On Leadership, Opportunity, Removing Roadblocks and Getting On With It

The president of one of the world’s foremost edtech companies shares her road to success, the state of edtech now, and where things are headed.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

In her new role as President, Kelli Campbell oversees all aspects of Discovery Education’s customer lifecycle management operations, as well as manage the recently acquired Mystery Science business. Most recently, Campbell served as the company’s President of International and University. In that role she led the development of innovative partnerships with Ministries of Education in Egypt, Chile, and with channel partners worldwide, and oversaw the development of the Discovery Education’s Impact Network, whose members offer educators online access to Discovery Education’s high-quality graduate-level professional learning content.

Previously, Campbell led the creation and launch of the Discovery Education’s Techbook line of business.  In 2015, Campbell served on the committee that developed President Barack Obama’s “Digital Textbook Playbook.”  Prior to joining Discovery Education in 2006, she served as Vice President of Marketing & Product Development at Clearvue & SVE. An early pioneer in using cloud-based digital content for instruction, Campbell directed the creation, launch, and distribution of the award-winning PowerMediaPlus.com media-on-demand system.

‘…the ‘digital first’ approach to instructional materials moved from a nice-to-have, to a necessity.’

Over the past several years, Campbell has presented at numerous national and regional education conferences on education’s transition to digital content and has contributed to numerous articles in national publications on the replacement of textbooks by digital resources.

In 2014, she was named one of the Alliance for Women in Media’s Women with Solutions for her leadership in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). In 2012, she was acknowledged with a Women in Technology Leadership Award. She also earned a 2017 Leadership Award as part of The EdTech Awards from EdTech Digest.

A graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Campbell currently lives with her husband and two children in Bethesda, Maryland.

You’ve been in edtech for two decades now as a leader, innovator, executive – how were those early days different than now, any comment on past vs. current?

Campbell: Over the past twenty years, I feel that, while some things in edtech have changed dramatically, others have not changed at all.

At the start of my career, education content providers were just beginning to convert materials from bulky VHS tapes to the digital realm so content could be delivered via the internet. At my first ‘edtech’ company (Clearvue & SVE) we, like Discovery Education’s predecessor United Learning, were an early pioneer in providing educators cloud-based digital content for instruction. What’s remained constant is the dynamic in which companies focus on providing educators digital content for integration into instruction to save time, engage students, and create differentiated learning experiences.

But what’s really changed is the role of digital resources in the classroom. Once upon a time, school systems could look at service like Discovery Education’s K-12 learning platform as a luxury. This had been slowly changing over the last few years as more and more schools made the digital transition. However, the pandemic accelerated this movement and the “digital first” approach to instructional materials moved from a nice-to-have, to a necessity. In 2020, school systems made the shift to digital teaching and learning in a matter of weeks instead of the months or years it previously took. The original reticence to move to, or even more fully integrate, digital content into the classroom has been pushed aside in the need to ensure continuity of learning.

‘In 2020, school systems made the shift to digital teaching and learning in a matter of weeks instead of the months or years it previously took.’

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of seeing firsthand the tremendous impact our digital resources and professional learning can have on students and educators. Now that more and more districts have made the digital transition, it’s time we start talking about improving educational equity. Equity in how resources are accessed, as well as equity in how and what resources are presented are, I believe, a big issue we need to address in the coming years. We need to work together to meet the needs of students and educators, both in the opportunities and challenges of now, but also those of the future.

What prompted you to move into the education technology sector way back when? Why learning/technology, vs. something else? What was it about this field in particular that you liked?

Honestly, I kind of moved into edtech by accident. After college, I was working in stock photography/video, helping with early efforts to digitize content, define metadata, and create the ability to be found by search engines. Then, in the late 1990’s I joined a former colleague at Clearvue & SVE to help migrate an existing large library of educational video to new formats – CD-ROM, DVD, and then digital videos on a centralized server. I am proud to say that I was involved in some very early iterations of SaaS-delivered video to schools. While the methods of delivering that content was still in in infancy—anyone remember T1 lines?—the need for fulfilling the teachable moment with relevant, engaging content was the same as it is today.

