Home > Uncategorized > Who and what is the Shared Learning Collaborative? (Part 1)

Who and what is the Shared Learning Collaborative? (Part 1)

February 13, 2012

Part 1 of a 2 part seriesPart 1 | Part 2

Okay, here we go with another education reform organization, one which Delaware had a hand in creating, and which will be a player in Delaware schools soon: the Shared Learning Collaborative (SLC). Some of its participants are already on the scene here in Delaware. The partners are names you have probably heard before: Wireless Generation, Double Line Partners, McKinsey & Company, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and more.

The technical notes on the SLC web site are sketchy, so I’ll have to make some educated guesses. But basically: the vendors and consultants who built the new school data systems in Texas and Delaware have gotten together and are now going to give that system away for free, and make a tremendous amount of money doing it.

[…]

After all, there’s $500 billion on the table. Here’s what Rupert Murdoch had to say when his company News Corp purchased Wireless Generation:

“When it comes to K through 12 education,” Murdoch said in a statement about the Wireless Generation purchase, “we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching.”

Let’s hear what the SLC website has to say (keep an eye on the bolded sentences):

Led by the vision of the Council of Chief State School Officers and nine participating states, and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Carnegie Corporation of New York, the SLC is an alliance of states, foundations, educators, content providers, developers and vendors who are passionate about using technology to enhance education.

I’ll look into who these outfits are in a moment. But what are they proposing to do?

The collaborative aims to accelerate the progress of U.S. public schools toward personalized learning by creating a set of shared technology services that will work better and cost less per state than what can be accomplished by each state working individually.

They did put some sketchy technical specifications online, so we can talk about those too. There’s even a hook to the Common Core State Standards, which are also being adopted by Delaware:

The SLC technology will support the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and help states and districts provide teachers with the instructional data and tools they need to make personalized learning the norm in every classroom.

Personalized learning? Wait a minute, I thought data driven reform was supposed to turn students into widgets! but I digress…. I’ll look at what “personalized learning” really means later.

What is this technology they are planning to build?
The working title is Shared Learning Infrastructure (SLI), and much of it has already been built in the course of developing systems for Texas and Delaware. It includes:

  • A data warehouse that gathers data from a state’s various education-related databases, and
  • A pre-built set of dashboards that pull data from the data warehouse, and display it to teachers and other stakeholders.

This part greatly resembles Delaware’s Education Insight project, which is currently under construction, with the data warehouse up and running, and the first dashboards due next month (teacher dashboards). I’ve blogged about this before, here and here and here.

The Teacher Dashboards will pull together all the different pieces of data about a student, and provide tools to slice and dice it into different kinds of analytical reports. This information will then allow the teacher to identify if intervention or additional supports are needed. You can see some mockups of Delaware’s teacher dashboards here (under “Dashboard Snapshots”).

Delaware’s dashboards are being built by Double Line and Wireless Generation, while the underlying data warehouse was built by ESP Solutions, in conjunction with several other firms.

And when I say “built,” I mean Delaware’s system was built using designs (and likely much of the same code). that was used to create the Texas system. The Texas system was in turn based on an initial design framework funded by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and developed by Texas-based vendors and consultants. Delaware’s RFP for the dashboards specified that they were to be based on the Dell templates and the Texas implementation.

How are they going to make money giving it away for free?
The systems and standards developed by SLC partners will be released under an open-source license. That means a state, a vendor, or anybody can download the source code, review it, and even modify it and deploy it for their own customers. I plan to take a look at it myself as soon as it is available.

I assume they have to make it available it as open source, simply because it was developed with public funds (Texas and Delaware). It would be unseemly or probably even illegal to sell the software outright..

But they are not concerned about giving the technology away, because open-source can be a very good business model, especially if you are the sponsor and creator of the technology and the standards that support it. In addition to the source code, the SLC technology relies on a universe of standards and specifications developed by SLC partners, which are also publicly available for free as open standards.

However, just having the source code and standards for the technology won’t get you too far. The real work (and the real money) is in the process of making sure the system can connect to all the state’s various data sources, and is customized to meet the particular requirements of each state, a process known as integration. This part will not be done for free. On top of that, the deployment of the SLC system will generate consulting fees, training, ongoing customization, add-on features, and other needs known as professional services. Wireless Generation’s $8 million data-coaching contract with Delaware is just a small example.

Integration and professional services are that $500 billion market Rupert Murdoch was talking about.

