An Evening With CogDog (aka Alan Levine)

CogdogLast night I was lucky enough to play host to the very knowledgeable and laid back Alan Levine (aka @cogdog on Twitter) as he presented to a group of 50 educators. With teachers from 12 schools from around Hong Kong, and a few intrepid students, we had a small, intimate group, an excellent speaker and a fantastic location (the Assembly Hall at LPCUWC). Over the course of 2 hours Alan presented a wide range of ideas, which were eagerly noted down for later application in the classroom. The list below is a summary of some of the ideas I picked out, and my take on them, but it is by no means exhaustive or authoritative.

True Stories of Internet Openness

For the first half of the show Alan focused on the theme of Internet openness, but from a social/content point of view, rather than the more traditional hardware/protocols angle. Through the use of a range of resources, anecdotes and ideas, he weaved a compelling prompt to share what we do online.

The Internet Is So Big – even bigger than the Grand Canyon (which has been Google Maps Streetviewed, as one example of just how big the Internet is). It is so big we simply cannot comprehend it, or in some ways, even understand how just big it is.

You Can Get Lost – there is so much data and so much detail (often in one place, such as in this 320 giga pixel panorama of London), that it is incredibly easy to lose yourself. But we often also find the unexpected, because we simply don’t know what is out there.

All Because People Share – and because there is such a variety of people on the web, you get a huge variety of sharing. Take for example Into The Continuum, a website which shares crazy Mathematica formulas for creating art.

Massively Collaborative – mix this sharing with some imagination and you get some crazy, massive online collaborations, from which emerge ways of interacting never before possible or conceivable. Take for example The Johnny Cash Project or In B Flat.

And The Tools Are Evolving – with new standards, such as HTML 5, we can create ever more interesting things on the web. A great example is Snow Fall, an interactive story from the NY Times. Another great (self-referencing) example of this is Evolution of the Web, which uses a very innovative interface to help explore the progression of web technology, using some of the latest HTML 5 and CSS 3 techniques.

But Think Of The Children! – and yet, with all this positive potential, we too often focus on the negatives of our new found connectivity. How about spending more time looking at the amazing new ways we have to inspire each, such as 25 Days To Make A Difference.

It Has Become Our Lives – and whether you like this connectedness or not, it is inescapable. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web (not to be confused with the Internet) hoped that it would become not only an information share, but also “a realistic mirror of the ways in which we work and play and socialize”. And he was right.

CogDog Responds – one of Alan’s reactions to all of this, is to share what he calls True Stories of Internet Openness: these are video-based personal anecdotes of amazing things that have happened to people who have opened up and shared online. And the message, if it needs to be stated again is this: share, share and share some more, you never know what amazing things might happen. True to this message, Alan even found some time to record some true stories from the audience during his talk.

Digital Storytelling

Launching into the second half, Alan stepped up a gear as he moved into what I guess is his main passion: digital storytelling.

Getting Started – for those new to digital storytelling, Alan recommended reading The New Digital Storytelling by Bryan Alexander, and in doing so made some links back to the age-old oral tradition of storytelling.

Improv -moving deeper into storytelling Alan made a connection to the art of improv as a way to get creativity started, and to help people lower their inhibitions. He showed us one of his own tools, PechaFlickr, which facilitates improv based on random images based on a keyword. We played a couple of rounds of this (well done to Charlotte, Katrina and Alex), and it really energised the room. Alan did mention that the “Pecha” part of the name comes from Pecha Kucha, which is another really interesting line of investigation (for another day). Another one of Alan’s interesting Flickr API creations is 5 Card Flickr, which is another way to build a narrative, but a little more structured than PechaFlickr.

Narrative – really firing on all cylinders by now, we moved onto narrative structure, and how we can tell compelling stories. How do we hook people, so they are interested. The following videos were all viewed and discussed in this light:

The video below I absolutely loved, and it lead me to this excellent visualisation.


Just Like The Pros – in approaching our own digital storytelling, it is useful to consider some of the models and approaches used by the professionals. One such model is the BBC’s 5 Shot Method, another is the Three Act Structure. These can help us to engage the audience, using formulas which work, and which are familiar. A member of the audience (a Media teacher from RCHK, whose name I do not know) mentioned the following fantastic video, which plays on such models, showing just how familiar we are with them:

Teaching & Learning – having convinced us of the importance of narrative, and shown us what it looks like, Alan introduced Dan Meyer’s Three-Act Maths (each of the items in this spreadsheet links to a page with more detail), which is a way of using movie narrative to get students engaged in solving math problems. Another example, MinutePhysics, gave another example using narrative in teaching and learning.

Simplicity – wrapping up a 2-hour mind explosion, Alan closed with a disarmingly simple thought on narrative, storytelling and hooking your audience: “Arouse and fulfill“.  Whether you are teaching school kids, selling a product or just telling a story: first arouse the interest of your audience, and then fulfill it. Easy!



After saying various goodbyes, I was fortunate enough to snag Alan for dinner and drinks, which we had in a small restaurant in the village in which I live. It has taken almost a full 24 hours for most of the buzz to wear away, during which I have tried to record as much as I can. My own personal and professional thanks go to Alan for a fantastic time, sentiments which I am sure will be echoed by other participants.

Credits: cogdog image by Alan Levine, shared under CC BY SA (just a guess on the license, but sure it is right ; ). Thanks to Nick Cotton, Kalpana and LPCUWC for their help in hosting the event.

3 thoughts on “An Evening With CogDog (aka Alan Levine)”

  1. Mr Parker,

    Thanks for hosting the informative event which was highly beneficial not only to the teachers but also to the students. I would also like to thank Mr Levine for sharing his knowledge and for his effort in gleaning data from various sources that helped to elaborate his ideas in an abundantly clear and intriguing way. It was absolutely my pleasure to be a part of the event.

    I have spent the weekend in revisiting the websites shared by Mr Levine and have written some thoughts of applying the ideas to help us learn. Please see my separate email for reflections.

    Charlotte (student of ICHK)

    1. Charlotte, I am sure Alan will be thrilled with your very positive review. Thanks for sharing and I will reply to your email soon. Keep up your excellent attitude to learning!

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