Being out of physical classrooms and in virtual meeting rooms has taken a toll on everyone, but especially students in K-12 education. It’s been harder for students and teachers to connect in natural ways, so the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Gradient Learning teamed up to launch a new, free tool to help build those relationships.

Along is an online messaging platform that can help teachers make sure students feel seen and understood, even in a virtual setting. It works by providing a space for students to send a message directly to their teacher on their own time and in their own way, either through video, audio or only text. The message can range from showcasing their personality so their teacher can get to know them in a way that is more natural in a physical classroom or about what’s on their mind or struggles they may be facing. 

Word In Black receives funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to report on education and how it is impacted by COVID-19.

While Along is free to use, users are required to sign up with a registered school domain email address. Teachers are also required to inform school leaders and student guardians about their use of the platform.

“We are committed to partnering with educators and researchers to advance a different vision of the school system – one that can holistically serve all students, especially Black, Brown and Indigenous students,” said Dr. Priscilla Chan, co-founder and co-CEO of CZI. Dr. Chan, wife of FaceBook founder Mark Zuckerberg took to the airwaves to tout the innovative tool.

This tool is a direct response to what teachers across the country said they needed. CZI and Gradient Learning worked with educators to understand their challenges, and a top priority was being able to gauge how students were doing and where they needed help.

It’s proven that when students and teachers have strong relationships, there is a higher level of academic engagement and achievement, better attendance, fewer disruptive behaviors and disciplinary actions, and lower dropout rates.

However, in virtual learning, it’s much more difficult to have regular and meaningful one-on-one check-ins.

“We built Along to provide educators with an easier, flexible and more meaningful way to connect with students, so teachers can spend less time scheduling meetings and more time supporting each student,” said Andrew Goldin, executive director of Gradient Learning.

Maya Pottiger is a data journalist for Word in Black. She was previously a data journalist for the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, where she earned both her BA and Master of Journalism. Her work has been featured...