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What’s Truly Amazing


My session yesterday at the Open Education Conference was absolutely the most fun thing I have put together for a conference. it was so fun I did not wait til the night before to finish it. The images above were totally not necessary, but I found myself up at 1:30am mocking up old covers from a collection of scans of the original Amazing Stories magazines (for which, I openly admit, I may not have permission to do).

So if you want to watch the presentation, you can do so via the UStream recording

but to be honest, it is better explored via the Amazing Stories site— the CoolIris version of the presentation (more or less a glossy way to browse the stories), or the individual stories as launchable videos, or the URLs relevant to the stories, or even a flash player to play them all sequentially at

Picture 3

The Idea

I wanted to come to the Open Education Conference
mainly for the caliber of other people participating, and is it seemed, I was able to meet a long ist of colleagues whom for up to now, I have only known online. Lots of people have this experience, and maybe we lose sight of how amazing this piece is that our online collaboration spirit is enhanced, amplified by the times we get to meet in person.

But to be honest, I dont have a lot to do with open content or open courseware.

So I rolled back to think just about the value of open- of sharing things online, and my past stories of funny, weird, and lovely serendipitous things that have come my way because of content I’ve put online- hence the idea to get other people to share their own stories.

I’ve long been interested, or more likely baffled, by why it seems so many in education are reluctant to share. This goes back so long in my career I cannot remember, and was heightened in the days I was working on a system to make it so easy to share that it was nearly fun.

And now I wonder why something so basic something that seems innate in kids in their play with other peer kids– is somehow schooled out of us in passage through the educational system. And thus I end up with my gut sense of what most kids know- when we share it feeds into the system that ultimately ends up with others others back to us.

It seemed as well when I talked to the people who contributed this stories that it does not take much of a response (a comment, and email) to generate the feedback loop. We all crave connection and attention and approval, and filling the world with more of the above towards others cannot but help.

It’s my hope that these stories just inspire a sense of, “I want to be part of this” or “that’s pretty easy” or whatever it is that makes people realize what I have known for long- when you share your stuff in the open, good things come back in return. That is not the reason to be sharing, but it is an outcome

At the same time, I have to avoid creating the expectation that if you just hang your photos in flickr or writer blog posts, that the riches will shower down on you. It is not a guarantee, and it also involves the other important aspects of giving feedback and response in other people’s online space.

The best thing to say about this came from my conversations with Clay Burell. I asked him about not wanting to put out this hope, that just by sharing content, you can’t count on getting some unexpected surprises. He sharply noticed then the only guarantee is

If you don’t share.. then you won’t get any unexpected surprises.

Was “Amazing” Too Big?

I issued a call for stories through several channels, and am clinging on to looking at that half full glass of the people who did share their stories, but at the same time, I was thinking I might get inundated with so many of these.

Perhaps “Aamzing” suggested to people that it had to be Huge, Epic, World Changing things I was looking for– in fact. I sought the opposite, the little, the small, the ones that just made us smile in amazement. Maybe it should have been “Amazing Little Stories of Openness”.

But I did get a Gardner Campbellian bag of gold.

The Method of Getting Stories

I hatched this idea in May or June, and set out getting responses by blogging about it, setting up a WikiSpaces site to host a call, groveling on twitter, etc.

What worked well was setting up a Google Form to have people share their contact info, the gist of the story, a preferred method of response (email, Skype, etc).

It was a few weeks later that I got the idea that posting a video call in YouTube would be effective, since people could just respond in a video reply.

I absolutely wanted this to be video, and for the few people who just sent the story details or did not respond to my emails, sorry I did not get yours in the mix.

The videos were acquired in multiple ways:

  • Recording a Skype video call (using eCamm Conference Call Recorder for Mac OS). These worked well as it did not take anything on the tellers part, and I could ask some follow up questions. My fatal flaw was forgetting to record in the mode that puts my video/audio in a separate track, hence the heavy breathing looming in the background of a few stories.
  • People send me their own recorded videoa. Oh that made it easy! Thanks Terry Anderson. Mikhail Gershovich sent a great audio recording, of which I ended up plucking images to use as visuals
  • Recording people with my Flip Mino. This little device had some of the best video quality; I snagged a few while attending the ED-MEDIA conference (Stephen Downes, George Siemens, Rick Schwier) and also at home when Sue Waters visited in Arizona (and my own mug shots).
  • Snagging from YouTube. Darren Kuropatwa, Cole Camplese, Mike Bogle, D’Arcy Norman, and Leigh Blackall posted them, and I was able to snag them as MP$ with the Download YouTube Videos as MP4 Greasemonkey script
  • My little Canon camera. The little IXY came handy at ED-MEDIA in capturing stories from Nancy White and Tony HIrst whilst sitting in the windy dark of the hotel bar (thanks to whomever had the LED flash list, that worked perfectly.
  • Pure improvising. I kept trying to bug Jennifer Jones into doing a story, but she was busy with a move, so I had fun taking the 4 phrase fragments she sent to the Google Form, mixing them with screenshots and background music into her story

Editing The Videos

I went very simple on the editing, doing it all in a 3 year old version of iMovie HD. I sought out screen shots and photos that were part of the stories so that I could as on screen overlays (the voice continues in the audio channel).

