Discovery Education New CEO Scott Kinney Discusses Education Trends, Goals

Scott Kinney
(Image credit: Discovery Education)

Discovery Education has announced Scott Kinney is its new Chief Executive Officer, with Kelli Campbell becoming the company’s new President. Kinney succeeds Paul Ilse, who will become Executive Chairman of Discovery Education’s Board of Directors.

Kinney’s 25-year career in education began in Pennsylvania’s public school system at the Sharpsville Area School District, where he served as the district’s Instructional Technology Coordinator. Following stints as Assistant Director of Curriculum and Instruction and Director of Educational Technologies at Pennsylvania’s Carbon Lehigh Intermediate Unit #21, Kinney joined Discovery Education in 2005.

During his tenure at Discovery Education, Kinney has played a key role in a number of the organization’s innovative initiatives, including the creation of Discovery Education’s professional learning business, the establishment of Discovery Education’s master’s degree in instructional media, and the growth of the company’s award-winning professional learning community, the Discovery Educator Network. Most recently, as Discovery Education’s President of K-12 Education, Kinney led the organization’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Kinney recently chatted with Tech & Learning.

So you’ve been with Discovery Education for 15 years, but what are you most excited about in this new role? 

Scott Kinney: For me, the thing I've enjoyed the most about my career here at Discovery Education has always been the people, and I think it's twofold.

One is the people I get to work with every day at Discovery Education--I'm a firm believer that all of us are smarter than any of us. My first days at Discovery Education years ago, I would walk into meetings and just see all of the intelligence, the passion, that kind of energy in the room of every meeting . . . I remember talking to my boss and saying, “It's just amazing how people lean into every conversation and how passionate they are.” Fifteen years later, it's still like that and I'm still in awe of the incredible talent across the organization. 

And then a big part of it is the people externally who we get to work with every day in the education community. This is an incredibly passionate sector of the world that I'm fortunate to be able to work in. My background is steeped in education--my mom was my math teacher in high school and my wife was a teacher. I worked my way through college at a school system, and my first job was as an instructional technology coordinator for a small school district in western Pennsylvania. 

Funny story: On my first day of work in the early to mid 90s, my boss at the time, who was the assistant superintendent, gave me a tour of the district, took me out to lunch, showed me my office, and after lunch said, “Okay, now go do whatever it is you're supposed to do here,” because at the time IT coordinator was a relatively new position and many schools just didn't have them. And there was a big stack of papers on my desk, and it was clear that anything that had to do with technology had just been left there. As I started to go through it, there was a grant for a 56k line to the Internet. So, one of my first roles in a school system was bringing the Internet into that school system, and now it's pretty cool to think that years later, I’m now at Discovery Education, having the opportunity to deliver an incredible amount of content every day through that thing called the Internet. 

What are some of the short- and long-term goals you see for Discovery Education? 

Kinney: First, it's important to note that while this is a transition of me into the CEO role at Discovery Education, it's not a change of direction or a change of course. We're excited about the work that we've been doing the last few years, and the impact that we've had across the education ecosystem. Our mission has always been preparing learners for tomorrow by creating innovative classrooms connected to today's world. And we're really focused on how we do that through high-quality content and engaging professional learning opportunities, and will continue to stay on course and focus on those things short term.

A little bit longer term, we recently made an acquisition of a company called Mystery Science, and we're incredibly excited about that partnership. It really complements our current portfolio of Discovery Education Experience and our digital textbook line, the Techbooks. Together, we're really well-positioned to deepen our impact with students and teachers.

The other longer term focus that we've worked on a lot on recently is just continuing to expand our impact globally. We work with a number of ministries of education across the world. We have an incredible partnership with the Ministry of Education in Egypt, where we've helped to build The Egyptian Knowledge Bank, which is a repository of digital content. We've introduced a new curriculum there for grades K to 3, and now reach over 7 million students with that content. We've also trained almost 200,000 teachers in Egypt, and I'm really excited to continue and expand that work.

In addition, we just launched a partnership with SOMOS Educação, one of Brazil's largest education companies. We're now able to provide our STEM resources to about 1.3 million students through that partnership. 

So we’re just continuing to look forward to expanding our services around the world and growing our impact.

Kinney: The word I find myself using most often recently is flexibility. We are in a changing environment and as we look at the district partners who we work with, it’s about flexibility in areas such as instruction in the learning environment--how do we deliver instruction, where do we deliver instruction, how do we assess students. 

When COVID came to bear in the United States, we recognized that we can't be everything to everybody, we can't solve all the problems, but what we can do really well is support teachers as they look to shift their instruction from a physical classroom to remote instruction. 

We’ve really focused on two things--one is high-quality content aligned to standards, especially through our channels, which are an aggregation of content around a theme or thematic unit. We’ve launched a number of new channels--in March we launched Viruses and Outbreaks, then a getting started guide for virtual learning. Virtual Field Trips, for example, are a great way to have students meet people and go to places and have experiences they couldn't otherwise have in today's learning environment

The second thing we thought we can help with is that we understand a lot about how to deliver digital instruction, and we wanted to support teachers as they transition out of the physical classroom. So, from March to July, we not only onboarded about 15,000 new schools to our Experience platform at no cost to them, but we hosted about 150 online events and reached more than 20,000 educators in 50 states and 17 countries.

