👋 Meet CoCo: A real-time co-creative learning platform for young people

CoCo - Being. Creative. Together.
MIT MEDIA LAB
Published in
20 min readDec 8, 2022

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On a sunny Saturday in February 2019, we had volunteered to serve as one of the group leads for a day long mindfulness retreat for children at a place near Boston. There were two seemingly separate incidents from the day that sparked the beginnings of our ideas and work on CoCo.

The first happened earlier in the day during a much awaited play break after a stillness-based session. A group of 10–12 year olds started talking (with intense excitement) about some of the multiplayer shooter games they had been playing online. We casually asked them, “how much time do you spend playing these games over the weekend?”, to which a 12-year-old immediately quipped…

“I play for 3–4 hours every day, what else is there to do!”

We talked some more and he shared that his parents work till late and that playing these immersive multiplayer games was a way for him to avoid feeling lonely in the evenings.

The second incident happened at the end of the day when we saw a striking feedback form shared by one of the kids about the retreat’s experience. It was a sentence scribbled over the entirety of the page that said…

“Just make learning it fun.”

These two incidents and the context within which they happened stayed with us when we got back home. Our continuing conversation later that evening kept revolving around two seemingly separate questions at the time:

1) How can we support ways for children to discover and engage in a wider variety of constructive learning experiences online (beyond playing games) while also feeling authentically connected with their peers in the process?

2) How can we design alternate playgrounds and contexts for children to play with and experience some of the powerful ideas that lie at the core of mindfulness — interconnectedness, compassion, and non-judgment?

It was in this conversation, which was coincidentally full of words starting with letters ‘co’, such as construction, connection, compassion, co-creation, context, community—that the name and the ideas of CoCo first took form.

It’s interesting (and a bit crazy) to think now that most of the core ideas of CoCo were conceived more than 3 years ago in pre-pandemic times. At the time, we were still in the early years of our PhD program at MIT in the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the Media Lab. We had a working prototype of the system ready at the start of 2020 and got incredible feedback during our first playtest. We excitedly also made the twitter account for CoCo then and had drafted much of this blog post shortly after.

BUT. Building something with love can take time and sharing it with the world can take even longer — there are iterations, questions, confusions, sometimes too many ideas, sometimes too few hands, and sometimes…a pandemic that puts everything on pause. Imagining and building CoCo has been a long and continuing journey of heart and hard work and we are so excited (and relieved!) to finally be able to introduce CoCo to the world.

What is CoCo?

CoCo is a communities-centric co-creative learning platform designed to empower educators to support young people in both physical and remote settings in Being. Creative. Together.

The values of beingness (the state of being), creativeness (the state of being creative), and togetherness (the state of being together) form the three core axes of CoCo and of our own motivations for this work.

CoCo is designed to support real-time co-creation and collaboration with peers in a variety of expressive computational environments including: CoCo Blocks (for block-based coding), CoCo JS (for text-based coding), CoCo Canvas (for art making), CoCo Stories (for creative writing). The live computational environments in CoCo currently extend and build on top of the hugely creative Scratch 3.0 and p5.js coding environments.

In the spirit of exploration over explanation, we invite you to first watch the video below (if you haven’t yet) to get a peek into what we’re building before we dive into some of the core ideas, affordances, and underlying values of CoCo.

Part 1: Building Co-Creative Spaces

Designing for Co-creation over Collaboration

We consciously chose to design the CoCo space as a shared digital space for co-creating projects in real-time and not necessarily for collaborating on the same project in real-time.

Collaboration often exclusively implies working together, but a ‘shared space’ more generally implies being together and hence is inclusive of collaboration as one of the ways of engaging with others but not the only way. There is no denying that collaborating with others can be a really joyful, productive, and energy-giving experience, but it does not always work well for everyone involved. The reasons can be many — not being able to learn and work at your own pace, not feeling comfortable to express yourself in the group, feeling or being judged, someone hogging the work, perceptions of unfairness in contributions and credit, and other negative feelings that can sometimes arise out of this experience.

