From a small office along Highway 101 in Palo Alto, Neeru Khosla is quietly trying to upend the way teachers teach and students learn.
It's a tall order for a woman who is not a politician, educator or administrator. Instead you can call her a crusader -- a crusader who has adopted the urgency, innovation and talent typical of a Silicon Valley startup in an effort to propel K-12 education into the 21st century.
At a time when public school budgets are in tatters and larger classroom sizes are making it tougher for teachers to provide individual help, Khosla's nonprofit CK-12 Foundation holds the promise of a double-barreled solution: online digital textbooks in primarily math and science, and exercises that are customizable, adorned with videos and other interactive features, and which cost schools nothing.
Teachers nationwide have downloaded textbooks and other material from the nonprofit's website, passing them along to millions of students, by CK-12's estimate.
"It's like going from the scroll to the paper and pen to the computer," Khosla says. "If we don't give students what they need to succeed, we're going to lose them."
The project means that all schools, no matter how poor, can afford educational material that engages students whether they are hungry for more advanced work or struggling with the basics. The books, which can be downloaded to computers and mobile devices, help students build their reading and language
Others are working to make digital textbooks as common in classrooms as No. 2 pencils. Apple (AAPL) announced an iPad-based e-textbook initiative last week, complete with the fanfare and fawning typical of an Apple announcement. But beyond the fact that CK-12 beats Apple on price (free vs. around $15), it would be a mistake to bet against Khosla for a number of reasons.
A molecular biologist by training, she serves on a slew of nonprofit and foundation boards. She is also half of a Silicon Valley power couple that includes Vinod Khosla, a billionaire venture capitalist who co-founded Sun Microsystems in the 1980s and went on to back dozens of valley companies while working for Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and his own Khosla Ventures.
Yes, Vinod Khosla's Rolodex has been a help in finding advisers and talent for CK-12, an organization that launched in 2006 and is as much a technology enterprise as it is an education nonprofit. But have no doubt: The Khosla behind CK-12 is Neeru. While the couple share a life and a "lovely relationship," says Deborah Stipek, a CK-12 advisory board member, Neeru calls the shots at the nonprofit.
"She's her own person. Vinod is very supportive of this. He has strong opinions and she listens -- and ignores him," Stipek, the former dean of Stanford's school of education says, exaggerating for effect.
None of which is news to Vinod Khosla, who serves on the nonprofit's board. "It's definitely her thing," he says. "I have often been introduced as Neeru's husband."
No question Khosla is a driven woman working with an ingenious concept. CK-12's digital FlexBooks allow teachers to mix and match chapters from different books, or ignore some chapters altogether. Teachers can edit the books, making them more relevant to their students by adding, for instance, a section on the ecology of the local creek.
"I've been involved in education for over 35 years, and this was the first time I've gone, 'OK, this is something that can really make sense for a lot of the issues that we are facing in urban education,' " says Louise Waters, CEO and superintendent of Leadership Public Schools. Waters, who runs a group of charter high schools in Oakland, Richmond, Hayward and San Jose, started using FlexBooks in 2010. She credits them for contributing to rising test scores.
Many of Waters' students, for instance, arrive at Leadership reading far below their grade levels. By using FlexBooks' interactive vocabulary and reading aids, they can quickly make up ground in reading even as they study math and science.
The books' appeal is growing with Khosla preaching the gospel to any audience that will listen. In the Bay Area, teachers in Atherton, San Ramon, San Francisco, Burlingame, Sausalito and Danville have told CK-12 that they're using the books. The nonprofit has grown into a 30-employee enterprise that is funded through the Khoslas' private foundation and had a budget of about $4 million last year.
Neeru Khosla's interest in education goes back to her childhood. Born the daughter of a government accountant in New Delhi, her family moved between India and England. Khosla noticed the richer educational experience in England. "It was a completely different atmosphere than the education system in India," Khosla says. In India, "the system just turned me off completely. It was all about, 'Sit still and do this. Sit still and do that. And if you don't do it, you'll get punished.' "
It was then that Khosla first thought there had to be a better way. Fast-forward to being a mother of four kids who attended the Nueva School, an elite and expensive school in Hillsborough. Khosla joined the Nueva board about 15 years ago at a time when she was contemplating models for more individualized learning. She realized there was a lot about education that she didn't know.
Some would go out and buy "Education for Dummies." Khosla headed to Stanford in 2005 to get a master's in education at age 50. "She was there because she wanted to make a difference," says Stipek, who was dean when Khosla arrived. "She was on a mission. For me, that makes a really wonderful student."
Khosla doesn't believe in taking things slow. Waters, of Leadership Academy, says she first met Khosla after she turned to then-Dean Stipek for help on finding meaningful textbooks and materials on her charters' shoestring budgets. Stipek pointed her to Khosla and within days they had a partnership to build textbooks and an online math program. The two women also became fast friends.
"We talk about our kids and our parents," Waters says. "It's the kind of talking that two women of kind of similar education, who are heading up small organizations, would share. You never have the feeling with her that you are talking to someone in a completely different kind of rarefied world."
Staying grounded has always been important. Sitting in her Palo Alto office, Neeru mentioned that she and Vinod recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of their first date. They married in 1980, and are determined to live happily ever after.
The Khoslas made a pledge to each other early on that they would have dinner together every night. "Through my busiest of times, I was home at least 25 times a month on average in a year," he says. "I got a report from my secretary every month. Then I got so good at it, I didn't need a report."
They make a strong team, whether Neeru always takes Vinod's advice or not. She knows plenty about education and he knows plenty about startups. "I think it can succeed at many levels," Vinod says of Neeru's social enterprise. "If all it does is make textbooks free, that's a great achievement. If it can do a lot more, then that is great."
Oh, it will do a lot more. Bank on it. Neeru Khosla wouldn't have it any other way.
Contact Mike Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.
Job: Co-founder, executive director of the nonprofit CK-12 Foundation
Other professional activities: Stanford University School of Education Advisory Council; Wikimedia Advisory Board; Nueva School Board of Trustees; High Tech High School Graduate School of Education Governing Board; Donors Choose National Advisory Council
Education: Bachelor's degree, New Delhi University/San Jose State University; master's degree in molecular biology, San Jose State; master's in education, Stanford University
Family: Married to venture capitalist Vinod Khosla; four children
Residence: Portola Valley
Headquarters: Palo Alto
Mission: Reduce the cost of textbooks for the K-12 market in the United States and worldwide; create open-source, Web-based e-books that can be customized.
Name origin: K-12, as in kindergarten through high school. The "C" represents Content, Collaboration, Curriculum, Community and Customization.
Process: FlexBooks, which meet state standards, are written by teachers working with illustrators and subject and technical experts.
More information: www.ck12.org