What Is InBloom and Why Is It Collecting Data on School Children?

What Is InBloom and Why Is It Collecting Data on School Children?

In Common Core and other federal education matters, no name stirs up more controversy than inBloom, the 2013 nonprofit rebrandedfrom predecessor Smart Learning Collaboration (SLC). 

Originally launched with nine states on board, inBloom has been accused of everything from collecting to tracking to selling data on the nation’s K-12 kids, resulting in a handful of those states dropping out. However, inBloom wants to engage its critics and make an effort to challenge the assertions made about their role in the student data controversy.

What is inBloom? Pumped up by $100 million in start-up money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, it states the following concerning its purpose: 

[The] missionis to provide a valuable resource to teachers, students and families,to improve education. We solve a common technology issue facing schooldistricts today: the inability of electronic instructional tools used inclassrooms to work in coordination with (or “talk to”) one another.

The inBloom official website also claims that through technology, they are here to helptailor learning, inform parents, save time and money, and enhance data privacy and security; because “to succeed in today’s global economy,students need learning experiences that meet their individual needs,engage them deeply, and let them learn at their own pace.” It goeson to say:

This requires teachers to have an up-to-date picture of astudent’s progress; an understanding of where he or she needs extraattention; and access to materials that will help progress theirstudents’ learning. inBloom is a nonprofit organization helping to makethis possible by providing efficient and cost-effective means for schooldistricts to give teachers the information and tools necessary tostrengthen their connection with each student.

Sharren Bates,Chief Product Officer and a Gates Foundation alumnus responsiblefor the vision, strategy, design, and development of all products andservices at inBloom, spoke with Breitbart News and described theirproduct as a “piece of infrastructure,” likening it to a highway thatconnects its customers who are public school districts.

“The way we achieve that mission is by offering a very technical backendservice,” said Bates. She also said the issue is complicated by natureand difficult to explain, adding that she understands how this might beconfusing to the public. Bates said that “words like ‘tracking’ and’data-mining’ mischaracterize what inBloom does.”

“We are absolutely not data-mining,” added Garrett Suhm,inBloom’s Chief Technology Officer. He admitted, “We’ve done a terriblePR job in explaining what we do and in correcting the misperception, [but] we are absolutely not creating a national data-base.” 

Correcting what inBloom claims are misconceptions about the company becomes moredifficult when the inBloom privacy and security policy introduction onthe company’s official website contains the very buzz words that fuel the privacy rights firestorm: “store” and “share.”

No one is really sure what information is being collected, either. MissouriEducation Watchdog’s Gretchen Logue, a critic of inBloom, pointed outthat the “data mining is not just centered on educational information.”She added:

This educational reform also requires personal informationon students and their families… and with the expansion of FERPA(Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) allowing information to flowfreely, this information will be supplied to research firms, contractors, and other interested parties.

Bates insisted to Breitbart News that inBloom’s intention is to provide thebest options for kids, families, and teachers. This is what she described as: “…online practice tools or online classroom level kind of quiztools.” Bates added, “They are exactly the kind of experiences you wantfor kids and teachers and families to have together.” Before what shecalled “the ‘inBloom solution,'” a teacher was “logging into three, four,five different websites which took prep and student time away,turning the teacher into a data administrator instead of creating  greatlearning opportunities with students.”

Batesnoted that what they do is technical in nature, and yes, data is beingcollected: data on students, their families, and teachers. Bates thendismissed any issue with such data collection by saying, “Schooldistricts have been doing so since the beginning of the Internet.” 

Additionalpushback against inBloom may well come from paragraph one of thecompany’s privacy and security policy, again from the company’s officialwebsite, which identifiesthat the “service also helps State Educational Agencies in evaluatingfederal–and state–supported education programs.” Words like “state” and “federal” raise eyebrows when joined with data on children.

In 2013, the Heartland Institute’s Joy Pullman, another critic of inBloom, reportedmore troubling information. She wrote, “The U.S. Department ofEducation is funding and mandating databases that could expand eachkid’s academic records into a comprehensive personal record.” This would include, she continued, “health care history, disciplinary record, family income range, familyvoting status and religious affiliation.” She then added, “Under agreementsevery state signed to get 2009 stimulus funds, they must share students’academic data with the federal government.” Pullman sourced her datato a 2012 Pioneer Institute report and the National Center forEducational Statistics (NCES).

Still, inBloom’s Suhm insisted, “We have nothing to hide.” He added, “Everything we do is open online for review because we are open-source.” The term “open source” means publicly accessible. Suhm invited anyone to visit the website’s FAQ libraryof downloadable documentation. He hopes that this will help allay thepublic’s fears. He even shared that, as a parent, he, too, has the sameprivacy concerns, and he emphasized that the public also should be concernedby the “unbelievable amounts of personal data” kids give away freelyonline on sites like Instagram, Reddit, and Pinterest. 

Furthermore, Suhmsaid, “inBloom is not using any data to market studentinformation to third party vendors.” He added, “inBloom provides thesuper-information highway to allow different systems to communicate sothat schools can simplify their systems. We implemented the standard.”

Batesalso touched on this issue while speaking with Breitbart News and saidshe “wanted to make sure it was clear to the public” that local schooldistricts are the ones that “legally control everything” from thepurchase of a product to the tracked fields. She said that parentsneed to take these concerns to their local school districts. She also asserted that inBloom isn’t doing anything wrong. They provide aservice to their school district customers. 

Yet the misperceptions continue for a variety of reasons, including the inBloom tracking fields, which extend far beyond students’ grades. Pullman pointed out inher article that “no one knows what personal data the Common Core tests willcollect, because those tests have yet to be written and released.”She also wrote, “But this information mother-lode has to come fromsomewhere. Since the tests are being written by private organizations,although entirely funded so far by the federal government, no one can doa public records request to find out.”

This makes it more challenging for inBloom to clear its name, although Suhmnoted, “We just operate the servers. We can’t see or access the(encrypted) data unless we have special access granted by thecustomer.” He described servers where coded software speak to eachother and in which inBloom “segregates” all personally identifiabledata. Bates told Breitbart News that only in a “tech support emergency,” upon the customer’s request, would data ever be seen by inBloom.She claimed they take their responsibilities as software and privacyexperts seriously.

Still, this isn’t helping sway public opinion–nor are claimsmade by the Washington, D.C.-based national Software and InformationIndustry Association that students’ privacy is well-protected by federallaw and by a superior level of encryption technology.

Perhaps the biggest reason for this disconnect between inBloom and the general public is best explained by Push Back author, B.K. Eakman. In an interview with Breitbart News, Eakman stated,media that data collection is okay.” She also said she feels thepublic’s fears are not allayed because people wonder why potentiallymassively invasive personal information is being collected at all. AsEakman posited, “If you like your privacy, you can’t keep it.” And forthis very reason, the contentious data collection debate will likelycontinue.