InBloom, the non-profit cloud service for educational data analytics, was in full flower when it launched at the South by Southwest Education event in March, but these days the bloom is off the rose.
The service's promise of data integration that would lead to more powerful educational apps collided with privacy concerns over the use and privacy of student data. InBloom had partnered with a mix of state and district educational officials to provide a data warehouse and data integration service where it would store data on their behalf and make it available to educational and administrative applications of their choosing, many of them also cloud-based.
The backlash had many elements, but opponents charged InBloom was collecting too much data, creating an unnecessary security risk by putting it in a centralized repository, and making it too easily available to commercial entities. InBloom officials argued these were misunderstandings of its missions, but the uproar was loud enough that Louisiana withdrew from the project in April and other states who initially expressed an interest have backed off. Most recently, Politico reported that Guilford County, N.C., which was taking the lead on the project in that state, is putting on the brakes. By Politico's tally, "that leaves New York, two Illinois districts and one Colorado district as firm participants for now; Massachusetts is on the fence."
In an interview this week, InBloom board chair Bob Wise acknowledged that some states and districts are "stepping back, not necessarily from an eventual commitment, but for now." Still, Wise said, InBloom is making progress. "The project is moving ahead well in Colorado, particularly Jefferson County."
New York also remains actively involved, even though it is also home to some of the harshest critics of the project. New York plans to field a series of educational performance dashboards tied to the InBloom service, with third-party vendors competing to provide the best analytics.
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Shawn Bay, founder of eScholar LLC, says he stands ready to participate in that vendor ecosystem but so far has seen only test data from InBloom. New York districts have long been clients of his for data services, but at the state and local level.
The operators of the cloud service seem to have "stepped in it on the issue of student privacy," Bay said, and that's clearly damaged its brand and slowed down the project. He suspects there will be a shift in emphasis. "The scope of the project included other valuable things, like putting together a learning registry," he said. "That's something that needs to be done by a non-profit, not aligned with any particular vendor."
Wise is also president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and a former governor of West Virginia. He acknowledged that InBloom "may have been a bit slow in anticipating and getting involved in this discussion on student privacy," but is committed to a strategy that "makes sure it's done in a proper way, that achieves the educational goal and makes sure the public fully supports it."
The politics surrounding InBloom include not only the privacy issues but competing demands on states and school districts to improve their technological infrastructure for education, Wise explained. "Data infrastructure is not always on the top line -- if anyone raises the slightest issue about privacy, it's easy to move on to other issues," Wise said. "There hasn't been the quality of technological understanding in certain communities about what a data system is and how InBloom will actually improve security."