Behind CK-12’s Unconventional Approach to Learning

A digital platform genius shares some philosophy behind building in access for all.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

It’s an old problem: heavy, outdated, obsolete, and dry textbooks. And don’t forget: expensive, too. Confronting this issue head on, the Palo Alto-based nonprofit CK-12 Foundation pairs high-quality content with the latest technologies to equip students, parents, and teachers with everything they need—for free.

According to their stated mission, “CK-12 is committed to providing free access to open-source content and technology tools that empower students as well as teachers to enhance and experiment with different learning styles, resources, levels of competence, and circumstances.”

Miral Shah (pictured), Chief Technology Officer at CK12, joins the foundation from McGraw-Hill Higher Education (MHHE). In his most recent role at MHHE, Miral served as VP of Technology, where he was responsible for all of MHHE’s digital platforms including McGraw-Hill ‘Connect’ and McGraw-Hill ‘Create’.

He started his career at MHHE on the software development team, where he served as a chief architect and led a geographically distributed team of software engineers to create McGraw-Hill’s “Connect” platform. After successfully launching the Connect platform, Miral moved on to head Digital products group for MHHE’s Business & Economics (B&E) group.

At B&E, he worked with internal teams (Editorial, Marketing, Sales, Production) and customers (Instructor, Students and Institutions) to drive innovative and pedagogically superior digital products and services.

Prior to McGraw-Hill, Miral worked for a Silicon Valley based company called eBusiness Design (eBD) for five years. During his tenure at eBD, Miral and his team closely worked with Pearson Education to build their course management and learning management platform for their K-12 market.

With more than 12 years of experience driving digital products and technology platforms for the Education industry (K-12 and Higher Education), Miral is very passionate about education, technology and its combination.

Congratulations on your multiple recent honors from The EdTech Awards—very well done! How does that feel to earn honors for you work and to be acknowledged? Does that validate what you’ve been doing?

Miral: It was great. It was great to be acknowledged by the industry.

And it feels great that the team’s work has been recognized more than anything else, because we have a passionate team. We have a small team, but passionate people who really want to contribute to education and education technology.

And it feels very satisfying that our work is well received.

We are more satisfied, more than awards, when the teachers and students love our work.

Those are the people who we want to serve.

And we want to make sure that we can enhance their life, and they can reach the highest level of teaching and learning, respectively.

So yes, it was very good; very happy.

You have a background in creating unconventional and purpose-driven products and platforms. Tell me more about this.

Miral: So a couple of things.

Let’s talk about unconventional.

When we talk about “unconventional” things, there are a few things that we are doing that immensely help teachers and students.

Let’s start with ‘Cost and Access’. 

We want to make sure that we are reducing the burden of cost.

Schools are already burdened with a lot of different costs.

We want to make sure we free up money so they can use it for other, better things—like buying Chromebooks, or buying internet bandwidth, or teacher training—or whatever they think is the most appropriate thing for them.

And we are not a product that is just limited to the United States, but we are a product for the entire world. And there are so many people in this world that do not have access to high quality education.

So we want to make sure that we are able to reach everybody.

The CK-12 platform is not limited to people who have access to high-speed internet. We also cater to the ones who have limited or no internet connectivity. For example, you can download our FlexBooks for offline use, or print them on-demand.

Changing the landscape of education so that high quality education is available to everybody—is of the utmost importance.

Secondly, we are creating a great tutor for students.

One of the things that we are trying to solve here, is to get to the root cause of the struggle.

So how do we get to the root of the struggle so we are readying students for their future?

A.I.-based emplacement is a part of it: guiding students, each step of the way.

And we are doing a lot of different things using our A.I. technologies to help students. 

We have this high quality content created by domain experts, teachers.

And so, we want to create content that commands the show.

Excellent, your passion for education really does shine through, you have quite a career already in education and technology. Especially considering you work with McGraw Hill Higher Education as well as some of your work with Pearson and even before that so. How did you get started with CK-12, of course this is a non-profit, so it’s a little bit of a different model, but perhaps the passion comes through even more because of that.

Miral: Yes, absolutely; you’re right.

See, here at CK-12 the mission is very clear.

We want to make sure that every child has access to quality education. And so we are free here, to do what is right, to really think of education instead of focusing on what would make money.

We are constantly thinking about: 

What can we build so that we make students lives much more meaningful and better?

What can we do to help teachers?

They are overloaded. They are overworked.

We want to make sure we free up their time.

And that it is the right thing, not just basically whatever, to just get money.

That is what excites me. Yes, that’s why I’m here.

The opportunities that are in front of us are enormous and only limited by our imagination right now.

How did you actually initially get involved; what prompted you to make the jump and join the team at CK-12?

Miral: Well, I learned about CK-12, and their mission spoke to me, what they are trying to do. This is a very, very compassionate thing. And what I’m most excited about is, how do we solve some of the toughest problems of education?

Working with kids who really love learning, it’s not something that is forced on them, but something that comes from the bottom of their heart, that this will help me.

For example, I’m not sure if you got a chance to check out our simulations in our Physics and Chemistry content. A lot of places are now pushing for that.

We want students to understand the topics conceptually – using our real-world based simulations. We don’t think learning science should be about memorization.

Memorize the formula, and you substitute the value in the formula. You do arithmetic and get an answer—but if you are not understanding the concept and why you are learning this—then it’s not helpful nor interesting.

We want kids to love physics.

