By Sara Bernard

They’re free, they’re customizable, and they meet state standards.

Those are the three biggest selling points of CK12 Flexbooks, digital educational content for K-12 schools.

FlexBooks are developed through a combination of author donations, licensing partnerships, university collaborations, and incentives for community-based authorship, and teachers can customize them to their hearts’ content.

“We can’t make all kids get an education,” says Neeru Khosla, CK-12’s co-founder and executive director, “but we can make it simpler, easier, and more affordable. That’s the philosophy behind the openness as far as I’m concerned.”

While print is still not out of the picture, Khosala says , open-source textbooks are certainly the wave of the future.

Q: Have you seen a lot of growth in the open source movement in education recently?

A: Yes, we’ve made a lot of strides. For me, it’s the spirit more than anything else. It’s not about profits. It’s about making sure that everyone has access to information. You can argue, “How can you expect people to have access to information if they don’t have access to computers?” But I think that more and more, computers are becoming readily available in libraries and schools.

The open educational resources movement is also creating more organized sources of information — more contextualized information, rather than just, “Here it is, now you have to go find it.” There are a whole bunch of other organizations like us, such as the Open Learning Initiative from Carnegie Mellon.

Q: What are the barriers to adopting this kind of textbook model?

A: Right now, a teacher gets whatever curriculum the school wants to use. Often, they’ve been using the same curriculum for years and it’s the one the state recommends. Frankly, we are not in that place yet. We just started four years ago and it’s a huge change we’re creating out there. People are slowly starting to see that there is another choice. It’s much like any community project: the more that people hear about it, the more they will come flocking.

The open textbook movement has happened so fast that some people are saying, “We are not sure this is the same quality we are used to.” And that’s fair. If someone came to me and said “Use this thing,” I’d also expect to see a match in quality. There’s been quite a firestorm because California is recommending our textbooks, for instance. That is a huge hurdle to have jumped over and landed on our feet.

Again, it’s just a slow spreading of the word. The funny thing is that teachers are already doing this — they are already looking for and finding content [on the Web] that they can use in every class. The only thing that’s different here is that you have it all in once place. I think that if you give [CK-12] another year or two, we’ll be in a much different place the next time we talk.

Q: What kind of reaction are you getting from teachers and administrators?

A: Well, I can’t say that anyone has said to us, “This is crap.” I can’t say that because I haven’t heard that at all! We get emails over and over from parents, students, and teachers saying, “This is a great project, this is wonderful, this is just what we needed, thank you so much for doing this.”

We provide the content the way educators need it, similar to what they’ve been used to with traditional textbooks. Within each FlexBook chapter, there are lessons, and each lesson has all the components: the idea, the standards it matches, the questions, the glossary, as well as videos and multimedia links. Each book also has three different versions: grade level, remedial, and advanced.

I call it a “living book.” It’s more than just a text. The success of open textbooks is that — their adaptability to a local environment.

Q: What kind of reaction are you getting from students?

A: Every summer we’ve had thirty-five students do internships with us so that we could gather their reactions to the content. And they love it. They don’t have to worry about the distractions they have in a textbook. It’s straightforward. They can learn exactly what they need to learn. Especially for a certain kind of kid, traditional textbooks can be very distracting.

Q: What about teachers and students who prefer print?

A: Using open textbooks doesn’t mean that you can’t provide the content in a print format. In the event that all students don’t have access to a computer, teachers can still print stuff out. You can print exactly what you need rather than the whole textbook. If students are moving more quickly or slowly, you can give them exactly what they need. You can constantly course correct.

Of course, we can’t afford to buy print books for everyone, but as our demand goes up and more school districts want to use the content, we’ll form partnerships with on-demand presses to keep costs down. [California is interested in CK-12 Flexbooks, for instance; CK-12 received perfect scores on Phase II of the state’s Free Digital Textbooks Initiative]. This way, you won’t have to pay for any marketing or business development; all you’re paying for is the book.

