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3/26/2013
01:26 PM
David F Carr
David F Carr
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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.

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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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JJNYC
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JJNYC,
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
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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:

https://www.informationweek.co...

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
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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?

http://www.informationweek.com...
Ms. B
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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
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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: https://twitter.com/bwasson/st...

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
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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:

https://twitter.com/davidfcarr...
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