I do this typically by separating the audio and video tracks, so I can insert a still to take the place of video, but often small bits of offset end up with the video and audio being out of sync

I have a simple approach for doing this, which is not always easy in iMovie since you only have one video content track (my next project is complex enough to warrant cracking open Final Cut Pro).

After importing my entire clip into iMovie, I trim and junk from the start and end, and if there are distinct breaks (e.g. if I have multiple stories in a single track) I use the Spit Video at Playhead option to break the clip into parts.

I first locate the point in the timeline IO want to insert my image, and note the time at this in point, in this example, 2:20:04 (it helps to be zoomed way in on the timeline so you can fine tune your cursor placement). I then do a command T or Edit – Split Video at Playhead to make a first cut.


I then move the playhead to an even number seconds ahead, usually I did 5 second inserts, but sometimes 3 or 4 seconds would do, and do another Split Movie at Playhead. If you click the timeline between these two points, you have the segment of video to replace.


Now with this 5 second segment selected, what I do is go to Advanced-Extract Audio, which then puts the audio for this segment only into the audio track.


Now I click the video track 5 second segment again, and delete that video clip. I can drop in the still image I want to appear in the 5 second space.


By having just the replaced segment’s audio on the sund track, I can be very precise in making sure my inserted still image lines up at the exact in/out points.

From here, I can go into the Media – Photos-Show Photos tools to zoom the still, or apply Ken Burns effects.

Oh Ken Burns.

It’s easy to make people nauseous with a lot of big zooms, but done in doses, it works well. My approaches are:

  • Vary the direction of the zoom. If the previous sequence zoomed in, make the next one zoom out.
  • Make only small amounts of movement. You dont have to zoom way in and out. Doing some with small amounts makes it seem less in your face.
  • Try doing pure pans. Going across an image gives a sense of flow, direction.
  • Get fancy with 3 point moves. The iMovie tool only lets you go from one point to another, but I have a method fo doing a 2 stepped Ken Burns; one that moves from point A to B, then from B to C.
    • So create a space for say, and 8 second insert.
    • Make the first one 4 seconds long.
    • Set the stop and end points for the first move, and apply the effect.
    • Now select and copy this 4 second clip, and paste it in as a copy right after the first one. Right away, use the reverse button– this makes the starting point exactly at the ending point of the first clip.
    • Now set the end point of the second clip the ultumate destination, and update.

I saved all my clips as MPEG 4, Exporting with the iMovie Expert Settings, using:


  • MPEG-4 (MP4) using H.264
  • Data rate: 672 kbits.sec
  • 480 x 360 image size
  • Frame rate 29.97 fps
  • Key Frame: automatic
  • Under Video Options- Best Quality (multi-pass)
  • AAC-L (Music), 44.1 kHz, 128 kbps

I then converetd this to FLV for use in my web site.

Assembling into the Web Site

I tossed the full pile of media into the final web site at

Firstly, I set my presentation up to play in CoolIris… not to be explained here, but I have outlined it elsewhere. It’s a matter of creating a directory of images (U usually do at least 800×600 JPEGs for the full images, and 240×180 JPEGs for the thumbnail images. And yes, I roll the MediaRSS file by hand.

I am super wary of bad internet connections at conferences, so I run the entire show fro my MacBookPro running a local copy of the Apache web server, This minimizes the load time of media and bails you if thr local hotel wireless sucks (which it usually does).

I had to do something different for this presentation, since I dod not have time or desire to play all the stories as video. I created a second copy of the site, so that this one uses a mediaRSS file that pulls videos form a second directory, where I had taken each story and made a 1-2 minute excerpt. In the presentation, I set up the videos in my telling about it, and then could play the shorter clip.

I found an annoying glitch in my process on the plane flight to Vancouver– the new way they load CoolIris in a browser, it runs my media RSS feed through a URL at so I cannot run the show totally offline. I’m guessing they are gathering data on the feeds used, but I wish it would fail gracefully if there is no internet just to run locally like it always did before. There is no technical reason it has to run a URL through a live web site.

