Manuj Dhariwal and Shruti Dhariwal, a pair of Ph.D. candidates at MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten research group, say it all started with a single piece of feedback:

“Just make learning fun.”

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Scrawled across a form, the advice came from a group of 12 year olds at a mindfulness retreat hosted at a school near MIT.

“These kids had spent all their free time at the retreat talking about online shooting-based video games,” says Manuj Dhariwal, laughing. Not an ideal conversation right after sessions on mindfulness, but the husband-and-wife researcher duo did take away two key lessons from the students’ candor.

First, online interactions for children have to be fun, not lecture-like. And second, kids want to share experiences and play together online.

On their drive back home from the retreat, these realizations helped the couple tighten screws on a project they were already working on. “We wanted to create a digital experience for kids that allows them to create things together, but isn’t saturated with the usual social-media-like engagement tools. Likes, dislikes, endless scroll, judgment,” Shruti Dhariwal says. But the pair also didn’t want to reduce collaboration online to a dry, empty Google Doc, either.

“The closest analogy we came up with was a kindergarten-style digital crafts table,” Shruti Dhariwal says.

This was in early 2019. By the end of the year, the Dhariwals had created a working prototype for CoCo Learn, which they describe as “a real-time, co-creative platform for young people.” The system enables users to share or swap bits of code — just as they might pass crayons to each other if they were sitting at the same crafts table — to build an online game together, create artwork or make music. There’s even an option to write stories together.

Shruti Dhariwal says she and her husband didn’t really build CoCo for the pandemic, but once the crisis hit, they quickly added features like video and chat, so that kids wouldn’t have to connect separately through Zoom or another video-calling app.

CoCo is still in its beta phase, being tested out by educators from 65 different countries. The platform comes from the same stables — of MIT Media Lab — as Scratch, the free-to-use, ubiquitous coding language popular with young people from across the world. But CoCo is a departure from Scratch in a few crucial ways. As one educator writes about their experience with the tool, there are no individual user profiles, no way to collect likes and no followers — basically, no emphasis on comparison. Scratch projects are also released to everyone on Scratch for feedback, comments or “remixing,” but on CoCo, projects remain within a digital “corridor” curated by an educator.

The design is deliberate, say CoCo’s founders. Not only have they eschewed a social media setting for their digital playground, they’ve also steered clear of “gamifying” the experience. Gamified elements like points, coins, badges or topping a leaderboard are like “jolts of caffeine,” claims Manuj Dhariwal, which can take focus away from real learning, or creating projects online.

That puts CoCo’s strategies to keep students engaged or motivated to learn at complete odds with what many edtech companies have been trying to do to teach literacy or STEM — mimic online games like Robolox or Minecraft that children spend hours immersed in outside of school. But even as gamification has become a shorthand for engagement, edtech companies have found it challenging to draw a clear distinction between learning and just having fun.

“The idea is to keep learners motivated in a class. Competing [in a game] doesn’t work as motivation for every student. No one wants to be at the bottom of a leaderboard,” says Deepak Cheenath, co-founder of Quizizz, a classroom tool that lets teachers create pop quizzes and games.

Almost a decade into experiments with gamification, edtech companies are changing the way they approach motivation. A softer, more nuanced form of gamification is on the rise.

Quizizz is embodying this shift. For instance, it now groups student users who are at the same level of mastery together, to make competition more fair. And rather than earning points based on the number of subject-matter questions they answer correctly, they advance based on their performance at other gameplay tasks.

Cheenath claims this shift is already showing results.

“Earlier, only a third of students playing a game would re-attempt a question they got wrong. Now 100 percent of them do the re-attempt,” he says, citing internal company data.

Knobs Over Switches

The Dhariwals say they were advised to “gamify” CoCo right out of the gate, with likes and leaderboards. But they stuck to their anti-gamification stance.

The platform does have an element, “CoCo cards,” that might have been designed to help students collect points. Instead, these multicolored icons featuring words like “thank you” and “curious” are just a way to show appreciation for another user.

screenshot of CoCo
Screenshot of the CoCo demo video.

In CoCo’s demo video, all the different use cases for the platform seem geared toward users building projects together, like coding and playing a game live. The collaborative aspect of CoCo has caught the attention of high school students like Nagamitesh Nagamuralee, who introduced the beta version in his robotics clubs in his former middle school in Lexington, Massachusetts.

“This kind of collaboration doesn’t exist in Scratch or Code.org. It was the missing piece, because CoCo lets you work on the same project, and interact with others. CoCo is like Scratch on steroids,” Nagamuralee says.

This type of collective problem-solving is what Nagamuralee says works in regular classes too.

“Teachers often end up using the non-gamified portions of apps like Quizizz or Kahoot to explain certain concepts in class,” he says, referring to his own experience with gamified platforms.

One benefit of CoCo is its mild learning curve, says Tiffany Zides, a digital literacy and computer science teacher at Clarke Middle School in Lexington, Massachusetts. Zides was introduced to CoCo by Nagamuralee, a former student, and has used it regularly in her coding classes.

For Zides, CoCo’s appeal lies in the safe “corridors” it provides, even more than in its anti-competitive nature. Corridors or projects are designed for small groups of students and the space can be controlled by the teacher. “It’s safer to work with people you know,” says Zides. CoCo is also a gateway, she claims, to teach communication skills, like how to disagree respectfully.

But this engagement in a corridor can also be dialed back, if a user wants. CoCo follows a “knobs over switches” philosophy, where a user can either participate in another user’s project, just watch or create their own thing.

