Thanks to Pat Lockley for drawing my attention to Reuter’s interesting take on inBloom, the US K-12 development that I blogged about a couple of weeks ago. You can find the article here: K-12 student database jazzes tech startups, spooks parents. Just in case you missed it, inBloom is a new technology integration initiative for the US schools’ sector launched by the Shared Learning Collective and funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. One of the aims of InBloom is to create a:
Secure data management service that allows states and districts to bring together and manage student and school data and connect it to learning tools used in classrooms.
I should confess that my interest in inBloom is purely on the technical side as it builds on two core technologies that CETIS has had some involvement with; the Learning Registry and the Learning Resource Metadata Initiative. The Reuter’s article provides a rather different perspective on the development however, describing the initiative as:
a $100 million database built to chart the academic paths of public school students from kindergarten through high school.
In operation just three months, the database already holds files on millions of children identified by name, address and sometimes social security number. Learning disabilities are documented, test scores recorded, attendance noted. In some cases, the database tracks student hobbies, career goals, attitudes toward school – even homework completion.
Local education officials retain legal control over their students’ information. But federal law allows them to share files in their portion of the database with private companies selling educational products and services.
When reported in these terms, it’s easy to understand why some parents have raised concerns about the initiative. The report goes on to say
Federal officials say the database project complies with privacy laws. Schools do not need parental consent to share student records with any “school official” who has a “legitimate educational interest,” according to the Department of Education. The department defines “school official” to include private companies hired by the school, so long as they use the data only for the purposes spelled out in their contracts.
The database also gives school administrators full control over student files, so they could choose to share test scores with a vendor but withhold social security numbers or disability records.
That’s hardly reassuring to many parents.
And for good measure they then quote a concerned parent saying
“Once this information gets out there, it’s going to be abused. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
Parents from New York, Louisiana, the Massachusetts chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and Parent-Teacher Association have also written to state officials “in protest” with the help of a civil liberties attorney in New York.
To be fair to Reuters it’s not all Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, the article also puts forward some of the potential benefits of the development as well as expressing the drawbacks and concerns. I certainly felt it was quite a balanced article that raised some valid issues.
It also clarified one issue that had rather puzzled me about the TechCrunch’s original report on inBloom which quoted Rupert Murdoch as saying:
“When it comes to K-12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching.”
At the time I couldn’t see the connection between inBloom and Rupert Murdoch, and TechCrunch didn’t make it explicit, however Reuters explains that the inBloom technical infrastructure was built by Amplify Education, a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corps. That explains that then.
Those of you who have been following the CETIS Analytics Series will be aware that such concerns about privacy, anonymity and large scale data integration and analysis initiatives are nothing new, however I thought this was an interesting example of the phenomenon.
It’s also worth adding that, as the parent of a primary school age child, it has never once occurred to me to enquire what kind of data the school records, who that data is shared with and in what form. To be honest I am pretty philosophical about these things. However it is interesting that people have a tendency not to ask questions about their data until a big / new / evil / transformative (delete according to preference) technology development like this comes along. So what do you think? Is it all FUD? Or is it time to get our tin hats out?
I’m still very interested to see if inBloom’s technical infrastructure and core technologies are up to the job, so I’ll continue to watch these developments with interest. And you never know, if my itchy nose gets the better of me I might even ask around to find out what happens to pupil data on this side of the pond.