Driving the Digital Transition

Scott Kinney of Discovery Education shares his perspective on the state of tech in K-12.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

An acknowledged thought leader and powerful voice dedicated to supporting the success of each learner, Scott Kinney has nearly 25 years of experience in the fields of educational technology and professional learning.

As Discovery Education’s President of K-12 Education, Scott oversees all aspects of the company’s school-based business, including sales, marketing, public affairs, product development and professional learning. Under his leadership, Discovery Education has grown to serve 4.5 million educators and over 50 million students in more than 50 countries worldwide.

Previously, he served as Discovery Education’s Senior Vice President of Education Partnerships and led the organization’s efforts to collaborate with educators and administrators around the world as they built dynamic digital learning environments supporting student achievement. Prior to that, as the company’s Senior Vice President of Professional Development, Scott created and launched Discovery Education’s professional learning portfolio and managed all facets of that line of business.

Throughout his tenure at Discovery Education, Scott has also played a key role in shaping and growing of a number of the organization’s innovative initiatives such as Discovery Education’s master’s degree in instructional media and the company’s professional learning network, the Discovery Education Community.

Scott regularly consults with high-level education officials and policymakers, leads the organization’s national and state policy initiatives, and has testified before Congress on the future of learning. An accomplished public speaker and author, he has keynoted countless education conferences, presented at numerous administrator events, and has contributed articles and opinion pieces to various education publications. In 2015, he was recognized by EdTech Digest with its prestigious Leadership Award for his efforts to support school systems worldwide as they transition from static textbooks to dynamic digital content as a core instructional resource.

Prior to joining Discovery Education, he spent 15 years in public education, serving at both the school district and regional service center levels. In addition to his K-12 work, Scott has taught undergraduate and graduate classes for Kent State University and Penn State University and has served on numerous education-focused advisory boards.

In a 2013 article you wrote for EdTech Digest called Rethink Remake, you talked about six factors driving the digital transition:

  • Today’s Students Are Plugged In,
  • Technology Makes Differentiated Instruction More Scalable,
  • Digital Content in Schools Can Help Close the Digital Divide,
  • Educators Know There is No One Model For the Digital Transition,
  • The Financials, and
  • Great Leadership

Looking back, are those factors still driving the digital transition today? 

You know, it is always a little daunting to look back and reflect on an article written five years ago, as there is always the possibility you’ll find something just completely off-base. But looking at these factors, I am relieved to find that they still stand up.

Our students today are incredibly technologically savvy, and if anything, they may be even more plugged in then they were five years ago. Technology continues to evolve, making differentiating instruction even more scalable, and access to the digital world in schools is still preparing students to compete in today’s technology driven workplace. Across the country, educators have been relentless in pushing forward and creatively tailoring plans to create authentic digital learning environments that rely on the talents and resources already in place in their district.

Likewise, digital textbooks continue to be a less expensive alternative to traditional hardcopy textbooks. Finally, the quality of leadership in our nation’s school systems remains incredibly high and is growing increasingly more sophisticated, which in turn is building even greater capacity for large systemic shifts such as the transition from hardcover textbooks to dynamic digital content.

Now, if I could rewrite this article, I think one additional factor driving the digital transition forward is the understanding among educators that digital content can be a critical tool in improving educational equity. Among the ways digital content contributes to improved equity is by:

  • Improving the vocabulary of the youngest learners.
  • Breaking down the barriers to learning for all students.
  • Providing all students multiple ways to demonstrate proficiency.
  • Engaging all students in high-level thinking.

As the issue of educational equity continues to grow in importance, I believe digital content’s ability to improve equity will become an increasingly powerful driver of digital transitions nationwide.

Anything else you wish you had added to that list?

Well, in addition to digital content’s ability to improve equity I would have added professional learning, albeit with an asterisk.

I add the asterisk because professional learning is primarily a driver of a district’s digital transition once that shift is underway. After a school district’s leadership has decided to undertake a technology-driven learning initiative, customized, job-embedded professional learning aligned to district-wide initiatives and implemented with fidelity is essential. 