One thing I love about the education industry is the people. I’ve had the great privilege of surrounding myself with the best minds in curriculum, instruction, professional learning, and content. I’m grateful every day that I fell into this industry, and perhaps never more so than when the pandemic hit. During a time of so much anxiety and upheaval, I was able to wake up each day and know we were making a difference not only for teachers struggling to pivot quickly to new ways of instruction, but also for students and parents anxious to their students engaged and continuing their education. It is a great feeling, and one that I will always cherish.

‘One thing I love about the education industry is the people. I’ve had the great privilege of surrounding myself with the best minds in curriculum, instruction, professional learning, and content.’

Your experience in confronting an area, in digging in, leading, getting immersed in a solution, and ultimately launching very successful products—what drives you, what do you know in this regard that allows you to repeat your successes?

I like to be a problem-solver, and I’m a good communicator. In edtech, to identify the problem, all you have to do is ask a teacher or administrator. Then, I simply convene great minds, get roadblocks out of their way, and help them come up with the solution.

I enjoy collaborating on complex problems with diverse and dynamic people. I’m only successful because I surround myself with people who have the knowledge and expertise that I don’t have. I ask questions and probe, but ultimately, my role is wide, but not deep. I rely on all the brilliance around me to get to a solution.

Knowing that my work has a positive, and lasting, impact on students and teachers is what drives me each and every day. I love getting to see different schools around the globe and finding the similarities: kids playing, teachers celebrating a successful lesson, classrooms full of the wonder of learning. Great teaching is great teaching, whether you’re in a large United States school in Washington D.C. or a small school in Giza, Egypt. If I can play a small part in making that easier for the teachers and students by bringing great solutions to scale, then I’m always driven to do more.

With Techbooks, what has been some of the backstory on that? How did it come about, what role did a team play, and what was your role on it?

The Discovery Education Techbook story goes back to 2008. We were hearing from our partners in school systems nationwide that while our supplemental service at the time (Discovery Education Streaming) was great, they’d love to be able to pay for their digital resources out of their textbook funds, rather than their supplemental resource funds.

As one of the hallmarks of Discovery Education’s product design process is customer input, our product team, which I was I was leading at the time, immediately began to put together a plan to meet customer’s needs. After an in-depth review our content and the scheduled state adoptions, we zeroed in on Oregon and Science as our first target.

Then, for a solid year, the curriculum and engineering teams put their heads down and built the first digital, basal instructional solutions to be approved for statewide use: Discovery Education Science K-5/6 and Discovery Education Science 6-8. These resources, correlated to Oregon Science Curriculum Standards, became the first all-digital core instructional approved for statewide use in Oregon (or any other state) as part of its K-12 Science and 9-12 Mathematics Instructional Materials Evaluation Process.

Today, Discovery Education’s Techbooks are available not only in Science, but in Math and Social Studies, as well. They are used across the United States, Canada, and in schools around the world. While I am proud of the tremendous success of the Techbooks, I really am most proud of that first Oregon Science Techbook. It was an incredible honor to lead our innovative product development team in creating that resource, and I’m very proud of its place in edtech history.

You have won numerous awards, including an EdTech Digest Leadership Award as part of The EdTech Awards. What does that sort of honor mean to you, and how does it help you move into your future?

It’s humbling and gratifying to be recognized with an EdTech Digest Award for Leadership, and I share any recognition with the team I lead. Only together can we be successful, so ultimately, I see these types of awards as a reflection of the teams I am honored to lead.

In terms of how these honors help me move into my future, I think it is important to look at any type of award as a validation of the work the organization is doing. Discovery Education only succeeds when the schools we serve succeed, so I also think of these awards as way another datapoint that tells us we are on track to deliver on our promise to help teachers prepare today’s students for tomorrow by bringing the real-world into the classroom.

‘It’s humbling and gratifying to be recognized with an EdTech Digest Award for Leadership, and I share any recognition with the team I lead.’