1.1 Knobs over Switches

Supporting multiple ways of ‘being together’

Typically, in the context of digital creative tools, there are primarily two predominant modes of engagement that are often being developed or considered:

  1. Tools for working on your own on creative projects and then sharing the completed works with others.
  2. Tools for working together on the same creative project with others (such as drawing on a shared digital canvas, making edits to the code in the same project, or writing together in the same document)

In CoCo spaces, we introduce the principle of knobs over switches to reimagine the space in between these two extremes as a new kind of shared digital space that is closer to togetherness over direct collaboration. Just like how a knob affords finer control over one’s preferences, similarly, a CoCo space is designed to provide creators with the agency to choose when and in what way they’d like to engage with their peers, based on their own comfort and preferences at any moment.

Here are some of the ways that young creators can engage with their peers in a CoCo space:

i) Just being together

Context is communication. Just being together and sharing a context with someone is itself a form of communication. In a CoCo space, creators can work on their projects in a shared digital context, in the presence of others. Much like sitting in a café. This affordance is of course very handy for engaging learners remotely, but equally powerful when they are together in the same physical space. Even if students are sitting at a distance within the classroom, digitally, in a CoCo space, they are always right next to one another and also the educator.

ii) Finding inspiration

Curiosity often leads to finding inspiration. It can be challenging for young people to get started on a blank canvas in any open-ended creative environment. In a CoCo space, even though learners get to work on their own projects, they are always surrounded by multiple points of inspirations in the form of the mini live windows showing their peers’ creative explorations in real-time. They can also freely follow their curiosity and peek into anyone’s project to view and interact with it, without having to change their context. Inspiration and support naturally becomes abundant in a shared space like this, making it easy for young people to transform their interests and ideas into creative projects.

iii) Live remixing

Creation is fusion. In addition to supporting the fluid exchange of ideas and inspirations in the process of creating, CoCo spaces also support live remixing of code and other digital assets between peers. Any creator can drag and drop a piece of code from another creator’s project on to their mini window and it will instantly appear in their own project. They can then change it however they like. It is similar in essence to a sight of children sitting around the same table and freely passing and sharing craft materials with one another. Through this active fusion and remixing of one another’s creative ideas and work in real-time, young people’s digital creations start getting enmeshed with one another in a variety of ways, making one wonder — whose creation is it anyway?

iv) Creative interaction

Interaction forms connection. The CoCo Blocks environment introduces a variety of new peer programming blocks — Signals, Waves, and Shared Variables. Creators can use these blocks to make their project trigger something in their peers’ projects in real-time and also get to see the outcome instantly. This opens up a world of new co-creative possibilities. They can program multiplayer games, chain reactions, dynamic stories and animations, interactive video-based experiences, and an endless variety of other shared creative experiences together.

v) Collaborative experiences

Co-creation often leads to serendipitous collaboration. Having real-time access and visibility of your peers’ works in progress is conducive for sparking organic forms of creative collaboration between groups of young people. In addition to supporting collaborative projects where creators can contribute different parts to a single project, CoCo spaces also afford building new types of collaborative experiences as a group. For instance, creators can collectively imagine and program a new kind of multiplayer pacman game where the pacman passes through each of their projects turn by turn and they can use shared variables to have a common score! Or, they can code their own musical instruments and then play their projects together in the form of a musical band. There are countless possibilities.

The underlying goal behind all of these design choices and affordances is to cultivate a joyful co-creative environment that is inclusive of young people’s diverse interests and personalities and their multiple ways of being, of learning, and of engaging with others.

1.2 Multiple co-creative environments

for multiple languages of expression

The theme of supporting multiplicity and choice is embedded deeply into all aspects of CoCo. From the start, we always imagined CoCo not just as a platform, but also as a paradigm. We think the paradigm of CoCo spaces (of engaging co-creatively with peers in a shared digital space) can extend to an endless variety of digital creative experiences and environments.

We are already working on supporting not just co-coding, but also co-art and co-writing environments. For instance, in CoCo Canvas, young artists can make art on their own canvas in a shared space, they can easily grab and remix parts of one another’s artworks in real-time, get inspired by others’ color choices or styles of drawing, or collaborate to make a group art piece.

There is an endless variety of amazing creative environments that talented groups of people everywhere continue to build, and we imagine and hope that at some point in future, CoCo can host an open library of a growing number of community-sourced co-creative environments for educators to choose from every time they host a CoCo space.

