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CK-12 Foundation's Neeru Khosla on Open Textbooks

Open Education

flexbook-screenshotBack in March, we were so excited about the new Physics Flexbook aligned to Virginia’s state standards that we had to catch up with the foundation that helped to make it possible. The obvious choice was Neeru Khosla, co-founder of the CK-12 Foundation, “a non-profit organization with a mission to reduce the cost of textbook materials for the K-12 market both in the U.S. and worldwide.” The Flexbook is their web-based platform for open textbooks (openly licensed via CC BY-SA) which maximizes and enhances collaboration across district, county, and state lines. In fact, their use is not even limited by country, since CC licenses are global and non-exclusive. Anyone can collaborate, improve, and iterate without having to ask. “The good thing about that is we don’t have to tell people what they can do or cannot do. The power of the system is that it is useable under any condition. All you have to do is use it.”

Open textbooks are oft termed the future of higher education, but Neeru makes the important point that openness matters even more with younger learners. “[The] lack of content availability erodes young students’ ability to learn, as they are not able to have a strong base of knowledge to rely on.” This is where the CK-12 Foundation comes in by focusing specifically on K-12 education and working with states to make sure the Flexbooks are not only high quality, but align to state and district standards.

CC BY by the CK12 Foundation

CC BY-SA by the CK12 Foundation

Below, we get to the bottom of the origins of CK-12, Neeru’s own personal tie to the cause, and some insights into what may lie ahead for both the foundation and ccLearn.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? You are widely known as the founder of CK-12; what is your official role and how did you come to found this nonprofit?

First of all, I just want to set the record straight, I am one of the co-founders along with Murugan Pal, who is the other co-founder of CK-12.  I serve as the Executive Director and Murugan as the President.

I am the mother of four children; I have a master’s degree in molecular biology and a degree in education.   After my degree I worked for a year and a half at Stanford at the Children’s Hospital working on Insulin-like Growth Factors that were being implicated in cancer.  It was at that point that I got pregnant with my first child and decided not to be around radioactive elements.   As I continued raising my children I asked myself the question – other than a safe and loving home, what can I give my children that will be of value to them and society for the rest of their lives? Perhaps all the sacrifices that my parents made so that their kids could have a good education had definitely proved that point.

When I found the school, The Nueva School, I knew that they were on the right track – focusing on learning, critical thinking, emotional intelligence as well as learning to learn in this day of information.  I soon became involved with the organization through my involvement with their board and becoming the Head of the Education Committee.  When my children started going to high school and college I knew I had to find something for myself to do and decided to go back to school and did another masters at Stanford in Education.  It was here that I realized that most children did not have the same experience as I thought they should have.  This is the United States of America!  I knew that I had to bring access to information at the same level for all students in K-12 in the USA.  The idea came out when my husband asked me to look at the “Textbook issues”.

What about open education appeals to you? Can you say a few words about what you think truly open education is, or should be?

I see open education as education that is supported by open educational resources.  These resources make it possible to have content that is not just the voice of an individual but is the result of the community involvement, i.e. wisdom of many.  In fact, open resources are not driven by any artificial or self-serving motives such as profits, sales, marketing, etc.   Fundamentally, education cannot be “open” in the same sense as open software.  In fact, if you look at history we used to pass our collective knowledge as stories.  With the advancement of technologies, paper, print media, digital media and personal computing, that passage of stories has taken on other formats – primarily textbooks for education.   Unfortunately, these books have become the ownership of a select few rather than the effort of many.  We have lost the dialogue that can enhance the quality. Additionally, K-12 education is more controlled and contextualized, particularly public education.  The following three tenets have to have the following characteristics:

1. Content
   a. Content is free to all to use
   b. Content is created by many people – voice of many over ownership of a few
2. Access is provided to all equally
   a. Providing the ability to access, hence multiple ways to providing education – text,
online, multimedia, and other media for all students
   b. Cost of access is covered for all students
3. Commitment to quality even though it is free

I believe that education should be free to all students, particularly in the USA.  How can we even try to educate students if they don’t have access to information?  Younger students particularly need material from which they can take off for learning.  They have to be provided scaffolding for learning – a Vygotskian Concept (  There is a focus on the wrong notion that only higher education needs to be free and open hence more effort is being put into that area.  However, the problem becomes crucial to elementary students as lack of content availability erodes these young students’ ability to learn, as they are not able to have a strong base of knowledge to rely on.

Open education is one way that we can provide access – the “rip, mix, and burn” metaphor allows for the ability to customize content as needed by each student.  At this point schools are provided with information that is delivered in a very old format – a textbook.  Textbooks, especially their physical nature, are hard for students at that age – weight, monolithic nature, arising from 50 states having different requirements, hard to change the content of the book, etc.

CK-12’s mission is very clear on its site—“to reduce the cost of textbook materials for the K-12 market both in the US and worldwide, but also to empower teacher practitioners by generating or adapting content relevant to their local context.” How is CK-12 currently carrying out this mission?

We are carrying out this mission by providing textbooks, particularly for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) books.  These books have been produced the way that publishers produce their books.  There is no charge from CK-12 for using these books online through our online reader, downloading, or customizing them to your own needs.  As we like to say, “Rip, mix and burn”.  The cost of the printing is the only cost that users have to carry.  This cost will go to your own choice of printing company or for better you can print them using  your home printer.

CK-12 and the Commonwealth of Virginia just released the beta version of the first Physics FlexBook to be aligned with state standards. Can you say a few words about this project and how it came to fruition?

