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Hope Battles Fear Over Student Data Integration

Education data might accomplish more to improve learning if we can overcome concerns about its potential misuse.

Despite all the uproar, Streichenberger said the data is being collected already by many independent applications. His goal is to bring it all together and make it more useful.

Middleware is useful in this context for the same reason it is useful anywhere -- because applications can integrate to the middleware, rather than integrating point-to-point with every other application.

The sort of effective personalization that drives advertising and marketing systems at Amazon or Google requires the accumulation of large amounts of data pegged to an individual. Suppose a teacher introduces some wonderful math learning software into the classroom, and Johnny works with it an hour a week until it starts to detect patterns in his learning style and help him learn better. Ideally, this information would not be locked up in one application but follow Johnny from class to class and school to school and year to year. When he gets to tackling the equations of high school physics, some of the knowledge about how well he performed in algebra and trigonometry comes along with him.

Of course, I'm not helping inBloom's case by making comparisons to the personalization on Amazon or Google, since plenty of people are uncomfortable with the data those organizations collect about us, also. But, dammit, those "if you liked this book, you might like that book" recommendations can be helpful sometimes. Might not it be a good thing if our education software systems could be at least that smart? As in: "If you had trouble with quadratic equations, you might also struggle with this exercise on the motion of projectiles."

For these benefits to materialize, the inBloom service will have to work as advertised, which shouldn't be taken as a given. Also, the data integration service is only one part of the picture I'm painting of individualized education -- the tutoring software and student information systems at the school level would also have to make intelligent use of the data.

The data-broker role inBloom aims to fill could be filled by one of the software and services vendors in the education market, except that no competitor wants to be subordinate to any other, explained Shawn Bay, the founder and CEO of eScholar, which is working closely with inBloom on the New York State project. Better to have that role filled by a nonprofit, he said. "Theoretically, they're not going to be biased toward any of us." Also, if inBloom wants to take on the complexities of single sign-on authentication, "we're perfectly happy to have it taken off our plate," he said.

Having learned the power of consumer data analytics as an employee of Proctor & Gamble in the 1980s, where the currency was retail scanner data, Bay later led a consulting firm that first became involved in data-analytics work for a New York school district in 1997. While he sees the potential of inBloom, and appeared on an SXSWEdu panel promoting it, he said many of the practical details of working with the master database are still in flux. For example, the architects of the New York State project are finding that having applications interactively fetch data directly from inBloom via Web services protocols doesn't work for performance reasons, so they're having to layer in data caching.

When we sat down over breakfast before a scheduled Bill Gates keynote speech, Bay wondered whether Gates would acknowledge that today's goals for inBloom sounded a lot like what was promised for the Schools Interoperability Framework Microsoft proposed in 1999, which was supposed to ensure "that software applications in K-12 schools can share information seamlessly." The closest Gates came to that was mentioning that the late 1990s was the last time there was a bubble of optimism about the potential of technology to improve education, but it had proven harder than people like him expected. To be fair, some of the technical underpinnings of today's data-integration initiatives can trace their beginnings in part to what Microsoft proposed back then, now with the blessing of federal education officials.

InBloom isn't the only organization trying to translate these ideas into action. Also at SXSWEdu, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation announced that it was spinning off its education data integration initiative, the Ed-Fi Alliance, to operate as a separate nonprofit. One of the distinctions between Ed-Fi and inBloom is that Ed-Fi has produced an education data analysis dashboard, which it has released as open source software, in an effort to make the data collected about students more useful. In contrast, inBloom is concentrating on the data backend and leaving the user interface to others. The two organizations say they're not rivals, but rather complementary services. Some school systems have partnered with both, using Ed-Fi as an intermediary service to organize data and load it into inBloom.

Yet Bay expressed some frustration with the overlap, saying, "let's just merge these things and solve the problem."

Which brings me back to the problem this is supposed to solve.

"As a teacher, I used technology a lot, but I always looked at all those different toolsets and said, 'I wish they all worked together,'" said Jim Peterson, technology director for the public schools in Bloomington, Ill. "It's even harder when your school district comes back with a great new product that adds to your 36 passwords." For him, the promise of inBloom is to "get rid of that major pain point."

