Before last week, the cloud-based database known as inBloom had three clients—New York, Illinois, and Jefferson County, Colo.—down from nine when the $170 million brainchild of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was launched. But on Thursday, the board of education in Jefferson County severed ties with inBloom, citing concerns from parents over the privacy of children, Politico reports.
And while New York is still an inBloom client, the election last week of a new mayor, Bill de Blasio, in a “landslide victory, stretching from the working-class precincts of central Brooklyn to the suburban streets of southeast Queens,” as the New York Times put it, might set up a confrontation between City Hall and the office of John B King Jr, the state’s education commissioner.
Mr de Blasio made it clear during his campaign he doesn’t like inBloom. In March, as he joined Class Size Matters to protest inBloom, he said, “I don’t want my kids’ privacy bought and sold like this. What parent would, especially without their consent? We have to get protections in place to keep companies from profiting off personal information collected in our schools. Parents have to be consulted and respected. The DOE needs to resolve this invasion of privacy immediately.”
Now that he is the mayor of New York, he may be able to pull a few more strings to make that happen.
The situation in Illinois is not quite as dismal for the future of inBloom. “We look at personalized learning as the next big leap forward in education,” Brandon Williams, a program director at the Illinois State Board of Education, was quoted as saying.
Here we go again! As I have harped on beyond measure, “personalized learning” is not the same thing as tracking a student’s demographics, afterschool activities, test scores, likes and dislikes, etc., in a database. That’s just a computer program following a flowchart of instructions, which were all written long before the computer had any information about the student. Personalized learning, on the other hand, involves getting to know the student first and then coming up with the flowchart based on the student, not on the list of options that have been programmed in. This statement reveals a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of this “director” at ISBE, and that is inexcusable for someone at his level.
He continues, ostensibly to explain but honestly to muddy our water, “Does Johnny have trouble converting decimals to fractions? The database will have recorded that—and may have recorded as well that he finds textbooks boring, adores animation, and plays baseball after school. Personalized learning software can use that data to serve up a tailor-made math lesson, perhaps an animated game that uses baseball statistics to teach decimals.”
First of all, since when have teachers and school administrators had trouble identifying when Johnny couldn’t convert decimals to fractions? (It’s a bad example, because it’s a problem not too many students have trouble with. This makes me think the person who said this has never taught any actual kids named Johnny how to convert decimals to fractions—or anything, really. But let’s just go with it.) Did any school board or teacher even ask for a database to help them identify students who couldn’t convert decimals into fractions? No. In other words, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent $170 million on a project that will “solve” a “problem” that never existed in the first place. Does anybody get the irony?
Teachers have been doing “personalized learning” the right way since there were teachers. Did you have a teacher who recommended a book just for you because she had taken the time to get to know you personally and understood what you were struggling with in class? This happened for me several times during the course of my K-12 career. This is proof that we never needed a database to tell teachers this at all, but the money has already been spent.
However, the wisdom of the Gates Foundation’s spending isn’t really a problem for me. The biggest problem I have with inBloom is the possibility that data about students will be too sticky. That is, when Johnny gets to seventh grade, will the database still have a record of his trouble with converting decimals to fractions, even though he will have mastered the skill and his teachers will have put it to rest several years earlier?
What about his taste in baseball or his adoration of animation? Tastes change, and kids learn—that’s the very meaning of “formative” when we say “formative years”—and while human teachers have a sense for those kinds of things, we all know how records on the Internet, such as these pages I’m writing on, stay around a lot longer than many of us would like.
Nobody wants prospective employers to know we had trouble converting decimals to fractions. For example, have you ever tried to delete a Facebook account? It takes a lot of work, and even then, it’s possible there will still be a few remnants of your activity somewhere on the Web for all eternity.
The only remaining question is, Will the people of Illinois realize what a waste such a project is and stop providing their children’s personal information to corporations? That’s the only question left. The student database known as inBloom is an utter waste, so no actual questions remain about its possible effectiveness in the K-12 market. It doesn’t solve any problems that actually exist in our schools, and the money could have certainly been put to better use solving real problems our schools are facing today.