High quality professional learning empowers teachers to fully support district initiatives and more effectively incorporate new technologies into classroom instruction. This professional learning enables educators to change and/or refine their classroom practice, incorporate new resources, and meet new goals. In addition, professional learning will play a central role in helping a school district realize a return on the investment it is making in dynamic digital content. In my mind, professional learning sets in motion a chain reaction that ends in improved student achievement and satisfied education stakeholders.

In five years, what else has changed?  

So much has changed that, in some ways, it is almost easier to ask, “What hasn’t changed?” over the last five years!

But, if I think back to the biggest change in the education landscape over the last five years, I’d have to say that the most consequential development would be the proliferation of education stakeholders in communities across the country.

Thinking back to my previous career in public education as a technology director in Pennsylvania, the number of education stakeholders a school leader, such as a superintendent or CAO, truly had to answer to was limited. At that time, the district’s School Board was key, as were the immediate stakeholders such as teachers, students and parents.

However, over time and especially in the last five years, the number of education stakeholders school leaders are working with has dramatically increased. Added to the traditional stakeholders of the School Board, students, parents and teachers are local business groups, community organizations, taxpayer associations, and more. In addition, school leaders often need to work with stakeholder groups that represent the same demographic on different sides of an issue, i.e., tax-payer groups both for and against a school bond. Complicating the proliferation of stakeholders is the fact that each group has a ready-made megaphone on social media with which they can amplify their message.

Overall, I think while this complicates the work of school leaders, it is, in the long run, a positive development. We all have a stake in the success of our public education system, and more individuals participating in the ongoing dialogue around how to continue to improve public education will bring positive improvement.

What do you think one of the bigger challenges school leaders will face in the future as schools continue to make the digital transition? 

Certainly, one of the bigger challenges school leaders are going to continue to face is the stakeholder management piece I mentioned earlier. I think over time we are going to continue to see the number of education stakeholders grow at both the national and local level, which, in turn, will require school leaders to devote additional time and resources to managing these groups appropriately.

Behind the stakeholder challenge is the digital content challenge. It’s not hyperbole to say that today’s school districts are awash in digital content. From YouTube videos to OER to high quality digital media, school leaders have many choices in deciding what content to use in the classroom.  

At Discovery Education we believe standards-aligned digital content, specifically developed for diverse student audiences, curated by experts for ease of access and backstopped by sustained professional learning, is among the most powerful resources schools can deploy in their efforts to improve student achievement. Organizations such as EdReports.org and others have done a great job of helping school leaders find high quality resources, but administrators still face a time consuming, laborious process to sift out best-in-class content.

So, my final thought on this topic is this: When the hardcover textbook dominated the classroom, educators never considered going to their school library and creating their own textbooks. Why? Because it didn’t make sense. So why would we expect our teachers to do this today with digital content? Our classroom teachers got into education to be teachers. Let’s not weigh them down with the additional heavy burden of having to serve as curriculum developers and publishers as well.

What is an edtech trend you think has staying power?  

I truly don’t see edtech as a “trend”. As in any industry, if there are tools or resources that can create additional efficiencies or more importantly, create an environment to deliver more effective outcomes, we’d be crazy not to implement those resources strategically and at scale. To me, educational technologies are no different.

Specific to that, I believe the ongoing movement to make instructional content “smarter” will have a tremendous impact on teaching and learning.

The movement toward the creation of smart content really began with the advent of embedded formative assessment. When formative assessment tools became integrated into digital content, the need to stop instruction to assess learning disappeared. Now, assessment is an invisible part of the learning process that, through results dash- boarded for teachers both by standard and by student, is helping educators nationwide make real-time instructional decisions.

The next phase in the development of smart content is the growing access to Artificial Intelligence and in particular, Machine Learning. The ability of computers to use statistical techniques to “learn” or improve performance on a specific task with data inputs, what is now called Machine Learning, I feel will play a significant role in developing the next generation of smart content.

Now, before we get too much further on this topic, I want to be explicitly clear that I do not in any way believe computers could, or should, replace educators. Research has shown time and again that the number one factor impacting student achievement is the teacher. Be sure to underline this–technology will never replace teachers–but AI and Machine Learning can play an important role in teacher tools, simplifying the personalization of learning, and helping educators do their jobs more effectively.

What highlight(s) of your past experiences most informs your current approach?

