Magic Technology Fails: Why inBloom Never Bloomed

Some 15 months ago, with great fanfare, many education reformers got excited about inBloom, a non-profit technology company that ran a service to allow schools to manage student information. The organization got some $100 from big-name foundations like Gates and the Carnegie Corporation.

This is the sort of thing that had the potential to really improve education. There is a lot of data in schools, but putting all of the information together to figure out what’s actually going on with children is near impossible. If we could track students over a lengthy period of time, perhaps teachers could easily find weaknesses and correct them. This could “personalize” education by focusing on individual student needs.

As inBloom CEO Iwan Streichenberger explained, “personalized learning is the way to go. How to do you make it happen? How do you share data and make it accessible? We’re a catalyst — a connector between data that exists already to make it easier to access.” Nine states signed up to be a part of the project.

It didn’t work out so well. According to an article by Natasha Singer in the New York Times:

On Monday, Streichenberger… portrayed his enterprise as a victim of erroneous censure — and announced that it was folding.

“The use of technology to tailor instruction for individual students is still an emerging concept and inBloom provides a technical solution that has never been seen before,” he wrote in a letter posted on the inBloom site. “As a result, it has been the subject of mischaracterizations and a lightning rod for misdirected criticisms.”

Part of the problem was that people suspected that such a widespread collection of data (from children) could result in identify theft. InBloom software had more than 400 optional fields for sensitive things like learning disabilities, the nature of family relationships, and Social Security numbers. This poster circulated around New York State,

AntiInBloom

There were protests and lawsuits from parents in Illinois, Louisiana, and Colorado. A few weeks ago New York’s legislature approved a budget that wouldn’t allow schools to provide student information to data amalgamators. Six states stopped using the service.

The other, perhaps more important, dilemma is that it’s not clear that any of this data collection would have done any good. Singer:

…InBloom’s implosion is a cautionary tale for the nearly $8 billion business of prekindergarten-through-12th-grade education technology software. Some education veterans told me that inBloom’s demise indicated that the industry had been rushing to sell data-driven concepts before establishing evidence that automated data-mining of students improved their success in school.

“If this is still an ‘emerging concept,’ why are we implementing it?” asks Ken Mitchell, the superintendent of the South Orangetown Central School District in Blauvelt, N.Y.

Advocates correctly point out that much criticism of the program just came from misinformation. The student material was housed in an encrypted, cloud-based system. There was no evidence of lax security or any attempt to sell student data.

But using sophisticated technology to collect sensitive information involves risk. As Seth Fletcher put it at Salon:

InBloom essentially offers off-site digital storage for student data—names, addresses, phone numbers, attendance, test scores, health records—formatted in a way that enables third-party education applications to use it.

The recent fiasco with Target and its customers’ pin numbers indicates what really might trouble parents. Third-party applications are not always safe. Sometimes technology fails even with extensive protections.

At what point do the worries of ill-informed parents reflect a valid problem? When is the data collection not worth it?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer