In a classroom at Wheatley Education Campus in Washington, D.C., a pair of representatives from Discovery Education are chatting with Shannon Brown, a middle school math and social studies teacher, about a field trip her students will take to Discovery Communications' headquarters the next day.
"They've been talking about it all week," Brown tells them. "They keep saying they want to see Honey Boo Boo."
There is an awkward silence. "Well, I don't think she'll be there," a Discovery executive says after a minute, with a brief laugh.
On Discovery Communications–owned TLC, once known as The Learning Channel, the now-canceled Here Comes Honey Boo Boo was accompanied by shows like Say Yes to the Dress and Cake Boss; its sister, Discovery Channel, recently grabbed headlines for airing a much-derided special in which a man unsuccessfully attempted to feed himself, alive, to an anaconda.
But Discovery Education, a young and growing arm of the massive media company, wants to be known for something else entirely: helping educate students at schools like Wheatley, where Shannon Brown's poor, mostly minority students use the Discovery Education curriculum to learn social studies, science, and math.
"We're never going to be the most important division when it comes to financials, but we're the most important when it comes to impact," said Bill Goodwyn, Discovery Education's president and CEO. "There's nothing more important than education. That's what initially got people so excited about Discovery's television, and now we're doing it in classrooms."
Over the past five years, Discovery Education has expanded beyond humble roots — it first sold science-themed streaming videos — into a full-fledged education company, offering an entirely digital curriculum for middle and high school that the company calls "techbooks." Yesterday, Discovery launched a math techbook, the company's first foray out of the science and social studies curriculum and into the higher-stakes world of math education.
Brown and the Wheatley students visited Discovery headquarters in Maryland as part of the glitzy launch event for the math techbook, which featured Secretary of Labor Tom Perez along with math-themed panels and sample classroom lessons. Before the event, Brown led her students into Discovery's airy, high-ceilinged lobby, where models of ancient dinosaur bones and woolly mammoths are displayed next to cardboard cutouts of the muscular, tattooed stars of the reality television show American Chopper.
Discovery built the techbook as a full replacement for the traditional textbook: Hosted online, it contains lessons, activities, problems, and even themed games that are aligned with Common Core and state academic standards, plus notes for teachers. Students submit their work — done on individual tablets or laptops — to teachers in real-time, using built-in tools like graphing calculators and templates to solve problems.
The math techbook is steeped in the sensibility of the Common Core standards, which encourage practical, real-world math problems and inquiry-based learning, which asks students to discover concepts for themselves rather than dictating formulas. Sleek videos embedded in the techbook's virtual pages illustrate concepts for students; rather than providing ready-made numbers, the curriculum often asks students to research figures for themselves.
As it moves into the textbook world, Discovery Education has to battle against industry giants: Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin, three massive legacy publishing houses. Though they continue to churn out traditional print textbooks, which make up the bulk of their business, all three are working to transform themselves into digital education companies, offering "e-textbooks" and online curricula.
Discovery Communications is not the only media company making a foray into education. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp has a unit, Amplify Eduction, which is led by former New York City education department chief Joel Klein and is making a virtually identical gamble on capturing the digital education market. Both are hoping to take on slow-moving textbook giants with a smaller, nimbler organization.
And both companies face a similar challenge: to build an identity for themselves out of the shadow of their media parent companies, whose reputations can sometimes seem at odds with a wholesome education company, whether it be the Honey Boo Boos at Discovery or the phone hackers at News Corp.
Held up against the likes of Pearson, Discovery's market share in textbooks, like Amplify's, is still tiny, said Adam Newman, a partner at Education Growth Advisors, an education-focused financial firm. But the company has several advantages: Its science streaming service, which is broadly used, gives it a large footprint in about half of the country's schools nationwide. The mass media company at Discovery Education's back offers ample resources and strong name recognition — even if it is known for the occasionally tawdry reality TV moment.