Without a doubt, my experiences first in a public-school system and then in a Pennsylvania Intermediate Unit have played key roles in forming my approach to serving K-12 educators.

I began my career in education as a Technology Specialist at the Central Columbia School District in Pennsylvania, then later served as District Instructional Technology Coordinator for the Sharpsville Area School District, which is also in Pennsylvania. In these roles, I supported classroom educators as they integrated the technologies of the day into classroom instruction. At both Central Columbia and Sharpsville, I saw firsthand not only how important intuitive and easy-to-use resources are for educators, but also how important professional learning is to the effective implementation and integration of those resources into classroom activities.

Serving as the Director of Educational Technologies at Pennsylvania’s Carbon Lehigh Intermediate Unit also played a key role in informing my approach to serving K-12 educators. Pennsylvania’s 29 Intermediate Units (IU) are entrepreneurial, highly skilled, technology-rich, and agile providers of cost-effective, instructional, and operational services to school districts, charter schools, and over 2,400 non-public and private schools. At the IU, I learned the importance of building meaningful relationships with educators at all levels in the schools I served.

These relationships created a channel of continuous communication through which educators provided me with honest feedback on services the IU provided. This feedback helped me improve those services, which led to more feedback, which in turn led to more improvements, and so on. This ongoing cycle of iterative improvement is embedded in Discovery Education’s culture and is the cornerstone on which our efforts to provide all educators the resources and services they need to create modern digital learning environments for all students rest.

What is technology’s role in education? 

Simply put, I’ve always believed the role of technology in education is to help us implement what we know to be good instructional practice, at scale.

For example, we’ve known for years that there are multiple ways to learn. We’ve also known that learning outcomes improve when instruction is tailored to an individual student’s learning. Before the rise of educational technologies, educators could differentiate instruction, but it could be a time consuming, laborious task.

However, thanks to educational technology, the work of providing students the content that best fits their learning has become much, much easier. It’s worth reiterating that technology’s role in education is not to supplant the educator, but rather, its role is to make it easier for the teacher to put best practice to work in service of the student. 

What is the state of education today?

Well, judging by tremendous enthusiasm I saw at this year’s ISTE Conference, I would say the state of education is strong. In my role, I have the opportunity to meet and talk with educators at all levels on a weekly basis, and across the board, they are excited and dedicated to preparing young people for future success.

Now, that’s not to say our education system does not have its issues—we need to do a better job improving educational equity, we need to improve the working conditions of teachers and on and on—but at the heart of our education system is a truly dedicated group of individuals focused on supporting all learners in reaching their highest potential. To me, that is reason enough to be optimistic about the state of education today.

What did you learn from ISTE 2018 in Chicago? Any interesting take-aways for you?

Well, first, let me congratulate ISTE CEO Richard Culatta and the entire ISTE team for a fantastic conference. This year’s event was the best yet, and I am already looking forward to next year’s Conference and Expo in Philadelphia — home of the World Champion Philadelphia Eagles!

Getting back to your question, one topic came up again and again as I walked the Expo floor talking to educators and industry peers, and that theme was student engagement. To a person, every educator I spoke with was looking to learn about new resources and strategies for deepening student engagement in learning. Likewise, many of my peers working for companies supporting educators in the classroom mentioned to me that they were redoubling their efforts to provide new products and services designed specifically to bolster student engagement.

Whether through the use of programmable robots, hands-on STEM kits, or virtual reality content, I think educators and their service providers have come to grips with the fact that lining kids up in rows and lecturing from a static print textbook does not meet the needs of today’s learners.   The realization that collectively we’ve turned this corner was my biggest takeaway. 

What are you focused on thematically or strategically for the coming year?

Well, following up on the previous question, Discovery Education’s focus remains on engaging today’s students. We believe we have some of the world’s most engaging content that, when combined with a research based instructional framework, integrated assessment and job-embedded professional learning, can have a systemic impact on teaching and learning.

Over the next year, we’ll maintain that focus, while at the same time continually identifying new technologies that make our services even more useful to the students and teachers we serve. Whether that is through AI, on-demand tutoring, advanced analytics, or a technology that has not yet emerged, our focus will remain on empowering educators worldwide with the content and leading-edge technology they need to improve teaching and learning for all students.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com


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