So if you are a state looking to adopt this kind of technology, are you really going to download the code and the specifications and deploy it yourself? Or are you going to put out an RFP to have that all done for you? Sure, any consulting firm can download the code and the specifications and bid on the job. But the SLC partners who developed the technology and the standards have the most experience, having already done this work in Texas and Delaware, and they will get the integration job. And they will also have the most experience in the ensuing bids for professional services work, and these contracts will be awarded over and over again in each state that chooses this technology.

In fact, even at this early stage when the design specs are still sketchy and the source code isn’t even available yet, each level of the specs already includes an “RFP Guide” to help states write an RFP for implementing the technology. State technology officers will most likely model their RFPs on the SLC language, or even copy it outright. So when you control the language of the RFP, you are already the leading contender.

In this case, the open source model is far more lucrative than selling the software outright. When you design a proprietary (closed source) system, the minute you are finished it starts getting stale. Then you can be certain some other vendor is working on a newer better system. But the SLC system was built with a minimum of capital investment on the part of the vendors, who built it with a combination of foundation money and public funds via Texas and Delaware. So any vendor who wishes to build a competing system with their own capital will quickly encounter a truism in technology: “You can’t compete with free.”

So by developing and asserting control over the system and its specifications, SLC is now in possession of an enormous money-making machine. Vendor members of the Shared Learning Collaborative are already ahead of the curve to win the wave of contracts coming from state after state. This is the point of the Shared Learning Collaborative, and it is how its partners will lock in and capture as much of that $500 billion as they possibly can.

Coming up in Part 2:
Phase 2 of the Shared Learning Infrastructure in Delaware
Personalized learning and the Common Core State Standards

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  1. kilroysdelaware
    February 14, 2012 at 7:22 am
  2. February 14, 2012 at 8:19 am

    Yes, plus a few others in SLC. That’ll be in Part 2. I think the connections are worth noting, but I’m not planning to get all tin-foil hat on it.

  3. John Young
    February 15, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    Mike,

    Are you implying that anyone who chooses to acknowledge the obvious business related and vertical scales created by connected people is simply the province of people wearing tin-foil hats? Seriously, any discussion must have room for all salient realities and denying that connections matter is as potentially disingenuous as any argument out there. Just look at the totality of educational reform in America: Gates, Broad, Dell, Duncan, Rhee, TFA, TNTP, McKinsey, Sir Michael Barber, Wireless generation, etc etc.

    They are not only related, they are systemically seeking new connections to reinforce their verticality, it’s undeniable. The absolute worst aspect is when the business interests overlap with state and local legislative, appointed and administrative governance. This is how policy boondoggles like RTTT are born. Rather than acquiesce and find a livable stasis, I believe there is honor in fighting against it in principle.

  4. February 15, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    John, you are probably mostly correct. After all I did take the time to lay out some of the connections. I just choose not to berate the point. I have other fish to fry.

    I think all moments of great technological progress have included cronyism, monopolization, and entanglement with the state. I’m not saying this is necessarily one of those great moments, but I am willing to tolerate some of it. Otherwise we would never have built the railroads, the airline industry, the telecommunications network, the Internet…

    The way I look at it, RTTT is a transient phenomenon that will leave us with an upgraded technology infrastructure, if nothing else.

    It’s worth keeping an eye on though.

  5. John Young
    February 15, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    it may do that, but the kids that get nothing in return while the adults celebrate with each other…..a stiff price to pay in my book.

  6. Matt
    June 1, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    There is no requirement to release something as open source simply because a public organization funded its development. It is the intellectual property of the consulting organization, unless the contract says otherwise (and it almost never does). Most public sector consulting businesses are built around transferring solutions they built in one state to another state, and often times RFPs specifically request transfer solutions. The decision to release this open-source was likely unconstrained. A number of organizations are strongly passionate about fixing the problems around lack of visibility in education data. This effort and the organizations involved are specifically trying to help education organizations avoid falling into the trap of having reporting requirements drive them into a cookie-cutter education paradigm. Data insights should improve personalized learning, not destroy it.

  7. John Young
    July 19, 2013 at 11:59 pm

    School database loses backers as parents balk over privacy

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    By Stephanie Simon

    Wed May 29, 2013 12:51pm EDT

    (Reuters) – A $100 million database set up to store extensive records on millions of public school students has stumbled badly since its launch this spring, with officials in several states backing away from the project amid protests from irate parents.

    The database, funded mostly by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is intended to track students from kindergarten through high school by storing myriad data points: test scores, learning disabilities, discipline records – even teacher assessments of a child’s character. The idea is that consolidated records make it easier for teachers to use software that mines data to identify academic weaknesses. Games, videos or lesson plans would then be precisely targeted to engage specific children or promote specific skills.

    The system is set up to identify millions of children by name, race, economic status and other metrics and is constructed in a way that makes it easy for school districts to share some or all of that information with private companies developing education software.

