inBloom: Data, Politics, Money, Education, and the Crash

inBloom polarized the educational community like few other projects. Now that the project has folded, what can we learn?
Bill Fitzgerald
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Portland, Oregon
United States
1 Team Member

On August 3, 2011, Vicki Phillips of the Gates Foundation announced the launch of the Shared Learning Collaborative. She compared the project to "a huge app store - just for teachers - with the Netflix and Facebook capabilities we love the most." She described the work in highly auspicious terms:

There are few times in life when we are fortunate enough to be part of something amazing. I believe this is one of those times, and I am especially excited because the “something amazing” is being led by states.

The Shared Learning Collaborative (or SLC) started with $87,000,000.00 from the Gates Foundation and an additional $3,000,000.00 from the Carnegie Corporation. When the SLC was announced, nine states - Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, and Louisiana - had agreed or were in talks to partner with the new organization. The software built by the SLC promised to simplify data collection, and to streamline the process of districts and states using student data with vendors to build educational tools.

In February 2013, the Shared Learning Collaborative incorporated as the non-profit inBloom. The organization had a raft of industry partners on board. Big data and education technology were hot. inBloom had a formal launch party at South By Southwest. Things looked rosy.

Fast forward a year, to April 22, 2014: inBloom announced that they were winding down their organization. In 14 months, all of their customers had backed out.

To understand the forces leading to the failure of inBloom is to understand the passions and arguments that punctuate current education policy discussions. inBloom can be understood as a technology, as a business strategy, and as a philosophical vision about what some people think education should be.

The story of inBloom - the concept, the launch, the hype, the crash - ties in with the story of educational technology and education activism. In 2011, four days before the launch of inBloom, thousands of teachers marched in Washington, DC, to protest the growing influence of corporations and billionaires in shaping education policy. On the tech front, the iPad2 was poised to revolutionize education. Sal Khan was either a messiah or a demolitionist, but both options were good. Six weeks after the SLC launched, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced federal waivers giving states flexibility in meeting the terms of No Child Left Behind.

On paper, the demise of inBloom appeared unthinkable. The organization had close to 100 million dollars. They were backed by the Gates Foundation, and their development partners included a Rupert Murdoch-owned company run by the politically seasoned Joel Klein. The software inBloom was building - according to some - promised to simplify or eliminate longstanding pain points felt by districts. Supporters of inBloom cited the inefficiency of current data systems and the potential of individualized learning; detractors voiced strong concerns over privacy, and derided inBloom as another tool to replace teachers with technology in the name of educational reform.

A close look at inBloom leads us directly to issues around data use, parental involvement, student privacy, state and federal data collection, accountability reporting, equity, issues of race and socioeconomic status, Big Data, and the role of the wealthy and powerful in shaping education policy - to name a few. Understanding why inBloom failed can help us make headway on longstanding differences - differences in policy directions, questions related to teacher autonomy, questions related to student learning, and social issues that affect how people learn. These issues existed before inBloom, and will continue to persist in its absence. Regardless of how one feels about inBloom, their presence elevated the visibility of concerns that had been primarily the domain of tech geeks and policy wonks. While inBloom is a story about the failure of an educational technology company, the arc of inBloom encompasses far more than just technology.

With your backing, I can write this book. While I have already written about inBloom, student rights, and education policy, telling a more complete story requires additional time and research. Writing this book requires interviews and conversations with people across the ideological spectrum. I know people who are ardent supporters of inBloom, I know people who have spent hundreds of hours organizing in opposition to inBloom, and I want to talk with as many people as possible. Including diverse viewpoints - and representing them fairly - is a key component to the success of the book.

The final version of the book will be licensed under a Creative Commons license. This means that the text of the book, once written, will be freely available to anyone. As part of the project, I will build and launch a web site to publish the text online, and support downloads for offline reading. Once the book is written, it will be freely available for anyone to download and read.

Thank you for backing this project, or considering backing this project.

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