Getting the Motivation Right

CoCo’s tactics for keeping participants motivated are centered around the appeal of co-creation. It’s an interesting strategy, but still largely restricted to extracurricular activities like after-school coding clubs or art projects. When it comes to core curricular needs like math or reading, and measuring learning outcomes, that’s when you may still need a bit of competition, believes Clarence Tan.

Tan is the co-founder of Boddle, a multiplayer math learning game that reports a user base of 4 million students. Boddle’s gameplay — with points, power-ups, leaderboards — is inspired by Robolox and Minecraft, two games familiar to its intended audience. Through multiple iterations of designing and refining the platform, Tan has grappled with the issue of how to embed learning into a game, because, he says, kids have a totally different mindset when they’re playing versus when they have to learn something.

“In a game, you are 100 percent OK with failing. You keep going. But with learning, there’s some anxiety around getting questions wrong,” Tan says.

To distill that “gaming” persistence and motivation and apply it to “learning” has been tricky, but Tan says he has found a way around it: Detach rewards from a user’s actual level of knowledge about a subject. This means ensuring that edtech activities don’t punish students who are struggling with math or reading, by, say, dropping them to the bottom of a leaderboard, and instead are designed to reward students for their persistence in trying to play the game.

For example, in a Boddle game, climbing the leaderboard or moving up levels is connected to luck or the user’s skill at identifying patterns rather than to how many math questions the user got right. That way, students don’t get discouraged by gaps in their understanding, according to Tan, who adds that students typically attempt between 40 to 42 questions per hour in Boddle.

Getting the “triggers” to learning right is vital in edtech tools, says Julia Rivard Dexter, the co-founder and CEO of Shoelace Learning. Like Boddle, Shoelace uses game-based content, but to teach reading comprehension instead of math. Also similarly to Boddle, in Shoelace products, students’ success is tied to getting the gameplay right, not the answers to academic questions. In a game called Dreamscape, for instance, Dexter says players are competing more with themselves, rather than their peers.

There is a reward baked in for effort. Dreamscape is designed in a way that when a student really wants to unlock something — an accessory or avatar — they need to answer academic questions, or they get stuck. “If you want to, for example, challenge your friends to a game, you need to answer five questions correctly,” says Dexter.

Dreamscape does have a leaderboard, but instead of awarding points based on the number of academic questions the students got right, it awards points for collecting a particular kind of accessory — like a “shard.” As Dexter explains it, one student may be at a higher level of reading than their competitor, but the competitor might be higher on the leaderboard, because they’ve collected more “shards” by answering more questions. Basically, the competitor has put in more effort, and potentially, moved up a few levels in their reading too.

Still, engagement is not a proxy for learning. Dexter admits that this is a complex tug-of-war between gaming and learning. Shoelace doesn’t want to “trick” kids into learning, an act Dexter likens to feeding them chocolate-covered broccoli. But it also can’t offer boring bits of information interspersed with fun games.

“There’s a tension that we always face as developers of game-based learning to measure, how much time is actually spent engaging with the learning content? And then how effectively is it delivering that content in a way that kids are mastering their learning?” Dexter says.

Shoelace’s games track “learning moments delivered” per session, and if there’s a dip from one week to the next, Dexter says the company analyzes if some change in the gameplay took the user out of the learning experience. She adds that Shoelace’s games now encourage students to raise more questions to their teachers in their physical classrooms, because they want the right answers.

Gamification for Good

The goalposts for edtech may have shifted from simple gamification to more nuanced game-based learning. It’s still a far cry, though, from the kind of digital experience that CoCo wants to promote. Shruti Dhariwal is confident that the use cases of the platform will only expand.

“Educators are already using CoCo to teach sophisticated concepts in geometry through interactive art projects,” she says. “Or a lesson on variables through building a game where you have to keep score.”

Students have also been asked to use the platform to make presentations for English or social science classes, she adds.

CoCo’s gradual move from niche to mainstream curriculum could challenge the core business case of motivation — shifting from competition to collaboration. But first, there’s a need to fundraise, pay for more servers as beta phase invites go out, and do trials with local schools around MIT.

In the meantime, CoCo’s venture-backed counterparts are testing out their own theories on what motivates students. Quizizz, for instance, has added a “team” mode, where a class is split into two groups to compete with each other. They have a 50 percent chance of winning if they collaborate together. Boddle’s team is also trying to introduce game modes where students can build things together like in Minecraft. Tan says users want to build houses and islands together, and games could be designed in a way where users have to answer questions first before they can access collaboration tools.

But competition isn’t a trigger that these edtech companies have relegated just yet. It’s definitely still a core strategy — only more nuanced than before.

Teachers who use Quizizz were telling Cheenath that open competition to get to the top of the leaderboard was detrimental to some students. Since then, Quizizz has introduced a “mastery” mode in its classroom games, which sorts students into different tiers as they advance.

Quizizz screenshot
Screenshot of a Quizizz user’s game.

“They are competing against students at the same mastery level. The gameplay is designed in a way where the same questions are repeated till the student hits a 100 percent mastery level in it,” says Cheenath. The idea is that the competition with others doesn’t become a deterrent, but spurs users ahead in the game, which keeps them engaged.

The connection between advancing in a game and learning is a virtuous cycle, say Dexter and Cheenath. You can’t get ahead unless you engage with the learning material.

Hopefully savvy 12 year olds won’t mind when they realize that it’s not possible to skip ahead just to the fun parts.

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