The Commonwealth of Virginia did a study with NASA. This two-year study pointed out that the curriculum as well as the textbook that the Commonwealth was using was outdated and did not have any of the contemporary topics in physics such as LCD, LED, Nanotechnology, Biomedical Imaging, String Theory etc.  Their textbooks stopped at Cathode ray tubes.  That technology was really outdated resulting in no time left for the schools to teach other concepts if they continued to teach these outdated concepts.  The report also pointed out that the Commonwealth should look into open educational resources.

When the Commonwealth talked to the publishers the answer was not satisfactory both from financial and time to market perspectives.  At the same time the CTO of the Governor found out about CK-12 from the web and approached us.  The rest is history!  Governor Tim Kaine sent out a RFP (Request for Proposal) and we had 13 people comprised of scientists, teachers, and professors – volunteering to write the book with CK-12 supporting them.  In addition, CK-12 redrew all the diagrams to make them higher resolution.  We also provide all our diagrams in a repository so that others can use these diagrams, keeping in line with the philosophy of open content. We wrote that book in 2½ months with another two weeks for quality assurance.

Do you see CK-12’s goals evolving as more and more institutions and persons use CK-12’s open textbook technologies (specifically the Flexbook)? For instance, could you see expanding the scope of your mission to encompass more than open textbooks?

At this point we do not see our mission moving from OER books.  The overall goals of the project have not changed.  We are constantly being asked whether we are going to be catering other domains.  Wherever I am going, people ask what about history, economics, or…..  I think, that at some point we will have to answer that question.  Perhaps that will be the only thing we will have to add to our goals.  We are also asked by higher ed people if they can use our tools.  The good thing about that is we don’t have to tell people what they can do or cannot do.  The power of the system is that it is useable under any condition.  All you have to do is use it.

We are finding that we have to focus on more feature sets.  As my cofounder Murugan said to me, that software is a bottomless pit.

What do you see as the future of the textbook? Does the current economy affect this vision at all?

If we are to move to Textbook 2.0 or even 3.0, we have to think about the textbook aligning with other capabilities that are provided by eLearning such as multimedia and other kinds of interactive abilities.  Textbooks have to move from a static format to an interactive format.  This is where our tools will really be useful.  I think this is going to be a very exciting development in general in education.

Sure the current economy will affect the vision mostly positively.  Districts are now going to have to think more creatively about how to provide good content to their students yet at the same time be able to operate with same budgets.  No matter how you look at it, $600 MM is a lot of money to spend for California alone, especially if you can avail better options and cut the spending down.  If we provide quality content we should be able to attract users.

Your Flexbooks are licensed BY-SA. What is the importance of open licensing in the textbook’s future? Why did CK-12 choose the BY-SA license, specifically?

Content has been a closed entity forever.  All the scientific and mathematical advancements were built upon improving an already existing work (standing upon the giant’s shoulders) thus leading to better achievements in an open fashion.  It is now time to provide educational materials under a different model.  A model where people can use it the way they want and need to use it.  We have seen that one-size-does-not-fit-all in education.  Once we move to that model we will see progress.  Even though we have protective clauses such as the Williams Act for providing textbooks for all students we still are not able to provide content that every student has access to.  Even though students have books you can see the difference in rich districts vs. poorer districts.  Charter Schools or Home schooled students have problems with accessing good content.  It costs too much.

When we started this project we went to India and told them about saving cost – their laughter was kind of piercing because their books only cost pennies compared to ours and the Government owns their national curriculum.  The textbook industry needs course correction.  One of the biggest problems is lack of rigorous universal standards for 50 states.  So, if we can provide FlexBooks such that states can adapt the content to their own requirements, that will help a lot with course correction.

The reason we chose to go with CC-BY-SA was because we wanted to make a statement about openness.  We believe that the Creative Commons spirit is about openness.  However, we are also thinking about donations from teachers and writers who have done a tremendous amount of work in producing or writing lesson plans or textbooks.  When we approached these teachers or writers their concern was, how would they protect their work if a publisher takes their work with only attribution?  They wanted to see the improvements made to their original contribution “back in the commons”.  This is when we realized that we had to respect this genuine perspective and make them feel comfortable.  Hence the choice of license!  One thing we have continued to advise and educate our Author Donors is to stay out of the Non-Commercial clause.  This is in the spirit that the non-commercial clause makes the content stale and obsolete over a period of time.

CK-12 and ccLearn have been in informal contact for some time. How do you see us working together in the future?

ccLearn can help organizations such as CK-12 to work together in a “federated” fashion.  It is high time we need mutual understanding and agreements for licensing policies, canonical representation format, and interchangeable metadata across OER organizations.  We have been partnering with ccLearn and Creative Commons in general in promoting these common agendas.

Is there a specific issue you would like us to tackle? Or another organization you would love to see us partnering with?

It will be good for ccLearn to host a summit for all OER sites to understand the importance of common standards to federate our contents across.  For example, my co-founder Murugan Pal has been working with Wikipedia, WikiEducator, OLPC etc. to forge these common standards.

Finally, what is in CK-12’s own future? What other partnerships or plans do you have in the pipeline? What are you most excited about?

We are very excited about the opportunity that the OER community has in this financially stressed out time.  To quote Paul Romer, “Crisis is a terrible thing to waste”; this is the time for us to bring OER into the main stream.  We typically don’t talk about our future plans; as we believe in getting it done, rather than talk about it.Our Virginia FlexBook project is the first stepping-stone, and we are working with various governmental agencies both in Federal and different State levels to make our mission successful.

Posted 28 April 2009