Distanced Learning: SCMS as MOOC (massively open online conference)?


The Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ annual conference is an academic ritual, a rite of passage, a key site of professional advancement, and the social event of the season if you’re a media scholar.  This year, it’s in Chicago, and in media res as I sit here typing this blog post from my desk at Occidental College’s Center for Digital Learning + Research in Los Angeles.  But, I feel like I’m virtually there. Or, perhaps more to the point, I am virtually there.

Visualization of networked knowledge communities, tweets from #SCMS12.

Numerically, at least, I was one of the “top tweeters” at SCMS last year, and it’s been both fascinating and frustrating to function exclusively as a virtual participant this year.  And, given my current position as a Mellon Digital Scholarship postdoc, I can’t help but process this experience through contemporary debates around distanced learning and MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses), and consider what it means to experience and/or conceptualize SCMS as a MOOC (Massively Open Online Conference).  SCMS has had the “massive” part down for years now, and just this year it has begun to venture into creating “open” moments (notably the two workshops livestreamed this year, which I’ll discuss below) to accompany its recent commitment to developing online content (Cinema Journal’s new Aca-Media podcast, the SCMS blog and official twitter feeds that launched over the  past few years, etc.).  But, it’s still a conference, with all of the traditional affordances and limitations of a conference.

I have begun to document my virtual, social media(ted) experience of #SCMS13 on Storify, and I’ll continue to edit that over the weekend as the conference continues and eventually link it out in this post. For now, here are some initial takeaways on how my distanced learning experience with SCMS this year aligns with my ambivalence about MOOCs, and how we might actually make SCMS an incredibly productive MOOC:

  • All SCMS workshops should be livestreamed (on an opt-in basis)

I can imagine some pushback on why panels shouldn’t be streamed, arguments in the vein of the conference being a relatively “safe” and intimate space to test ideas at various stages in the writing process.  But I can’t think of any reason why we shouldn’t be livestreaming SCMS workshops.  If the rousing success of the Teaching Media Facebook group indicates anything, it’s that media studies needs more collective intelligence spaces, especially as pedagogies and paradigms adapt to emergent technologies.

This year, the SCMS IT Committee livestreamed the workshop “Scholarly Social Media: Successes, Failures, and Future.”  The experiment led to the impromptu decision to livestream a workshop on the following day, “Digital Humanities and Film and Media Studies: Staging an Encounter.”  While I have been following myriad panels/workshops on twitter (including one on “Gender, Networking, Social Media, and Collegiality” that I was absolutely gutted to miss, and was counter-programmed against the livestreamed social media workshop), I only experience their limited digital residues, often filtered through disciplinary lenses or with an intertextual frame I don’t have direct access to.

When Jason Mittell tweeted me to ask if I was remotely attending his Digital Humanities workshop this morning, a fortuitous typo occurred, and was quickly corrected:

In some sense, these two instances of livestreaming have been more akin to “lifestreaming” for me.  They’ve animated the conference proceedings for me in a way that Twitter alone cannot.  They’ve offered the closest approximations of my life experiences as an attendee at SCMS.  And, perhaps most vitally, they have the capacity to give the conference’s proceedings a life beyond the conference.  As I write this, it’s unclear if there are any archival plans for these two workshops, but to adapt a point made by Eric Hoyt during this morning’s workshop about the importance of shifting the Digital Humanities debate to consider best practices of consumption, not just production, we need to develop a sustainable way to spread, cite, and archive these resources.

Importantly, I think the optimal way to ensure that we’re advancing conversations from conference to conference, year to year, is to ensure that prior workshops on similar issues are openly accessible.  The best way to avoid rehashing old material, and actually push for substantive change (whether the debate is around social media in the classroom or tenure and promotion concerns for digital projects), is to take ownership over collectively creating a space where these conversations and live and evolve.  SCMS is a space to test our new ideas, and learn from old ones, and it makes sense to develop a corresponding digital space that evokes those same principles that we embrace for 5 days a year in perpetuity.

This isn’t just for people like me, who are occasionally unable to attend the conference, but also for those who are sitting down the hall in another panel.  We have the technological capacity to never again say “Oh, that sounds like such an interesting workshop, I wish I could have been there, but I had to see X present on Y.”  We have the technological capacity to expand conversations about pedagogy and process that we can all benefit from beyond a hotel room that seats 25 people to a global audience of not just scholars, but students as well.  And, I would contend that we have the obligation, as critical media scholars, to do so.