"This inBloom plumbing is boring stuff, and if it works right we shouldn't have to pay attention to it," said Ken Wagner, a New York state education department associate commissioner responsible for curriculum assessment and education technology. "The interesting stuff is the tools on top."

By freeing data from being locked inside proprietary tools, we "get an ecosystem where the tools have to compete with each other," Wagner said.

That's the dream. In some ways, the nightmare of privacy breaches and misuse of private student data is easier to understand, maybe even easier to believe in. Yet I would like to believe we can address those concerns with sensible safeguards, rather than letting fear rule.

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.

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User Rank: Apprentice
9/24/2013 | 9:51:22 PM
re: Hope Battles Fear Over Student Data Integration
Dear Mr. Carr: Anything that Bill Gates has his hands in does not bode well. All Gates cares about is money. Period. End of Story. It's a total invasion of privacy. Get your facts straight and stop listening to someone who doesn't care.
David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
5/3/2013 | 4:01:32 PM
re: Hope Battles Fear Over Student Data Integration
I'll apologize for the "average PTA mom" line, although in context I said the things that might not be obvious to a parent (and I'm a parent) about the intended use of this data weren't obvious to me, either, until I did some research. I also asked Ellis Booker to do a follow up article more from the perspective of those raising concerns, which you can read here:

I'm still not in the privacy freak-out camp myself.

The fact that Bill Gates is associated with this initiative doesn't phase me at all. I was never a big fan of his business strategies or software quality, but I'm impressed with his role as a philanthropist. I can see how people might be suspicious that he would be investing in
educational technology in some way that might steer profits back to
Microsoft, but actually, no -- it appears his motives are nothing so
tricky. The Gates Foundation has been investing in causes like eliminating malaria, with no apparent ulterior motive. I believe its motives in promoting education technology are similarly well-intentioned. Whether the Gates Foundation is promoting the right things as education technologies and education reforms is a whole other question, and that's a legitimate policy debate.

The association of Rupert Murdoch and News Corp with this project gives me pause, but I'm not convinced their role is central to this story.

In general, I believe raising concerns about the data collected and the security for its storage is legitimate, but these should not be insurmountable obstacles. I want policy makers to give at least as much attention to the potential benefits of better educational data integration and the consequences of poorly integrated systems of assessment.
One of Many Good Parents
One of Many Good Parents,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2013 | 7:54:10 PM
re: Hope Battles Fear Over Student Data Integration
Hi David. Here's my challenge: I have a young son in a very good public elementary school. I care about his classmates and his school---and students and schools of all types, everywhere.

So, as a parent who is extremely focused on education, I hope I can write this without it seeming too snarky or sardonic. I'll apologize in advance if any of it seems to be a personal attack. It isn't.

You wrote: "It can adapt automated tutorials, or provide recommendations to the teacher about how to alter lesson plans to improve learning for that student. Everyone should be in favor of that, right?"

- No. Everyone shouldn't be. First, that assumes we trust these people. For the most part, the majority of us, don't.

"Or is it just a conspiracy between Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch to plunder the data about our precious children for commercial purposes?"

- Yes. it is. Or there's a good chance this is just a convenient coincidence. (Like most "conspiracy theories".) Why do YOU think these two would be working together on education? To be nice to kids? Do you think there's a chance they both see mutual benefit here---and THAT's why they're doing this? (I call that a "smart business decision"; nothing "conspiratorial" about it. Why wouldn't they want this type of information and why wouldn't they want to maximize their gain from it?)

"The News Corp. connection is that one of its subsidiaries built the software infrastructure for the database."

- Oh, is that all? How silly of me. I should have just relaxedGǪ

"Going forward, inBloom stresses that it will operate the repository on a nonprofit basis, sharing data only at the direction of its member school systems."

- Again, how completely reassuring. Especially coming from people like these.

"So, yes, data will be shared with commercial organizations -- organizations the schools contract with to provide educational software and services."

