From filmstrip Fridays and laser discs to streaming media and Techbooks, an edtech veteran blazes a trail.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
A seasoned leader skilled in building long-lasting relationships with educators at all levels, Coni Rechner serves as Discovery Education’s Senior Vice President of National Partnerships.
Through her collaborations, Coni ensures teachers and administrators have access to best-in-class digital content and professional development solutions to help them toward their goals.
She’s also managed the company’s Urban Partnerships team, where she oversaw the creation and implementation of unique, public/private partnerships that support the creation of dynamic digital learning environments in the nation’s largest school districts.
“Certainly, there’s room to improve America’s education system. However, I think the first step is to celebrate today’s educators and students, and elevate the great work exemplary teachers and administrators are doing nationwide each day.”
Other milestones in her more than 20 years of experience in education include launch of the Discovery Education brand following the purchase of United Learning by Discovery Communications almost 15 years ago; the founding of the Discovery Educator Network, which today is the largest professional learning network of its kind; and the development of strategies that have influenced the way her company nurtures and grows partnerships nationwide.
She holds a BS in business administration and marketing from the Marquette University and an MBA in business education from the University of St. Thomas.
Your career has coincided with the rise of edtech. Can you talk a little about the tremendous changes to our nation’s classrooms you’ve seen over your career?
Thanks for the opportunity to talk with you, Victor! When I think about changes in education, I think back to when I started working with educators over 25 years ago. At the time, films, filmstrips, and hardcover textbooks dominated classrooms. Used for special occasions and “Filmstrip Fridays,” these resources were not really integrated into teaching and learning or engaging students on a daily basis.
Sure, some teachers were using these limited resources creatively, but the time and effort it took to use these forms of media effectively to engage students in learning meant only pockets of excellence existed.
Over time, content evolved. Films and filmstrips became VHS tapes and laser discs, which you could fast forward through to get to the “good parts” you wanted your students to see. Then, thanks to my previous company United Learning, we began to digitize content and align it to standards. We’d cut the content into manageable 2-3-minute clips and stream it to classrooms via high-speed internet connections.
These clips could be used by teachers in a very targeted fashion to illustrate a specific concept or kick-start a classroom discussion. In a world in which a picture is worth a thousand words, streaming media’s impact on teaching and learning became incalculable.
Our company dramatically improved streaming media, adding a variety of assets such as reading passages, songs, and virtual labs, as well as sustained professional development systems that help educators transform the way they teach with these new resources. Our company also invested in ways to help school systems align this content to scope and sequence documents, saving teachers time and ensuring the fidelity of implementation across a school system.
Classroom content continues to evolve as hardcopy textbooks are being replaced with digital textbooks such as our Techbooks, which include not only a variety of digital assets to reach all types of learners, but embedded formative assessments as well. These types of resources empower teachers to create personalized, blended learning environments.
Within these environments, students interact with media in a way that mirrors what’s going on in their lives outside the classroom, which in turn, actively engages students in learning. It has been amazing to see all these changes, and I am looking forward to what comes next!
Something that jumps off your resume is the role you played in standing up your enormous network—now community. What is the importance of professional learning networks to teachers and ultimately, their students?
Yes, absolutely—the launch of the Discovery Education Network and its evolution into the Discovery Education Community is one of my favorite topics!
Early in my, career I fell in love with the passion and commitment educators have for their students and wanted to do something to support educators’ continuing effort to transform education with digital media.
Right after we launched our streaming service, I was talking with an educator at a conference, and was shocked when he described teaching as a “lonely” profession.
This teacher was not lonely in the traditional sense, but rather was expressing the fact that when you are in the classroom, often educators feel it is all on them—especially if they are early adopters and rocking the status quo.
From this conversation came the idea for the Discovery Educator Network, or DEN.
DEN was designed for two purposes.
First, to help connect educators to each other. This would help relieve some of the loneliness inherent in teaching, inspire participants to experiment and try new things, and put educators in touch with their greatest resource—each other. They could help each other find common solutions to common challenges and support and reinvigorate each other.
The second purpose of the DEN was, and continues to be as the DEN has evolved into the Discovery Education Community, ongoing support for educators interested in using digital content to improve teaching and learning.
Being an educator means constantly learning and improving your craft.
Once an educator has received new digital resources and after they’ve had the appropriate professional development, personal development needs to continue in order to be able to meet the ever-changing needs of students.
This community not only provides teachers a forum in which they can connect both online and in person with their peers around the world to continue their personal and professional development, but supports the needs of principals as well.
While teachers are a core constituent of the community, in the last few years we’ve seen an outpouring of interest from principals eager to participate in our professional learning network.
In my opinion, this development is a reflection of the increasingly complex nature of the principalship, especially in regards to building cultures of learning and creating safe learning environments for both teachers and students.
Moving forward, I am looking forward to working with our team to create additional opportunities for principals to participate.
Today’s community provides both a place and the resources teachers need to continue their professional growth. I’m truly honored to be a part of an organization that provides a venue in which teachers are encouraged to innovate, inspire and invigorate.
