Home > data science, education, modeling > Great news: InBloom is shutting down

Great news: InBloom is shutting down

April 29, 2014

I’m trying my hardest to resist talking about Piketty’s Capital because I haven’t read it yet, even though I’ve read a million reviews and discussions about it, and I saw him a couple of weeks ago on a panel with my buddy Suresh Naidu. Suresh, who was great on the panel, wrote up his notes here.

So I’ll hold back from talking directly about Piketty, but let me talk about one of Suresh’s big points that was inspired in part by Piketty. Namely, the fact that it’s a great time to be rich. It’s even greater now to be rich than it was in the past, even when there were similar rates of inequality. Why? Because so many things have become commodified. Here’s how Suresh puts it:

We live in a world where much more of everyday life occurs on markets, large swaths of extended family and government services have disintegrated, and we are procuring much more of everything on markets. And this is particularly bad in the US. From health care to schooling to philanthropy to politicians, we have put up everything for sale. Inequality in this world is potentially much more menacing than inequality in a less commodified world, simply because money buys so much more. This nasty complementarity of market society and income inequality maybe means that the social power of rich people is higher today than in the 1920s, and one response to increasing inequality of market income is to take more things off the market and allocate them by other means.

I think about this sometimes in the field of education in particular, and to that point I’ve got a tiny bit of good news today.

Namely, InBloom is shutting down (hat tip Linda Brown). You might not remember what InBloom is, but I blogged about this company a while back in my post Big Data and Surveillance, as well as the ongoing fight against InBloom in New York state by parents here.

The basic idea is that InBloom, which was started in cooperation with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify, would collect huge piles of data on students and their learning and allow third party companies to mine that data to improve learning. From this New York Times article:

InBloom aimed to streamline personalized learning — analyzing information about individual students to customize lessons to them — in public schools. It planned to collect and integrate student attendance, assessment, disciplinary and other records from disparate school-district databases, put the information in cloud storage and release it to authorized web services and apps that could help teachers track each student’s progress.

It’s not unlike the idea that Uber has, of connecting drivers with people needing rides, or that AirBNB has, of connecting people needing a room with people with rooms: they are platforms, not cab companies or hoteliers, and they can use that matchmaking status as a way to duck regulations.

The problem here is that the relevant child data protection regulation, called FERPA, is actually pretty strong, and InBloom and companies like it were largely bypassing that law, as was discovered by a Fordham Law study led by Joel Reidenberg. In particular, the study found that InBloom and other companies were offering what seemed like “free” educational services, but of course the deal really was in exchange for the children’s data, and the school officials who were agreeing to the deals had no clue as to what they were signing. The parents were bypassed completely. Much of the time the contracts were in direct violation of FERPA, but often the school officials didn’t even have copies of the contracts and hadn’t heard of FERPA.

Because of that report and other bad publicity, we saw growing resistance in New York State by parents, school board members and privacy lawyers. And thanks to that resistance, New York State Legislature recently passed a budget that prohibited state education officials from releasing student data to amalgamators like inBloom. InBloom has subsequently decided to close down.

I’m not saying that the urge to privatize education – and profit off of it – isn’t going to continue after a short pause. For that matter look at the college system. Even so, let’s take a moment to appreciate the death of one of the more egregious ideas out there.

  1. April 29, 2014 at 7:19 am

    In some respects the InBloom bargain is no different than the Google bargain or, for that matter, the “free” internet bargain… We’ve implicitly agreed to share data with people in exchange for a quick and easy way to gather information… and even though I dislike the ads that now permeate Google, I invariably “Google” something when I have a question and DO have my cookies enabled.

    One other reality: in order for public education to fund data warehousing that could arguably improve information available to teachers, SOME kind of trade-off is necessary. Either taxpayers need to willingly fund technology infrastructure for schools (unlikely given the public’s unwillingness to fund obvious infrastructure deficiencies like water pipes and highways) or some sort of bargain like InBloom has to be worked out.

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  2. April 29, 2014 at 7:19 am

    Reblogged this on Network Schools – Wayne Gersen and commented:
    In some respects the InBloom bargain is no different than the Google bargain or, for that matter, the “free” internet bargain… We’ve implicitly agreed to share data with people in exchange for a quick and easy way to gather information… and even though I dislike the ads that now permeate Google, I invariably “Google” something when I have a question and DO have my cookies enabled.

    One other reality: in order for public education to fund data warehousing that could arguably improve information available to teachers, SOME kind of trade-off is necessary. Either taxpayers need to willingly fund technology infrastructure for schools (unlikely given the public’s unwillingness to fund obvious infrastructure deficiencies like water pipes and highways) or some sort of bargain like InBloom has to be worked out.

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  3. Guest2
    April 29, 2014 at 8:54 am

    Don’t think for a minute FERPA protections make a difference — states also have laws protecting student identities, but NOT mega-data streams. How else do you think states come up with statistics on their students? By using exemptions — by redacting any personalized education data that could be associated with any particular student (or words to that effect). This is not something that will go away.

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  4. April 29, 2014 at 8:55 am

    I think you’re only seeing the death of a particular business model. The Memorandums of Understanding for the Common Core State Standards, the SMARTER Balanced Constium, and the PARCC, all provide ways for those private organizations and the federal governmet to get the same data as inBloom wanted. The less for Bill Gates here is just to be a more subtle.