Along that line, how is Discovery Education supporting PD for hybrid learning? 

Kinney: A lot of the use of our service historically has been in classrooms, but as we now design our services and products, we think a lot about use cases, and whether it’s a one-to-many learning environment, a center-based approach, or a one-to-one environment. We think through the implications of each of those, and make sure that we address those within our services.

One of the things that we talked a lot about as we continue to provide supports for online learning and virtual learning spaces is that we know that there is a day when kids will go back to classrooms. It might not look exactly like it did pre-Covid because we've learned some things along the way, but at the same time, we're very cognizant of it as we build tools and resources, making sure that we address the hybrid learning environment, because we do think there is always going to be a blend of how we deliver instruction to our students going forward.

It's been a challenging year, but what positive outcomes have you seen? How is Discovery Education going to help shape those going forward? 

Kinney: This all reminds us of the incredible flexibility and dedication that American educators have to their students. 

When COVID broke out in March, we saw teachers retool, we saw teachers who wanted to firm up their skills, who learned new teaching strategies. In terms of adaptations, I've seen bathtubs become whiteboards! And all of that happens because teachers are teachers and they never quit on their students. It's humbling to see, and we’ve had teams working around the clock to support those efforts. Hopefully, the American public sees that as well--these are superheroes, who are working in incredibly challenging times, and it is an inspiration every day.

In addition to connectivity and access, what other challenges do you see on the horizon for education, and how is Education Discovery going to help overcome those challenges? 

Kinney: Access and connectivity is an outcome of a larger issue of equity, and that conversation has come to bear, especially given the kind of inequities that we see for students in remote learning. 

One of the things that we specifically did that I was incredibly proud of our team for was launching the Dissent, Equity, and Inspiring Change channel within our services. It’s a channel specifically designed to facilitate classroom conversations and discussions around subjects such as social justice and equity, implicit bias, systemic racism, constitutional human rights, and dissent protests. All those topics and conversations that students and teachers were engaging in because the world around them was having these conversations. 

We're fortunate at Discovery Education that we have incredible content partners such as the Discovery Channel, Common Sense Education, and the Child Mind Institute, but we also have a number of corporate partnerships such as the USC Shoah Foundation and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights group to make sure that we're providing the best-in-class content with the right messages, the right tone, in the right conversations, around that.

The other thing we did was launch Equity Talks. We actually did that pre-Covid, but you could really see the interest in those. We had New York City Chancellor Richard Carranza, Alberto Carvalho from Miami, and other top leaders in education across the country, having conversations around this very topic, which is so important to us and the educational community at large. 

Is there anything you’ve learned from things not going right, or maybe mistakes, that have helped inform your approach? 

Kinney: Yeah, I got a million! [laughs] It's great to talk about the positives but it's important too to learn from mistakes. So two come to mind.

One is from a Discovery Education perspective. There's a great line that my predecessor, Paul Ilse, used. He said, “If you say yes to everything, ultimately you're saying no to things that matter.” So focus is critical, as a company. 

We have a lot of ideas and we have a lot of capabilities, and yes, maybe there are some other things that we could be doing, but let's make sure that we're really focused on what we think we can do best in the world. Kind of the old Jim Collins Good to Great, if you will. 

The other thing is the skepticism of educational technology. I remember my first days in Sharpsville when I would deliver PD for teachers, I would say things such as, “If I can show you a more efficient or more effective way to deliver instruction, are you interested?” Like, “Do you buy in or engage in that professional learning activity?” And the answer was always yes because teachers are incredibly taxed and if you can do things more efficiently, or certainly if you can deliver better instruction, they're all in. So I think one of the things that we haven't done great as an industry is prove those things to be true.

I love the fact that Discovery Education, in large part, is a subscription service because it means that we have to provide value and prove value every year, and people have to inherently see that value and come back to us. We take a lot of pride in the fact that we've had partners for 10 to 15 years now, and it's because we're focused on making sure that we continue to show that value. Because the inverse is also true--if you're not showing value, people can vote by not working with you.

Anything else you’d like to share? 

Kinney: This has been a lot of fun for me because I've seen this industry from so many different perspectives for so long!

When I was in college, Disney came out with the trailer for The Lion King. They put it on the internet and if you started downloading it before you went to bed--and if no one interrupted it while you were sleeping--the next morning, you could wake up and watch the whole thing. At the time, we were amazed by this.

Now we're delivering about a million of those videos every day to students and teachers across the world! It's been so fun to be part of that journey and it's humbling to be a piece of that conversation over the last couple decades.

So again, even though this is a transition, it's certainly not a change of direction for Discovery Education. We're going to continue to do the good work that we've been doing and I’m excited to carry that mantle forward.

Ray Bendici is the Managing Editor of Tech & Learning and Tech & Learning University. He is an award-winning journalist/editor, with more than 20 years of experience, including a specific focus on education.