And—I’m taking the example of physics, but this could be anything, any science and math: give them practical application.

Instead of just saying, “We are going to learn Newton’s laws of motion today”—tell them how they are going to take and apply this, to the things that they see in their day to day lives.

Take the things they value and care about—and combine that passion—and then they’ll be engaged. So that’s what interests me. And I’m very excited to be able to do all these things.

What is technology’s role in education? What is the opportunity before us? If we as humans take charge and lead the way, what is the opportunity that we might seize and deliver on?

Miral:  The role of technology in education is empowering students and teachers to do things they already do well—much better. That is approximated, though; it’s not an answer to anything, it’s not a be-all, end-all—but it’s approximated.

What technology is trying to do is help what is and make things much better and much different. That’s what the role of technology is: to bring and to enable students to reach their highest potential.

That’s what I think technology’s role is, and it’s getting better and better.

It’s able to do things that I’ve seen that a human mind cannot do.

And that’s where the power of A.I. comes, it can digest gigabytes and gigabytes of data and give you really meaningful insights that you never would’ve thought exists there.

The power of technology is right now kind of immature. 

I’m getting to a second point about what do we think the end of all this is.

The end of all this would be to make sure all the students have the chance to succeed.

That means you and your children.

All this to make sure the students don’t drop out of high school and they are successful and go to college.

So we want to, that’s what the goal is: that technology can be a significant facilitator in that making sure that some of these bad consequences don’t happen.

A lot of good can be done with technology while there remain many areas of legitimate concern. As we build our future, do you recognize and acknowledge these areas, such as: student data and invasion of privacy, a surveillance type of culture, so many data points for students, the selling of data of minors—all of these areas where there’s a double-edged sword? There’s good, and I don’t want to harp on the negative, bad points, but I do want to explore this a bit and understand your considerations in these areas as a CTO of a leading edtech entity.

Miral:  No, I hear you.

I think this forms a number of fears, some of this comes from misuses of the tools—and, unfortunately that’s at the bottom of any new idea or innovation.

At CK-12, we take students’ security as one of our top priorities. We want to make sure that we still conceal them very, very well. And so we have very strict policies. Because we care about these things.

We want to ensure we are leaving the right amount of attention, right amount of precaution and right amount of safeguards to all these things.

But at the same time, let’s move forward so that the students and teachers get the best of what technology has to offer.

And we just have to be alert for this and be very careful about all of these things.

Let’s keep making the progress, but let’s not get hung up on the issues.

Just be careful about it.

But give students the value of enhancing their lives, enhancing their love of learning.

What is the value of open educational resources—we hear about a movement in this area, this is an area in which you deal—what is their value versus privately generated resources, and is it an either-or proposition or best using both?

Miral: Yes, that’s a good question.

Having openly available content and technology is a key avenue to ensure that everybody has good quality access to content and education.

Learning from the technology sector, the open source industry from Linux to all the other open source projects—it has changed the landscape, the costs.

A similar movement is going on in education right now and it’s the right thing to do.

How do we make sure that real quality content and state of the art technology is available for every student and every teacher?

What is the state of education today?

Miral: In one word, I’m optimistic. The state of education is very, very lucrative right now because we have the right people, with the right mindset.

Think of all the good things that have happened, how technology is enabling education in terms of we’re able to reach every student and every teacher.

Consider the meaningful insights that technology can provide—based on interactions students have—to students, in terms of immediate, responsive feedback—and to teachers, about what they think their student is understanding, what are the major pain points, what other things do I hope I am teaching, what are the misunderstandings.

We are greatly pushing the envelope of how math and science should be taught and learned. And there is a lot of emphasis on real-world based learning, to make content and education relevant: in terms of technology and the thought process of leadership and awareness of teachers and students, and of what more can be done.

And now these things are available in a much more meaningful way than it has ever been in the recorded history of humanity.

So I think I’m very optimistic and bullish about where we are going.

What past work informs your current approach? Any parent, mentor, philosophy, a book—who or what are your inspirations?

Miral:  Like a person?


Miral: What inspires me is my experiences with all the people who have done things to make the most of what other people thought was impossible, and where this has made our lives so rich.

A lot of inspiration that I get comes as an education community.

And also, from outside of the education community, where people are great and think things that are simply not talked about, that are seemingly not possible.

Those are my inspirations and the things that motivate me.

Another thing that motivates me is: we have everything to make teachers lives easier, and student access more achievable for every student.

The only problem we probably have is with our imagination. How do we keep pushing the envelope of the imagination? How do we achieve our imagination seamlessly, to resolve to make people more successful?

So I get to combine these, and I am really excited to come to work every day.

Yes, it’s an amazing thing.

And what better field to work in than education? It has the best people.

So, I’m fortunate to be in education.

Any particular highlights with CK-12 that we didn’t cover—especially a peek at what’s to come? 

Miral: Yes, we’re launching some very interesting products in the fall.

One of them is our next generation of FlexBook platform, and then there’s a lot of excitement around our interactive content and simulations and what that can do for engaging students.

There is also a huge amount of interest in A.I. and technologies helpful for meaningful insights for teachers and students so they can do teaching and learning better than they do today.

So yes, a lot of exciting things are in the works.

Alright, thank you, Miral, I’ve enjoyed talking with you, and learned a lot, you’re quite an inspiration!

Miral: That’s great—thanks for having me, thanks for talking to me, and thanks for working in education. I appreciate that and let’s keep going and let’s keep doing great things!

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:


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