same year Edward Snowden revealed just how much data the National Security Agency was collecting on U.S. civilians and that retailers such as Target were reporting multi-million-customer data breaches. "The beginnings of a national awareness of the volume of personal data generated by everyday use of credit cards, digital devices and the internet were coupled with emerging fears and uncertainty," the authors wrote.

Vocal parents began protesting the increased usage of student data and the perceived threat that schools would sell their children's information to companies for marketing and advertising purposes. Opponents of the Common Core and new kinds of state testing began accusing the organizations sustaining inBloom as mining student data "for some corporate benefit." "inBloom was caught in a riptide of criticism about a wide range of education reform initiatives," the report observed.

Under the weight of political pressures, the states and large school districts that were early supporters of inBloom began shrinking away. Over the course of seven months, the coalition of states had withered from nine to three. New York, which had remained "publicly committed" but where opposition was the noisiest, eventually fell as well, toppled by a widely publicized lawsuit (eventually dismissed) regarding the sharing of student data with inBloom. Within weeks inBloom stopped operations.

"Ultimately, inBloom lacked a clear story of its benefits for teaching and learning, so it did not get the necessary buy-in from parents and schools," said Monica Bulger, one of the coauthors of the report, in a prepared statement. Yet it was held to a different set of standards than most popular ed tech applications, she added. "The legacy of inBloom matters because most current ed tech platforms would fail the rigorous checklist applied to inBloom. Most current iterations are not transparent about their data use, do not resolve issues of data security and fail to provide interoperability across platforms."

In the wake of inBloom, 400 pieces of state-level legislation around student data privacy have been introduced, and many have been adopted. More tellingly, the trend in data-fueled ed tech has since been toward piecemeal adoption of closed, proprietary systems instead of a multi-state, open source platform.

"inBloom's ambition to be open and transparent actually left it vulnerable to public attack," the report concluded. "Unlike private companies whose discovery process is basically a black box, inBloom's processes were public, and thus open to scrutiny. Without widespread buy-in to the value of the initiative, inBloom did not have sufficient support to weather the public backlash. Large-scale, ambitious, public initiatives will continue to be slowed or meet a similar fate to inBloom if there is not a counter-narrative to the public's low tolerance for uncertainty and risk. As the process of discovery becomes more transparent due to digital media, there needs to be a shift in how we view risk and uncertainty, because depending on whether we see this as weakness or opportunity will determine the future of education and innovation more broadly."

The report is publicly available on the Data & Society website here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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