Personally, it’s incredibly rewarding to elevate and celebrate educators for their exceptional work. I feel, and I am sure my colleagues would agree, that we have been so fortunate to have met literally thousands of outstanding teachers through our efforts.
You also led efforts to help large urban school systems bring edtech into their classrooms. What are the challenges inherent in those efforts, and are there a few notable successes?
Absolutely—When I consider the challenges that arise in an urban school system’s effort to undertake edtech-driven initiatives in classrooms, my mind immediately jumps to the question, “How do you scale such a momentous shift in an equitable way that improves learning for all students?”
Every school system is different, but scaling an equitable edtech-driven learning initiative for thousands of teachers requires tremendous district leadership as well as capacity at every school building.
A great example of how leadership and professional development were successfully combined to drive a successful and equitable edtech-driven learning initiative in an urban environment can be seen in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
At CMS, as it is also called, instructional leaders recognized the need to make the district’s science instruction more interactive and engaging. To achieve this goal, the district integrated Discovery Education’s Science Techbook into instruction, embarked on a custom professional development initiative, and launched a series of student engagement efforts.
This unique initiative was championed by the district’s senior leadership and ultimately led to a 12 percentage-point increase in college and career readiness for 5th- and 8th-grade science students from 2013-2016; it also propelled a six percentage-point increase in proficiency for 5th-grade science students in 2015-2016; and a 10.5 percentage-point leap over state proficiency scores for Math 1 students in 2015-2016.
None of these gains would have been possible without the tremendous leadership of CMS’s senior team and the participation of the district’s dedicated teachers in a professional development initiative.
There are many, many great examples of other urban districts successfully scaling edtech-driven initiatives in places such as Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida, the Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee, and the Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland. The common denominator in all of these school districts is dedicated leadership and a commitment to professional development.
You were a member of the United Learning team when it was purchased by Discovery Education, and are now a part of the team that is building a “new” Discovery Education with Francisco Partners and Discovery Communications. Could you talk about that and what Discovery Education’s partners should expect going forward?
When I look back on my career at United Learning, I am incredibly proud of the work we did to digitize and distribute content to educators across the country via high-speed internet. When United Learning was combined with Discovery Inc., the effort to transform teaching and learning took a tremendous leap forward.
Thanks to the leadership from our senior executive team, led by our CEO Bill Goodwyn, and access to Discovery’s collection of high quality content, we built a name and brand that is synonymous with the highest quality digital content and professional development and is loved and respected by educators around the world.
Discovery Education’s new relationship with Francisco Partners offers another opportunity for us to jump ahead in our effort to empower all educators with the digital content and professional development they need to support the success of all students.
While we will continue our close relationship with Discovery Inc., we’ll receive valuable support and resource investment from Francisco Partners that we’ll dedicate to more innovation, more partner services, and more resources that will help educators accelerate student success.
We are incredibly excited to partner with Francisco Partners, and I am excited to help write this new chapter in Discovery Education’s story.
What are your thoughts on the future of edtech?
Great question! In my discussions with school leaders across the country, I am finding that administrators are focused on two different types of integrations important to the future of edtech.
The first type of integration is of a technical nature. With the rise of LMSs, the digital services school districts are using to build modern classrooms can now be housed in one place and accessed with one username and password.
School leaders are working hard to relocate their various digital services in one central place. This effort will make finding and using digital resources easier than ever, will serve as a tremendous time saver for teachers, and ultimately, will help educators more easily make the transition to digital classrooms.
The other type of integration I hear about is of a more pedagogical nature, as school leaders are considering how best to integrate edtech resources into classroom instruction.
Schools are making significant investments in edtech resources, and school boards, administrators, parents and others want to see a return on this investment.
Therefore, I am finding that school leaders are focusing closely on the types of professional development teachers need to integrate these tools into instruction, create dynamic digital learning environments, and transform their students’ learning experiences.
Both of these types of integrations are critical. Edtech has created powerful tools to support educators’ efforts to improve academic achievement.
We just need to make access to these resources easier as we provide educators the professional development they need to achieve maximum impact.
How about your thoughts on the state of education in America today?
Each week, I travel to school systems across the country and I see teachers and administrators working harder than ever to meet the increasingly growing needs of their students.
As I said earlier, I fell hard for the passion and commitment of teachers very early in my career, and I continue to be inspired by these talented individuals’ dedication to their students and to their profession.
The creativity and collaboration of the students today’s educators serve is also a source of inspiration to me. As evidenced by the response of students across the country to the Parkland tragedy, today’s learners are poised, engaged, and ready to make a difference.
Looking at the incredible students and teachers in our nation’s education system, it is hard to understand the continued focus some have with what’s wrong in education.
Certainly, there’s room to improve America’s education system. However, I think the first step is to celebrate today’s educators and students, and elevate the great work exemplary teachers and administrators are doing nationwide each day.
When we as a society begin doing this, I think many more will see the strong, resilient individuals who are leading us into a brighter future.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]