Industry Insider | Feature

K-12 and Higher Ed: The Differences and Similarities

In the SIIA Education Division, we focus on the K-20 market, meaning that our initiatives -- publications, conferences, thought leadership, and policy work -- address the K-12 and postsecondary sectors, both together and separately. For example, our Vision K-20 Survey and Report is designed for all education practitioners because we want to compare the benchmarking results for all institutional levels. But our market surveys for ed tech companies are separate. The product categories are different, so the two markets cannot be compared with each other.

The key differences between the two markets are of course based on student age, course level, and funding streams, and the differences drive the rates of both ed tech product development and technology adoption. If you are selling into both markets, I’d like to share with you the main areas of difference and similaritywe see in our research and surveys at SIIA.


K-12 companies sell primarily to decision-makers and try to reach as many school districts as possible. They typically use school or district funds to pay for their products, even if the purchaser is a teacher. Higher ed companies also sell to institutional decision-makers and market their enterprise-level products to professors. But they also sell instructional materials and digital learning resources directly to students, who act more like buyers in the consumer market.

BYOD/One-to-One Computing

Colleges started requiring that students bring their own computers to school when PCs first became popular and affordable. Students went on to purchase laptops, and today many use laptops in their dorm rooms and Internet-connected phones everywhere. In K-12 schools, BYOD is also slowly becoming a reality, driven by economics and student preference. Our 2013 Vision K-20 Survey showed that 95 percent of postsecondary students use their own device, compared with 48 percent of secondary students and 20 percent of elementary students. Almost all survey respondents indicated that they expected usage to grow, but it’s clear that the adoption rate is faster in higher ed institutions.

Interactive White Boards and Personal Response Systems

Because of the prevalence of large, lecture-based classes in higher ed, professors adopted interactive white boards some time ago, with clickers to keep students involved. More recently, they have adopted lecture capture products so that students can review the material after class and before exams. K-12 classrooms started using interactive white boards a few years after higher ed and are now trying to integrate more digital learning resources and assessments. But rather than taking the lecture capture route, K-12 schools are moving to flipped learning, whereby students review videos or podcasts outside of the classroom and discuss the content during class.

Online Learning -- and Now MOOCs

Higher ed online courses, programs, and degrees became more popular when tuition costs and gas prices rose, on campus parking became difficult, and travel time exceeded class time. Now MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) provide learning communities, interactive user forums, and video and social media content. The use of online courses by high school students has also increased, because schools need to provide credit recovery opportunities, access to courses not offered in school, and more rigorous courses to prepare students for college and careers.


Higher ed institutions are coming under pressure from the federal government, students, and parents to increase graduation rates and students’ ability to get the desired job after graduation. Although the mandated curriculum standards and assessments that have driven K-12 teaching, learning, and funding are not a factor in higher ed, colleges are increasingly focused on learning outcomes. In K-12 institutions, the Common Core Standards -- and more recently the related assessments -- have increased the focus on accountability, driving up the need for quality professional development.

Parallel Growth

The following factors are driving growth in both markets:

  • The infusion of funds by private foundations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Carnegie Foundation of New York, for curriculum development, learning initiatives, and even new products

  • The growth of learning analytics, since online course providers need to monitor student participation in order to increase course completion rates, as well as to gather, store, analyze and report data

  • The evolution of learning management systems, which have become the basis for mobile learning tools and the digital learning environment for students at all levels

  • More ed tech start-ups, fueled by investment and the desire for more innovative learning products and services

  • Digital badges and e-portfolios as proof of student learning experiences

  • Game-based learningas the basis of course work, particularly online

  • Cloud computing, given new technology acquisition and the resulting cost savings

Students in both markets are all digital natives now. They use digital content, networked resources, and rich data simply because they have access to them, driving steady growth in digital learning products and services in both markets -- good news for us all!

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