    The nonprofit organization that runs the database, inBloom Inc, introduced the project in March with a presentation at an education technology conference, complete with a list of nine states that it said were committed partners.

    Parents and civil liberties groups concerned about potential privacy breaches quickly began to sound the alarm and rallied opposition in social media.

    In response to an outcry in his state, Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White withdrew student data from inBloom in April. He’s planning to hold public hearings on data storage and security this summer but said in an interview that he is no longer sure there’s a need for inBloom.

    Kentucky, Georgia and Delaware – all initially listed as partners on the inBloom website – told Reuters that they never made a commitment and have no intention of participating. Georgia specifically asked for its name to be removed.

    Officials in two other states on the list, Massachusetts and North Carolina, said they are still evaluating the project and may never upload student data.

    “The single biggest issue is, Can we satisfy not only ourselves but everyone that the data is as secure stored there as it would be anywhere?” said Jeff Wulfson, deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education. “From our perspective, this is still in the research and development phase.”

    InBloom spokesman Adam Gaber said the initial list of partner states was “confusing” and has been corrected on the website. Massachusetts and North Carolina “were more committed originally” but are still considered partners because they are discussing possible participation, he said.

    That leaves just New York, Illinois and Colorado as active participants.

    Former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise, who sits on the inBloom board of directors, said he was confident the project was still viable and valuable.

    School districts already store student data and often share it with private vendors hired for jobs such as tracking reading scores. InBloom simply consolidates in one secure, cloud-hosted database the reams of student information now scattered among an array of computer servers, teacher grade books and file cabinets, Wise said. The districts retain complete control over which data to store in inBloom and whether to let third-party vendors use it.

    The Gates Foundation is also confident about inBloom’s future, saying early adopters will provide a “blueprint for the future” and “assuage the concerns that have been raised.”

    InBloom is now free but will start charging participating states or school districts annual fees of $2 to $5 per student in 2015, bringing in millions of dollars that officials at the nonprofit say will cover expenses for developing and maintaining the database.

    New York plans to upload data on nearly all its 2.6 million students statewide. Illinois is testing inBloom in two districts and plans to expand to 35 districts serving half a million students, officials said.

    Colorado’s test district, suburban Jefferson County, has commissioned software that draws on the database to create digital “dashboards” that let teachers identify at a glance precisely which students are having trouble with which skills. InBloom also centralizes all the computer apps teachers normally use with their students, so they no longer have to log in to different screens for each program.

    When teachers got a sneak peek, “by far the most common question was, ‘Could we get this in my classroom tomorrow?'” said Greg Mortimer, the chief information officer for the 85,000-student district. He added that the project should save the district money because software developers will be able to hook their programs cleanly into the inBloom infrastructure. The way things now stand, he said, the district has to spend heavily to integrate each app into the county’s cumbersome and overlapping data systems.

    Mortimer said he has no doubt privacy would be protected: “InBloom has the resources to secure this data better than any single school district in the country.”

    Despite such an endorsement, inBloom is continuing to lose momentum.

    An early backer of inBloom, the Council of Chief State School Officers, is now big on only a second phase of the project, which involves creating an online library of lesson plans, quiz questions and other teaching resources.

    The library, which won’t require student data, is “the valuable part of this project,” said Chris Minnich, executive director of the council, which represents state superintendents of education. On the database itself, Minnich noted that the council urges each state to analyze the costs and benefits of participating.

    Some states had been interested in accessing inBloom’s teaching resources without participating in the database, but ended up banding together to create their own online library. Bob Swiggum, the chief information officer for the Georgia Department of Education, said he’s glad his state went that route. National opposition to the database has been so intense, he said, “I don’t know how inBloom will survive.”

    Officials at inBloom say they have done a poor job articulating the need for the database and vow to do better. Yet they have not addressed all of the concerns raised by parents.

    The nonprofit recently announced that it would no longer let school districts use student social security numbers to label individual files in the database. Instead, districts must assign each student a random numerical ID. But spokesman Adam Gaber refused to say whether social security numbers might be included elsewhere – not as a label but as a basic data point, along with ethnicity, address, parents’ names and other personal information routinely collected by public schools.

    That is unlikely to assuage Karen Sprowal, the mother of a 10-year-old in a New York City public school. She’s terrified to think that records of her son’s medical treatments will be stored on the cloud indefinitely, along with so many other intimate details, she said. “It feels like such a violation.”

  1. March 4, 2012 at 1:12 pm
  2. January 23, 2013 at 7:33 am
  3. January 25, 2013 at 3:28 am
  4. April 7, 2013 at 11:42 am
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