The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) is committed to leveraging our core principles of collaboration, open science and diversity, equity and inclusion to realize a more inclusive 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 who are working to develop tools that drive innovation and create impact.
In this edition, we meet with Michael Chen, a senior software engineer on our education team. Michael is a Taiwanese-American who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. During his time as an undergraduate computer science major at UC Berkeley, Michael realized his desire to pursue a career in social impact with his engineering skills. But, after graduating, Michael joined a large business solutions company where he worked on real-time data streaming applications.
Eventually, Michael had the opportunity to join the Education Initiative at CZI. He works on Along — a teacher-student connection builder created by CZI and its partners at Gradient Learning — to help students and teachers connect. In his time with CZI, Michael has grown professionally, having transitioned from providing backend engineering support to product engineering. Michael continues to find both personal and professional fulfillment in his role, while tackling problems he feels really do matter for society.
“Given the rising education inequality in the United States, Along’s mission resonates with me. I want to help make sure that every child is fully supported as they grow up. “
Tell us about the CZI technology you are currently working on.
I’m currently working on Along, which provides a dedicated space where teachers can build authentic connections with students to help them feel supported. Teachers guide student reflections by sending a video and inviting students to respond how and when they want, using quick audio, video, or text. With a built-in library of research-informed reflection questions and resources, Along is an easy way for teachers to get to know students on a deeper level, so students feel seen and motivated to participate and learn.
What problem are you looking to solve?
We want to make sure that students can develop strong relationships with their teachers, which is foundational to student learning and well-being.
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly heightened the challenge of developing teacher-student relationships. During the period when many schools were participating in distance learning, many teachers reported that some students consistently did not show up for class on video calls. Many students would also leave the calls as soon as class was dismissed. We heard that it became increasingly difficult to find opportunities to connect with students. Now that classrooms are bringing teachers and students together again in person, we know that teachers are juggling more than ever, and welcome ways to connect with their students that are quick, easy and fun.
Why does this problem resonate with you?
I was very fortunate to have grown up with strong mentors and adult figures in my life. These mentors included teachers, coaches and my parents, who immigrated to the United States and stressed the value of education. I’m confident that the mentorship and support I was given played a huge role in my graduating from college, embarking on a fulfilling career and generally leading a life that I am proud of. Given the rising education inequality in the United States, Along’s mission resonates with me. I want to help make sure that every child is fully supported as they grow up.
How have you been involved in advancing technology at CZI?
The Along project was initiated by CZI in early Summer 2020, following the initial lockdowns due to COVID-19. The education team at CZI heard from teachers that there was a need to support teacher-student connections, as they were challenged by distance learning. We partnered with Gradient Learning and researchers to build the digital tool. I was on the education infrastructure team at the time and helped bootstrap the project by setting up some of the underlying structure, such as application environments and observability. This initial work involved using Terraform to set up the development, staging and production environments, while also instrumenting the app with baseline metrics and monitoring.
In early 2021, I expressed interest in exploring product engineering for Along and was given the opportunity to work on product development. My first project entailed adding the audio-based only reflections feature. Prior to this, Along supported video- and text- based reflections, but we wanted to add the audio-based feature to give even more choice to students about how they show up. Although I have experience in backend development, this was my first time working on a user-facing product feature and thus, my first time working with HTML and CSS! The Along development team was unbelievably supportive and always available to answer technical questions.
Since joining the Along team full-time, I’ve also been involved in the user-experience refresh of the tool’s Composer feature. To update the Composer experience — which is how teachers create, record, and submit reflections to students — we simplified a few of the Composer flows by including assistive talking points. After selecting a reflection question from the Along content library, assistive talking points appear on the right-hand side of the recording screen, as a suggested way to easily introduce a question. They can also be edited so teachers can build an outline that personalizes the content for their own, authentic reflection. For reflections that the teachers create themselves, the assistive talking points section can be used as blank sticky notes on the recording. I’m currently working to update and streamline the onboarding process within the application, ensuring that every teacher who’s interested in Along, can easily preview and test the tool.
Can you tell us a little bit about the technologies used to build Along?
At a high level, Along is a progressive web application, built with a React/Typescript front-end and Ruby on Rails backend. Everything is hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS), such as our web servers, our PostgreSQL database, and Redis caches. We also leverage AWS-specific services such as Cloudfront for our CDN, Lambda for server-less computing, S3 for object storage, and MediaConvert for our transcoding needs. We use SQL for our data analysis, as well as Airflow and Snowflake for our extract, transform and load needs.
One tool that we use heavily in our day-to-day development is Storybook, which makes it easy to develop User Interface (UI) components in isolation and share them with our cross-functional partners like designers and product managers. We can even run visual regression tests on these components, allowing us to make application-wide changes confidently, such as updating colors. We are working with fairly established technologies, and continue to iterate on how best we can serve students and teachers.
How can this technology make a difference 1 year from now, 10 years from now, how about 50-100 years from now?
As more students and teachers adopt Along, I hope to see deeper teacher-student connections and in turn, students that receive the appropriate mentorship for their life journey. Research shows that having at least one supportive and caring adult relationship is one of the strongest predictors of resilience to adverse life experiences for children. (National Council on the Developing Child).
I’m also hopeful that as a society, we can make strides for our students. In the medium to long term, I hope that we can allocate more resources to help educators build one-on-one positive connections with students. Once these happen, it is possible that the role of Along will continue to evolve and offer teachers additional support to connect with their students on an even deeper level.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is a new kind of philanthropic organization focused on engineering change at scale. Interested in joining one of our full-stack technology teams to build software and support our strategic partners that are developing tools to accelerate progress in science and education? Explore CZI career opportunities now.