As countless educators around the world have scrambled to figure out how to deliver lessons remotely with whisker-thin budgets, many turned to open education resources (OER). And particularly for those teaching middle- and high-school students, tens of thousands have turned to one of the quietest but steadiest edtech entrepreneurs, Neeru Khosla.
Khosla is the founder and CEO of CK-12, the 30-person nonprofit that she started in 2007 to deliver free digital books, particularly on math and science topics. Her mission has been constant: Give students and teachers high-quality, free resources that can help each learn in their own way.
And “free” should be, well, really free. No “pro” accounts, no efforts to collect user data that gets sold later.
Over the past eight years, more than 137 million students and teachers around the world have used CK-12 resources including its digital books (called “Flexbooks”), adaptive practice exercises and science simulations. Collectively they’ve created more than 260,000 Flexbooks; students have tackled more than 790 million questions. Add it up, and CK-12 estimates that it has delivered more than 20 million hours of learning.
That tactic—taking steady if sometimes incremental steps, rather than a single, widely trumpeted product release—is what author Jim Collins has dubbed the “flywheel approach.” Collins writes: “In building a great company or social sector enterprise, there is no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no miracle moment. Rather, the process resembles relentlessly pushing a giant, heavy flywheel, turn upon turn, building momentum until a point of breakthrough, and beyond.”
But minus breathless press releases, that approach also left CK-12 “under appreciated,” says David Wiley, founder and chief academic officer of Lumen Learning, widely considered one of the foremost thinkers in the OER community. “CK-12 is at the forefront of OER by doing adaptive and personalized learning. More people should be doing it the way they are.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has put CK-12 into the spotlight: Users flocked to the site, boosting registrations by 460 percent, says Miral Shah, CK-12’s chief technology and product officer. Online classes for educators offered by CK-12 to explain how to use its resources grew over sixfold. All that attention boosted CK-12 into the top ranks of the most frequently visited U.S. websites in March, peaking at number 330, according to rankings compiled by Amazon’s Alexa website analytics service.
And as teachers and schools plan for the hybrid world of education, CK-12 is set to continue to be a mainstay.
That’s good news to Duane Habecker, mathematics coordinator for the Merced County Office of Education in central California. In the past, Habecker had developed his own collection of videos for students. When the coronavirus forced the shutdown of schools in March, he turned to CK-12 to create comprehensive resources for Merced’s students.
Of the approximately 60,0000 students in Merced County’s public schools, 80 percent are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch—which meant when school went online, “money was an issue,” Habecker says. “CK-12 made it easy for us to avoid those premium products that are giving away things for 30 or 60 days and then go ‘poof,’” Habecker says. “CK-12 means that the hard work we’re doing now is going to last way beyond COVID-19.”
In a matter of weeks, Habecker integrated his own content with materials available on CK-12 and created 15 Flexbooks covering math and science. Especially important to Habecker: CK-12 made it possible for him to follow the core guidelines of universal design for learning, which involved providing multiple means of engagement, representation as well as actions and expression. “And when we’re done with this, it will leave a footprint that we’ll continue to develop,” he says—and that other schools can pick up and continue to tweak.
CK-12 co-founder and executive director Neeru Khosla speaks at a conference about the technology powering the education platform. (Photo credit: CK-12)
From ‘Chunks’ to Courses and Chatbots
Those kinds of stories thrill Khosla, who started CK-12 with long-time entrepreneur and engineer, Murugan Pal. Their original goal seemed simple: make teacher-generated content, freely available (under Creative Commons licenses) and readily usable by learners everywhere. Although Khosla had trained as a molecular biologist, she spent years as a parent supporting her children’s schools and later earned a masters in education from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Her husband, Vinod Khosla, who became a venture capitalist, vaulted the couple into the ranks of the billionaires.
What Neeru saw at the private schools her children attended were that those students had access to great resources that didn’t just drill facts but, with strong teachers, helped inspire students to see how concepts fit together. She wanted to make those kinds of resources available to all children, everywhere.
Her family’s wealth meant that CK-12 has had a steady budget of approximately $9 million a year, according to the nonprofit financial reporting organization, Guidestar. But unlike many philanthropists, Khosla went all in, serving as chief executive for the organization. She was shaken in 2012 when her co-founder, Pal, passed away from ALS. But her intensity around delivering materials to schools stayed strong.
“Neeru’s leadership is what makes CK-12 work,” says Shah, who joined CK-12 as CTO eight years ago. “There are so many elements. The vision. Our mission statement. The relationships she has with the other team members. The fact that we can do things with a long-term view. And it’s not just us; educators are innovating with us.”
And the technology. What Khosla envisioned was more complex than a repository of open content with a few videos; she wanted to use adaptive technology and artificial intelligence to serve up content in ways that would best support learners. “Our model was to be more than an OER aggregator,” Khosla says. “We wanted to be able to customize the content, to create learning pathways for students. And we wanted to bring the teacher in—to take advantage of their creativity, of what they knew.”
Interactive exercises and adaptive questions became core to the CK-12 platform. “Everything had to be relevant,” and concepts needed to relate to each other, Khosla says. As a result, the CK-12 and educators developed hundreds of thousands of content “chunks.” Khosla sees them as key to creating an Amazon-like catalog of learning content. Educators can combine whatever serves their needs. They could also fold their own curriculum materials back into the CK-12 library for others.
At the same time, offering educators so many choices sometimes has felt bewildering.
A year ago, CK-12 began rolling out “FlexBook 2.0,” full course compilations that organized CK-12’s most popular instructional chunks into easily navigable books. Flagship science programs include middle school earth science, life science and physics along with high school sciences, as well as math from grades 6 through 11 (algebra II). Anyone who contributes content to CK-12 shares the material under a Creative Commons license. That means educators are free to use the resources created by others—say, including Merced’s Habecker—and adopt those materials, too.
This autumn, Shah says CK-12 will double down on the “intelligence” of its platform by adding what they have dubbed the “Student Tutor,” and “Teacher Assistant” to many of the Flexbook compilations.
“Students won’t have to passively look at a video or read text only—they’ll be engaging in interactive modules, making correlations to other materials, forming hypotheses and getting immediate feedback,” he says. CK-12 also plans to add a chatbot to nudge students along by reminding them what assignments are due next, concepts they learned in the past and so on.
Yet even as Khosla and her team embrace the technology, Khosla is clear that her mission isn’t about delivering a tool. “The U.S. Constitution doesn’t promise us the right to learn. States take it on a step-child,” Khosla reflects. The value of building a platform, she says, “is what it brings to a student’s learning.” And for many educators piecing together materials to share digitally, CK-12’s work may make all the difference.