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8/8/2013
09:49 AM
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InBloom Educational Data Warehouse Wilts Under Scrutiny

Cloud repository for student records promises big data results and economies of scale, but has stirred privacy fears.



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.

[ Should automation play a role in evaluating writing skills? Read Automated Essay Grading Software Stirs Debate. ]

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."

The case for InBloom is essentially the case for cloud computing: the idea that pooling data and resources, including technical talent in disciplines like analytics and data security, can produce better results than an individual business or government agency could achieve on its own. School districts are already gathering all the same data and managing it themselves, often with scarce resources to devote to proper data management or security, Wise pointed out.

While critics often portray InBloom as building a massive data bank subject to commercial data mining, Wise explained that the states and districts that provide data to InBloom will not be giving up control over it. They will still govern how that data is used. When critics say InBloom will share data with commercial entities, the implication is that student data will be for sale. However, schools would be sharing data only with the vendors they trust, Wise said, and for use on behalf of educators, administrators, and students.

In other words, just as businesses trust Salesforce.com to manage their customer data -- without sharing it with their competitors or plundering it for Saleforce.com's own uses -- school systems would trust InBloom to be a responsible custodian of their data.

Similarly, Saleforce.com allows customers to add third-party apps to their accounts that are authorized to access their data, or some subset of it, and provide additional software services. "InBloom can do nothing [with] student data that school policies do not permit. There's a lot of myth about our ability to aggregate data and sell it off," Wise said.

Arguing that it's better to keep the data on school district computers than in a cloud service is like arguing that it's better not to put your money in the bank because the bank might be robbed, Wise said. "Like a bank, a cloud service is a bigger target for those who would break in, but you don't lose a lot of safe deposit boxes compared with putting your money under the bed."

In time, Wise predicted, school systems that are afraid to commit today will find that what InBloom offers is superior to what they have in ease of use and efficiency. "We'll win, over time."

For that to happen, though, InBloom will have to survive long enough to achieve positive results. "I'm feeling good that shortly -- and I'll let our technical folks define 'shortly' -- we will see some success stories," Wise said. "Once you have several districts demonstrating how it's working, and showing that it meets their educational needs as well as security needs, I think you'll see rapid signup."

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

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