In addition to the CoolIris viwq of the stories, I added a long scrolling list allowing links to pull up the stories individually, and to provide web links to sites the people referenced in their stories.

I got fancier again, using some HTML/CSS/Javascript Lightbox- the method where a link opens media in a translucent layer over the page:


so this way, I can keep the experience in the same page. I’ve been using this a lot in my custom sites, and am wanting to do more writeups on how this can be effective.

Here, I made it a PHO script that opens s I can pass a file name for the FLV movie to load (using the Longtail Flash Player) as well as a download link to the same as an MP4.

The last bi I added was another link that can play all of the videos together in a single player- this uses the same Flash player, but I can pass it a playlist in XML format, so that all of the videos can be viewed in one place (using the menu at the bottom, or the track buttons on the player to advance, or just sitting back and watching).

That’s another pending blog post on using playlists for custom media sequencing….

So that’s pretty much the behind the scenes look at this presentation, which was one I just loved putting together.

And if you did not get your story in the mix… well, I am done putting them together, but you can always add them as a reply to my YouTube request.

Frankly, I know each of you has had some experience that is something that would not have happened if there was not this open space of sharing. I have dreams of seeing thousands of stories appearing, and of people dropping their fear, loathing, reluctance about sharing, and just share like mad, like crazy.

I wont promise that something amazing will happen, but as Clay said, you can be sure nothing amazing like this will happen if you don’t share.

Go out and be open. A lot of people doing that is Amazing.

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as


  1. Damn. That’s impressive and I love both the idea and how you documented it.

    I hope I didn’t step on your toes by posting the link etc. the other day. I figured since it was flying around on twitter post presentation it was now fair game. If not, my most sincere apologies.

    Al always, great work and thanks for inspiring me.

  2. I really am crushed I didn’t get to see this live. Thank goodness it’s archived. I can’t wait to watch it.

    This is truly an epic post about an epic project. A meta-amazing meta-story that blogs the walk. A gobsmacking blog-walking openly amazing tale. On this amazing journey of openness, together we’ll ride….

  3. You continue to inspire and lead the way with innovative and yet powerfully simple ideas. I’ll warn you right now, I likely be using/stealing your ideas in some form in the days to come. Maybe I’ll just include a disclaimer on my blog and all presentations……”this presentation/idea is likely inspired by Alan Levine.”

  4. Hi Alan: I blogged this, mainly the Ustream presentation but also included links to your “how-to” and to the repository of all the stories. I appreciate how you are open about your process. My little story: I’ve been posting my photos on Flickr for a while now, mainly to share with family, and I had one picture taken with my phone camera (i.e. not very good) included in an online travel guide. Just a pleasant little surprise that anyone outside of family would like my picture. I took it to show my kids where I was staying when I interviewed for a job at Boston U. Here it is:

  5. Alan, I’ve been so deeply buried in the move to Singapore and the return to school(iness)-teaching since August that I’m only now getting above ground.

    I did, though, see your preso and also the Cooliris version AND the blog (wiki?) version(s?), all of which were stunning — so stunning, in fact, that I offered to do a CoolIris gallery of photos and videos 20 students will take of southern India on a culture visit chaperoned by me and another teacher in February. (This, by the way, is among my Top Five Clunkiest Sentences Ever. Apologies.)

    But now that I’ve skimmed the process, it seems daunting for a non-techy guy like me. Isn’t it possible to maybe favorite some YouTube vids, e.g., and feature only those favorites (or maybe ones tagged or on a playlist or channel) on CoolIris?

    Hope you can take a sec to answer.

    Again, the idea and the aesthetics were just beautiful. Congrats.

    1. Hi Clay,

      Nice to see you resurface. The coolest stuff usually takes more effort 😉

      Doug Belshaw did a rather comprehensive write up of the manual process I use

      But if you are simply looking for a way to do a single gallery, once you create a cooliris account (go into the CoolIris environment in your browser and look for the Preferences icon in lower right). Probably the easiest way to do a mix of items like you describe is to use the “Favorites” button to collect the media you want to share. Then you can be able to display it…. but no easy way to share them all via a URL. You can pick through your favorites, and share via email.

      Downside of favorites is that the order of things is th eorde rin which you favorite them.

      The other way is to organize your content in YouTube as a playlist or set of tagged videos, as well as putting your flickr images in a place where you can view them as a tag set or a regular set or the new fangled gallery. The idea of CoolIris is that from the web view, you can flick on CoolIris, and it represents the same media as a CoolIris wall.

      But the most flexible in terms of mixing content is to get down in the code!

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