InBloom’s Collapse Shines Spotlight on Data-Sharing Challenges

By Benjamin Herold — May 02, 2014 6 min read
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With the rapid demise of the controversial data-management company inBloom, the daunting technical hurdles that have foiled efforts to bring streamlined, high-tech uses of student information to public school classrooms are once again front and center.

And now, experts say, the states and districts hoping to expand their use of student data must also contend with heightened public concerns about privacy and security, a thicket of ed-tech vendors vying to control individual slices of the fragmented education market, and a vocal group of advocates vehemently opposed to the brand of technology-driven education that inBloom came to embody.

“I think there’s a real lack of clarity within the K-12 sector right now about how outside parties should access student data, and how easily they’re able to share it,” said Douglas A. Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, or SETDA, based in Glen Burnie, Md. “The problems inBloom sought to fix haven’t gone away, but now we’re back to having a variety of competing technical standards, with a variety of competing platforms and middlemen trying to address the issues.”

Founded with $100 million in support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, inBloom aimed to serve as a single, secure repository for the student data now collected by districts and stored across numerous disconnected systems. (Gates and Carnegie have also provided grant support for Education Week’s coverage of business and innovation.)

Schools Look to Other Data-Sharing Options

Safely sharing student information with outside vendors remains a challenge for states and districts. No other players in the K-12 sector appear to be attempting a solution as comprehensive as that proposed by the controversial nonprofit inBloom, which recently announced it will “wind down” operations. But a number of companies and groups, including the following, are attempting to fix specific pieces of the problem:

Like inBloom, this San Francisco-based startup serves as an intermediary between schools and vendors, helping to facilitate secure, efficient sharing of student information.

But that’s where the similarities end, says CEO Tyler Bosmeny.

“Clever will never build data warehouses, and we never want to go near the types of information that people think is really sensitive,” he said.

Instead, the company focuses on a very specific problem commonly experienced by classroom teachers: the instructional time that gets wasted trying to log students on to learning software. Clever serves as a “data bridge,” Mr. Bosmeny said, automatically creating and updating student accounts by securely sharing class-roster information between schools and approved vendors.

Four years ago, the company was used by two schools. Now, through word-of-mouth sharing, and with the help of substantial outside investment, Clever connects 20,000 schools with 100 software vendors.

“I think top-down is almost always the wrong way to go in education,” Mr. Bosmeny said. “You know you’re solving a real problem when one school recommends you to another.”

A wholly owned subsidiary of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Austin, Texas-based Ed-Fi Alliance is a national leader in addressing the “interoperability” challenge in education. By providing free technical specifications and data standards, source code, and development tools, the alliance helps 19 states and roughly 7,000 districts get disparate information systems talking with one another and with vendors in a common language.

Among the most widely used off-the-shelf software programs to help districts gather and manage their educational data is White Plains, N.Y.-based eScholar. The company, which integrates data from multiple sources into a single central warehouse for each of its clients, is used by more than 3,600 school districts .

The San Francisco-based startup works by establishing direct connections with schools’ student-information systems, then creating free daily reports for school administrators. The aim is to turn a tedious manual process that typically takes days into an automatic, near-real-time service. The company hopes to eventually generate revenue by offering districts a premium product with additional features.

The London- and New York City-based publishing giant offers numerous products and services to K-12 schools, including the PowerSchool student-information system, currently used by about 4,500 districts. In many cases, Pearson does not store the thousands of pieces of student data managed by the software. But the company facilitates the sharing of that information with district-approved third parties.

InBloom also promised to help districts more easily share that information with the growing array of vendors offering software and apps to schools. In the process, it hoped to shake up existing public-private relationships within the education sector, spurring improvements in both classroom practice and product development by bringing order to the chaotic, inefficient system for using student data that is now in place.

Confident in its mission, the Atlanta-based nonprofit made an audacious public launch—replete with parties, indie rock bands, and breathless presentations about the future of “personalized learning”—in March 2013, at the annual South by Southwest education conference in Austin, Texas.

Thirteen months later, following a series of high-profile departures by state and district partners, inBloom announced it will “wind down” operations.

“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,” wrote Iwan Streichenberger, the company’s CEO, in an April 21 letter to supporters.