1.3 Reimagining what ‘live’ learning can look and feel like

Empowering educators to support learners better —wherever they are

The term, live learning (especially since the pandemic), almost invariably evokes an image of an educator and a group of young people engaging on a video calling platform like zoom. The educator will be seen doing a screen share of a platform that they are using (learning tool, coding tool, design tool, etc.) and often, not surprisingly, the kids will seem awkward and uncomfortable sitting in front of the camera. This passive mode of engagement has ironically come to be called as live learning — when in reality, most kids are neither able to feel alive nor learn in an environment that literally translates the experience of a traditional classroom to a digital context.

In designing the affordances of CoCo spaces, we took our inspiration from the vibrant and co-creative spirit of an art/crafts workshop in action rather than a typical lecture-based classroom setting. The built-in video and audio functionality in CoCo, although very useful, is not what makes the environment ‘live’, rather it is the ability to engage in a wide variety of creative interactions with peers in real-time in the process of learning and building. CoCo spaces are therefore designed to empower educators to support children better regardless of whether they are physically together in the same room or connecting remotely from their homes. Moreover, video in CoCo is not a passive medium, it is a programmable material that young people can tinker with and use to build new kinds of shared creative experiences with their peers.

Part 2: Building Communities-Centric Corridors

Places for communities to host, discover, and engage in CoCo spaces

In designing this part of the platform, we have drawn inspiration from MIT’s famous ‘Infinite Corridor’ — an 825-foot-long hallway that runs the entire length of MIT’s main buildings. The walls of the Infinite Corridor are always fully covered with a long line of posters highlighting the countless exciting events and workshops that students can participate in at any given date and time. The passage also connects to the many different classrooms, labs, departments, study spaces, maker-spaces, and other types of social and creative spaces for members of the MIT community.

The Infinite Corridor at MIT — Massachusetts Institute of Technology

CoCo Corridors work very much in the same way. On CoCo, communities everywhere, big and small, can start their own corridors. You can invite your classroom, your after-school club, or a large global network of educators, it’s up to you. You can choose to make your community’s corridor private or public depending on your preferences. You can add co-creators at any time through a variety of modes. And if you work with a group of younger learners, you don’t have to create any accounts, you can just generate a unique login key that they can use to enter the corridor.

The corridor provides a safe context for young learners to discover and engage in a wide variety of exciting live CoCo spaces with others in their community, at any time, based on their own interests. They can also explore all of the past spaces and interact with the projects that were created by their peers and even remix a whole space if they like. You can also add custom assets (such as images, sounds, sprites, etc.) in your corridor’s media library. Any assets that are added will automatically be made available in your CoCo spaces. You can use those to support learners in co-creating projects that closely reflect their surroundings and cultural contexts.

A sample CoCo Corridor for a community

There are so many other affordances that we are continuing to think about in the design of the corridors and we look forward to getting your feedback as we iterate. Hopefully, we’ll make another post sometime about corridors! For now, we dedicated the final section of this post to the foundational ideas and core values that underlie and guide this work.

PART 3: Building Context-Centric Systems

The thing is the thing, the context is the context, the thing is not the context, and the context is not the thing. The thing is being constructed within a context but maybe constructing the thing is only a context for constructing the context?

Deutero construction of the ‘thing’, Proto construction of the ‘context’

3.1 Shifting from Individual and Thing-centric lens to a Co-creative and Context-centric lens

In any shared creative learning space, learners are always engaged in two kinds of construction. The more visible (and seemingly primary) one is the construction of their projects or things (such as building a game, writing a story, or creating art) but the other seemingly invisible one is the simultaneous construction of the social environment or their shared context with peers. Contrary to what might seem obvious, we consciously choose to see the invisible constructing of context as the proto-construction process and the constructing of thing within this context as a deutero-construction process.

We do this reversal with the intention of bringing a shift in the often exclusive and excessive attention put only on the more visible aspects of a learning space (the projects being built, the concepts being learnt…) and not on the shared context being constructed. This imbalance typically arises from seeing the learning environments (physical or digital) often just as consisting of individual learners / users, each working on their separate things.

When children engage with(in) any system, they are not just learning the explicit things that the system is designed for (skills or concepts), but they also imbibe the ideas, worldview, and frameworks that the system is built upon. As designers of these social systems (tools, schools, or spaces), consciously or unconsciously, we end up constructing most of the context or the underlying texture and text (rules) of the system for children. What that results into is instead of empowering children to actively engage in constructing their context, we tend to push children to be constructed and painted by the context. The ideas of success, failure, popularity, etc. are not natural to children but by repeatedly participating in systems that emphasize these ideas, they start internalizing these social structures and eventually start acting from them.

