Business Cloud News
inBloom is closing down amidst pressure from parents and teachers; the case raises important questions about privacy in our most sacred public institutions

inBloom is closing down amidst pressure from parents and teachers; the case raises important questions about privacy in our most sacred public institutions

inBloom, the US-based not-for-profit that touted a technology platform that would analyse student data to create individually tailored learning curriculums, announced Thursday that it will be winding down its operations and shuttering its doors within the coming weeks.

The organisation, which at one point received blessings from numerous US state governments and over $100m in seed funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, is reportedly bowing out due to the privacy concerns of parents and teachers. But the news unearths important questions about privacy at a time when society’s most sacred public institutions are using data to drive many of the decisions steering their future.

inBloom is a successor to the Shared Learning Collaborative (SLC), an alliance of educators, state leaders, non-profit foundations, and instructional content and tool providers formed in 2011. The group’s aim was to create an open source resource that could help educators use student data to create personalised curriculums, saving teachers time and making them more effective at educating pupils.

But despite millions in seed funding and support from a number of state governments, the organisation’s chief executive officer Iwan Streichenberger said that inBloom would be closing its doors.

“The use of technology to tailor instruction for individual students is still an emerging concept and inBloom provides a technical solution that has never been seen before. As a result, it has been the subject of mischaracterizations and a lightning rod for misdirected criticism,” Streichenberger said in a lengthy blog post explaining the move.

“In New York, these misunderstandings led to the recent passage of legislation severely restricting the education department from contracting with outside companies like inBloom for storing, organizing, or aggregating student data, even where those companies provide demonstrably more protection for privacy and security than the systems currently in use,” he added.

The organisation never secured any paying customers despite generating a lot of interest in its platform from US state governments like Illinois, Colorado and New York, and many of those who have followed the organisation’s rise and fall reasonably characterised it as a result of the company’s arrogance and disregard for the reasonable concerns of parents – that their childrens’ data privacy is at stake.

“The inBloom saga has opened up a can of worms, letting us know that dangerous threats to student privacy arise from a multitude of sources, including the state agencies, avid to track your child’s data from cradle to the grave, as well as for-profit vendors, eager to collect as much highly valuable student data as possible in the name of “improving instruction” and “personalized learning” but primarily to make a buck,” said Leonie Haimson, a NYC-based parent and executive director of Class Size Matters, a not-for-profit that promotes the advantages of reducing class sizes in schools.

“In state after state, district after district, the original nine partner states of inBloom have cancelled their contracts after protests from parents, teachers, and voters, and have got rid of this data-engorging monster,” Haimson said.

According to some close to the situation, parents pressured the organisation in every US state it operated in, partly on its adherence to federal standards related to storing and managing personal data in the cloud. Drunk on the promise of what big data could deliver, it is argued, the company completely sidestepped its duty to guarantee a data protection and data privacy acceptable to parents. Stiffening regulations in its biggest target market, New York, only hastened its downfall.

In technology terms, inBloom boasted some improvements over the current state of the art. As Bill Fitzgerald of software development firm FunnyMonkey pointed out, inBloom’s platform was open source, thus having the potential to wrestle power from existing vendors. It could also be hosted in a private cloud setting rather than necessarily be managed by the vendor directly, which means school districts could have more say in how data privacy and security standards are implemented (they could also be held accountable by the federal and state-level government bodies tasked with ensuring their practice).

But inBloom’s demise raises serious questions about the limits of how big data can be acceptably applied in certain sectors, and it  certainly wasn’t first to beckon them. In November 2011 one of the biggest education publishers in the world, Pearson, inked a deal with Knewton, a company that did much of what inBloom claimed to do, but with a proprietary technology platform that would tap into Pearson’s eLearning platforms and harvest the information to (among other things) create personalised learning courses.

“One of the major concerns cited about using inBloom was that it would allow student data to be used to develop adaptive learning. However, if a student is using an electronic text from a textbook publisher, this is likely already happening,” Fitzgerald said.

Given the way Knewton openly discussed their ambitions in harvesting (and selling) student data is it any wonder parents are up in arms about inBloom, particularly given the fairly weak protections students and parents are granted in related legislation like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)? Or the relatively long track record of data mismanagement of third party vendors catering to this sector (among others)?

To make matters worse, inBloom would have forced over hundreds of survey questions on schools which would have revealed among other things intimate details of students’ relationships with parents, relatives and friends (and by proxy, details about them, too).

This, of course, is in addition to the growing distrust in cloud providers to properly manage and protect data that has become more palpable since last summer’s spying revelations; despite being overblown to an extent, this is a real factor.

None of this is to say harvesting data on students and their engagement with learning material doesn’t improve learning outcomes – it clearly has, particularly in higher education; in a sense, that’s what makes this so tragic. And there are very complex reasons related to a pupil’s performance that extend well beyond the school yard, which often relate to their most intimate relationships among myriad other elements. It isn’t intrinsically unjust or offensive that a school would want to look to some vendor to help quantify these factors, and potentially help improve student performance as a result,and, for the vendor, make a buck while doing so.

But one can’t help but feel like we’re walking a thin line by allowing companies which cater to the public institutions nearest and dearest to our hearts a significant degree of agency in how very personal data is stored, used and shared, and giving the subjects to whom that data belongs very little. With inBloom, for many parents, it simply was not clear whether the benefits outweighed the risks.

These concerns don’t just apply to the US education sector. In the UK, NHS England in February delayed a national electronic medical records database amidst mounting pressure from patients and practitioners who claimed citizens aren’t familiar enough with the project and the way private medical information will be handled.

The database was originally scheduled to go live in April 2014. But a decision was taken to delay its implementation until autumn 2014 due to GPs’ concerns that their patients are unaware of the implications of the scheme. Among the key sticking points there was the fact that the scheme could see anonymised medical data sold to researchers and pharmaceutical companies. Again, this is already done – but with licenced open data sets (and, it’s worth pointing out, the data is used to optimise NHS spending, and not sold to pharma companies).

Fitzgerald summed up the problem with inBloom very well, but his observations can be extended beyond this particular case and big data solution providers (and policy makers) should take heed: “Our considerations of privacy will remain divorced from learning until we recognize and acknowledge that students (or their parents) need to be the ones to control and reflect on any information that is collected about learning.”

“The emphasis is on building systems that collect data on students, to push content at them. We’re not seeing much work on systems that empower students to reflect on their learning over time, and selectively share that information.”

In other words, empower and educate the data subjects, and implement stringent standards on vendors, and these ambitious big data projects may, some day, actually bear fruit.