Controversial education tech company InBloom has shut down over student data privacy concerns. Backed with $100 million in grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, InBloom quickly announced nine states (CO, DE, GA, IL, KY, LA, MA, NC, NY) as partners, with more than 2.7 million students enrolled, with the goal of using big data to direct education emphasis and other decisions. With a recent decision by New York state to halt participation in any project involving storing student data in the way InBloom had planned (and the deletion of any such data already stored), all nine states had either put data sharing plans with InBloom on hold, made them voluntary, or pulled out completely.
The National Science Foundation earlier this month awarded a $4.8 million grant to a coalition of prominent research universities aiming to build a massive repository for storing, sharing, and analyzing the information students generate when using digital learning tools.
The project, dubbed “LearnSphere,” highlights the continued optimism that “big” educational data might be used to dramatically transform K-12 schooling.
It also raises new questions in the highly charged debate over student-data privacy.
The federally funded initiative will be led by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, who propose to construct a new data-sharing infrastructure that is distributed across multiple institutions, include third-party and for-profit vendors. When complete, LearnSphere is likely to hold a massive amount of anonymous information, including:
- “Clickstream” and other digital-interaction data generated by students using digital software provided to schools by LearnSphere participants;
- Chat-window dialogue sent by students participating in some online courses and tutoring programs;
- Potentially, “affect” and biometric data, including information generated from classroom observations, computerized analysis of students’ posture, and sensors placed on students’ skin.
“We’re increasingly operating outside the parameters of FERPA,” she said, referring to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a 40-year old federal statute that remains the primary law in place to protect students’ privacy.
“We talk about modern privacy as being about an individual’s right to control the information they’ve entrusted to others,” Barnes said, “but it appears [with LearnSphere] that students will lose significant control.”
“In general, we have nothing against research that is done with fully anonymized data,” she said in an interview. “But I think that any university involved in such a data [repository] has to make sure that the original collection of data was done ethically, with full consent and notification. They shouldn’t leave it up to vendors.”
InBloom, a nonprofit corporation based in Atlanta, seemed to offer a solution: it could collect information from the district’s many databases and store it in the cloud, making access easier, and protect it with high-level encryption.
The company has name-brand backing: $100 million in seed money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundationalong with the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Beyond storing data, it promised to help personalize learning — by funneling student data to software dashboards where teachers could track individual students and, with the right software, customize lessons in real time. Also, districts could effortlessly share student records with developers seeking to create educational tools for schools. In other words, for Dr. Stevenson, it represented not just a fix to a narrow technical problem, but also a potentially revolutionary way to help educate students.
“We are joining the new generation of data management,” Dr. Stevenson said enthusiastically in the March issue of “Chalk Talk,” the school district’s newsletter for parents.
Moms and dads from across the political spectrum have mobilized into an unexpected political force in recent months to fight the data mining of their children. In a frenzy of activity, they’ve catapulted student privacy — an issue that was barely on anyone’s radar last spring — to prominence in statehouses from New York to Florida to Wyoming.
A months-long review by POLITICO of student privacy issues, including dozens of interviews, found the parent privacy lobby gaining momentum — and catching big-data advocates off guard. Initially dismissed as a fringe campaign, the privacy movement has attracted powerful allies on both the left and right. The American Civil Liberties Union is pushing for more student privacy protection. So is the American Legislative Exchange Council, the organization of conservative legislators.