School districts can leverage data better with inBloom

Can open middleware revolutionize education?

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"It is a miracle that curiosity escapes formal education." These words by Albert Einstein reflect a lot about the current state of education. It also captures the need for overhauling the fabric of our school system. Society needs technology solutions that extract the best out of all the stakeholders in educationstudents, teachers, and parents. And we need enterprises that revolutionize the learning ecosystem. inBloom is one such company that utilizes and integrates massive amounts of data to change the landscape of the education sector.

I talked to Vincent Mayers, open source community manager at inBloom, to learn how the company is changing school systems and how open source technologies aid in its mission.

Read more in this interview.

Tell us about inBloom and its mission.

inBloom is an independent, non-profit organization whose mission is to provide a valuable resource to teachers, students and families for improving education.

In 2011, the Shared Learning Collaborative (SLC), an alliance of states, districts, educators, foundations and content and tool providers passionate about using technology to improve education, was formed through the leadership of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The vision of that group was simple: create a resource that better allows teachers to provide students with learning experiences that meet them where they are, engage them deeply, and let them progress at a pace that meets their individual needs. In early 2013 the SLC became inBloom Inc., a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide "middleware technology," that allows states and school districts to better integrate student data and third-party applications by enabling single sign-on and aggregation of data from many web-based educational tools. inBloom also provides a basis for companies to develop new solutions for schools, teachers, parents, and students that are interoperable without needing to conform to arbitrary standards or conventions.

The inBloom data integration and content search services enrich learning applications by connecting them to systems and information that currently live in a variety of different places and formats; enabling teachers to more easily tailor education to the needs, skill level, and learning pace of each individual student by integrating the multiple resources available to them. It also engages each parent more deeply in their children’s learning process and saves teachers time while saving schools money. In addition, inBloom offers a substantial security upgrade to the current resources being used to house student data, which is often found in paper records or disconnected and antiquated databases with few security features.

Where do you see inBloom in the next five years?

The need for a secure data service in education will grow dramatically over the next five years. School districts will easily be able to use inBloom’s secure data service to connect to high-quality instructional tools and locate great instructional content objects from the Internet using the Learning Registry Index. School districts will be able to know which tools worked for which students by drawing conclusions from more and better classroom-level information. Application providers will be able to provide solutions based on the value they can demonstrate to students, teachers, and families.

How are inBloom’s services different from what districts are already doing?

For decades, schools and districts have collected and housed student information in disparate systems that ranged from paper files to learning management systems and other online tools that didn’t talk to each other, resulting in extra work for teachers and IT staff. While this information has the potential to be a powerful tool for improving student learning, teacher and administrators are faced with the obstacle of either printing numerous files or accessing multiple databases to view and interpret such valuable information.

inBloom connects disparate existing systems with a single-access point where teachers can view and easily match students’ specific needs with tailored instruction. inBloom can also help districts provide parents with user-friendly dashboards that show real-time updates on data selected and controlled by the districts, such as grades, assignments and academic progress. Without inBloom, implementing such dashboards and tools is more costly and time-intensive.

How will teachers, parents and children be able to access and use inBloom?

Again, inBloom provides “middleware technology,” which essentially means that its technology helps educators easily connect current data and new educational tools without having to visit multiple disparate systems. Teachers, parents and students won’t directly access and use inBloom. However, they will be able to access data dashboards and numerous other instructional tools and applications employed by districts that are enabled by inBloom’s services.

Tell us about inBloom's open source and shared data strategy. Which tools and technologies you and your vendors are using?

inBloom's source tree is available as an open source project on GitHub. The goal is to grow, over time, a robust open source developer community that will build applications for teachers, parents and students in our sandbox that will be made available on the inBloom platform. The drivers for being an open source organization are twofold:

  1. inBloom wants its clients, vendors and partners to be able to contribute to the roadmap, features and functionality of the platform, and to have the ability to fine-tune it to their own needs.

  2. inBloom wants to be completely transparent in its effort to build disruptive technology for the education sector.

inBloom’s technology leverages 100% open source technologies, tools, and frameworks. The secure data service is based on Java, OAuth/SAML, REST, MongoDB, ActiveMQ, and Tomcat. inBloom has a number of SDKs for applications that integrate to its APIs and can be built in its sandbox. Apps can be written in most web-based languages but inBloom leverages the Rails stack, Ruby, Java, and JavaScript predominantly. inBloom also makes uses of technologies such as Jetty, Maven and a number of Apache technologies including Solr, Camel, and Commons.

inBloom does not share data. It provides a middleware platform. It is our customers who use data from multiple systems to power classroom applications. Districts that use inBloom in conjunction with applications and services may choose to disclose certain student information to trusted third-party providers to power the learning applications that are implemented in their classrooms. Those disclosures are controlled by the school district. Application providers are only permitted to use selected data for the purposes for which they were contracted and specifically authorized by the district.

School districts are buying and implementing data-driven instructional tools for students, teachers, and families all the time. The challenge is that these tools do not easily interoperatedata from multiple sources cannot easily be shared and integrated. Such lack of interoperability steals time and opportunity from classrooms. A secure data service allows school districts to do one more data integration project and then plug all instructional tools into the secure data service. School districts are in charge of all decisions about what data to load, what applications to approve, and what users can access. Removing the barriers around interoperability will improve the choices available to school districts and the quality of tools available to educators.

School districts deal with this challenge in primarily one of two ways:

  1. Pay for custom integrations. Custom integrations are expensive and do not typically create re-purposeable patterns or technology. They take a lot of time and money to integratetime and money that might otherwise be spent on rolling out great new instructional tools to the classroom.

  2. Rely on teachers to integrate. Teachers manage rosters of kids in multiple websites and are on their own for using multiple tools to gather data and content to support instruction.

How can someone get involved with inBloom?

There are a number of ways that people can engage with inBloom:

Contributing code or building apps are not the only ways to become involved. inBloom welcomes the addition to, or a review of its documentation for ease of use; or a review developer site for content and structure.

Email vincent.mayers@inbloom.org if you have additional questions or to discuss ways to get involved inBloom.

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About the author

Aseem Sharma - Aseem is a graduate of Conrad Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology Center, Faculty of Engineering, University of Waterloo, Canada. He also holds a masters in computers application from Guru Nanak Dev University, Punjab, India. On Opensource.com, he serves as an author. He also blogs at http://aseemsharma.info/.