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In Event: Whither Equity in the "21st-Century School"? Critical Perspectives on Education and Technology
The philanthropic gifts of a handful of chief executives from Silicon Valley are globally shaping the K-12 education space (Singer, 2017). Recently, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Gates Foundation announced a $12 million philanthropic investment in personalized learning (Herold, 2017). Yet in 2014, inBloom—a $100 million initiative to improve American schools—closed after publicly launching only the year before. Funded primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the aim of the inBloom initiative was to provide a platform for data sharing, learning apps, and curricula. It was well resourced, with strong technical talent and political support, so what caused its swift failure? This paper examines inBloom as a cautionary case study of why large-scale education technology ventures fail in the U.S. K-12 space.
Drawing on data from in-depth interviews of 18 key actors involved in the inBloom initiative, we uncovered a fundamental mismatch in the cultural ecosystems of schooling and technology (Author, 2017). Interview participants included administrators from school districts and state-level departments of education, major technology companies, former Gates Foundation and inBloom employees, parent advocates, parents, student data privacy experts, programmers, and engineers. Participants reported a clash between the slow moving bureaucracies of school districts and the iterative, fast-paced culture of Silicon Valley technology development. Silicon Valley culture prizes experimentation, failing fast and iterating, of putting a “minimum viable product” in the field to test and then making adjustments where necessary. School districts are more risk-averse, with higher stakes for failure. Change in schools happens slowly and decision-making occurs within a complex network of bureaucracy and politics. We suggest these essential differences in approach and priorities present critical barriers to success.
Interview participants noted a disregard by inBloom and the Gates Foundation of the caution demonstrated by school districts and the multiple layers of bureaucracy involved in district decision-making. With a focus on an ambitious vision, there seemed to be a lack of care for the high stakes for students if the philanthropic effort failed. Public response demonstrated discomfort with the Silicon Valley approach to putting something in the schoolroom that required adjustment and iteration, viewing uncertainty as unacceptable. InBloom’s failure to fulfill their promises meant that underserved schools continued to not have the access and programming promised by the platform. As one parent observed, “inBloom was going to bridge a technology and equity gap that continues to grow between well funded districts and those with fewer resources in poor urban and rural districts.” A lesson for philanthropists is that approaching any innovation requires caution and care with clear, agreed upon goals developed in collaboration with the schools they attempt to serve.