InBloom CEO Recounts Uphill Fight to Win Over the Public on Data, Privacy

Managing Editor

Scottsdale, Ariz.

The topic—student data privacy—was a familiar one. But undeniably, the afternoon panel discussion that took place in Ballroom M had at least one thing going for it: It had the man of the hour.

That man was Iwan Streichenberger, the CEO of inBloom, which earlier on Monday surprised many in the education world by announcing that it will shut down in the face of persistent controversy over its data collection and aggregation work in states and districts.

ASU-GSV-slug.gifNot surprisingly, that news prompted tons of chatter among attendees at the ASU/GSV Education Innovation Summit, a major gathering of ed-tech types and entrepreneurs being held at a resort here in suburban Phoenix.

Streichenberger, one of a group of speakers including U.S. Department of Education office of technology Director Richard Culatta, was well aware of the curiosity and attention directed his way, as were the other panelists. In fact, Karen Cator, the CEO of the group Digital Promise (and a former director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of technology) acknowledged inBloom’s news by turning the floor over to Streichenberger, before having the panel move on to other topics.

The inBloom official offered a defense of his organization’s methods in safeguarding student data, describing them as top-of-the-line. But he also joined the other panelists in describing the frustrations that come to school officials, private companies, and policymakers trying to set strict-but-realistic privacy policies—while also trying to explain those rules to skeptical parents. (See my colleague Ben Herold’s item explaining inBloom’s announcement, for more context.)

The criticism directed at inBloom was disappointing, Streichenberger told the audience, because the company believes it is “probably miles ahead of most systems in place in schools and districts,” in terms of protecting data.

“Security and privacy were very high on [our] list from day one,” he said. But “we’ve come to realize that public acceptance of what inBloom does will take a long time.”

When the organization shuts down, “the losers will be parents, and the children and the teachers in the classroom,” he said.

Several of the panelists also argued that parents and students could end up as the unintentional victims of some of the farthest-reaching pieces of data-privacy legislation moving through statehouses. Dozens of bills have been proposed on that topic.

Culatta, for instance, said he worried that policies designed to restrict all third-party access to data could have the effect of limiting the use of detailed classroom data on student performance, or even families’ overall access to grades and other measures of how their children were doing academically. Many districts count on private companies to help them collect and organize that information, he said.

But Culatta also said private companies need to do a better job of explaining their privacy policies to students and parents—which doesn’t mean simply dumping an “87-page agreement” in front of them, and asking them to read it.

“It’s time to say it in plain English,” Culatta said. “It’s time to say it in ways that teachers and parents can understand.”

But sometimes, presenting a clear message—or even deciding who should deliver it—is far from simple, Streichenberger pointed out.

“Who should talk about these things?” the inBloom official asked. Normally, with a company like inBloom, “you provide your technology to CTOs and CIOs, and you expect your clients, your partners to do the work.”

But when it came to state and local school officials to answer questions about how inBloom worked—how long data was to be stored, who has access to the system—many were “unequipped to [lead] these discussions,” he said.

Yet at the same time, “In many cases our clients told us, ‘Do not get involved, we’ll do the discussion,” Streichenberger said. “We’ll take care of that….the more we can help them by giving them the right information, the right knowledge, the right content, the right support, the better. They will face a lot of really complex questions.”

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