"There is a marketplace sense that those big textbook companies weren't innovating fast enough and rethinking the traditional textbook paradigm," Newman said — opening the door for the likes of Discovery, whose curriculum was built digitally from the ground up.
Discovery Education has focused on growing slowly in a small set of districts, said Goodwyn, the company's CEO. Because Discovery Education is all digital, getting school districts to buy a math or science curriculum is more than simply selling and shipping textbooks — it requires guiding district leaders, teachers, and students through a complex digital transition, helping them learn how to use technology and deploy it in classrooms. Many districts are hesitant to make the switch away from textbooks, or face barriers in funding and access to technological infrastructure.
"It may be better for them not to try to compete across all 50 states but to try to cherrypick strategically," said Newman.
In Rock Hill, South Carolina, superintendent Harriet Jaworowski faced an uphill battle in transitioning to an electronic curriculum in her school district, which provides iPads for students in grades four through eight. In South Carolina, schools must purchase textbooks from a prescribed list of materials — none of which are digital. Jaworowksi fought for a waiver for her district and has begun piloting Discovery's math techbook in September.
"It's been a challenge to get the electronic curriculum," Jaworowski said. "But we can't keep teaching students in the same way — school can't be the only place you go where you power down and use a pencil. If we don't move forward, we're going to fall behind."
The choice to expand the techbook into math could pose issues for the company, Newman, of Education Growth Advisors, said. Math is a "core subject" — one that's tested annually under No Child Left Behind, with schools' funding and progress dependent on math test scores. And math is also caught up in a hot political debate about the Common Core standards.
"Selling a core curriculum offering like math is as much a political process as a sales process, and that is hard for anybody entering the market," said Newman. "There's so much risk in the assessment environment — it elevates the level of scrutiny."
But Goodwyn believes that math is perhaps better suited to a new, all-digital player like Discovery than any other subject: It's a place where people recognize need for change, he said. "People in math are really looking for instructional materials that help them teach differently than they've usually taught," Goodwyn says. "They recognize it's got to go past the traditional [approach,] 'do-the-odd-numbers on pages 15-to-17.' We have interactives, we have gam[es], we have ways to engage students in the real world. It's really resonated."
Back in D.C., Wheatley Education's middle school math classrooms have spent the last two months textbook-free. Shannon Brown's students spend their math classes absorbed in their keyboard-outfitted tablets. One day, broken into groups, some students followed along with Brown's lesson on absolute value, drawing number lines with their fingers on their screens and submitting the images to her so she could review their progress. In the back of the room, an independent group played a game that involves fighting back onrushing skeletons with absolute values on a number line.
There has already been a marked improvement in her classroom culture, Brown said. "There's a lot less behavior problems, because the kids are just so much more engaged. Their whole world is digital, they love this."
For Brown herself, the transition has been a little more difficult: Far from tech-savvy, she has had to learn how to use the techbook with help from a Discovery instructional coach. During class, she struggles for two minutes to find and start an online timer, giving up on one because she cannot find a way to change the time. But Brown said she hasn't minded the transition.
"It's what you have to do," she said. "For the kids, it makes such a big difference."
Another group in Brown's class spent part of the class period trying to answer the question of whether the lowest or the highest point on earth had the greatest absolute value. They began by watching a video, reminiscent of iconic Discovery Channel science specials, that explained the meaning of the word "sea level" using visuals of underwater depths and the heights of Mount Everest. A teacher's aide paused the video at several points to check students' understanding, re-explaining the concept herself until she was sure they understood.
With the aide looking over her shoulder, one student typed in a search on Google and flicked through a page until she found the number she'd been looking for: 36,201 feet, the depth of the Mariana Trench. Then she picked up her pencil and held it absently, searching the desk in front of her for somewhere to write.
"You don't need a paper," her teacher interrupted her, pointing to the screen of a sleek tablet propped in front of her. "Girlfriend, that's why you've got a techbook."