In less than two years, inBloom went from being a sort of Holy Grail for student data services to a sacrificial lamb that has brought data and privacy discussions to the forefront.
On Monday, April 21, inBloom CEO Iwan Streichenberger announced on the nonprofit’s homepage his “decision to wind down the organization over the coming months.” Frustrations surfaced throughout the statement, as Streichenberger claimed his company was "the subject of mischaracterizations and a lightning rod for misdirected criticism." He repeated his discontent later in the day at a panel at the ASU+GSV Education Innovation Summit, where he referred to the debate over inBloom as a “very contentious and, at times, a very irrational discussion."
But recognition of defeat also shown through, as Streichenberger referenced “lessons learned,” particularly in regards to engaging in data discussions with districts, schools, and parents.
The mediastorm and Tweet flurries demanded answers to several questions that remain unanswered: What will inBloom do with the remainder of its $100 million funding? Will the platform cease to exist? So far, the company has not responded.
Instead of figuring out inBloom’s final steps, more immediately fruitful efforts can be put towards identifying what lessons can be drawn from this announcement--and where each of the players in this long, exhausting game now stand.
Both critics and supporters of inBloom agree on one thing: it failed to clearly communicate with the public, particularly with parents.
Earlier today, Diane Ravitch told EdSurge that “parents didn't want their children's private info available for data mining” and “said ‘no’ so loudly that legislators heard.” She is referring to the state of New York, where legislators pulled the state out of its inBloom partnership earlier this month--potentially driving the final nail into inBloom’s coffin.
New York parent advocate, Leonie Haimson, also agrees about the importance of hearing the parent side, expressing to EdSurge: “In reality, parents have legitimate concerns that have to be addressed. Be honest and work with parents, rather than ignore them, or worse, be condescending to them.”
Streichenberger appears to agree. InBloom originally expected that districts and schools would have conversations with parents over the use of their platform and application of student data. This did not happen, and inBloom was not prepared to deal with the aftermath. At the conference, Streichenberger explained that in many cases, "districts and states are not prepared to have these discussions" with the parents, despite inBloom’s initial assumptions. He continues: "I think we learned our lessons there that they are not always prepared to do so.”
So how can data companies be prepared to communicate? Recognize there are multiple audiences involved (and multiple levels of comprehension), and be available for questions consistently--especially when it comes to social media.
“There was largely silence on inBloom’s social media channel [after the launch], where the conversation against inBloom was taking place,” says former teacher and frequent inBloom commentator, Bill Fitzgerald.
InBloom’s Twitter account, which has since been taken down, hadn’t been updated with Tweets or user interactions since April 2013--merely a month after the company’s launch at SXSWedu last year.
Fitzgerald continues: “You can’t actually expect to convince people if you don’t show up and engage.”
Top-down initiatives can breed ill-sentiment. When student data privacy came into the spotlight, so did concerns about top-down organizations housing that data. Says Haimson:
“Government officials, foundations, and vendors should learn the lesson of inBloom, and stop imposing their so-called “solutions” top-down on classrooms throughout the country, regardless of the views of parents about the damage and risk to their children.”
But beyond the top-down element, what inBloom failed to do was connect their methods with how their product could actually help students and districts.
“[InBloom] never actually made a compelling case for why this would make things better,” Fitzgerald explains. “They said ‘data will transform the way education happens,’ but didn’t have any concrete examples.”
It’s important to make a company’s missions and methods incredibly clear, especially when it comes to a delivering what Streichenberger himself described as “a very unique, very difficult" concept. As Frank Catalano argued in his column on data this week, it’s critical that vendors define the “product” and describe “what data will be mined, for what purpose, and what is the visible manifestation of the result.”
In fact, take a page out of a teacher’s book. Most educators know that using project exemplars as a way to explain potential end products to kids can alleviate concerns about what’s expected of them. And let’s be honest--kids aren’t so different from adults. Exemplars are helpful for comprehension at any age.
The ongoing debate and controversy around how to best leverage and safeguard student data is, according to Streichenberger, "not just an inBloom problem."
The need for the industry and community stakeholders to address the data issue collectively is a long overdue discussion, he said. “Federal, state, local, personal. The industry needs to self-regulate--just waiting for the law won't work.”
But collaboration needs to extend beyond those in the industry. Several mentions of a “student privacy bill of rights” have surfaced over the past few months. A document like this, drafted as a collaborative effort between district admins, schools, parents, company reps, legislators, and (perhaps most importantly) students, could serve as a set of statutes for entrepreneurs to go by in designing and communicating about products.