Some school administrators are testing a bold idea to integrate the multitude of systems that are used to store student data, giving teachers a single view of how students are performing and allowing them to better deliver the right learning materials.
The idea, which builds on a project called inBloom that's partly funded by Bill Gates, would also provide a single repository for the best learning applications and content, which teachers could draw from in a model akin to the app stores run by Apple and Google.
It's just one way that schools are trying to put all their student databases, educational software and administrative systems under one roof as their use of educational technology grows. It has inevitably raised concerns about privacy and security, however.
Some say the arrival of such a system would be long overdue. "This has always been where I wanted to be able to go," said Jim Peterson, technology director at Bloomington Public Schools in Illinois, who was on a panel discussing the idea Thursday at the education arm of the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.
The district has about 100 different systems in its data centers, for student assessments, attendance, food services, transportation ... "you name it," Peterson said.
Bloomington embarked on an effort several years ago to integrate its data onto an easily accessible platform, but the effort failed because it was too big in scale, Peterson said. But now, as one district in nine states working together to pilot the inBloom project, its schools are in a better position to succeed, he said.
InBloom, the brainchild of a nonprofit of the same name, is ultimately aimed at making learning more personalized for students through more efficient use of technology. In addition to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York is a major backer. The idea is that a better integrated technology and data analytics platform would provide a clearer picture of the student and make it easier to provide the right learning materials for that individual.
The system could make teachers' jobs a lot easier too. Christine Sauca, a math teacher in Massachusetts' Everett school district, described her typical day in the classroom: She takes attendance, looks up grade-book information, checks five or six different content management systems, and logs into services from different vendors the district has contracts with, such as PBS. Finally, she gets to teach. When the day is over, she spends more time completing observational assessments and eventually makes lesson plans for the next day.
Sauca logs into easily 10 or 15 different systems or pieces of software on any given day, she said. In the future, she's looking forward to a single sign-on model.
"I'm going from paper systems to Word or Excel sheets to grade-book systems to state systems ... it's kind of all over the place," she said. But "the ability to go to one spot and do it all -- that is where I'm looking for all this to go," she said.
Ken Wagner, associate commissioner of curriculum assessment and educational technology for the New York state education department, described inBloom as "boring plumbing stuff"; if it works right, teachers should need to pay attention to it.
"What's interesting is the stuff built on top of it," he said. InBloom's roster of technology partners includes providers of learning tools like Agilix, Clever, Compass Learning and BloomBoard, as well as Amazon and Dell.
Parent groups and privacy advocates have voiced concerns about the potential for data abuse or security breaches given all the information that inBloom would have access to. Panelists acknowledged those concerns, saying inBloom is working hard to provide answers to questions about privacy and security, and that the system is in compliance with state and federal regulations.
Bill Gates himself delivered the closing keynote address at the South by Southwest education show, where he espoused the benefits of technology in education and said schools are at a "technology tipping point."