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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The coronavirus-sparked shift to widespread remote work has been generally smooth because most modern offices were already using a raft of communication, collaboration and administrative tools. Remote learning has faced a much rougher transition.

Why it matters: Even the best technology can't eliminate the inherent problems of virtual schooling. Several key technological stumbling blocks have persisted in keeping remote learning from meeting its full potential, experts tell Axios.

1. The needs of IT departments and students can be at odds. A university's chief information officer or a school's IT administrator judge software on how secure it is; how well it integrates with other systems; and how easy it is for an administrator to control. Student users just want a simple interface and features that make learning easier.

  • "That gap is a source of a lot of issues and the continued success of legacy software in education," said Peter Reinhardt, CEO of Segment, which focused on education technology before pivoting to be a customer data platform.
  • Ed tech has become a tough area for startups and capital investment because risk-averse school tech administrators tend to stick with software they, or their counterparts in other districts or institutions, are already using.

2. Existing tech can't just be grafted onto remote learning. "The variety of the tools we use in business... were designed for business and not students," said Eric Reicin, president and CEO of BBB National Programs, which oversees advertising and privacy practices for businesses.

  • That means products like Zoom or Slack or Microsoft Teams that have been vital for keeping offices going during the pandemic may be ill-suited for young students, who may struggle with usability and their own attention spans.
  • But it also means that these sorts of tools may not comply with existing guidelines and requirements schools and districts have for the tech they're able to use, which can vary considerably across different counties and states.

3. The digital divide looms over everything. Low-income students have less access to devices and the internet itself. This has been a concern since early in the pandemic, but there's little evidence it's improving in any real way.

  • A survey last month found that 75% of Black and Latinx families with children in under-resourced schools in Los Angeles don't use computers regularly. 47% of parents surveyed had never visited the ed tech platforms used by their kids' schools.
  • Poorer school districts also have an ed tech engagement gap. That is, even if the technology is there, children from lower-income families are having trouble logging on and staying on, according to data that ed tech company Learn Platform shared with Axios.

By the numbers: That data, compiled from 300 Learn Platform-using school districts in 18 states, shows affluent districts increased student engagement during remote learning, while poorer schools saw a decrease.

  • This is due to a number of factors, according to Karl Rectanus, the co-founder and CEO of Learn Platform — including greater access to fast broadband and multiple devices in wealthier households, and fewer resources for teachers doing online instruction in poorer districts.
  • "The disparity happened almost immediately" following the shift to remote learning, Rectanus said.

Yes, but: These failures aren't a sign that ed tech companies aren't trying, Sara Kloek, director of education policy, programs and student privacy at the Software & Information Industry Association and former technology fellow at the U.S. Department of Education, told Axios.

  • "Ed tech is playing a role, and ed tech can help... but no one planned for students learning at home," she said. "One child might need a laptop and they're good to go. Another kid may need more tools. It's not one size fits all."

Go deeper

Axios roundtable on the future of the workforce

On Wednesday November 18 Axios' Sara Fischer and Dan Primack hosted the second in a series of three virtual roundtables, featuring policymakers, academics, and nonprofit leaders to discuss the workforce recovery after COVID-19 and the importance of digital tools, skills, and access.

Markle Foundation Chief Operating Officer Beth F. Cobert and Google.org Head of Impact and Insights Andrew Dunckelman highlighted how the pandemic has accelerated a shift to online businesses, citing research from the National Skills Coalition that reported that 1 in 3 American workers has limited or no digital skills. Roundtable participants discussed how to approach that critical digital skills gap and more broadly, the pandemic's affect on businesses and workers.

Sonja Diaz, Founding Director at UCLA's Latino Policy & Politics Initiative discussed how to create policy solutions for the businesses most acutely affected by the pandemic.

  • "A lot of the gains made by minority businesses have been outside of the regulatory sphere, meaning that they've been able to do this because of personal connections, community connections. They're under-financed and under-banked. So if we think about policy interventions, we know that tailoring and centering them on the needs of women and minority owned businesses is going to be a return on investment."

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) highlighted how the digital economy is a critical part of COVID-19 economic recovery.

  • "I think what the Americans are waiting for right now is the opportunity to have something really big and bold that speaks to them about their future and their jobs. And I certainly think that the digital economy can be built right into that."

Traci Scott, Workforce Vice President at the National Urban League stressed the importance of meeting users where they're at in terms of digital skills training.

  • "We would have virtual job fairs, but what we found is that people didn't know how to work Zoom. They had never navigated through Zoom. So then we realized that we had to go even deeper in our training just to train individuals on just how to use something that we all take advantage of."

Trevor Parham, Founder and Director of Oakstop and the Oakland Black Business Fund discussed how to see digital tools as something beyond just economic exchange.

  • "We need to focus not just on tools that are going to allow people to create economic transactions, but on whether it is technology or other tools or infrastructure that is going to allow us to restore our ability to be a real human community."

Read the recap of our first roundtable event here.

Thank you Google for sponsoring this event.

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
3 hours ago - Health

Moderna exec says children could be vaccinated by mid-2021

Tal Zaks, chief medical officer of Moderna, tells "Axios on HBO" that a COVID-19 vaccine could be available for children by the middle of next year.

Be smart: There will be a coronavirus vaccine for adults long before there is one for kids.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Sen. Kelly Loeffler to return to campaign trail after 2nd negative test

Sen. Kelly Loeffler addresses supporters during a rally on Thursday. Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Sen. Kelly Loeffler's (R-Ga.) campaign announced Monday that she "looks forward to getting back out on the campaign trail" after testing negative for COVID-19 for a second time, following earlier conflicting results.

Why it matters: Loeffler has been campaigning at events ahead of a Jan. 5 runoff in elections that'll decide which party holds the Senate majority. Vice President Mike Pence was with her on Friday.