Student research versus privacy concerns for software

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It’s been both praised as a way for teachers to better personalize instruction and panned as a data-mining invasion of student privacy.

Either way one looks at it, a controversial database is on its way to being piloted at schools in Jefferson County.

A data system called inBloom — a $100 million project primarily funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — is being tried out in three states, with Colorado being one of them.

Jeffco Schools is set to become the first school district in the state to a launch pilot version of the project, possibly beginning in the 2014 school year.

The Jeffco Board of Education is scheduled to hold a study session 5-7 p.m. tonight at the board of education/superintendent’s officewith Colorado education experts, where a presentation of the inBloom project will be shown.

The system would allow the district to compile students’ personal and academic information from kindergarten through high school. Teachers can use digital data dashboards provided by inBloom to identify weaknesses in student performance and tailor a type of instruction to better suit their needs, according to Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson.

“It’s almost like having an (application) on your phone,” Stevenson said. “You can see who has mastered a standard in grammar, for example, and the data would then give you suggestions for reading and further instruction.”

The new system also gives Jeffco teachers the ability to access different types of student data in one centralized area.

Stevenson said she hopes to launch the pilot for the 2014-2015 school year. There will be no system cost until 2015; that cost is expected to be about $3-$5 per pupil, for the 85,000 student district. The school board must approve funding down the road, before that happens.

inBloom has been the source of controversy across the country, and Colorado has been no exception. Concerns have been raised over what data will be collected, how it will be used and who has access to it.

Child privacy and security concerns are what bother inBloom’s critics like Laura Boggs, a member of the Jefferson County Board of Education. Boggs is worried that inBloom will be able to mine information pertaining to students’ disciplinary records, health records and demographics like race and religion.

“There are too many unknowns and too little conversations within our community for Jefferson County to dive into this,” Boggs said. “The scary part to me is that inBloom delivers the curriculum to teachers. Do we really want some unknown somebody somewhere delivering a curriculum to students here?”

Jeffco will join school districts in New York and Illinois as participants in the pilot program. A handful of other states have backed away from participating.

The state Department of Education is participating in Jeffco’s pilot program, but the state Board of Education did not have a role in that decision. State Board member Deborah Scheffel, a Parker Republican, said she has had concerns since she attended an inBloom presentation earlier this year.

“Parents are beginning to wonder, ‘What control do I have over this data?’” Scheffel said. “And I’m concerned that they can’t opt out of taking part in the system.”

Stevenson said that in order for the data to be useful, every Jeffco student needs to be a part of the system. In response to other concerns, Stevenson said, “There are simply some untruths being perpetuated. Nobody is going to sell your child’s data. We’re not going to store disciplinary data. And, as far as religion? Good heavens, no.”

Stevenson said there’s a lot to like about inBloom, and she hopes that Jeffco parents will appreciate its benefits.

“If I wanted to track my cholesterol for the last five years, I have immediate access to those results online,” Stevenson said. “Think about what having school information about a child would mean to a parent, being able to plug in a password and have that. There is incredible potential.”

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