Monday, October 18, 2021

inBloom will shut down


After months of entanglement with parents and other advocates concerned about student-data privacy, the controversial nonprofit inBloom announced on April 21 that it will shut down operations within a few months, Education Week reports.

The database was designed to store and make available a wide range of student information for states and districts. The data would also have been available to corporations seeking profit and approved by each individual district so they could develop tools that would allow the data to be viewed by classroom teachers.

Writes Iwan Streichenberger, CEO of inBloom:

Over the last year, the incredibly talented team at inBloom has developed and launched a technical solution that addresses the complex challenges that teachers, educators and parents face when trying to best utilize the student data available to them. That solution can provide a high impact and cost-effective service to every school district across the country, enabling teachers to more easily tailor education to students’ individual learning needs. It is a shame that the progress of this important innovation has been stalled because of generalized public concerns about data misuse, even though inBloom has world-class security and privacy protections that have raised the bar for school districts and the industry as a whole.

… launched a technical solution …
Maya Angelou once wrote, “Life offers us tickets to places which we have not knowingly asked for. (Then it makes us pay the fare.)”

The inBloom idea was a solution to no known or existing problem in our schools. No educator ever asked for this solution, so this assertion is misleading in Mr Streichenberger’s statement.

I would like to “solve” the universal problem that people can’t eat grass. It would cure world hunger. So I develop a strain of bacteria that people can take in a pill, and all of a sudden, they’d be able to digest grass, which can be grown almost anywhere, and they’d never go hungry.

Of course, nobody asked for such a solution, because, as a general rule, people don’t like the taste of grass. Despite my talented microbiological efforts in developing and bringing to market a super-grass digestion pill, possibly selling advertising rights on the side of the bottle, and so on, it will have been a complete waste of time. Like inBloom.

… addresses the complex challenges that teachers, educators, and parents face …
Talk to me about challenges, such as kids who knock their teachers unconscious in a classroom in Philadelphia. Talk about getting kids to school on time, well rested and ready to learn. Talk about finding ways to make sure they get enough nourishment and exercise. How about a way to get them to appreciate the beauty in the world around them, in a work of art or music, and so on. These are the challenges teachers, educators (who are also teachers, a fact seemingly unknown to Mr Streichenberger), and parents face.

… utilize the student data available to them …
See “launched a technical solution” above. Same response applies here.

… can provide a high impact and cost-effective service …
The operative word is “can.” It has never been proven to be high impact. We quoted an Illinois State Board of Education official as promoting inBloom by saying, “We look at personalized learning as the next big leap forward in education.” As I have harped on beyond measure, “personalized learning” is not the same thing as tracking a student’s demographics, afterschool activities, test scores, likes and dislikes, etc., in a database. That’s just a computer program following a flowchart of instructions, which were all written long before the computer had any information about the student.

Personalized learning, on the other hand, involves getting to know the student first and then coming up with the flowchart based on the student, not on the list of options that have been programmed in.

He continues, ostensibly to explain but honestly to muddy our water, “Does Johnny have trouble converting decimals to fractions? The database will have recorded that—and may have recorded as well that he finds textbooks boring, adores animation, and plays baseball after school. Personalized learning software can use that data to serve up a tailor-made math lesson, perhaps an animated game that uses baseball statistics to teach decimals.”

First of all, since when have teachers and school administrators had trouble identifying when Johnny couldn’t convert decimals to fractions? (It’s a bad example, because it’s a problem not too many students have trouble with. This makes me think the person who said this has never taught any actual kids named Johnny how to convert decimals to fractions—or anything, really. But let’s just go with it.) Did any school board or teacher even ask for a database to help them identify students who couldn’t convert decimals into fractions? No. In other words, Bill Gates has spent $100 million on a project that will “solve” a “problem” that never existed in the first place. Do you get the irony?

… enabling teachers …
Teachers who step in front of a classroom had better be able to do, already, everything that inBloom would provide. If not, they don’t deserve to teach. The inBloom database would have, in effect, enabled absolutely nothing in our teachers, since they should already have these abilities.

One thing inBloom can be said to enable is the long-term storage of sensitive information about children. The computer would know, for example, when Johnny gets to seventh grade, that he had trouble converting decimals to fractions several years earlier. A feature like this, known as stickiness of data, is repugnant to the educational mission of our schools. Kids make mistakes, and they learn from them. That’s why they go to school: to learn in an environment free of long-term consequences that might arise from some corporation divulging that they struggled with a certain math concept in fourth or fifth grade.

… more easily tailor education to students’ individual learning needs …
Computers that work make jobs easier, it’s true. Also, teachers’ jobs involve tailoring instruction to the needs of each student. So, a non-educator, like Mr Streichenberger, would naturally assume that computers will make teachers’ jobs—which include tailoring instruction to the needs of each student—easier. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works in a real classroom, especially with young children. What makes it easier to tailor instruction to students’ individual learning needs is a teacher who cares about them and who loves teaching. The inBloom database moves every part of that in the wrong direction.

… stalled because of generalized public concerns about data misuse …
This is the only part of the statement I completely agree with.

… inBloom has world-class security and privacy protections …
That’s what they all say. Until Edward Snowden decides to blow the whistle and divulge sensitive information to a newspaper. Until criminals in Eastern Europe decide they want to spend a few years developing algorithms to steal credit card numbers. They all have world-class security.

We have laws as well, which are weaker than they were a few years ago but still give some semblance of protection for student data. And everything’s hunky-dory until a criminal decides he’s willing to break the law. Until an incompetent I/T staff member at some elementary school in Virginia leaves a bunch of passwords out in the open. Until any number of activities happen that can cause a breach.

If anyone tells you his security is world-class, ask him, “And the NSA’s wasn’t?”

Clearly, Mr Streichenberger wants us to forget about the Target breach, to forget about the University of Maryland breach, to forget about the NSA breach, to forget altogether that data security cannot be guaranteed. The best way to keep data private is not to make it public, ever.

Any service that puts data on the Internet—even encrypted data, if we have learned anything from evidence of severe breaches that have cost Americans millions of dollars in just the past year and who knows how much in terms of security and safety of government officials operating in this country and in foreign countries—is opening a window for that information to be stolen and used for criminal purposes by the criminal element among us. And our prisons tell us we have many, many criminal elements among us all the time.

The end.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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