A frank conversation about the future direction of one of the biggest players in edtech, AI, the edtech community post-pandemic and more.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
In March of this year, worldwide edtech leader Discovery Education announced the appointment of Jeremy Cowdrey as Chief Executive Officer (CEO).
Prior to joining Discovery Education, Jeremy served as the Chief Executive Officer of Imagine Learning. While at Imagine Learning, Jeremy also served as President, Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing, and Regional Partnership Director.
‘It’s an incredibly exciting time to be in edtech…’
Before joining Imagine Learning, Jeremy served in sales and management positions for several software and education companies, including Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley, Pearson, and Novell. With over 23 years of experience in edtech, and as the first person in his immediate family to graduate from college, Jeremy has a deep-seated belief in the value, purpose, mission, and importance an education brings.
In his first interview since joining Discovery Education, Jeremy touches on a variety of topics including why he loves working in edtech, the future direction of Discovery Education, the company’s acquisition strategy and more.
Greetings Jeremy and thank you for sitting down with EdTech Digest for your first interview since taking over the reins at Discovery Education. Can you share with readers a little bit about your background and what draws you to working in the edtech space?
Thanks for having me Victor, and great to be talking with you.
To put it bluntly, I had a troubled childhood. I was a directionless, difficult child, and could have easily fallen through society’s cracks. But I was one of the lucky ones. I had a teacher—an incredible individual—who took the time to connect with me, to include me, to teach me, and, most importantly, to explain to me some of the rules of life. I say with complete sincerity, that without that teacher, I would not be where I am today. I carry the memory of that teacher and all the others that helped me navigate the challenging road to adulthood close to my heart to this very day.
‘I had a troubled childhood. I was a directionless, difficult child, and could have easily fallen through society’s cracks. But I was one of the lucky ones. I had a teacher—an incredible individual—who took the time to connect with me…‘
As my career unfolded, I found that repeatedly, I was drawn to the world of education and to the idea of serving teachers so that they could better reach kids like me. I knew that classroom teaching was not my chosen vocation, but I also knew I loved being surrounded by educators dedicated to helping kids succeed within their own personal context. So, throughout my career I looked for places to work, supporting a profession that has given so much to me. Working in edtech, alongside talented educators like those at Discovery Education, I’ve been able to marry my love of technology with my desire to give back to a profession that has helped me in so many ways. I don’t think I’d ever want to work in any other field. It’s personally very fulfilling and working with teachers gives me so much joy.
You took over from former CEO Scott Kinney, who has moved to a seat on the company’s Board of Directors. Do you intend to take the company in a new direction? What can the edtech community expect from Discovery Education going forward?
Well, to begin, I’d say you just don’t “take over” from an edtech pioneer like Scott Kinney! He was at the center of many of Discovery Education’s biggest moments. From the founding of our teacher community—The Discovery Educator Network—to the standing-up of our professional learning business, to our spin off from Warner Bros. Discovery, to our COVID-19 response, Scott and his talented team, which I’m blessed to have inherited, really set Discovery Education up to have a profound impact on teaching and learning worldwide.
As we look to the future, Discovery Education is going to do what it has always done: listen to the needs of the school administrators and teachers we serve, and then use that input to create and distribute innovative resources that support the success of all learners. That approach has informed corporate strategy since Discovery Education’s founding, and it will continue to be our approach well into the future.
You mentioned that acquisitions will continue to play a significant role in Discovery Education’s continued growth. Can you share a little more about the company’s acquisition strategy? What do you look for in an acquisition?
Discovery Education’s K-12 platform has evolved over its more than 20-year lifespan from a video streaming service into a powerful platform containing a vast collection of high-quality, standards-aligned content, ready-to-use digital lessons, intuitive quiz and activity creation tools, and professional learning resources. Through this transformation, our innovative product team has made it easier—and more instinctive—for educators to find, build, and deliver compelling lessons that enhance learning and capture students’ attention, no matter the grade or subject.
But we are not done. We are constantly looking to find new ways to support instruction and increase student outcomes. So, in addition to building more powerful features, tools, and services, Discovery Education is seeking to acquire more companies to add to its family of services that empower the teacher and engage the student.
When we are looking at companies for potential acquisition, we look for three things. First, we are looking for great people. Discovery Education is seeking smart, innovative leaders and great teams that are ready to scale their business and at the same time, have values and worldviews that align to our own.
Next, we are looking for outstanding products. When we find a product or service that we say, “Man, I wish we’d thought of that!” I know we have an excellent acquisition target.
Finally, we look for impact. In an era in which edtech is now ubiquitous in the classroom, we only want to add to our platform services with a proven track record of supporting teaching and learning. To the edtech entrepreneurs that are reading this, if you think those criteria apply to you, Discovery Education would love to talk.
Shifting gears to a more topical issue, let’s talk about AI (Artificial Intelligence). It seems to be on everyone’s lips these days. What is Discovery Education planning when it comes to AI? Where does it fit into your services?
Yes, it feels like you can’t have a conversation about education or edtech these days without ChatGPT coming up! But while ChatGPT is creating all the buzz, I think a lot of edtech companies have been quietly building AI–and its applications like machine learning–into their products and services for a few years.
