The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is committed to leveraging our core principles of collaboration, openness and diversity, equity and inclusion, to realize a better future for all. In doing so, we build tools with dedicated technology teams and fund technology development to accelerate progress in Science and Education. From software development to research analysis, CZI’s “Tech Talks” series features members of our technology teams working to develop tools that drive innovation and create impact.

In this edition, we meet with Laura Barrera. Laura is a Software Engineer working on the Education Initiative at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. She was born and raised in Bogota, Colombia and moved to the U.S. six years ago. While in college at Northwestern University, she hoped to pursue work related to social impact, but found it difficult to find positions at the intersection of purpose and technology. Eventually, Laura discovered CZI and joined as a full-stack software engineer. She currently works on the Education Technology team supporting Along, a free digital reflection tool that makes it easier for teachers to check-in one-on-one with each student.

I think what gets me most excited about finding solutions to technical problems is the possibility to scale these solutions.

Tell us about the CZI technology you are currently working on?

I’m an engineer on Along, CZI and Gradient Learning’s digital reflection tool. I contribute to defining the product requirements and then build the features that improve the product. The goal is to satisfy both teacher and student needs, and create connections outside the classroom.

What problem are you looking to solve?

With the pandemic came a year of obstacles, making it harder for teachers and students to connect. It has become increasingly challenging for students to find safe spaces and feel supported. Along is designed to be that safe place for students — somewhere to share, be heard and feel understood.

Why does this problem resonate with you?

I’ve been super lucky to have great mentors throughout my life. My sister, for instance, has been a great role model and guiding light. I’ve seen firsthand the impact a mentor can have in your life while growing up and I’d like for every kid, regardless of their background or situation, to have someone to help them through life decisions.

How have you been involved in advancing the technology at CZI?

When I first joined CZI, I worked on the Summit Learning platform and in June 2020, transitioned to Along. At that point, we were just starting to develop an early version of the product. The first proof-of-concept version was totally gray scale.

Since I joined the team, the product has advanced so much, including the public launch this past June. We completely rebuilt the entire product for both educators and students with a new design. We added a lot more functionality to make the product more useful like the ability to schedule reflections, take notes, and more.

Along is a digital reflection tool that is designed to help educators make each student feel seen and understood. Educators select research-informed questions and ready-to-use resources and students choose how they want to reflect — either over text, audio, or video messaging — on their own time and in their own way.

What gets you most excited about finding solutions to technical problems?

I think what gets me most excited about finding solutions to technical problems is the possibility to scale these solutions. It’s really interesting to see how technology magnifies the reach of solutions and enables us to solve problems for not only one student, but for students all across the country.

Can you share a little bit about the technologies used to build Along?

Along is a web based app. It uses Ruby on Rails + GraphQL + TypeScript. Along has been a great learning opportunity from a technical perspective. For example, this is the first project I’ve worked on that uses GraphQL so it’s been a great opportunity to learn more about this technology. Additionally, a video journaling app brings a lot of complexities surrounding video, scaling and performance. Overall, it’s been a great experience to be on the team from the start and seeing how it all gets built and set up.

What makes this meaningful or emerging technology?

I think something that makes Along really special is its focus on relationship building, which is foundational to building trust and learning. Along gives teachers the tools and resources to better get to know their students as people.

How are you seeing this tool make a difference in education?

We’ve heard from users that Along has helped teachers better understand and identify students’ needs, including emotional struggles. We’ve also heard that Along has provided clear guidance and steps for teachers who aren’t sure where to start with social and emotional learning and relationship building. These are two student needs that have been exacerbated by the pandemic but not created by it. I think this shows that Along has attempted to help solve long-lasting challenges in education.

Can you share any examples of the technology’s impact?

From user research interviews, we’ve learned that teachers needed help reaching their students, given the time and work it takes to get them to open up. The past year both increased the stress on students that would lead them to need greater connection with a trusted adult, and the demands on teachers’ time. Through digital reflections, Along provides a safe, 1:1 environment to help students feel comfortable enough to share more about themselves, and enables teachers to make those connections at times that work with their busy schedules. The asynchronous communication and flexibility in how students and teachers communicate (i.e., via video, audio, or text) makes it easier for everyone to engage, which paves the way to greater connection.

How can this technology make a difference 1 year from now, 10 years from now, how about 50-100 years from now?

This technology can make a difference any time from now by bringing teachers and students together. Relationships between students and a caring adult are so important and building these connections can be truly hard. Along is a free resource for any teacher working to connect to students and make a difference in their lives and futures.

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