The Diffusion of Innovations In K-12 Edtech

Jack McDermott
5 min readApr 21, 2023


“What’s the next big edtech wave?”

This question is top of mind for many entrepreneurs and investors.

To me, the next question is “And how long will it take schools to adopt?”

Conventional wisdom warns that K-12 schools are laggards when adopting new technologies. And solving challenges in education — achievement gaps, youth mental health, and declining college-going rates, to name a few — all require innovation.

In this post, I’ll outline how two prior technology waves — broadband internet and Google Chromebooks — gained wide-scale adoption in K-12 schools and what this time-to-market means for future innovations.

Broadband Internet

In 2012, only 1 in 10 US K-12 schools were connected to high-speed internet.

The public grew more aware of America’s digital divide in K-12 schools, and the limits of learning via snail-speed internet.

Soon after, the Obama administration directed the FCC to reconstitute its “e-rate” program. This overhaul created subsidies for schools’ internet bills and accelerated broadband internet adoption in districts.

Between 2012 and 2020, broadband internet became available in almost every American public school.

Thanks to Education Superhighway, a non-profit that led advocacy campaigns, we can chart the year-by-year adoption of broadband internet in K-12 schools.

** I highly recommend listening to this podcast where founder Evan Marwell details the remarkable story behind Education Superhighway.

The introduction of high-speed internet in K-12 schools progressed slowly, and then all at once.

At the peak of the pandemic, many school districts even provided fast WiFi beyond the walls of their schools.

Today students don’t even think twice when browsing the web or accessing digital learning apps in school.

Google Chromebooks

In 2011, Google introduced Chromebooks to the public at its annual Google I/O conference.

Critics excoriated the launch in the press; a New York Times tech columnist concluded:

“Unless you’re an early-adopter masochist with money to burn, you probably shouldn’t buy a Chromebook.”

The devices were stripped-down laptops that lacked a hard drive and that were produced by low-cost manufacturers like Acer, Samsung, and Lenovo. Chromebooks’ only real benefit to users was access to the internet at a very low price.

Google started selling Chromebooks to K-12 schools for $99 per unit the next year.

Chances are your local school district is filled with Chromebooks today. These ultra-low-cost computers are now the most popular devices purchased by US K-12 districts.

While measuring precise market penetration is a bit trickier, we can approximate Chromebooks’ adoption rates using external data for the total number of units shipped to K-12 schools each year. Between 2012 and 2020, Google shipped approximately 50 million Chromebooks to schools, enough for every K-12 student to access a device.

Google’s strategy of distributing Chromebooks to the K-12 market followed two well-worn practices. Google appealed to younger consumers to win lifelong converts—a move that Apple pioneered in the ‘90s — pairing low-cost devices with its G suite of Gmail, Calendar, Docs, and other apps. ** I highly recommend the 2017 “How Google Took Over the Classroom” New York Times series on this trend.

Google’s Chromebooks launch into K-12 is a textbook case of disruptive innovation in action, which Clayton Christensen defined as:

Disruptive technologies bring to a market a very different value proposition than had been available previously. Generally, disruptive technologies underperform established products in mainstream markets. But they have other features that a few fringe (and generally new) customers value. Products based on disruptive technologies are typically cheaper, simpler, smaller, and, frequently, more convenient to use. The Innovator’s Dilemma

What early critics missed was the impending boon of broadband internet. Chromebooks were almost unusable with slow internet speeds and became immensely useful when schools gained broadband internet.

By dramatically shifting the cost curve downward, Google leveraged the adoption of high-speed internet to power an entire generation of 1–1 devices and personalized learning apps in K-12 schools.

Diffusion of Innovations Theory

If you’ve studied innovation strategy before, you likely recognize these “s-curves.”

Diffusion of Innovations theory describes how technologies disperse through a population. First published by Rogers in 1962, the theory forms the basis for canonical works, including The Innovator’s Dilemma and Crossing the Chasm.

In short, the theory states that innovators and early adopters try things out, then innovations gradually take off and reach the masses, before adoption decelerates to late adopters at the upper limits of market penetration.

These “s-curve” cycles repeat themselves as new innovations emerge.

What It All Means

The rates at which K-12 schools adopted Chromebooks and broadband Internet mirror the diffusion curve quite well.

These technologies found early adopters and dispersed through the K-12 market over a ~10-year period.

Today you would be hard-pressed to find school districts that lack high-speed internet or low-cost devices.

Looking Ahead

Of course, the next edtech waves will look very different from those of the past.

Chromebooks and broadband internet required hardware installations. They benefited from price externalities via government subsidies and loss-leading distribution from tech behemoth Google.

Future edtech innovations—perhaps generative AI for tutoring, teacher productivity, or classroom engagement—will be governed by diffusion patterns, as well.

These adoption cycles will take time, and hopefully less of it. To accelerate innovation in K-12, we’ll need thoughtfully-developed tools and schools willing to be early adopters.

Thoughts, ideas, feedback? Reach out on LinkedIn. Thanks to Dylan Portelance for reading drafts of this post.



Jack McDermott

Growth @ Chegg Skills. Previously: MBA & M.Ed, UVA Darden, @PanoramaEd.