Learning the Lessons of the InBloom Failure

The controversy over how to manage and store sensitive student data reached boiling point this week. InBloom, the non-profit organization backed by a $100M grant from the Gates Foundation, closed its doors over parental concerns about the potential misuse of that data and other privacy and security fears about how students' information might be used, manipulated or get into the wrong hands.

Similar to the effort to digitize medical records, there is a compelling argument to create comprehensive electronic records in order to create personalized learning experiences for every student. InBloom was a highly ambitious, though flawed attempt, to move from a rather inefficient, bureaucratic and often paper-bound set of records to an easy-to-use, accessible, cloud-based system that seamlessly moved with the child through her school years, as she changed classes, years, schools and even localities.

Ideally, inBloom would give an individual teacher a wealth of information about how best to teach, support, encourage and challenge each student in front of him and ensure any special needs of a child were flagged and responded to. And it would provide the basis for a number of coming innovations including the idea of a "flipped" school -- where students learn at the own pace via video tutorials at home and do "homework" in groups at school.

Unfortunately, the creators of the project simply had insufficient regard for privacy issues and had not thought through the public concerns of such a broad sweep of data that was included in the digital records -- from social security numbers to the name of Dad's significant other. It appears that inBloom lost sight of the need to involve parents in the creation and implementation of the project. Iwan Streichenberger, the CEO of inBloom now admits that "we have realized that this concept is still new, and building public acceptance for the solution will require more time and resources than anyone could have anticipated."

Perhaps he should add a dose of humility to that list, as well. Technology leaders love to talk about disruption. That kind of attitude built great companies like Microsoft and Apple and then others that came along to disrupt them. Many believe, as do I, that the educational system, which often resembles its 19th century forbears rather than the 21st century world we live in, also needs some creative disruption. The problem is that the "users" are our kids and parents nervous of something new and unfamiliar. And, of course, teachers and district level administrators must also feel ownership of the dramatic changes the "disrupters" have in mind.

An unfortunate consequence of the inBloom collapse is a rush by some lawmakers to draft well-intentioned, but potentially flawed bills. Already we have seen moves by both California and Maryland to legislate away the ability to truly innovate in this space. The unintended consequences of such laws would mean that our kids would be at a potential disadvantage in getting the kind of specific, personalized education we all want for our children.

As a parent of a high school student, I highly value the almost daily reports I get from my daughter's school through Edline that provides us with every assignment, every homework grade and test score, even the slides and videos used in class. The level of information available through these personal, digital records and transcripts is truly amazing and a huge boon to us as parents. I, for one, would not want a digital, online service like Edline to go away.

Instead, let's keep our eyes on the prize. We need to keep innovating in the education space or our kids will fall even further behind and not be ready for the demands of a global and digitized world. Let's use the extraordinary tools that allow for data handling and storage to create highly individualized learning environments for our students. Let's include parents as well as teachers and the administrators in the discussions about what is necessary and acceptable in terms of what information is kept and what is not. Let's address the privacy and security issues head on and then build a real sense of trust among parents.

And let this be the beginning of the effort to create the kind of schools and learning experiences we want for our kids. We can't let this one, imperfect effort be our only attempt. We can work this out.