Privacy & Security

New Autopsy of inBloom Re-ignites Old Debates About Sharing Student Data

By Benjamin Herold — February 06, 2017 4 min read
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Three years after its demise, inBloom is still exposing the wildly different ways that proponents and skeptics view education technology and educational data use.

Last week, the New York City-based research center Data & Society released a new report examining the quick rise and stunning fall of the nonprofit student-data-management effort. Launched in 2013 with $100 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the initiative shut down its operations a year later, in April 2014.

Based on interviews with 18 key actors, “The Legacy of inBloom” is a must-read for those interested in a detailed, insider account of what went wrong—and why ambitious ed-tech initiatives often fail to take root.

Perhaps unintentionally, the report— and the early reaction it has stirred—also reveal how data-sharing believers still struggle to make sense of the vocal opposition their efforts provoke.

Now, as in 2014, supporters and skeptics still look through very different lenses when analyzing an effort like inBloom.

For most of the district and state administrators, technology company representatives, former inBloom and Gates employees, engineers, and privacy experts interviewed by Data & Society, the focus was inBloom’s potential benefits. They cast the effort as a good idea that fell victim to ambition, poor implementation, a fundamental misunderstanding of the United States’ highly decentralized K-12 ecosystem, and a failure by proponents to explain why inBloom would be good for students and schools. The result, these supporters contend, is a lost opportunity that has led to a proliferation of closed, proprietary data-sharing systems that are less secure and less effective than inBloom might have been.

Opponents, however, continue to take an altogether different view. First and foremost, they see inBloom and like-minded efforts through a lens of potential harm. They think the theory behind expansive sharing of student information is flawed, driven by corporate greed and philanthropic hubris rather than solid evidence.

Parent activist Leonie Haimson, the driving force behind the effort to defeat inBloom, was interviewed for the Data & Society report. But she told Education Week that the researchers failed to grasp her central message, and she took umbrage to the report giving voice to those who compare inBloom opponents to the anti-vaccination movement.

“If you start out with the assumption that inBloom was a revolutionary tool that would transform education, be more secure than existing tools used by states and districts, and be fully transparent, then of course you come to the conclusion that the opposition of parents was irrational,” Haimson said.

“But all of those suppositions are completely wrong.”

Haimson and other inBloom opponents want to see the evidence of improved student learning before moving forward with large-scale student data sharing.

Supporters, meanwhile, grow exasperated that talk of potential harms—rather than evidence of actual harms—has derailed what they see as promising efforts.

The Data & Society researchers mostly fall in the latter camp.

“Not understanding something is not a reason for not allowing it to happen,” Monica Bulger, one of the report’s authors, said in an interview with Education Week. “When there are misunderstandings, people turn to fear-based scenarios. It’s appropriate to evaluate whether those fears are accurate.”

Round and round it goes.

On other fronts, though, the Data & Society report offers fresh insights.

Among the most interesting: an argument that inBloom failed in part because it embodies “contradictory business models, software development approaches, philosophies, and cultures.” Those developing the actual software wanted to take an “agile” Silicon Valley-style approach, leaving them free to experiment and test and make changes quickly, the researchers found. But that approach mixed poorly with a business plan that was dependent on notoriously slow-moving and risk-averse state departments of education and school district bureaucracies.

The report also explores the ways in which inBloom represented a threat to the established business models of other ed-tech vendors. Some of those rivals happily sat on their hands as inBloom went up in flames.

And essays issued in conjunction with the report offer additional perspectives on the ongoing need for data standards in the K-12 sector, the ways in which inBloom continues to serve as a “Rorschach test” for those interested in education policy, and more.

Ultimately, the Data & Society researchers contend, “the legacy of inBloom seems evolutionary, not revolutionary.”

Its failures helped prompt a broad public discussion of student privacy, including the introduction of more than 400 bills in state legislatures around the country, they wrote.

“It also surfaced the public’s low tolerance for risk and uncertainty, and the vulnerability of large-scale projects to public backlash,” the researchers said.

“Any future U.S. education project will have to contend with the legacy of inBloom.”

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