During the Social Media panel, I was able to engage directly and instantaneously with comments from the panel and the audience.  I was able to do what I normally do at conferences, which is livetweet, both to mark key points and archive my response to those points, favorite any relevant links and ideas being shared, and push back on points that I  found problematic:

While I was not physically present to pose questions, there was a platform available to do so and, in many cases, just like when physically attending, my questions were asked before I had an opportunity to (in this case, responding before I had a chance to follow up the above tweet with another about Storify and other datamining/curation tools):

Workshops are (at their best) designed to provoke and promote conversation, and I’m happy to see that these “conversations” are now being conceptualized in more open, accessible terms.  At their best, MOOCs make a compelling case for a learning process that is both widely accessible and participatory, and as the most openly “participatory” programatic element of SCMS, it is simple common sense to me to make them open as well.

  • The virtual SCMS experience has performatively solidified my ambivalence about MOOCs

I don’t really want to get into the great MOOC debate here, but never have I been more conscious of the experiential pros and cons that are being bandied about on myriad blogs on this topic than over the last few days.  Here are just two examples…

1.  It’s been really nice and rewarding  to have a strong, tangible sense of my presence and impact on the conference space, especially because I can’t experience it as a physical space:

There are a couple more good citational examples like this, but I’ll save them for the Storify, lest I come off like an egomaniac.  If anything, I think because people know I’m not there, they’ve been more attentive to mark the moments in which my presence (or structuring absence) is acknowledged.  In MOOCs, participants might be similarly conceived as “disembodied” presences, but the evidence of their haunting/learning are made visible in ways that they can’t always been made tangible in a physical classroom.

2. Conversations can be limited by digital spaces and literacies just as frequently as they can be enabled by them.  I’m lucky that my fields of interest (fan culture, television studies, the digital humanities, etc.) align neatly with the most active SCMS and media studies twitterati.  MOOCs function only if the participants are digitally literate (in the Lessig read/write culture sense), and there is a serious, discplinary participation gap that exists at SCMS when it come to digital presence of the organization, and media studies broadly.  Another frustration with my distanced learning experience this week is that I am unable to organically continue conversations with people. Take the conversation below: I would have loved to snag Liz after the panel, or maybe in the hotel bar later tonight, to tell her more about my project and get her feedback, but that’s not going to happen.  This is not to place a value judgement on in-person vs. virtual interaction, as I’m often an advocate for the power of the latter.  A MOOC will inevitably take on it’s own trajectory that can’t be entirely planned, and while that’s a potential strength it can also derail productive conversations mid-stream.


  • Conferences may function as MOOCs, but they also function as  conventions

Last year, I wrote a somewhat cheeky blog post about the striking similarities between media studies conferences like SCMS and pop culture conventions like SDCC (San Diego Comic Con).  Already, some have been noting the convergence of cons that will be taking place in 2014, when the SCMS conference will be taking place in Seattle immediately after Emerald City Comic Con:

In addition to the similarities I noticed last year, I’m experiencing another con-specific phenomenon this year (and one I just went through with ECCC), namely that reading all of the tweets and blog posts only make me want to be there more.  Because, though I am eternally grateful to those of social media who give me a sense of the key events and ideas presented, the (often intangible) benefits of presence are lost.  Experiential learning can be lost, when you don’t get to see you “con friends” (or, for the less geek-inclined of you, your “camp friends”) and stumble upon and synthesize important ideas over the course of casual conversation.

One of my primary concerns about MOOCs is that they can never fully replicate the social experience of a class, or the social dynamics of a class cohort.  I may be wrong about this, and certainly there are networked learning benefits to moving beyond a meatspace vision of a “classroom,” or I wouldn’t routinely have my students blog and tweet for class credit.  But as my twitter feed dwindles down to a (relative) trickle as the panels for the day come to a close, and friends head off to try the local cuisine and coalesce in watering holes and karaoke bars, I’m incredibly aware of where this experience ends for me as a remote learner, and what I’m missing.  I am posting this at 4:45pm PST, 6:45pm local time for everyone at SCMS.  Many won’t see my tweet announcing that this post is up, because they’ll be in the hotel bar or at dinner, and rightly so.

These thoughts are still evolving, so I’d encourage you to comment (if you’ve stuck with me this far) to help work through or nuance this analogy!  I’m especially interested to hear from others who are experiencing #scms13 this way.


