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Will Rupert Murdoch's Media Empire End Up Owning Your Child's Student Data?

Where is the balance of power between commercial vendors and the public school system?
 
 
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Photo Credit: By World Economic Forum via Wikimedia Commons

 

Earlier this month, The New York Times ran a fascinating story on the controversy surrounding inBloom, which promises to serve as a one-stop warehouse-in-the-cloud for student data, but which many educators and parents worry might compromise the privacy of kids in grades K-12. Like a number of major education-reform ventures, this one was launched by a group of funders led by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation .

Now that most states have signed onto the Common Core State Standards, which will use computerized assessments, the allure of creating a central repository of student data is more compelling than ever.  The NYT lays out the potential benefits of the inBloom system, including the ability to store large amounts of student information and provide tools for analyzing the data–information that will be available not only to educators, but also to education-technology developers who can tailor products to student and school needs. The article also explores the privacy concerns raised by the easy access that large numbers of companies will have to a vast array of information, ranging from academic achievement to disciplinary problems, for potentially tens of millions of students.

The story touches, though only obliquely, on important questions about the balance-of-power between commercial vendors and public schools and school districts, which inBloom is supposed to facilitate.

But one of the most intriguing aspects of the story is one the NYT does not address at all. Nowhere does the NYT mention that the operating system for inBloom is being developed by the Amplify division (formerly Wireless Generation) of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. This is a striking omission given that that the NYT is the paper of record in New York City where the CEO of Amplify/Wireless Generation, Joel Klein, recently served as schools chancellor. And this despite the fact that New York is one of only three states out of an original nine that, according to the article, “continues to pursue the service.”

In a brief phone conversation, Natasha Singer, the author of the article, explained that the aim of her story was to focus on “one small district in Colorado” and how technology and privacy concerns associated with inBloom play out in an area with much fewer resources than New York City. She also noted that, as is often the case, much was cut from her original story during the editing process.

inBloom itself seems eager to downplay News Corp./Wireless Generation’s involvement, in the venture, even though it was a key partner in the Shared Learning Collaborative, which gave rise to inBloom. (inBloom was launched earlier this year with $100 million in funding.)  Although a March press release announced that Wireless Generation would be one of 24 software providers, the “partner” and “provider” tabs on the company’s website list 21 providers, but not Wireless Generation or Amplify.

For New Yorkers, inBloom may seem like something of a son-of-Frankenstein B-movie sequel, as inBloom traces its roots to a technological lemon: Several years ago, IBM and Wireless Generation developed ARIS (Achievement Reporting and Innovation System), a portal for the New York City Department of Education, which was widely seen as a failure.

ThenCisco began building a rival prototype portal that the company offered to the NYCDOE and that many teachers and principals said was much more useful than ARIS; but the city killed the project in August 2010. At the time, officials at the NYCDOE said that when work on the Cisco portal fell behind schedule, the education department pieced together an in-house version and took over the professional training Cisco had been providing for schools that were part of the much ballyhooed innovation-zone (or izone) initiative. More recently, NYCDOE insiders have said the department pulled the plug because of investments it had already made in ARIS, which came to total about $100 million.