  • Jon

    I have developed a strong interest in open or free text ever since I purchased a brand new grey market, European textbook for 60 dollars, a full third of what Americans pay for the same biology book. I also got into a heated discussion with my professor about free education, and free information. I was upset because he forced us to buy his access guide and sub par “media lab” that he created with flash sometime in 2002.

    I have a few questions that this article does not address. The first is who is involved with creating the content for the books? Are the writers paid? volunteers? vetted? If they are paid then who is paying for the free books? and my last question is are the books truly free, meaning does anyone have access to them? Calling something free, then selling a college level product at an inflated rate to make up for the lost profits is, in my opinion, inconsistent with a desire to provide free high quality information to students.

    • Neeru

      CK-12 FlexBooks are created by teachers who have had domain experience for at least 5 years or so. In addition to the authors, we have domain expert, technical editor, and editing. The books when they are finalized through this team are also sent to classroom teachers for feedback and review. Our books are not written by volunteers, however you can donate a book to our project and we will determine the quality, as in the case of “People’s Physics Book” and “From Stargazers to Starships”. We pay the authors a very small fee. The money comes from a grant from a private foundation. These books are truly free, everyone has access to them if you have a computer. We don’t have any limitation.
      Right now they are being vetted in many school districts as well charter schools. We also have a study being conducted in an University.

  • Anonymous

    we are taught to read… and then our education begins.

    “We can’t make all kids get an education,” says Neeru Khosla, CK-12′s co-founder and executive director, “but we can make it simpler, easier, and more affordable. That’s the philosophy behind the openness as far as I’m concerned.”

    • Angela

      I am a home schooling parent and I am currently using the CK holors biology flexbooks with my 16 year old daughter. My daughter really enjoys the book. When choosing books, I allow my children to play a part in choosing them. My daughter chose Ck because she likes the way the information is presented. Though, I do add my own labs to each chapter to adapt it to my daughters kinaesthetic learning style.

  • Tina Barseghian

    I’ve asked Neeru Khosia, the founder of CK12, to answer your questions, Jon. I’ll post it today.

  • Robinson

    One adantage of regualr textbooks, assuming they go through a review process and are read before publsihing by experts in the field, is the crdibility of the material in the texxt. How can you assure this in an open textbook? It appears that they could become little more than extended blogs.

    • Neeru

      I think we address this point by ensuring lock down of the original version and review by teachers who are experts in the given domain. CK-12 is not offering extended blogs, we have a production process that aligns to the requirements.

  • Lane

    “Right now, a teacher gets whatever curriculum the school wants to use. Often, they’ve been using the same curriculum for years and it’s the one the state recommends.” I hope we’re not confusing curriculum with resources. Any text (no matter it’s form) is a resource used to support the curriculum. Hopefully, there is a variety of texts in a classroom from which to chose for teachers and students.

    • Amy An

      Um . . . no – there are not a variety of textbooks. At my school I have one 13 year old book, at my son’s school the teachers had no choice at all over the books, the school system lists books the schools can use and the school chooses the book. That is it – only one book, old books are discarded (and purchased by my school).

  • Pam

    Both Jon and Robinson make excellent points. Who is responsible for the content? Who researches and writes it, and who edits it? Is all this work done for free? What are “author donations” and “community-based authorship”–does that mean that, like Wikipedia, anyone can produce copy? If “teachers can customize them to their hearts’ content,” is there a possibility that a teacher might introduce errors or insert personal beliefs into texts? There is much need for reform in the way texts are currently produced and priced in this country. Digital texts are certainly an exciting innovation, but you need quality control. And is anything of quality ever totally free?

    • Neeru

      Even though we allow any one to make their own versions those versions stay in their own library. We lock the approved and standards aligned material as the master copy.
      We are committed to providing free quality content as defined by the K-12 requirements as well as more. This content is free to the user. Isn’t that what the users be concerned about?

  • dunl

    cannot agree with this approach, just because its techology driven doesn’t mean its new an innovative. Teachers write boring books and are a turn-off for children, we need to pay the best authors to write great humurous literature that will attract and engage children,

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