    Oh, and about FERPA—The FERPA regulations were changed (some argue unconstitutionally) by the USDOE to enable compaines like inBloom to get student data.

    And in response wgersen, why do you assume that we need more technology and data collection to improve education? The fact is that the single most important element in school quality is income. Computers and data warehouses are useless if the kids in the classrooms are hungry, sick, and under family stress. Having served on a school board and being married to a teacher, I’ve seen first hand how computers and “data” just bog classes down. Schools need more time for reading, thinking, and conversing. Technology doesn’t provide much added value for those activities.

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    • cassie
      April 29, 2014 at 9:16 am

      Yes, the whole (false) promise of this use of student data is “personalized learning”—in fact it will lead to depersonalized learning. (http://morethanascorechicago.org/data-privacy/depersonalized-learning/) In the words of Leonie Haimson who has been leading this fight against InBloom, “No amount of data analysis or computerized instruction can substitute for the real life interaction between teacher & student.”

      The real intention behind “personalized learning” is that for anyone whose family can’t afford to provide it, human adult (certified and unionized) teachers will be replaced as much as possible by crappy software programs. This is already happening in charter chains (and even in non-charter schools) across the country: http://inthesetimes.com/article/16606/scathing_report_finds_school_privatization_hurts_poor_kids

      It is horrifying and gross. Does anyone think that Bill Gates, Barack Obama or Rahm Emanuel would choose to save on the tuition at their children’s schools (Lakeside School in Seattle, Sidwell Friends, U of C Lab School) by replacing some of the teachers with computers? Ugh.

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  5. cassie
    April 29, 2014 at 9:05 am

    I think the analogy between Airbnb and Uber and InBloom is a very bad one. With Airbnb and Uber, two adults—one wanting to purchase a service, one wanting to sell it—enter into a marketplace transaction, more or less apprised of the potential consequences of the transaction (i.e. you may or may not get what you were hoping to out of the transaction—a nice guest, a place to stay, etc)

    InBloom was a non-consensual transaction between a child (and the plan was to not allow parents to opt children out of the program) and a corporation to take the child’s data, use it to develop software, and then not only not compensate the child, but have software companies sell their products built using the data back to the children’s school districts!

    InBloom was not likely, in fact, violating FERPA because FERPA had deliberately been weakened to allow for this exact pattern of exploitation. (Read more about that here: http://epic.org/apa/ferpa/)

    It is wonderful that InBloom is being disbanded, but, unfortunately, there are countless other software companies who are already illegally collecting student data (without parent notification or consent) and using it to develop software. And these companies are, in fact, likely very pleased that InBloom has been removed from the marketplace. (Very good commentary on this here: http://funnymonkey.com/blog/new-york-pulls-out-inbloom-ho-hum)

    Many of them have amazingly nepotistic ties to the school districts they are selling products in. Here’s just a snippet of the companies selling products within Chicago Public Schools. I have never heard of any signed consent forms given to parents in these cases. (The use of these is likely in violation of COPPA as well: http://www.business.ftc.gov/documents/0493-Complying-with-COPPA-Frequently-Asked-Questions#Schools)

    Cambium Learning: Raz Kids
    Accurate Learning Systems Corporation: Mathscore
    Achieve 3000
    Edmentum: Study Island
    E instruction: Insight 360
    Compass Learning
    Digedu
    Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Thinkcentral
    ThinkCERCA

    Despite InBloom’s defeate, the threat to children’s data privacy is still a huge problem. InBloom was defeated through grassroots organizing (thank you, Leonie Haimson—who played a large role in defeating InBloom not only in New York but here in Illinois and across the country.) These organizers will continue this battle: http://nycpublicschoolparents.blogspot.com/2014/04/statement-on-inblooms-demise.html

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    • April 29, 2014 at 9:08 am

      Thanks!

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      • cassie
        April 29, 2014 at 9:17 am

        So glad to see this stuff discussed thoughtfully outside of the strictly-education-blog/twitterverse!

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  6. April 29, 2014 at 11:21 am

    Thanks for posting this. One data seller down and more to go. Also if you have not read the World Privacy Forum report, it’s a good one. All eyes on on the “Scoring of America” and using proprietary formulas that we can’t see, get access to and so on. I think it’s an important report. They address the bogus FICO medication adherence formula too where FICO claims they have now scored over 3 million people and all they need is your name and address! WTF!

    There’s proprietary scoring at it’s worst. It’s lengthy report but not bad reading time and tracks back and gives history on how we had to fight to see our credit scoring and how additional scoring is showing up every day and we have no clue it’s happening or any access.

    http://ducknetweb.blogspot.com/2014/04/world-privacy-forum-report-scoring-of.html

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  7. dotkaye
    April 29, 2014 at 11:53 am

    on a related note, did you see what the American Statistical Association had to say about VAM for teacher testing ?
    Nothing good, I’m happy to say..
    http://www.amstat.org/policy/pdfs/ASA_VAM_Statement.pdf

    The commenters are making me very depressed.. was so happy to see inBloom go, did not realize there were serried ranks of competitors lined up behind them, snuffling and snorting with greedy anticipation.. sheesh.

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  8. April 29, 2014 at 5:31 pm

    Who’s the big Nirvana fan – Bill, Melinda or Rupert?

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  1. April 30, 2014 at 6:56 am
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