A Tech Billionaire's Wife Leads a Push to Reinvent K-12 With Personalized Learning

In the foggy Bay Area, one thing's clear: personalized learning, facilitated by technology, is huge. We've written before about Khan Academy, founded by retired hedge fund guy and so-called "messiah of math" Salman Khan. Khan now boasts a whopping 10 million students per month and has a long line of supporters including Gates and Google. The age of getting a free quality education from your computer screen has arrived. Heck, I just signed up for Khan Academy the other day to relearn introductory microeconomics.  

Of course Khan isn't the only player operating in this space. There's also Coursera, Udacity and Udemy. Then there's the CK-12 Foundation, cofounded by Neeru, wife of billionaire Vinod Khosla. Founded in 2007, CK-12  has a  seven-figure-per-year budget bankrolled by Khosla and the couple's Amar Foundation. Its educational tech tools are currently used by more than 38,000 schools in the U.S. and a growing number of international schools, according to the Silicon Valley Business Journal.

Consistent with the couple's background and educational experiences, CK-12 focuses on STEM education. CK-12 boasts around 30 full-time employees and offers a variety of online educational tools, from digital textbooks to videos. And it's all for free. The mission of CK-12 is to "enable everyone to learn in their own, unique way," which makes it yet one more example of a philanthropy-backed effort to harness technology to personalized instruction that allows students to go at their own pace. 

We're struck by how many funders are infatuated with "interactive learning" that "adapts to individual student performance," as CK-12 puts it. Tech donors are among the biggest boosters, as you'd expect, and we wrote recently about the Silicon Schools Fund, which supports blended learning at Bay Area schools, and is backed by Sheryl Sandberg and David Goldberg, among other techies. 

Related - The Heavy Hitters Behind a Fund Focused on K-12 Blended Learning

But donors from other sectors, such as finance, are into this approach, too. No doubt some of these donors remember just how frustrating school could be as teachers taught to the middle, leaving more gifted kids bored and less capable kids struggling to keep up. The potential for technology to change all that, and to enable a single teacher to run a wired classroom in which every student is engaged, is clearly a tantalizing idea to wealthy philanthropists—even if some skeptics worry that this stuff is overhyped by educational entrepreneurs looking to make a buck. 

There are a couple of interesting things about Neeru and Khosla's forays into this new space. First, historically, a lot of the couple's philanthropy has involved their native India. One of Khosla's most famous investments was in SKS Microfinance, specializing in microloans to poor women in India. Khosla also joined with several other tech titans to bankroll a project designed to help Indian entrepreneurs get new commercial ventures off the ground.

Then there's Neeru, who grew up wanting to be a doctor, and worked at a gene expression lab at Stanford before concerns about radiation while pregnant caused her to quit. Several years later, eager to find a new outlet, Neeru started volunteering at the prestigious Nueva School, where all the couple's children were enrolled. Her involvement increased, and she joined Nueva's board, meeting education advocates, working ten hours a week at a literature club, and attending a gifted learning conference. At 50, Neeru went back to school to pursue in master's in education from Stanford.

Wow. Talk about a reinvention. Neeru now serves on a number of other high-profile education boards in Silicon Valley including the Wikimedia Foundation, DonorsChoose, and Stanford University’s School of Education. As well, she's one of the founding members of the K-12 Initiative of the Design School (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design) at Stanford University.

It's worth noting the vision of CK-12 is ultimately global in scope, reflecting the widespread hope that new personalized learning technologies could be an even greater boon in developing countries, where education resources are scarcest. So funding in this area is hardly unrelated to the Khoslas' other interests. 

It's also worth noting that Neeru and Vinod are Giving Pledge signatories, meaning that the majority of their fortune is destined for philanthropy. With Neeru at the helm of CK-12, this likely means a lot more money will flow into this venture, and possibly others as well.