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6 Responses

  1. Great post, with lots of interesting connections to be made. Let me answer a few quick things just for more info:

    – The DH workshop will be archived and available on the SCMS website. The social media workshop seems to have not recorded properly. (Hooray for pilot tests!)

    – The IT committee is proposing that the 2014 workshop proposal form include an option to request that your workshop be livestreamed. Then they will designate one room as the streaming space, allowing the technology & crew to avoid multiple set-ups. Thus probably half of the workshops could be streamed.

    I agree that workshops are the way to go over papers, but I can imagine some that might not want to be streamed – from this year’s program, workshops on the job market, the discipline’s relationship to higher ed administration, & career strategies for underrepresented groups all seem like the type of conversations that would be quite different if they were archived for online access to anyone outside the field. (In other words, would you speak freely for the record in front of your dean, students, colleagues in other departments, etc.?)

    – I like the MOOC parallel, but the big difference is that online extensions of a conference are far from “massive.” At peak, each stream had 25 viewers, and we were all poised to respond to any remote tweets or questions. The experience would be radically different if 1000s of people were viewing live & sending in comments, destroying that sense of “almost being there” that you describe.

    – You can’t do karaoke in a MOOC.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for the clarification/info Jason, and for being a sport about letting me marshal a rare typo from you to make a point! Also, not mentioned in my initial post but a HUGE thank you to the IT Committee for pulling off the two streaming workshops this year.

      I agree 100% that it would be deeply problematic to stream/archive certain workshops (hence the opt-in caveat above, but I’m thrilled to see that IT plans to give applicants the option, and is archiving these). But, to give an example from your Digital Humanities workshop, where questions about tenure and promotion inevitably arise (and they should, especially for anyone who new to the conversation), it would be useful to have that conversation archived and available so that we can move the conversation along. I think your panel actually did a wonderful job of this, particularly when Eric Faden gave advice about working elements into contracts to create equivalencies between video essays and journal articles, for example, but next year I’d love someone who had seen your workshop and (re)negotiated to discuss how this process of applying that advice actually went, so that we might develop strategies and tactics for better explaining DH methodologies.

      To your point on “massiveness,” if we use Nielsen Twitter TV rating logic (which, admittedly, is flawed in a typically Nielsen-y way), anyone who follows any of us on Twitter is “attending” SCMS by proxy this weekend, so there is a certain “massiveness” to the reach of the conference. I agree, though, that “massive” attendance/social media participation might cancel out the sense of live presence. But I do think that if the livestreams had been more extensively publicized leading up to the conference, that number might have been a couple hundred as opposed to 25. I would wager that many grad students might have jumped at the opportunity to see what SCMS was like and absorb the ideas even if they weren’t quite ready to apply or jump in and engage with them. I would have absolutely lurked on a livestream of SCMS as a Master’s student, especially if I were one who was considering whether or not to continue on to get my PhD.

      The MOOC analogy doesn’t work seamlessly, and as always my politics lean towards the O’s, but it would be nice to think that the more “massive” SCMS gets (week-long conference by 2020?), that it could be progressively more open and online as well.

      PS: According to tweets, apparently you can’t do karaoke at SCMS Chicago either, only piano bars. Suckers… 😉

  2. Bethan says:

    This was a really interesting post! I’m experiencing SCMS13 as a virtual participant this year and it’s great to be able to experience what’s going on in the panels and engage with other scholars who are there (I’ve asked a couple of people if I can read their presentations, for example, and am arranging a GChat with some scholars when the conference finishes). It’s also really frustrating to not be there though. Reading the tweets this year has made me determined to go next year so I can definitely relate to the conference-as-convention and the feeling of missing out on the learning and discussions that take place in the corridors in between panels and at the social events.

    I missed out on both of the livestreams as I was at work, which I’m disappointed about because I’d have really liked to see them. I would love there to be some sort of archive for SCMS panels – audio or visual – to facilitate discussion for virtual participants but also to allow people who couldn’t attend all the panels they wanted to to hear the papers. How that would work I don’t know, but I think it would be hugely beneficial.

  3. Amber Bowyer says:

    Oooh, a fusing of Seattle ComicCon and Seattle SCMS? Challenge accepted.

  4. […] post is inspired in large part by Suzanne Scott’s post Distanced Learning: SCMS as MOOC (massively open online conference)?, which (amidst a larger argument) described how the Twitter feed (and livestreaming, but really, […]

  5. […] Suzanne Scott noted in her comparison of SCMS as a “massively open online conference” to MOO-courses, “they can never fully replicate the social experience of a class, or the social […]

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