Edtech products are built to achieve specific outcomes. The goal is to empower and inspire both educators and students while utilizing subscription-based products. What is the method to design these edtech products that include multiple user personas across education levels? Discovery Education CPO Pete Weir explores how to work backward on edtech design with stability for diverse learners.

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On backwards design

Similar to designing educational curricula, designing good edtech products means first thinking about the end results. In other words, what are the desired learning outcomes for the students involved? This type of thinking is called backwards design, and in edtech it influences all stages of product management, from design to metrics.

“We could think about clicks, or about how often content like this shows up in search terms. We could even think about long term user retention: when somebody uses this piece of content, how often do they come back to our service? And those are really valid ways, when you think about a subscription service, of measuring value. If you think about what Netflix does, they tell you how many hours of their content are consumed. So that’s all really valid and valuable. 

“But in a backwards design, we have to beware of what might be vanity metrics in our industry as it relates to clicks and things like that. It feels good to measure them. But what’s it actually telling us? What’s our end goal? And so what we haven’t really talked about yet is, what is that critical question in education? What’s the purpose of our product? Why does it exist? And it could be meant to delight. It could be meant to engage in other industries, it could be meant to save time. And if it was something like delight, we could even add a net promoter score to this and say, Okay, well, what’s the relative customer satisfaction of using this activity, on top of the fact that it gets clicked?

“But when we think about learning products, there’s another component that we have to think about. We have to start with a predefined goal of what we want our teachers and students to think, feel, and do in using and engaging with our products. That starts with our reason for being, our reason for existence. And that’s kids. Our number one reason is not to have lots of clicks, if those clicks are not a great proxy for students learning, for having agency in their learning, and for being able to take that into their personal lives. So for us, whenever we’re designing a product, we start here.”

On engaging content for all users

An edtech platform like Discovery Education needs to work for all students, necessitating consideration of different age and grade levels, different languages, and accessibility. This encompasses second language learners, students from varying economic backgrounds, and differently-abled students like the hearing-impaired.

“We think about the format of the content we’re providing. Not all kids have the same means and opportunities. We think about things like virtual field trips, where we can bring a classroom of students really anywhere in the world. We can provide them real world access and experiences, even if they can’t travel to certain locations. So we think deeply about, what are those learning outcomes? How do we recognize the different access and learning needs within our school districts and communities? And then how does not just the technology, but the content, meet both organizations where they are?

“Why would we have audiobooks and podcasts? Well, we may have a visually impaired learner, and that may be one of the most valuable pieces of content we can provide. We may have students in disadvantaged communities that aren’t going to have the chance to travel to Egypt. How can we, in some small way, take them there? And then how can we make that feel as real as possible? So there’s a huge aspect of thinking about equity and access. 

“And then language. We have a lot of English language learners in school districts here in the United States, where there’s language acquisition skills being worked on. We think about subtitles. We think about dubbing in multiple languages. We’re always trying to get better in this dimension. 

“But I think the first thing for us to recognize is when we go back to our mission and values, we talk a lot about all learners. We have a diverse set of learners, when you think about the expanse of students and teachers we serve. We have to be doing our best every day to to acknowledge and recognize those differences. And we have to meet them where they are, as much as we can, with our products. So we think a lot about language acquisition, and we think a lot about how we are helping a student that maybe English isn’t their first language. So how do we auto close caption our videos? We work with Microsoft on auto closed captioning in multiple languages. Microsoft also has a great immersive learning product that essentially will take text and let kids interact with it. To make those statements true in our logic model, we have to deeply understand our students and what their needs are, and we have to meet them as much as we can where they are.”

On how the pandemic accelerated Discovery Education’s product platform

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced education online in the spring of 2020, edtech platforms were placed squarely in the spotlight. For a company like Discovery Education, that led to increased demand, but also new opportunities and an accelerated roadmap.

“In 2020, many companies had to throw their product roadmap out the window. I think we actually didn’t do that. We looked at our product roadmap, and we figured out what we needed to accelerate. Something I think about and talk about a lot is, in 2018, when I started at Discovery Education, we were in a very different device equity opportunity within US public schools. We’re now upwards of 90% devices in every student’s hand in the US as a result of the pandemic. And when you think about product design, that gives us more confidence to lean into some more of these one to one and engagement technologies. Because, three or four years ago, we might have been a little more reluctant in longer term thinking, because we knew that there were maybe 30% of kids that didn’t have a device. So we could launch this feature, and we knew three out of 10, four out of 10 kids were not going to benefit from that. And that made us think deeply about how quickly we wanted to build some of these things. 

“And we knew we wanted more active learning. Before the pandemic, our engineering team had built a great platform that’s cloud based that stood up to massive load that we, you know, candidly, don’t usually see. We were having school districts say, “we want to use your service, and we need to use it by Monday.” And that school district may have millions of kids we need to roster. So we have to ingest all those student rosters over the weekend. And so I think it’s a mission oriented culture where we just said, we’re going to do the right thing for our customer, which is which teachers and kids. If you can’t get motivated by that, it’s hard to get motivated by anything! 

“And then we just said, what are aspects of this roadmap that need to be accelerated? The climate has changed. The needs have changed. A lot of them were on our radar, and they were not front of mind. And we just massively accelerated a lot of development. And then I think our content teams also looked and said, How can we continue to be relevant and timely? Like when the pandemic hit, how do we get a bunch of educational resources out to teachers and students who are trying to make sense of it? I think we’ve just tried to deeply listen and not be reactive, but be responsive. How do we change our roadmap to meet the needs of our customers?

“Obviously, I’m super proud of what our team did. But I think it’s also back to longterm planning. We’re not going to have that same massive inflection But that inflection has happened and the dynamics within the classroom have, I think, changed permanently. And so now our roadmapping looks meaningfully different than it did in 2019.”

About the speaker
Pete Weir Member