Practical Problems

Before its freefall, proponents had argued that inBloom would help clean up the inconsistent rules, definitions, and technical standards that now govern how districts and their vendors store, access, and share student data.

In practical terms, said Mr. Levin of SETDA, the current lack of “interoperability” between different software systems means that schools and districts too often must manually download student information from their various discrete software systems, manually organize the data in spreadsheets, and manually upload the data to vendors—a tedious, unsecured process that can take weeks.

Worse, districts must repeat such routines each time they select a new vendor. And there’s no guarantee that the data-transfer process that works with one vendor will also work with another.

For proponents, then, inBloom’s solution was a potential game-changer, on three levels.

First, the company aimed to holistically address the problem: It promised not only to build the infrastructure that would allow districts’ and vendors’ software to securely and efficiently talk to each other, but also to host the student data itself, removing from districts’ plate the challenging and expensive work of managing secure data servers and cleaning and organizing student information according to consistent standards.

In addition, the computer code that powered inBloom’s tools was public. Open-source proponents, including Mr. Levin, argued that such an approach might drive down costs and weaken vendors’ ability to lock states and districts into particular products.

And, at least initially, many were also intrigued by the scope of inBloom’s ambition. Buoyed by its lavish philanthropic support, the company aimed from its inception to offer a central hub and data-sharing infrastructure for states, districts, and vendors across the country, creating a single platform and set of specifications that could replace the hodgepodge of nonstandard “pipes” and connections currently available.

Even as he announced that inBloom was shutting down, Mr. Streichenberger defended the company’s grand strategy.

“[Our] 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,” he wrote.

Not everyone was taken with inBloom’s vision, however, especially the part that involved the nonprofit company’s assumption of responsibility for storing as many as 400 pieces of information—including sensitive disciplinary and health records—per child.

Critics—and even some proponents of robust use of educational data—also questioned the wisdom of attempting to drop such a large data infrastructure, seemingly overnight, into an education system that remains primarily local in nature.

“It doesn’t feel like the right thing for this marketplace,” said Robert J. Moore, the founder of Overland Park, Kan.-based ed-tech consulting firm RJM Strategies and the author of a recent data-privacy “toolkit” for educators. “These kinds of efforts need to start small and work their way through the system.”

Mr. Moore and others also pointed out that many critics attacked inBloom, in large part, because of the support it received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a lightning rod for criticism from some public-education advocates.

“There is a bit of truth in that,” said Leonie Haimson, a New York City-based parent activist who led the push to get New York state officials to sever ties with inBloom, “We oppose the technocratic vision of the future being imposed top-down by Bill Gates and other billionaires.“

For-Profit Alternatives

With inBloom now essentially out of the picture, some educational data-use proponents are now turning their attention to a handful of smaller, for-profit companies that have been quietly taking the kind of bottom-up approach Mr. Moore described.

One example is Clever, a San Francisco-based startup that now connects 20,000 schools in the United States with about 100 educational software and app developers. Rather than attempt a comprehensive solution to all the data-related challenges those districts and vendors face, said CEO Tyler Bosmeny, his company aims only to perform a single, narrow function involving a very limited slice of student information.

“Clever makes it easier for schools to create and manage student accounts for all the different learning software they use,” he said, and the only data exchanged between schools and vendors are class rosters.

Clever itself does not store or warehouse any of that information, Mr. Bosmeny stressed, adding pointedly that “we are literally nothing like inBloom.”

Other groups are attempting to fix other pieces of the problem, or are offering more comprehensive solutions that are geared only toward their own products and partners.

Mr. Levin of SETDA called it ironic that parents and advocates’ fight to take down inBloom will likely open the door for more private, for-profit players to control how student information is stored, accessed, and shared.

But Ms. Haimson, the New York City activist, said the battle over inBloom was just the first in what promises to be a much larger fight over the growth of data-mining technologies and “personalized learning” efforts in public schools.

“Parents want to limit access to personal data, not facilitate it,” Ms. Haimson said.

“I was unaware of the scope of the problem before inBloom popped up, but I know my involvement in this issue is going to continue.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 07, 2014 edition of Education Week as Data-Sharing Challenges in Spotlight As inBloom Sputters to a Shutdown


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