Kno brings its digital textbooks to K-12 education

Digital textbook startup Kno is going back to grade school. The Santa Clara, Calif., company, which has focused on higher education since launching in 2009, is announcing that it is expanding to the K-12 market through a partnership with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), one of the biggest publishers in the industry.

Given the size of the K-12 textbook market — $8 billion, as my colleague Laura Owen pointed out in a post on digital textbooks earlier this year — the opportunity is certainly there. But, considering that the procurement processes are largely controlled by state governments and school districts (and can often involve a decent amount of bureaucracy and red tape), it can be a difficult field to break in to.

To get around that hurdle, Kno isn’t targeting the schools themselves, but the parents.

“While the schools figure out what they want to do with their strategy… we believe that we can make this available to parents,” said Osman Rashid, CEO and co-founder of Kno, Inc.

The company’s pitch is that, for $9.99 or less, parents can rent an interactive, searchable textbook for a year and, at the very least, save their kids from having to carry a 25-lb. backpack to and from school every day. The books, which span several subjects, such as chemistry, English and biology, include links to videos, audio files, images and 3D models. They also come with digital flash cards and quizzes, as well as a journal that stores all of a student’s notes and highlighted content, which they can review even after the yearly rental expires.

Students can also write on the books and type notes (although functionality is limited with the current tablet keyboards and finger-based writing options).  In the coming months, the company plans to roll out an analytics feature that tracks student engagement, which the company said can be a leading indicator of student mastery and performance.

In January, Apple(s AAPL) announced its own entrance into the K-12 market with an iPad-based textbook initiative launched in partnership with HMH, Pearson and McGraw-Hill. And, given its longstanding relationship with the K-12 market and the speed with which schools around the country have adopted the iPad, the tech giant has a built-in advantage.

But, for his part, Rashid said: “Apple being in the market is awesome. Ever since they’ve entered, I’ve never had to explain what a digital textbook is. As a startup, I’m saving a lot of my marketing dollars.”

Aside from Kno’s price (which is lower than Apple’s price of $14.99 or less), he said that his company aims to offer a deeper educational experience, the ability to access the books on multiple platforms (not just the iPad, but the Web, Android and Windows 7) and a larger catalog of books.

Through its partnership with HMH, Rashid said they cover about 48 percent of the market with a K-12 curriculum based on the Common Core standards, which have been adopted by 45 states. He said they already partner with Pearson and McGraw-Hill for their college offerings and hope to bring them over to the K-12 market as well.

As for its penetration in the higher education market, Kno said it offers 250,000 textbooks and journals in partnership with nearly 60 publishers and reaches students at about 5,500 universities and colleges.