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Executive Skills & Strategy

Bill Goodwyn: Leadership Fuels Digital Learning Innovation

By Michele Molnar — June 09, 2014 3 min read
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Bill Goodwyn, the CEO of Discovery Education, was asked in 2007 to lead what was then considered a struggling division of Discovery Communications, a media and entertainment company based in Silver Spring, Md., that is best known for running the Discovery Channel. Today, Discovery Education’s content reaches 35 million students in the United States and supports the use of educational technology in school systems in more than 50 countries. Now, the education division is the fastest-growing unit of its parent company. In a telephone interview, Education Week Staff Writer Michele Molnar asked Mr. Goodwyn about Discovery Education’s role in the educational technology market.

What do you think of schools’ adoption of educational technology?

I’m so energized and optimistic about where our public schools are headed. A lot of it’s because of what’s happening with education technology and the impact it has. You’re seeing great pockets of instruction and improved student outcomes. We’re now giving teachers the tools—when I say, “We,” I don’t mean just us, a lot of companies—we’re finally giving teachers the tools to excite and engage kids.

How does this adoption of ed-tech tools translate for companies?

I think the changes we’re seeing now and in the next couple of years are light-years ahead of what’s happened over the last 50. You can see all the money that’s coming into education technology, and the spending in this sector, because it’s one of the few sectors that hasn’t been disrupted by technology or digital content.

What was the turning point in this journey?

A few years ago, we had the budget crisis, and schools were asked to make a lot of cuts. At the same time, states had written rules—and districts had to live by them—that every six years, [districts] had to buy textbooks whether they worked or not, whether they were effective or not. The good news is that the budget crisis really allowed districts to step up and have a strong voice to say something has to change.

What was Discovery Education doing at that time?

The districts had asked us to provide a textbook alternative. That’s really what got us started, to move from a supplemental video-library service that could support the teaching, to really move to a primary instructional resource.

So we created the first digital textbook based on districts asking us to do this because they wanted kids to learn digital content, they wanted to engage kids. With that shift, we began to think that the biggest piece is supporting the teachers. That led us on the path to focus on professional development.Then our focus became partnering with districts to make this shift from print to digital.

What are the biggest barriers to delivering ed tech to schools?

A couple of years ago, you had a lot of districts saying, “Why should I make this shift to digital?” Now, they ask, “How should I make this move to digital?” The biggest challenge, first, is inertia. It’s a big challenge to go through and completely change. The number-one factor in making the shift is really great leadership.

What are the prospects for the ed-tech marketplace itself?

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Q&As: More interviews with CEOs from ed-tech companies.

I’m a fan of anybody that’s coming up with great educational services and products that are available to teachers and educators that can improve student learning. The question I have for a lot of companies is: Are they going to be sustainable? There are a lot of companies that are trying to get into education because, quite frankly, they’re looking at it to make money. To me, the only way you’re going to make money in education is if you are improving student outcomes. Our focus isn’t about making money—our focus is about improving student achievement. If we do that, we think we’ll do well.

How is your company doing? Are you profitable?

We’re continuing to invest significantly in our [digital] techbooks so the profitability we have, we’ve reduced it dramatically simply because we’re reinvesting. Over the last three years, we’ve spent close to $30 to $40 million in digital textbooks. We built the science digital textbook, then we built the social studies digital textbook, and now we’re building math. It’ll be ready at the end of this year.

I’m building the business for the future because I do believe that what we’re doing makes an incredible difference. Today, it’s not nearly as profitable or as financially successful as it will be in future years.

Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2014 edition of Education Week as CEOs Speak Out

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