Readers be forewarned; I am about to age myself. When I was in school, George Orwell’s “1984” was required reading. We couldn’t imagine then that much of what the book presented would be experienced in our lifetime. “Big Brother is watching” is a common euphemism in English vernacular. With today’s search engine targeted advertising, satellite cell phone use and cloud storage, we know that little of what we do, say or write is private. In fact, it is accepted behavior to put on public forums like Facebook and other social media outlets what would have been considered private information only a decade ago. The question is often asked, “Is anything sacred anymore?”
Therefore, it came as a shock to many that inBloom, a $100 million education technology start-up, shut down after only 15 months of operation. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation along with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, its goal was 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. It planned to collect and integrate student attendance, assessment, disciplinary and other records from different 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. Districts could effortlessly share student records with developers seeking to create educational tools for schools. It was considered a potentially revolutionary way to educate students.
However, opposition quickly began to build when it was understood that school districts were unequipped to manage the information being given to vendors. These included personal health and behavioral issues as well as learning challenges in very specific terms i.e. tardy, autistic, pregnant, victim of abuse, etc.
It is not completely new that delicate student data is shared with 3rd party vendors. For instance, outsourced bus companies have been provided with information about student physical disabilities for decades. But, to many, this information was reasonable to provide proper service. Whereas, giving overly private information to vendors whose main goal, let’s face it, is to make a profit selling learning products, apps, curriculum materials, and video games has many worried about present day misuse along with possible future damage to students. For instance, would a possible employer check the student’s history and find out something about the person from 1st grade which would prevent him from being hired as an adult?
Part of the problem with inBloom was that districts signed contracts with vendors without understanding the fine print. They noted that administrators had no policies in place to govern who could see the information, how long it would be kept or whether it would be shared with colleges to which students applied. All this indicated that schools were not properly prepared for the backlash which swiftly came.
There are other data sharing options already on the market which are working to improve the sharing of information between schools and vendors in a secure way to truly benefit students. “Clever” is one such system. It serves as a “data bridge” automatically creating and updating student accounts by securely sharing classroom roster information between schools and approved vendors. Four years ago, Clever was used by two schools. Only through word-of-mouth and with the help of substantial outside investment, Clever now connects 20,000 schools with 100 software vendors.
No doubt, the use of personally tailored technology for individual students is the wave of the future. Yet, perhaps the future has not arrived. Already, prekindergarten-12th grade education technology software is an $8 billion business! But, where does “helping” students begin and sharing private information cross the line?