inBloom to Shut Down Amid Growing Data-Privacy Concerns

By Benjamin Herold — April 21, 2014 9 min read
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After months caught in the crosshairs of parents, advocates, and educators concerned about student-data privacy, controversial nonprofit inBloom announced Monday that it will close its doors.

“I have made the decision to wind down the organization over the coming months,” inBloom CEO Iwan Streichenberger wrote in an email to the organization’s supporters. “The unavailability of this technology is a real missed opportunity for teachers and school districts seeking to improve student learning.” (Full statement from inBloom included below.)

The announcement comes on the heels of the New York state legislature’s recent enactment of legislation that effectively pulled the plug on inBloom’s last remaining large partner.

Founded in 2011, inBloom aimed to store, clean, and aggregate a wide range of student information for states and districts, then make the data available to district-approved third parties to develop tools and dashboards so the data could more easily be used by classroom educators.

Over the past year, however, the organization became a lightning rod for those concerned about the increased collection, use, and sharing of sensitive student information. The backlash prompted a string of withdrawals by planned partners in Colorado, Louisiana, and elsewhere.

Opposing Opinions

Monday’s announcement prompted highly polarized reactions.

Parent activist Leonie Haimson, who helped lead the fight against inBloom in New York, hailed the news as a much-needed lesson for proponents of “big data” and “personalized learning.”

In a statement, Haimson said inBloom was designed to “facilitate the sharing of children’s personal and very sensitive information with data-mining vendors, with no attention paid to the need for parental notification or consent.”

“This is something that parents will not stand for,” Haimson said.

Proponents, however, argued that inBloom has been misunderstood and that the organization’s technology represented a huge advance toward increasing the “interoperability” of the many different data systems that currently house student information.

“While perhaps ahead of its time, the inBloom vision--and the tools inBloom built to realize it--remain critically important for the K-12 sector to build upon in the future,” said Douglas Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, based in Glen Burnie, Md. “I certainly hope that others will step up to fill the void that inBloom will be leaving in its wake.”

A number of vendors and organizations already offer similar services, use similar technologies, or perform similar functions. London- and New York City-based Pearson, for example, offers the PowerSchool student information system, which currently stores information on roughly 13 million U.S. schoolchildren. And Clever, a company based in San Francisco, says it already helps 15,000 districts integrate various software and related data into their technology programs.

But for months, inBloom has been a magnet for attention and controversy, likely in large part due to its origins: The organization was launched with $100 million in philanthropic support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. (Carnegie helps support Education Week‘s coverage of business and K-12 innovation.)

In a statement, the Gates Foundation expressed disappointment about inBloom’s demise.

“Teachers should be able to easily support the individual learning needs of students,” the statement reads. “We believe the technology behind inBloom is an important part of making that a reality.”

Frustrated by Misunderstandings

Officials from inBloom declined to be interviewed about their decision to “wind down” operations during the coming months.

“It is a shame that the progress of this important innovation has been stalled because of generalized public concerns about data misuse, even though inBloom has world-class security and privacy protections that have raised the bar for school districts and the industry as a whole,” wrote Streichenberger, the group’s CEO, in his letter to supporters.

Last month, at the annual South by Southwest education conference in Austin, Texas, Streichenberger and other senior inBloom officials sat down with Education Week to talk about what they described as mischaracterizations and misunderstandings of their work.

“We don’t actually control what data is uploaded” to the inBloom system, Streichenberger said. “We open the vault for the district or state, they put the data in, and we lock it.”

Each client’s data was to be stored individually, the officials said, and a combination of high-tech encryption and security protocols and detailed, “role-based” data-governance and structures would protect information as it was stored and retrieved.

inBloom’s value, they said, came from providing a single point of connection between districts or states and the vendors they chose to work with, eliminating the need to recreate the wheel every time a new vendor is selected or new data set was to be accessed.

“At the end of the day, the data is controlled by districts and states,” Streichenberger said. “We just want to make it easier for vendors to be engaged with districts in a secure environment.”

Some outside observers, including Robert Moore, the founder and chief consultant of RJM Strategies and an architect of a data-privacy “toolkit” recently released by the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, praised inBloom’s security and privacy protocols. Moore attributed controversy surrounding the company to political opposition to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Common Core State Standards, and other highly-charged education issues currently on the table.

“If you believe that data is important in teaching and learning, it’s difficult to see how [inBloom’s approach] is possibly insidious,” he said.

Privacy Advocates Emboldened

Nevertheless, pushback against the organization has been intense and persistent.

Last May, the Louisiana state education department backed away from using the nonprofit company after parents raised privacy concerns.

In November, Colorado’s Jefferson County School District followed suit. (Although then-chief technology officer Greg Mortimer told a panel at South by Southwest that the opposition to inBloom in his district was “surreal,” and that an independent third-party review validated the strength of inBloom’s security protocols.)

And what appears to be the final blow came earlier this month, when the New York state legislature approved legislation that bars the education department from contracting with outside companies to store, organize, or aggregate student data.

Proponents of educational data use insist such opposition is largely the function of poor communication.

“The challenges surrounding inBloom, which partly stemmed from public unfamiliarity with cloud technology and confusion about the use and security of student data, illustrates the importance of helping the public, and especially parents, understand how increased access to data helps their children succeed,” said Aimee Rogstad Guidera, the executive director of the Washington-based Data Quality Campaign, in a statement issued in response to Monday’s news.

But for the time being, anyway, such a stance seems to only sharpen the resolve of concerned parents and advocates to take their fight beyond inBloom.

“There are more and more data-mining vendors who, with the help of government officials, foundations, and think tanks, are eager to make money off of student information in the name of “big data” and “personalized” learning, and in the process see parents, if they recognize our existence at all, as ignorant obstacles to their Orwellian plans,” said Haimson in her statement. “We realize the fight for student privacy is just beginning.”

Following is the full text of the announcement from inBloom CEO Iwan Streichenberger:

Friends and colleagues:

In 2011, an alliance of educators and state leaders, non-profit foundations, and instructional content and tool providers formed the Shared Learning Collaborative (SLC). The vision of that group was simple: create a resource that allows teachers to get a more complete picture of student progress so they can individualize instruction while saving time, effort and precious resources.

I signed on to the project in November 2012 to lead inBloom, the non-profit corporation that is the SLC’s successor. I joined because I passionately believe that technology has the potential to dramatically improve education. My belief in that mission is as strong today as it ever was. Students, teachers and parents deserve the best tools and resources available, and we cannot afford to wait.

Over the last year, the incredibly talented team at inBloom has developed and launched a technical solution that addresses the complex challenges that teachers, educators and parents face when trying to best utilize the student data available to them. That solution can provide a high impact and cost-effective service to every school district across the country, enabling teachers to more easily tailor education to students’ individual learning needs. It is a shame that the progress of this important innovation has been stalled because of generalized public concerns about data misuse, even though inBloom has world-class security and privacy protections that have raised the bar for school districts and the industry as a whole.

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. 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.

We stepped up to the occasion and supported our partners with passion, but we have realized that this concept is still new, and building public acceptance for the solution will require more time and resources than anyone could have anticipated. Therefore, in full alignment with the inBloom Board of Directors and funders, I have made the decision to wind down the organization over the coming months. It wasn’t an easy decision, and the unavailability of this technology is a real missed opportunity for teachers and school districts seeking to improve student learning.

I want to thank you for your partnership in our endeavors and look forward to speaking with many of you in the coming months.

Kind regards,

Iwan Streichenberger
Chief Executive Officer

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.