11/08/2013 01:18 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Digital Divide That Will Decide the Future of EdTech

At its most basic, education is a content industry -- information suppliers delivering into (hopefully) the willing minds of their audience. The pupil/teacher relationship reduced to provide/consumer.

But many content industries have been ravaged by a digital revolution and come out the other side disrupted, almost unrecognizable: It started with music, then media ... it's been hitting education for some time now.

There's often a common factor in the way that digital fractures an industry, the way that consumer expectations differ from supplier expectations. Those suppliers who understand, or can cope with, those new demands will prosper. Those who stick to their old ways fall by the wayside -- it's why "upstarts," who aren't dealing with the legacy of an old business model, can prosper at the expense of the old names. And yes, this is all a gross simplification, but you get the point.

In the music industry, consumers began to view "ownership" as a looser concept than suppliers. File sharing became common, and the legality of that was often questioned. The traditional transaction of music has changed -- old-fashioned record companies suffer while the likes of Spotify prosper. In media, the purchase of journalism has become something consumers are less willing to do. Upstarts like Buzzfeed, which regard journalism as a supply chain rather than a craft, are doing just fine.

In education though, it's different. We can see who the old supplies are -- it's the schools. And we can see examples of possible new models, such as the Khan Academy. But where it gets less predictable is that the chain is longer -- there are suppliers (schools) and there are consumers (pupils). But between the two, there are the decision makers -- the parents. And its the role of the parents which make the digital disruption even harder to predict. While they don't make every single decision on behalf of their consumers (kids buy plenty of apps themselves), but they do tend to make significant ones -- what hardware, what school environment and what education apps (not many kids actually choose to buy those maths apps).

And, for further simplicity's sake, if we assume that the traditional providers of education are quite laggardly in the adoption of digital, and we assume that pupils have a more natural affinity for digital tools, then which side of the education divide do the parents fall?

The answer to that could be the key to how far digital technology disrupts the education industry.