To make this more real, let’s imagine there is a hypothetical live online learning environment (let’s call it NoNo?) that was designed with a typical individual-centric and thing-centric lens. Here too, children are getting to work on their projects and you can also see your peers’ projects in real-time. But, also on display, are the number of likes, thumbs up, and ratings given to your project. In addition, you have the option of sorting all the projects in the space based on these metrics — sort by most likes, sort by highest ratings, show the most advanced projects, and so on. Also, learners are supposed to work on their own unique projects here, they are not allowed to “copy” or remix anyone else’s work.

NoNo — A hypothetical live online learning environment designed with individual- and thing-centric lens.

Now imagine yourself as a young person participating in this environment. The environment’s context by its very design promotes the ideas of competition, rewards, and comparison. Creators in such spaces are no longer likely to be creating their projects from a place of joy but from an anxious place of excelling in this socially constructed structure.

In such an environment, even though children may be creating together, they are not being. creative. together.

3.2 Designing co-creative environments that “hüm” with joy

In any learning space, when we start to zoom out beyond the individual and the thing, and consciously hold the entire space in our view, we’ll start noticing the shared context that is actively getting constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed within the space. This shared context is brimming with a rich web of connections that include learners’ connections with their peers, with the educator, with their immediate surroundings, and also their connection with themselves. All of these connections although invisible are in fact very very real. They are moldable like clay, they are also colorful, they even radiate temperature with varying degrees of warmth to sometimes cold, and they get strengthened not merely by physical proximity but by a deep sense of trust, openness, and empathy in the space. These connections truly come alive in the process of co-creation and if you hear intently, they even make a sound like that of a warm and creatively buzzing space in a state of flow. We have a word for it now — we refer to it as the “hüm” of the space.

The hüm is a representation of the nature and quality of interconnections that are actively being constructed within any social learning environment. The hüm is what we’ll hear, sense, and feel when we take a step further and start to see learners not just as individuals with head, hands, and heart, but also as active co-constructors of their shared context. The hüm doesn’t belong to any one in particular yet it is an integral part of everyone, and it contains and sustains the shared values of the space.

If we are not intentional about our choices, we can easily end up designing systems and spaces like the hypothetical NoNo environment above where the hüm of the space (which probably will feel more like h∩m) will soon start to vibrate with the unpleasant and uncomfortable sounds of anxiety, fear, and insecurity instead of those of joy, connection, and creativity.

In conceptualizing and developing CoCo, we continue to consciously keep thinking and coming back to the question —

What underlying ideas, values, and ways of thinking and being will young people discover and imbibe as they engage with and within the system?

3.3. Communicating Feelings over Collecting Metrics

Imagine being in a vibrant studio space where you are engaged in making art with your peers. You look over and you really like what your friend has made, you whisper and express your appreciation to them (so as to not affect others in their creative flow). They feel really good and express that to you by saying thank you with a smile. In this spontaneous personal interaction, the likes and the thank you’s are not metrics to be collected and displayed for others in the room to see. They are just feelings that are expressed and felt in the moment. Though this exchange is ephemeral, its affect is often much deeper.

We wanted to bring this same personal and spontaneous quality to the social interactions within a live CoCo space.

Send CoCo cards to peers in real-time

We designed CoCo cards as a way for young people to express feelings of appreciation, wonder, inspiration, or gratitude to one another, as they see one another’s projects and ideas evolve in the space. The cards are shared one-to-one between any two creators within the moment. They are not announced or displayed publicly in the space for others to see.

3.4 Shared Spaces over Individual Profiles

Also, in CoCo, there are no individual user profiles or separate project pages. The fundamental unit here is not the individual creator, but rather the endless variety of co-creative spaces that they engage in with peers. In CoCo, creators build projects within a shared context that is designed to be inherently interactive and collaborative in nature. Every creator’s project is deeply intertwined with other creators’ projects in the CoCo space in a variety of tangible and intangible ways. The projects therefore are never separated from the original co-creative context that they were built in. In doing so, we hope to support young learners in making a shift from the often excessive focus that is put on seeking validation for the final outcome to instead start seeing the joyful process of co-creating as its own reward.

