A year and a half ago, George Johnson had a bright idea. Nothing startling there, really – Mr. Johnson, who calls himself a "serial entrepreneur," has carved a career out of innovation. But until recently, his primary focus was steering business strategy for digital networks and Web start-ups in the Twin Cities area.
"I worked with all this technology on a regular basis," Johnson remembers. "I knew how it allowed people across the world a ton of ways to express themselves. And I knew how much of that expression is meaningless or negative – how much it generates fear – and how it might be impacting kids, who are really adept at using computers."
So Johnson – a father, coach, and former teacher – made the logical leap. "What if there was a way to channel all that creativity into something hopeful?" he asks. "What if there was a way for a child to create a positive affirmation of what they want in the world?"
His answer is a website called TEL.A.VISION (www.telavision.tv), which was launched this fall using software designed by One True Media, a company based in Redwood City, Calif. In form, TEL.A.VISION is best described as a marriage between YouTube.com, the video sharing site, and online editing programs such as jumpcut.com. Using a combination of "stock content" – JPEGs arranged in categories from "global contribution" to "travel and adventure" – and personal photos, music, or voice data, users can create short video presentations.
TEL.A.VISION also hosts an easily navigable online database, where filmmakers can post their best work or watch films created by students across the world. But for Johnson, the most important aspect of the site has less to do with technology and more to do with imagination. "We want kids to get onto the computer and create the script for the story of their life," Johnson says. "Add music, and add voice, and add photos, and have kids outline a goal-oriented program of his or her desired future. Make it about hope and about positivity."
That positivity manifests itself in different ways, Johnson says. And browsing through the hundreds of online TEL.A.VISION projects, it's easy to get lost in a kaleidoscopic rush of images, colors, sound effects, and music. A Minnesota resident named Austin Korlin-Downs, for instance, recently created a video set to a thumping heavy metal score, intercut with uploaded photos and swirling graphics. Every few seconds, a simple pronouncement appears on the screen: "I am kind," or "I am a video gamer." Another clip, titled "A World Free of Racism" proclaims, "We will laugh together." And a third, created by a German student, unwinds atop "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," sung by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.
"I can see this as an incredible tool for students," says Ellen Stewart, the principal of North Community High School in Minneapolis. "I gave it a try and showed the video to my daughter, and the whole time, my mind was racing with the possibilities. Students have become so technologically savvy."
TEL.A.VISION was officially unveiled here, at a press conference in a classroom at North Community High, on the outskirts of Minneapolis. But the site first went through pilot tests with 120 fifth-graders at Lake Elmo Elementary School, in Lake Elmo, Minn., and some 300 seventh-graders at a school in nearby Stillwater, Minn. Johnson credits this "beta" period with strengthening his own resolve.
"People were so hungry for positivity in the classroom," Johnson says. "And the kids were very, very quick learners. What took me hours, took them minutes."
Johnson has since added several subsections to the site, including a "For Students" section, with video tutorials, and a downloadable curriculum for students. For now, the basic services can all be accessed for no charge. For $3.95 a month, users can upgrade to a premium version, with more content, functions, and the ability to create DVDs of each presentation.
Sarah Matschi, who participated in the pilot program in Lake Elmo, said the creation process was fairly easy, and that most of her fellow students had figured out the fundamentals in about an hour. "I think they were into it," she says, "because it was different than what we'd normal do in the classroom. It was more like something we'd do on our own, for fun."