Any mentors or notable people that have been a helpful or guiding force for you? why/what makes you mention them?

Wow, it’s hard to drill it down to just a handful! Even now as President of a global education technology company, I learn something new every day and ask for advice and guidance all the time.

If I reflect back upon the first edtech company I joined, the owner, Mark Ventling, showed me how to run a company and gave me an on-the-job MBA in financial reporting. At Discovery Education, the brilliant curriculum team, led by Marty Creel, taught me everything I know about curriculum and instruction. And my current Board Chairman, Paul Ilse, has helped me continue to expand and grow my approach to servant leadership.

Really, it’s the network and community within education, specifically in the relatively small world of edtech, that has been such a strong guiding force for me. Everywhere I turn, every single day, there is something new to learn and a new or better or more fun way to teach and learn. And I love that.

Any advice for aspiring students heading into a career in today’s workforce?

I like to look at the opportunities in the world, rather than the challenges, and I encourage others to do the same. I advise people heading into a career, whether for the first time or for the fifth, to focus on the inter-personal connections. It’s the networking that really makes a difference: you get to know people across industries and job descriptions and discover a little bit of their world. What you find along the way is that everyone is more similar than different: we’re all doing our best to make the world better. I think that’s a point that’s really important, too: to always stay curious and connected. Always stay open to opportunity and ask how you can help. You never know what you’ll stumble into or discover!

‘It’s the networking that really makes a difference: you get to know people across industries and job descriptions and discover a little bit of their world.’

Finally, I think now more than ever, how you communicate really matters. Self-reflection, even for just a few minutes each day, can really help you separate what you like to do from what you can do. I’ve found that it is really helpful to be honest with yourself and drill down to the handful of things that you’ll love to do each and every day. Because when you’re happy doing what you’re doing, the hard work never seems too hard.

Any advice to parents/educators regarding education in these times?

As a parent, I was hoping you might have some advice for me!

The last year has been a challenge for everyone. Like many other parents, I’ve had good days with my children’s education, and days where I’ve honestly been frustrated and drained.

As a parent, I would encourage others — teachers, students, families, everyone — to go easier on themselves. We all see each other working so hard each and every day. It’s high time we recognize that hard work in not only others, but ourselves. Take a breath and take a step back. Try to stay in this moment, the here and now. Because as hard as this moment may be or as hard as it may be to try to just stay in this very moment, it will one day be simply a memory so leave it as a good one by applauding your successes and learning from the challenges.

‘…as hard as this moment may be or as hard as it may be to try to just stay in this very moment, it will one day be simply a memory so leave it as a good one by applauding your successes and learning from the challenges.’

Anything else edtech, or other that you’d like to add or emphasize?

Discovery Education, and I, are really focused, both in the long and short term, on meeting the needs of educators and students. Specifically, we are working to:

1. Empower Teachers: Providing equitable access to resources that both engage and meet the needs of diverse learners.

2. Accelerate Learning: Offering support and resources to help mitigate learning gaps and drive engagement through a new type of teaching and learning appropriate for online/hybrid environments.

3. Improve Cultural Authenticity: Working to ensure all students can relate to the content on a deeper (or personal level) so they can be more a part of the conversation in their learning.

4. Drive Seamless Integration: Supporting the creation of equitable learning opportunities through secure, stable, and scalable access. Integration with existing systems, workflows, and classroom dynamics for minimal disruption and enhanced collaboration.

In addition, we’re deepening the connections between the classroom and careers by tackling the lack of diversity and unequal access to opportunity in the STEM workforce pipeline. Through the STEM Careers Coalition, a coalition of industry leaders and anchored in school by Discovery Education, we’re responding to educator needs for real-world, dynamic STEM learning experiences.

At the end of the day, we always work to stay connected to what students and teachers need. By listening to our educator community, the Discovery Educator Network, and educators in forums like the Equity Talks — our webinar series featuring the nation’s top educational leaders discussing equity and excellence — we are actively looking for new ways to prepare all learners for tomorrow by creating innovative classrooms connected to today’s world.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]

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