Education data might accomplish more to improve learning if we can overcome concerns about its potential misuse.
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What if data about student performance were used to improve student performance, rather than solely to grade the student, the teacher and the school? Well, here comes an effort to do just that, big data style. Following close behind, here comes the privacy advocate freak-out.
I don't mean to be dismissive of fears that education data gathered together in a big national pool could be misused, or hacked or leaked in some inappropriate way, but I do hate to see the downside expressed with little understanding of the potential upside. The fractured and disorganized state of education data has its downside, too.
A nonprofit startup called inBloom was one of the stars of the SXSWEdu event earlier this month in Austin, Texas. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York -- and funded well enough that it was able to host one of the big evening reception events for attendees -- inBloom was set up to host a vendor-neutral data service to collect student data gathered in many different software systems and services and feed it back in such a way that the data would become more useful.
One of the goals is personalization, or what the education world calls adaptive learning, where the software starts to understand which concepts the student understands and which ones he or she struggles with. 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?
Before the inBloom people got a chance to showcase their project to the SXSWEdu crowd, they were already under a cloud: a Reuters story by education reporter Stephanie Simon, "K-12 Student Database Jazzes Tech Startups, Spooks Parents." Organizations sounding the alarm included Parent Teacher Associations and the American Civil Liberties Union. The Electronic Privacy Information Center is suing the U.S. Education Department over rules that would allow the student information collected by government agencies to be shared with private organizations.
Echoes of the Reuters story continued to reverberate over the following weeks. "New York Parents Furious At Program, inBloom, That Compiles Private Student Information For Companies That Contract With It To Create Teaching Tools," reported the New York Daily News, playing up a connection with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., parent company of the New York Post and Fox News. The theme trickled down to a Denver Post blogger covering the story as it cropped up in complaints from parents at a Jefferson County, Colo., school board meeting.
It strikes me that at each stage the story lost a little more context. What is it that inBloom was supposed to accomplish in the first place? Or is it just a conspiracy between Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch to plunder the data about our precious children for commercial purposes? Parent protests seem to be motivated by the belief that this data could all be siphoned off into some marketing list and used to spam their children. The cast of characters plays neatly into the fears of everyone who worries about public education being privatized and corporatized.
The News Corp. connection is that one of its subsidiaries built the software infrastructure for the database. 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. So, yes, data will be shared with commercial organizations -- organizations the schools contract with to provide educational software and services. That's the promise, whether or not you trust it.
School officials see enough potential that inBloom is part of statewide data integration initiatives in New York and Louisiana, as well as district-level pilot projects in Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina and Massachusetts.
One reason for confusion: 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. Frankly, when I attended the first in a series of SXSWEdu presentations explaining the service, I came away mystified by inBloom CEO Iwan Streichenberger's explanation. I understood that he was saying inBloom would magically solve all sorts of problems and make our education system infinitely better, but how exactly? Even the advocates of the service acknowledge that what it does is boring, by itself, a matter of providing the integration plumbing that will make multiple education software products work better together.
This is not a matter of dictating the standards for formatting, tagging and transmitting data because those already exist. Rather, inBloom aims to "operationalize" the standards with a data service that can broker connections between applications. In addition to promoting personalization, inBloom says it can assist by providing a catalog of educational Web applications and enabling single sign-on between them.
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