The end of InBloom and the future of education data systems

Imagine your community was developing a new data initiative for health care.  Your primary care physician could enter your medical information into a secure system to let other medical professionals access your records to ensure you get the best health care possible. You end up in another doctor’s office or emergency room and staff can get immediate access to your medical history—allergies, blood type, medications, surgeries, medical directives, living wills.

Additionally, this system would provide doctors with information that was not personally identifiable to you but would advance their ability to prevent and treat diseases. This has the potential to revolutionize health care. This data system had made great progress. Then it was suddenly shut down.

This happened this week—but it wasn’t in health care.  It was in education.

InBloom was started with a $100 million investment from the Gates and Carnegie foundations to address a fundamental gap in education.  Schools need better systems for staff and teachers to safely and securely store and access student data. InBloom was developing a cloud-based system that could help districts across the nation solve this critical need. This week, in the face of mounting opposition and the resulting reluctance of school districts to use the system, InBloom announced that it was ceasing operations.

I understand why InBloom experienced intense pushback.  Identity theft continues to rise.  We are getting notices from retailers and web sites that our credit cards have been hacked. We are angry about our personal data being used for private profit. Who knows what the National Security Agency is collecting. We want to protect ourselves and our children. This isn’t a problem that originated with education, but now schools are scrambling to respond to concerns.

Where did inBloom go wrong?

Families and communities were insufficiently engaged in developing inBloom, and they didn’t understand how what InBloom was doing would help their kids and student learning.

In recent months, state legislatures across the nation have considered dozens of education data bills. Data security and privacy is essential, but the driving force behind this rush to pass legislation is concern and fear instead of how to best advance student learning.

We are seeing similar pushback with school testing, school turnaround efforts and Common Core State Standards. We are beginning to see the same thing happening in response to digital learning initiatives. Families and communities feel that education reform is being done to them instead of with them.

So why is this happening, and what can we do about it?

Change is difficult, especially when it impacts our children.  Schools are focused on their core mission of educating students.  For most, families and communities are a second order of business.  The systems that prepare school leaders and teachers treat families and communities as an afterthought.

As a result, when transformative education initiatives get rolled out they are typically very school focused.  Engaging students and families is rarely a top-level concern.  In the best cases, schools implement communication efforts to tell communities what they are doing.  They distribute informational materials.  There are information sessions.  Schools are marketing efforts that have already been decided.

This is the problem.

As long as the dominant approach to family and community engagement is communications and outreach, transformational education efforts are headed for failure. We must evolve to collaboration and cooperation with students and families.

So what does this look like?

It means that when schools implement new initiatives that students, families and community organization are full partners in designing them. It means that curriculum standards are developed in collaboration with students and families, and they understand why they are important.  It means that when students take a test that the results are promptly provided back to them and their families in a way that they can use to advance their own learning. It means that students and parents have ownership of their education data and can share it securely with other schools, afterschool programs and anyone else helping them on their path to learning success.

The tragic irony is that the education technology revolution that is catalyzing this pushback could provide the antidote to the very concerns it is creating. Rich education data can put students and families in the driver’s seat for their learning. It can transform how schools, families and community partners collaborate to boost student engagement and learning—but only if partnerships become a central focus for these efforts. Only if educators move from communication to collaboration and co-creation.

The antidote to concerns about “big data” is focusing on “small data.”  Make data systems useful for students, families and communities or we are bound to repeat what happened with inBloom.

This is a central reason that we are launching Span Learning, to help schools, community organizations and education technology developers harness the opportunities that technology affords us to create transformative partnerships—partnerships that put students at the center of a world of learning that spans across communities and nations.

We hope you will join us in taking on this challenge.

Michael Robbins is senior vice president at Collaborative Communications and the founder of Span Learning.