Future Tense

What the Failure of inBloom Means for the Student-Data Industry

Students in New York City

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

InBloom has wilted. The well-funded student data nonprofit announced it was winding down operations this week after sustained protests by parents and privacy advocates forced school districts to drop the service.

Born out of the Shared Learning Collaborative, an alliance of nonprofits, educators, and politicians, inBloom hoped to streamline student information online to enable teachers to track their progress and allow increased personalization of lessons and learning materials.

Yet despite millions in seed funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and collaborating with school districts in nine states, the company was unable to reassure parents that their children’s information would be safe with a third party vendor. Protests began in earnest when it was discovered that inBloom’s software had more than 400 optional data fields that schools could fill out—asking for potentially sensitive information such as the nature of family relationships, learning disabilities, and even Social Security numbers. Although there were no reported leaks, parents were uncomfortable without an absolute guarantee of that data’s safety or a clear indication of who could access it.

Protests and lawsuits from parents in Illinois, Louisiana, Colorado, and other states caused many districts to pull back from the partnership, but inBloom was dealt its most significant blow earlier this month when the state budget bill of New York restricted its Education Department’s ability to contract with companies for storing, organizing, or aggregating student information and demanded inBloom delete all held data.

The CEO of inBloom, Iwan Streichenberger, said in a statement on the company website:

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. As a result, it has been the subject of mischaracterizations and a lightning rod for misdirected criticism.

While inBloom did become a lightning rod for parental concerns over education technology, criticism was not misdirected, the NYCLU’s Advocacy Director Johanna Miller told me. Rather, it’s reflective of a failure to work with the public. “Inbloom and the New York State Education Department were arrogant during this entire process,” she said, “and insensitive to parents who were concerned about their children’s data being collected.”

The collapse of inBloom is a blow for the K-12 education technologies sector generally—a market that, if calibrated carefully, could be beneficial for schools and students. Data collection could help with personalized learning; it might also help schools fulfill the vast number of reporting requirements for state and federal programs such as Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, and many others.

School districts across the country are contracting with third-party vendors to supply data services that often lack adequate privacy safeguards and do not obtain parental consent. A study from the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham Law School last year suggested that schools and providers are falling short of a number of student data privacy requirements mandated by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. So in theory, it makes sense to have one central repository with the highest privacy standards and with cutting-edge technology to protect that data—just as inBloom attempted to portray itself.

But as Bill Fitzgerald pointed out on the blog of his software development company, FunnyMonkey, without an overhaul of student privacy law, the demise of one software company merely opens the door for another. It’s clear that legislators on both the federal and state level need to consider how to strengthen student privacy protections, with some already calling for improved data protection guidelines, greater consequences for mishandling student data to be built into FERPA, and even a Student Privacy Bill of Rights. While people seem willing to give up vast amounts of their own information to the cloud, there is a strict line when it comes to fears of a child’s learning difficulties haunting her into middle age.

Without such changes, the lesson here for entrepreneurs and states may be more one of PR than anything else. (CEOs may want to avoid blithely announcing that “education happens to be the world’s most data-mineable industries in the world, by far.”)

InBloom’s failure is a teachable moment in trust-building and accountability for the next company in this space—and you can be sure there will be more than a few trying to get a piece in a K-12 education software market said to be now worth about $8 billion.