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JOANNA WEISS

First-grader, or cloud-based data stream?

We have nearly a month of school left, but the end-of-year activities are already piling up: field days and fairs, concerts and art shows, ways to placate fidgety kids who know they’ll be leaving their classrooms soon.

And it’s worth considering the kinds of classrooms many of them will leave: state-of-the-art, digitized. In my daughter’s elementary school, the chalkboards have disappeared, replaced by smartboards with digital bells and whistles, plus laptops and iPads used for math drills and touch-typing prep.

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This state of affairs has led, perhaps inevitably, to inBloom, a controversial new data storage project designed to make it easier for schools to use educational software — or, if you view things more skeptically, for schools to use students as data streams.

Massachusetts is considering taking part. Everett is testing it out. But not everyone is so bullish about the idea, or the notion of technology as savior. Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said he was stunned to watch an inBloom promotional video, filled with a gauzy images of students and teachers, blissfully hovering over tablet computers.

“You see this vision of teachers as being people who collect data and beam it up to the cloud, and the cloud sends lessons back,” Golin told me.

Beyond the broader questions about technology itself, many of the complaints about inBloom have to do with security and privacy. The nonprofit corporation, financed partly by the Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, would collect student data on cloud-based servers under one standardized format. InBloom’s developers say this would save school districts time they now spend formatting data for different software programs. Software companies, unsurprisingly, are salivating.

But Golin points out that inBloom data could follow a student from kindergarten through high school, a modern twist on “your permanent record.” And some of that data might have little to do with classroom skills: Fields in the database include “Pregnant Teen,” “Homeless,” “Unschooled Refugee,” and what role a student played in a disciplinary incident. Golin’s group, along with several others, is urging Massachusetts to require parental consent for inBloom uploads.

The inBloom data model could be a modern twist on “your permanent record.”

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State officials respond that school districts already store much of this information, with neither parental consent nor inBloom’s state-of-the-art security. They say districts will decide what data they upload — they don’t have to fill in every field, or use the service at all — and will have to give companies permission to use it.

And they say the risks of inBloom are outweighed by the potential.

“The opportunity is literally to change teaching and to change a teacher’s life,” said Tom Stella, assistant superintendent of Everett Public Schools.

After agreeing to pilot inBloom, Stella told me, he brought some Everett teachers to consult with the database programmers. The teachers said that what they needed most was a way to consolidate assessment tests, so they could type in a student’s name and instantly see which subjects he was struggling with.

I asked Stella the obvious question: Isn’t this something a teacher should already know? He answered by describing a typical Everett classroom. It has kids whose native languages are Portuguese, Arabic, Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Albanian; a few more students on individual education plans; a teacher who has been on the job for less than five years. The less time it takes for that teacher to find an individual lesson, he said, the more time she’ll have to teach the rest of the class.

It may be that this kind of drilled-down programming is most needed in urban districts, the very ones least likely to have iPads now. Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, told me he’s looking for ways to fund upgrades across the state so every district has access to technology.

The next step, he said, will be learning which technology works best.

We’re in a transitional period now, which is why things look so heady for software entrepreneurs, and why it’s useful for parents to be skeptical. On the other hand, as one state education official told me, it’s easy to get overnostalgic about the analog days, the “$70 textbooks that get torn up and lost in the first year.”

There will be good computer programs and bad ones. The question — as always — is how we’ll use them.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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