- Once again, you've completely relaxed me. So comforting and enlightening to know that my district will contract with only the "trustworthy" onesGǪ

"inBloom's stated goal is to play a middleware role in education application integration, with benefits that are understandably obscure to the average PTA mom."

- Okay. You deserved whatever bashing you took on Twitter. (I hope you've sincerely apologized.) Could you possibly have been more condescending? What is "the average PTA mom" like anyway? I don't know if I've ever met one. And I guess dads don't participate in any of this?
Ms. B
Ms. B,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2013 | 5:33:03 AM
re: Hope Battles Fear Over Student Data Integration
Here is the problem in Louisiana, Mr. Carr. Why did Supt. White secretly contract with inBloom contrary to state statute requiring Board of Education approval? Why does Supt. White say that SS# are not used when we now know they are. Why won't Supt. White turn over the agreement with inBloom to the public or even to his BESE board? A lawsuit has been filed to obtain it. Why did Supt. White tell the media the day after he was outed that he had pulled out of inBloom when inBloom publicly denies that? Why does Mr. white deny that data will be "shared". It is called the Shared Learning Collaborative and inBloom says the data will be shared.
David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
3/28/2013 | 12:33:00 PM
re: Hope Battles Fear Over Student Data Integration
This column generated plenty of criticism on Twitter from parent advocates who thought I was too quick to minimize their concerns. Here's an example:

@davidfcarr Are you really ok with this? "inBloom's student and teacher data screenshots" http://nycpublicschoolparents.... GǪ Why collect even names?

(conversation here:

Here are some follow-up questions I posed to InBloom, with their responses.

Q: Someone asked why the data gathered would include the studentGÇÖs street address. I couldnGÇÖt think of an educational reason why that would be necessary for purposes such as personalization/adaptive assessment. Is that data also to be used for more administrative purposes? There is a valid argument to be made about not collecting more data than necessary.

A: Our primary focus is on in-classroom personalized learning, but yes, districts can also use the service for administrative purposes. ItGÇÖs worth noting though that there is a learning value in knowing about mobility (i.e. changes of address); if a studentGÇÖs academic transcript is all over the place and the teacher is trying to figure out how to help them, knowing theyGÇÖve moved five times in the last three years can be really important information.

That said, itGÇÖs important to understand that just because the inBloom data services are designed to be able to store many kinds of information, that doesnGÇÖt mean districts have to use all those fields. ItGÇÖs ultimately the district/stateGÇÖs decision as to what information they want to store and for what purposes.

Q: I think I saw clarification elsewhere that social security #s are not included?

A: inBloom discourages districts and states from storing social security numbers in our data service; instead we agree with the industry-wide best practice many school districts and states have of assigning a unique student ID number that is separate from the studentGÇÖs social security number. That said, itGÇÖs ultimately up to each school district or state to decide whether or not they track and store student social security numbers. inBloomGÇÖs current service agreements with states and districts using inBloom prohibit storage of social security numbers in the data store, unless agreed to by both inBloom and the state/district on a case-by-case basis.

Q: In general, any details you can share about how youGÇÖll protect against the possibility of a data breach would be helpful, since a centralized data store represents a bigger target.

A: In the unlikely case of a data breach, the encryption protections we have in place render that breached data useless and unreadable. Furthermore, we have a very thorough reporting and response plan so that any potentially affected parties will be notified. If that breach is found to be breaking state confidentiality laws, we will fully comply and cooperate with state agencies to ensure expedient action.

Q: The involvement of News Corp. also causes concern from those suspicious of its corporate interests. To be clear, is there a News Corp subsidiary with ongoing involvement in the project or the system? Or was that only in the initial design or pilot phase?

A: inBloom hired Wireless Generation, a News Corp. subsidiary, to build part of the inBloom software infrastructure on a contract basis. None of the technology companies that helped build inBloom services, including Wireless Generation, have any proprietary rights to the inBloom technology, and none of them will have access to the data that states and districts collect unless the state or district contracts with them separately.
David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
3/27/2013 | 1:20:40 AM
re: Hope Battles Fear Over Student Data Integration
My line about the "average PTA mom" has landed me in all sorts of hot water on Twitter:
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