The "Living Book" Movement: Free Education For All

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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.