For example, at Discovery Education, we’ve used machine learning since 2021 to enhance the user experience in our K-12 platform. We heard directly from educators that they wanted a more personalized user experience similar to that which they receive through interactions with brands in the retail, media, and entertainment spaces. So, we collaborated with Amazon Web Services to integrate their Amazon Personalize technology into the “Just For You” area of our K-12 platform. This platform feature connects educators to a unique, personalized set of resources based on the grade level taught, preferences, and assets used in the past, and provides them a better used experience that will more quickly and efficiently bring them the digital resources they want and need.
This enhancement is just one example of how AI and its applications fit into our services. I think as we plan for future uses of AI, we look at through the lens of how it helps the teacher and supports instruction. Where there is a place in our services where we think AI can help reach that goal, we are going to look to make it happen.
Will we be talking about ChatGPT this time next year?
Oh, I think we will be talking about ChatGPT this time next year, but I don’t think the discussions will have the same heat. ChatGPT is really the first easy-to-use, accessible Artificial Intelligence that many of us ever encountered, so naturally, there is a ton of buzz around it. I think that next year, we will talk about a complete range of new AI applications available to consumers.
‘…next year, we will talk about a complete range of new AI applications available to consumers.’
AI seems to be the latest disruption in what has been an incredible era of change in education. Looking at the post-pandemic landscape in K-12 education, what do you see as the one thing the edtech community must improve going forward?
That’s a good question. Let me frame my answer by saying that the COVID-19 pandemic really highlighted both the power of edtech and its limitations. In my opinion, there really are four things edtech companies must improve going forward. Those are:
Provide more impactful multimodal content. It’s clear that high-quality video alone does not make for engaging digital resources. Edtech companies need to improve the quality and number of other digital resources, such as e-books, interactives, virtual field trips, infographics, and more. The creation of more/better multimodal resources can ensure that students have the resources they need to engage with academic topics in lots of different ways.
Single sign-on platform solutions. With so much edtech at their fingertips, COVID-era teachers are overwhelmed with solutions designed to support them. Edtech providers can do a better job by providing educators with more “platform solutions” that centrally locate services in one place and improve interoperability. Just like having Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu all available through a single sign-on solution, putting all the things teachers and students need in one place helps ensure these resources provide value and ROI.
Creating solutions supporting the science of learning. Edtech has an important role to play in improving automaticity—the reflexive, ingrained habits of students that include not only speed and accuracy, but also understanding. Its adaptive capabilities and accessibility features, and its ability to gamify learning, can help students build automaticity in math and reading. Technology also has the power to show students what they know, how well they know it and what more they need to practice. The bottom line is that we need to continue to develop and enhance technologies supporting automaticity, so that they align with what we know about the science of learning.
Provide more relevant content. Today’s students will do jobs that we can’t begin to imagine. And in order to prepare them, it’s critical that we bring the real world into the classroom. Technology is a key enabler here and Discovery Education has made bringing the outside world into the classroom its mission. Through virtual field trips that take students behind the scenes at NASA to engaging career explorations created in collaboration with our Social Impact Partners that introduce students to the careers of tomorrow, we strive to make what is going on in the classroom connect to the outside world. And most importantly, to make it feel relevant and exciting to today’s students.
What is a topic in edtech that you don’t think gets talked about enough?
I believe there are two closely related topics that I don’t think get talked about in edtech. The first is professional learning. It should come as no surprise to anyone that in the data we collect, we can see that the schools that are supporting the implementation of our services with professional learning are seeing more usage and meeting their metrics of success. But driving the ROI of an edtech purchase is only part of the reason to provide educators more professional learning.
Teachers are our education system’s greatest resource, but we must be able to continue to build their capacity and ability address the constantly evolving challenges of the K-12 environment. My colleague Dr. Karen Beerer, Discovery Education’s Senior Vice President of Teaching and Learning was spot on when she said in an opinion piece on this very site that the availability of ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds represented a “generational opportunity” to improve educator capacity, and we can’t let that chance slip through our fingers.
The second thing we don’t talk about enough is how we support educators’ continued growth post-professional learning. Communities of practice or professional learning networks offer educators a place where they can connect with their peers to continue to discuss what works, and share ideas. Discovery Education supports one of the oldest of these communities dedicated to supporting educators using edtech in the classroom. Called the Discovery Educator Network, or DEN, this organization has helped educators around the world connect with one another and find common solutions to common challenges.
I think if we as an edtech community can elevate the discussion on the importance of professional learning and the power of communities of practice, we will be better off in supporting the teachers and administrators at the heart of our education system.
‘…if we as an edtech community can elevate the discussion on the importance of professional learning … we will be better off in supporting the teachers and administrators at the heart of our education system.’
In your opinion, what is the state of the edtech community today?
Oh, I think it’s stronger than ever. There is so much great work being done by companies around the world that is heightening the competition among edtech providers. This competition is driving a new level of innovation that will ultimately benefit teachers and students. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be in edtech, and I can’t think of any place I’d rather be than in this industry among the talented team at Discovery Education.
And the state of K-12 education?
Look, I said it before: Teachers are our education system’s greatest resource. I think K-12 education is only as strong as our teachers, and they are under tremendous strain right now. Edtech companies must do everything they can to support teachers at this moment. We need to provide them with powerful tools that help them scale best practice while saving them time and effort.
Our nation’s educators are the best in the world. Walk into any classroom and you will see their resilience, creativity, and “can do” spirit. I think because of them, the state of K-12 education is strong, but it is up to the edtech industry, and all education stakeholders, to continue to provide them with every means of support.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: email@example.com