A Conversation with Neeru Khosla about Open Ed.

A big theme at the SXSWedu conference that ended yesterday in Austin, Texas, was open content. How can schools, students, and teachers save money on textbooks and course materials through free, standards-based content offered online?

The content can be customized, personalized and shared, all while meeting state and national standards. Last week, the Washington State Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill promoting the use of open education resources (OER) that meet state and Common Core standards in classrooms.

One of the largest providers of open content is CK-12, a nonprofit organization and website that offers whole textbooks for free. It is co-founded by the entrepreneur Murugan Palaniappan and Neeru Khosla, the wife of venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. CK-12 runs entirely on donations, with the Khoslas own foundation providing a large amount of support.

To create the textbooks and content, CK-12 contracts with experienced teachers who have curriculum experience. Because the content is open-source, users can mix and match to create their own textbooks and lessons. In keeping with the Khoslas interests, the textbooks are all in science and math. They are for grades 6-12 at the moment, with K-5 on the way.

The initial textbooks are mostly static on the page, but last month CK-12 launched the beta version of its 2.0 model, which will offer interactive content with a concept-based approach. So instead of reading an Algebra textbook front to back&mash;or ignoring chapters altogether—students and teachers can get lessons on specific areas (a little bit like the Khan Academy approach.)

In the last two years, there have been 8 million downloads from CK-12, Neeru Khosla said. CK-12 only measures downloads now, but the 2.0 model will collect even more usage data, Khosla said.

I sat down with Neeru Khosla at the SXSWedu conference to discuss CK-12’s role in the open content movement and how it might affect the textbook industry.

Education Week: How does your content meet the state and nationwide standards?
Neeru Khosla: California did an open digital content initiative, and we submitted to that. And all of our content was 100 percent aligned as far as that goes. We are aligned with Common Core as well. Because it’s digital, we can fix that quickly. You shouldn’t have to wait six or seven years for aligned content or core content. It’s too rigid for me.

EW: Do you consider yourself more a content provider or a platform?
NK: We are both because a platform without the content is meaningless. That’s one decision I made very early and stuck by it. You have to have the content if you are going to have the platform. I think most places are being either one, and they find the platform is useless unless they have content. There aren’t many people that started with that in mind. That’s where we made a very different statement.

EW: What do you think of the platform debate? The Apple deal [with publishers to provide some e-textbooks exclusively on its devices] has gotten attention for being a one-platform deal. Is it wrong or a just a reality?
NK: It’s a free market, so you are going to have choices and the whole idea is about choices. So what happens with a project like us, we not only start with the platform but we also ask what is it that people need and we keep adding to that. We aren’t trying to be the center of the universe, whereas places like Apple say, “We need to be the center of the universe.”

EW: Publishers typically go to the districts and sell them textbooks, and they build relationships with them. How do you get your products into the classroom?
NK: The relationship between the Pearsons and classrooms and districts will work to a certain extent. Definitely, they have the advantage. They have been around for decades vs. us for just five years. But that’s not to say that it can’t be overcome. We are going to overcome all that. Washington, Utah—they’ve shown that, and Arizona is coming up. These states are thinking differently.

EW: Is it actually something that you work with elected officials on?
NK: We are an example of what could happen, and it’s up to those guys to react. We are not in a position to lobby because we are a small case. Some of this will happen because of people recognizing. Washington saw what happened—here’s a resource they can rely on, and they start thinking from the top down. The bottom-up is: you have teachers who are starting to use this, and they bring it up to district leaders and say, “Oh, why don’t we make this available?” At the same time, our 2.0, with concept-based learning, students are going to go and say, “I use this at home, so why aren’t we using this.” All these forces will hopefully come together.

EW: Are there assessment and data-collection elements to this?
NK: We have a back-end we’ve created to capture interactions. Initially, we collect what that student is doing. And how they are doing it, whether it’s right or wrong, gives way for formative assessment. How their learning is changing over time, and what kind of content, and what kind of tools they are exposing themselves to, and how it’s helping them to learn—that’s the formative assessment we are going toward.

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