In CoCo, we have consciously decided to do away with comparison. With no individual profiles, no followers, and no likes to collect, there is no digital currency to compare with. And what happens when there is no unit of comparison in a social platform?

…..we’ll find out!

But our hope is that CoCo can provide young people with a fertile context to start discovering and developing new ways of seeing themselves, and others, as passionate, compassionate, and dispassionate beings — all at the same time.

3.5 CoCo as a “self-less” social platform

“We have not been able to be secure in human society. There is anxiety of various types in our social existence. You know, we have no anxiety about the way in which the limbs of the body work in relation to one another. You do not go to bed with a feeling of insecurity that the eyes or the ears may not set-up a strike in respect of the stomach which swallows all the food and gives nothing to the eyes or the ears! You have no fear that, perhaps, tomorrow there may be a battle between the right hand and the left hand. But we do not live a life of harmonious organic relationship to our outer life [with others in the society]…Nature is not a machine but an organism. The parts of Nature work in spontaneous harmony amongst themselves…” — Krishnananda Saraswati

The word selfless is formed by putting -less with self, which more literally implies, free from self. The part of the self that we hope children can feel free from is the part that gets insecure, fearful, driven by extrinsic rewards, and starts to care only about the individual outcomes. Being selfless is not an act of diminishing one’s self, but rather of continually expanding one’s self-identity to include the other. But we cannot begin to embrace selflessness as a value when all the social systems we partake in (online or offline) are inherently designed to be self-centric. Instead of connecting us, they often end up separating us.

As our life’s path, we care deeply about doing work that supports young people in growing their sense of identities from individuals at ‘I don’t know if I can do this’ to individuals with creative confidence within themselves and onward and upward to continually expanding their identities and seeing themselves as compassionate citizens of communities and the world at large.

CoCo, for us, is a humble step towards this path and we hope that it can serve as a microworld for young people to explore and experiment with new modes of thinking and new ways of being in relationship with others — as they set out to co-create their joyful, just, and sustainable shared futures.

An evolving framework for CO-CREATIVE learning

Inspired by the wonderful creative learning spiral, we wanted to end this post by sharing an evolving visual / a framework / a flower? / a something that we don’t yet have a name for. We think that it captures well our own ongoing co-creative process of imagining and building CoCo and perhaps can be extended to any other co-creative learning space where a group of people (young or old) are engaging in being. creative. together.

An evolving framework for co-creative learning

We need your support!

Thank you for taking the time to learn more about our work and ideas. We’d love for you to be a part of this journey with us in one way or the other. If you are an educator interested to try CoCo with your community, we encourage you to visit coco.build and join the invite list for beta. We really want to make CoCo available for communities everywhere and so we are also looking for support to grow this work beyond our PhD research at MIT into something more sustainable. If you are a kindred spirit who resonates with the ideas and values of CoCo and would like to support this work or just say hello — please write to us at hello@coco.build. We’ll be waiting to receive a signal from you :)

Gratitudes

First and foremost, thanks to our Lifelong Kindergarten family — being part of this incomparably creative and caring community is one of the most precious privileges of our lives so far. The seeds of this work (and all of our future work) have been sowed in this nourishing environment. Thanks to Mitch, for the generous and unconditional support, kindness, and mentorship over so many years — “you will forever be our favorite sample project to remix” :). Thanks to Gaurab, for coming on board earlier this year, diving in head on, and contributing to this work in invaluable ways. Thanks to Bhuvan Singla, Geetesh Gupta, Nipun Agarwal, Kanav Gupta, Forrest Yang, and Katya Bulovic — undergraduate students in India and MIT who made helpful contributions to the early codebase in varying capacities. Thanks to the incredibly creative and committed teams at the Scratch Foundation and Processing Foundation for supporting and building some of the most expressive tools to build with and build upon. Thanks to the Media Lab and MIT — it’s hard not to feel inspired and energized by everything that everyone here does everyday.

Last but not least, we are thankful to each other, for being, creative, together, in work and life — for almost 10 years now :)

—manuj dhariwal (manuj@mit.edu) & shruti dhariwal (shrutid@mit.edu)

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CoCo - Being. Creative. Together.
MIT MEDIA LAB

A new real-time co-creative platform for young people. Led by Manuj Dhariwal and Shruti Dhariwal - PhD Students, MIT Media Lab, Lifelong Kindergarten