Editor's Note: Paul Perilla is a recent high school graduate who spent four weeks at EdSurge reviewing popular edtech products and interviewing the executives who built them. Below is a conversation with CK-12 founder, Neeru Khosla—the second in a three-part series.
Perilla: What’s your background? And how did you get started with CK-12?
Khosla: I’m from a far, far away land called India. I spent some years in England, which was pretty eye-opening. It gave me a perspective of other cultures. My husband and I moved here in the U.S. in 1980 after he finished his MBA.
When we moved here at that point, they did not accept the transcripts from India. You have to prove yourself by taking exams. So I had to do a certain number of units. We couldn’t really afford anything, we were just starting out. I did my bachelors and masters at San Jose State. And after I got my masters, I did some work on genetic expression at Stanford. At that point, about a year into it, I became pregnant with our first child. So I dropped out, because gene expression is usually measured with radioactivity so I didn’t want to be around radioactivity.
And so after that I had four kids, and then we started looking for a good school. You know that philosophy as Indians is about schooling. It is very important. That’s what my parents and [my husband] Vinod’s parents believed. Once we did that, I got involved in education. And soon I was very involved in what makes children learn, and innovation around what we can do in the classroom to make them learn. There was a lot of rumbling going on about “No Child Left Behind,” “not enough kids going into science and math”, etc… So I went to Stanford at the age of 50 and got another degree in education. From there came the idea of “how do we make kids engage in learning?”
The publisher’s textbook model was getting to be really really expensive, especially when there is only one type of one-size-fits-all content. So I thought technology might be a good way to solve that problem by giving free textbooks and allowing people to customize them. Now that was a little bit of a hard sell, because not everyone had computers at that time. There were lots of reasons why it took us a long time to get to where we are today [after starting CK-12 in 2007].
Where do you see yourself or CK-12 in the next five to ten years?
We are not just building static content; we’re actually adding lots of interactive content so we have a platform that can tell students where they’re struggling and get [the system] to start asking questions that are at their own level. And building on that, we want them to be able to learn at their own pace and catch up. That’s why we also introduced the idea of modalities with different ways of learning for the students to master each concept. Some concepts can be video, others can be more interactive.
What results have you seen with CK-12?
Results can be measured in many ways, right? Since we introduced our concept-based learning our user shipment went up by 1500 percent from 2012 to today. That’s one result. Another way to measure result is about standardized testing. We’ve had places like Utah state that customize textbooks from our materials. Years after that, they did a little bit better, and we’re seeing results in terms of that. The other thing that we’re also seeing is many districts have started creating their own content. We’ve had about 115,000 Flexbooks created. We are now starting to talk to school districts to start keeping data about how they use CK-12 and how their standardized test results are improving.
What would you say is CK-12’s best feature?
I think the best thing that we offer is anytime, anywhere, anyway learning. You can learn anytime by yourself. We are supported on different devices. We are on iOS, we’re on Android, we’re on the web, etc… We still provide a printed version. You can customize that with as many pages or with as many subjects as you need… Interactive, customization tools are the best ones.
If you don’t mind me asking, how do you make money with CK-12?
You don’t mind me saying we don’t? CK-12 is a nonprofit foundation. Our commitment is to not burden the system, but to help the system. We want this tool to be a legacy.
Does CK-12 use student feedback or do you only try to solve problems by using what you see in the classroom?
We have about 30 students working over here right now. They’re working on many different things. We believe a lot in peer-to-peer [feedback].
Does CK-12 cater to foreign countries or only in the US?
We did a POC [proof of concept] in California, then we branched out to the whole US. The good thing is that our content can be customized to cover whatever curriculum is needed.
How would you impact kids who do not have access to computers? Back in the Philippines, where I was born, some of my family members still lack access to any computers. How would CK-12 impact them?
You know, I’ll start by saying that a single person on a single project cannot change the whole world.
If you were to give advice to the youth about education of life what would it be?
Everyone cannot drop out of school, because not everyone has the kind of mentality to learn by everything themselves and continue learning at deeper and deeper levels. Learning is really hard. I would tell people to stick with it. Try hard things, learn everything at a basic level, and then build on top of that. Do entrepreneurship, do your dreams, but make sure your dreams are based on some knowledge that you’ve acquired. Don’t underestimate the value of what you started out learning [in the beginning].
With everything you’ve done in your life and for others, would you say that you have been successful?
Successful is a very funny word, right? It depends on how you define it. I feel like I’m successful at having a really great family. I think I’ve done a good job. When I think about the project I’m doing, it’s one of those projects where success is not easily definable. If I start saying 33,000 schools and districts are using our product, that’s one way of defining success. In the end, though, it’s about the student. We have a long way before saying “Yes, we are successful.”
Paul Perilla is an intern at EdSurge, and a young entrepreneur with great ambition.