The authors ask
Why Do We Still Talk About inBloom?
Many people in the area of educational technology still discuss the story of inBloom. InBloom was an ambitious edtech initiative funded in 2011, launched in 2013, and ended in 2014. We asked ourselves why the story of inBloom is important, and conducted a year-long case study to find the answer. For some, inBloom’s story is one of contradiction: the initiative began with unprecedented scope and resources. And yet, its decline was swift and public. What caused a $100 million initiative with technical talent and political support to close in just one year? A key factor was the combination of the public’s low tolerance for risk and uncertainty and the inBloom initiative’s failure to communicate the benefits of its platform and achieve buy-in from key stakeholders. InBloom’s public failure to achieve its ambitions catalyzed discussions of student data privacy across the education ecosystem, resulting in student data privacy legislation, an industry pledge, and improved analysis of the risks and opportunities of student data use. It also surfaced the public’s low tolerance for risk and uncertainty, and the vulnerability of large-scale projects to public backlash. Any future U. S. edtech project will have to contend with the legacy of inBloom, and so this research begins to analyze exactly what that legacy is.
The inBloom Story
InBloom was a $100 million educational technology initiative primarily funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that aimed to improve American schools by providing a centralized platform for data sharing, learning apps, and curricula. In a manner that has become a hallmark of the Gates Foundation’s large scale initiatives, inBloom was incredibly ambitious, well-funded, and expected to deliver high impact solutions in a short time frame. The initiative aimed to foster a multi-state consortium to co-develop the platform and share best practices. It intended to address the challenge of siloed data storage that prevented the interoperability of existing school datasets by introducing shared standards, an open source platform that would allow local iteration, and district-level user authentication to improve security. By providing a platform for learning applications, founders of inBloom set out to challenge the domination of major education publishers in the education software market and allow smaller vendors to enter the space. Ultimately, the initiative planned to organize existing data into meaningful reporting for teachers and school administrators to inform personalized instruction and improve learning outcomes.
The initiative was initially funded in 2011 and publicly launched in February, 2013. What followed was a public backlash over inBloom’s intended use of student data, surfacing concerns over privacy and protection. Barely a year later, inBloom announced its closure. Was this swift failure a result of flying too close to the sun, being too lofty in ambition, or were there deeper structural or external factors?
To examine the factors that contributed to inBloom’s closure, we interviewed 18 key actors who were involved in the inBloom initiative, the Shared Learning Infrastructure (SLI) and the Shared Learning Collaborative (SLC), the latter of which were elements under the broader inBloom umbrella. Interview participants included administrators from school districts and state-level departments of education, major technology companies, former Gates Foundation and inBloom employees, parent advocates, parents, student data privacy experts, programmers, and engineers.
The inBloom initiative occurred during a historically tumultuous time for the public understanding of data use. It coincided with Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA collecting data on U.S. civilians sparking concerns about government overreach, the Occupy Wall Street protests surfacing anti-corporation sentiments, and data breaches reported by Target, Kmart, Staples, and other large retailers. The beginnings of a national awareness of the volume of personal data generated by everyday use of credit cards, digital devices, and the internet were coupled with emerging fears and uncertainty. The inBloom initiative also contended with a history of school data used as punitive measures of education reform rather than constructive resources for teachers and students. InBloom therefore served as an unfortunate test case for emerging concerns about data privacy coupled with entrenched suspicion of education data and reform.
What Went Wrong?
InBloom did not lack talent, resources, or great ideas, but throughout its brief history, the organization and the product seemed to embody contradictory business models, software development approaches, philosophies, and cultures. There was a clash between Silicon Valley-style agile software development methods and the slower moving, more risk-averse approaches of states and school districts. At times, it was as though a team of brilliant thinkers had harvested every “best practice” or innovative idea in technology, business, and education—but failed to whittle them down to a manageable and cohesive strategy. Despite the Gates Foundation’s ongoing national involvement with schools, the inBloom initiative seemed to not anticipate the multiple layers of politics and bureaucracy within the school system. Instead there were expectations that educational reform would be easily accomplished, with immediate results, or that – worst case – there would be an opportunity to simply fail fast and iterate.
However, the development of inBloom was large-scale and public, leaving little room to iterate or quietly build a base of case studies to communicate its value and vision. Thus, when vocal opposition raised concerns about student data use potentially harming children’s future prospects or being sold to third parties for targeted advertising, the initiative was caught without a strong counter-position. As opposition mounted, participating states succumbed to pressure from advocacy groups and parents and, one by one, dropped out of the consortium.
The Legacy of InBloom
Although inBloom closed in 2014, it ignited a public discussion of student data privacy that resulted in the introduction of over 400 pieces of state-level legislation. The fervor over inBloom showed that policies and procedures were not yet where they needed to be for schools to engage in data-informed instruction. Industry members responded with a student data privacy pledge that detailed responsible practice. A strengthened awareness of the need for transparent data practices among nearly all of the involved actors is one of inBloom’s most obvious legacies.
Instead of a large-scale, open source platform that was a multi-state collaboration, the trend in data-driven educational technologies since inBloom’s closure has been toward closed, proprietary systems, adopted piecemeal. To date, no large-scale educational technology initiative has succeeded in American K-12 schools. This study explores several factors that contributed to the demise of inBloom and a number of important questions: What were the values and plans that drove inBloom to be designed the way it was? What were the concerns and movements that caused inBloom to run into resistance? How has the entire inBloom development impacted the future of edtech and student data?