Last week was the third leg of a 3 week cross country trip by train. I was not planning to be part of a ds106 radio show project for the summer 2013 5 week madcap section of ds106 Jim Groom is teaching.

But this idea got in my head, in that ds106 way that I know I will put aside almost everything else (eating, sleeping, doing productive so called work) until I got it out of my system.

Submitted for your approval, To Serve Learners, was created in about 2 days with audio assists from Giulia Forsythe, Brian Short, Rochelle Lockridge, Brian Bennett, and Jim Groom. This was edited completely during the 32 hour train trip from Chicago to Flagstaff, AZ.

My first thought was a redo of the William Shatner freakout Nightmare at 20,000 Ft recast for my trip by railroad, but got lost on figuring out what the monster would be doing to the train from the outside. Sometimes you have to let the idea simmer. Or just go cold.

The big idea came out of the blue (actually when I was looking for episode scripts). To Serve Man always ranked as my one of my all time episodes, for the hook that you should have seen coming but did not. But it also plays into our hopes and expectations for magic solutions to complex problems… maybe some friendly 9 foot tall creepy headed aliens might help? For just their altruistic spirit? Yeah, just walk onto that spaceship for the promise of a better planet.

I found a full script online, and set about re-writing in a Google Doc, with the idea I would invite other open participants to help write and record (you can find this script and working notes).

And the premise, my one, was to change it up so the aliens were not from outer space, but from outside education:

The aliens in this case are from Silicon Valley and the galaxy of Business Innovation, the UdaXerians, and they arrive unexpectedly at an EDUCAUSE conference with all the answers to educational problems, via their superior technology. Educators are enthralled with the massive potential and cost savings, and are eager to accept the Udaxerians pledge to serve learners everywhere, for free. The skeptical are ignored, but one woman finds a tablet device left behind, and is able to hack to to find out what the “To Serve Learners” app is– the real thing the Udaxerians are seeking- what powers their systems are the minds and personal data of people crammed full of MOOC courses. But most of education blindly goes aboard the MOOC ship, with promises of a Perfect Pedgagy at the San Jose headquarters, and no one can hear her cry– “IT’S A COOKBOOK”

For reference, the original version

Working at Dr Garcia’s learning center at Oakton Community College, I found it took way longer to write the script– because as I started comparing the script to the video, there were significant differences, first noted in Serling’s opening and closing remarks, but entire sections were changed. I assume the script is a first draft.

So it ended up talking maybe 3 or four hours of transcribing/re-writing. It was fun, though I wish I had found Draft a cool new web writing all that allows you to embed a video/audio and transcribe in the same space.

I put a call out on twitter

And my friends noted above responded… fast, not only volunteering, but selecting roles, sending me audio. Special hat tips to:

  • Rochelle “Rockylou’ Lockridge for being first to sign up, and starting a list of sound effects in the doc
  • Giulia Forsythe for doing a dramatic CEO of EDUCAUSE and for roping in a few Brock University faculty Dale Bradely, Barry W.K. Joe, Amanda Bishop, and Derek Foster to record some short parts.
  • Brian Bennett for doing a granite smooth Rod Serling and the assuring scientist voice in the video
  • Brian Short for his crazy voices! OMG he had my laughing loud on the train, especially for his ad-libs

  • Jim Groom for chiming in 3 different voices.
  • Grant Potter for finding the music only version of the Twilight Zone intro.

Let me remind you, the writing and content gathering took 2 days, and I spent another days worth of time editing. This show went from idea to final in 3 days.One thing I found in going from a TV script to audio – you need to be explicit (more than I did) in having the characters address each other by name so we know who they are. I only referred to “Oblinger” once as CEO of EDUCAUSE, and the UdaXarian, while had the name “Thrun” in script (could have easily been any other MOOCer), was never addressed. There are nods to University of Mary Washington, and inside joke to my friend Kevin, for a CIO of a certain large university named “Cantrell”. Brian Short also made this funny teaser video (kudos for reviving BAGMAN!)

Now this is different from the usual ds106 group projects, because I bypassed all the group dynamics of sorting out the show concept and script by just defining it and asking people to help- it really was my silly idea not a group’s. But still, for those that say you cannot do creative work in an online class, bullshit. To those who think all you can do in MOOCs are stuff a machine can grade, well maybe if that’s all you care about. To those that say you cannot remotely collaborate on anything besides discussion forums, bullshit. We do it all the time in ds106 not for a grade, not for a certificate, not to get a job- but for the sheer love of making story art.On the production side, I edited this project in Audacity, here is a snapshot of the entire project:

(click to see full size)
(click to see full size)

A challenge of Audacity in dealing with so many small bits is keeping track of the tracks. Ideally every different bit should be its own track (especially when you get some sound in mono or at different sample rates). I started with tracks for different kinds of audio (music, sound effects, characters) but just started using them willy nilly.

You can squeeze tracks together vertically using the little divider line between tracks to see more on a view. But it is pretty essential to assemble the project in time, from left to right. If you go back and try editing or inserting into tracks, it can messup the timing later down the track. At some point near the end I was fiddling and managed to really munge things up- I had to save the project as a new file, extract the new bits, and modify the last saved version (save often! save often!)

My tactic was to keep a scratch Audacity file open to import my clips into, then edit or select the parts needed, and copy to the main. I aim to layer my sounds so there is never isolate dialogue without some kind of ambient sound, I got the throbbing of the spaceship from the original, and used some other sound effects to be the machine noise for the technical lab.

A part I could have done more with was the EDUCAUSE audience sound; I used some random crowd sounds that Rochelle had found on Freesound, they are actually in non English languages, but is not exactly the sound for a conference audience. To mix them up, I sometimes layered 2 or three tracks, and messed around with the levels using the Envelope tool. I could not isolate the bridge and dramatic music of the original (well worth listening to the way they used music), so I used repeatedly this track Ice Demon from the ever useful Incompetech royalty free music collection.

Other audio credits include (I hope I got them all)

Okay, so once again I am mocking MOOCs. They are so mockable. And Cole Camplese might get his shorts twisted over it (dude you know it’s not a cookbook). I am not saying that the MOOC companies are out to eat us literally. But it’s worth considering– before we buy into all the promise– what are their motives? What are we ceding?

Finally, to illustrate the brilliance of the original show’s writing, and something I did not notice until I was poring over the script. In explaining how she was trying to decode the book, Pat Brody explained:

I’m studying their language. I remember a professor of mine told me that language reflects the basic assumptions of the people who use it.

And therein, snuck in the script, is the real plot, how we read language and may miss the basic assumptions of the people using it, in this case, Serling played with the implied meaning of the word “serve” (though critics of the plot make some hay about the same double meaning being part of the alien’s language).

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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. That will teach you to avoid meetings 😉 It was a single tweet, I knew you would have wanted to be a part; I should have sent you a direct message. Every show can always use a UK accented character

  1. In the midst of writing my own… “To Serve Alan…”. One of my favourite episodes as well.

    One other is “Time Enough At Last”. You gotta laugh. Sort of like hell I guess. So near, yet so far.

    Was it in the Outer Limits or the Twilight Zone where a bunch of folk climbed into a “spaceship” at a fun fair and the jolly thing actually launched, piloted by aliens, and took the hapless passengers elsewhere?

  2. My favorite delivery, by far, is you doing “Take a flying jump at the moon.”

    Best line is probably, “VC-funded enigmas that descended on us like locusts.”

    Great work, A. Keep making trouble.

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