Privacy jitters derail controversial K-12 big data initiative

InBloom said its initiative would have allowed schools to offer customized instruction to students

Unrelenting privacy concerns finally derailed a controversial big data initiative that promised to deliver more individualized instruction to public school students in the U.S.

InBloom, a non-profit funded to the tune of $100 million by the Gates and Carnegie foundations, Tuesday announced that its is closing down due to public concerns over misuse of student data in its control.

In a statement, CEO Iwan Streichenberger said InBloom had been the "subject of mischaracterizations and a lighting rod for misdirected criticism" since the effort was first launchedas the Shared Learning Collaborative.

The concept of using student data to deliver individualized instruction to K-12 students is a new one, Streichenberger acknowledged. "Building public acceptance for the solution will require more time and resources than anyone could have anticipated."

Streichenberger's decision to pull the plug on InBloom comes just weeks after the New York State legislature passed a bill that prevents the state education department from sharing personal student data with companies -- like InBloom -- that store, organize and aggregate student data.

The legislation also requires that InBloom delete any data it has collected to date on public school students in the state.

New York was the last of nine states to shift gears after first agreeing to partner with the non-profit in a pilot program.

Over the past year, school districts from all of the other participating states, including Colorado, Louisiana, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Georgia, have similarly withdrawn from the effort due to privacy concerns.

InBloom's demise is sure to be a welcome development to the many groups that vociferously opposed the idea of school districts handing over vast volumes of highly sensitive student data to a private entity.

InBloom's stated mission was to serve as a data service that would ultimately enable public school teachers to deliver more tailored instruction to their students.

The plan called for school districts to upload to InBloom a wide range of student data, including names, addresses, academic records, test scores, racial and economic information and, most controversially, disciplinary, disability and health related data.

InBloom would collect and aggregate the data and share it with approved third parties who would develop dashboards and other tools that schools could use to customize instruction based on individual student needs. Among InBloom's numerous partners were companies like eScholar, Dell, Kickboard, Promethean, CPSI and iResult.

InBloom maintains that it did no data mining of its own, and it insists it used the privacy and security controls needed to protect student data in its control. The company also insisted that all decisions on the type of student data that would be uploaded and how the data would be used and shared rested entirely with individual school districts.

InBloom said its main role was to provide a way for student data to be collected, aggregated, stored and shared in a standardized way.

Numerous privacy groups, parent groups and lawmakers saw the effort as a major threat to student privacy.

Most of the concerns had to do with the relative lack of information on what student data was being uploaded and how for-profit data mining companies would use the data. Considerable concerns were also raised over the enormous challenges InBloom would have faced securing the highly sensitive data in its control from hackers accidental leaks.

Parents had no say in how their student's data would be used or shared -- another major concern, said Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, an advocacy group that opposed the initiative from the start.

"We have a lot of concerns about the idea of outsourcing education into private hands," Haimson said. The notion of private companies getting access to large volumes of high sensitive student data, without the consent or knowledge of parents is very disconcerting, she said.

Access to student disciplinary records, disability information and health records was particularly disturbing, because of the potentially devastating long-term consequences if the data was misused, she said.

In a statement, the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) noted that while InBloom might have been ahead of its time, similar efforts going to be vital in future.

"The winding down of inBloom is as much of a sign of the lack of maturity of technology leadership in the the K-12 sector as it is about anything else," SETDA executive director Doug Levin said in a statement.

"InBloom drove critical conversations about interoperability and data standards, about student data privacy, about the reliance of the education sector on private companies, and about who should be in the driver's seat with respect to decision making about the education of students," he added.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

See more by Jaikumar Vijayan on Computerworld.com.

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