The SACSCOC (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges) 2012 Annual Meeting, held Dec. 8-11 at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, connected thousands of higher-education professionals and approximately 100 exhibitors from across the southern United States. Under the theme “Higher Education in 2020: Emerging Trends in Pedagogy, Technology, and Student Learning,” the program offered three general sessions, multiple technology workshops — many focusing on the latest in online learning — and in-depth roundtable discussions. SACSCOC managed to meet all of its objectives, according to Carol Hollins, SACSCOC's director of institutional support, “along with our goal of trying to share with [attendees] case studies that are occurring at other institutions that they might consider replicating.”
Challenges SACSCOC was concerned about having enough space for its ever-expanding conference and being able to manage the logistical challenges that come with large attendance numbers. “We had a little over 4,000 attendees [down from 4,200 in 2011],” Hollins said, “and not everyone could always be accommodated in a timely fashion. One of the greatest challenges was having the hotel's food outlets accommodate the large number of attendees who wanted to purchase lunch.”
Despite some hiccups, SACSCOC managed the overflow well. “We had continuous shuttles running, taking people to overflow hotels.” Next year the organization plans to spread out the conference, holding sessions in designated hotels so delegates won't always have to commute back and forth. SACSCOC also plans to stagger lunches and request additional lines of service during peak hours to avoid any problems with food service.
More attendees also translate into a bigger budget, so to save money without cutting corners, SACSCOC utilized technology whenever possible, including a mobile app that had been successful at its 2011 Annual Meeting. “The app did not go as well as expected,” Hollins said. “About 20 percent of our attendees used the app, but there were certain features they couldn't access. We're evaluating that, and we'll either have discussions with the provider or we'll choose another company. We just need greater functionality.”
Preparing attendees for the future of higher education is always top of mind for SACSCOC. To make sure delegates got the most out of the program, the association decided to restructure its roundtable discussions. At conferences past, roundtables consisted of 20 to 25 dialogues going on in one big room, but at the 2012 meeting, SACSCOC wanted to try something different. The discussions were broken down into smaller groups and held in separate rooms, making for more intimate and productive conversations where everyone had a voice.
“This particular format allowed us to give more devoted attention to a topic,” Hollins said. “Each conversation took place in a separate room, and in most cases, the attendance would be 15 people, and they had the option of arranging the chairs so they're talking in more of an informal discussion.”
While the new format was a success, SACSCOC is still working out the kinks. “The downturn this time was that some of the talks became quite large,” Hollins said. “Some got so large, to the point of having 20 to 25 people in a room, that it took on the feel of a formal session. So that's the challenge for us going forward.” Hollins is determined to perfect the new format for next year. “We need to look at the topics and make sure that they are narrow enough to draw the appropriate size audience,” Hollins said. “Overall, I think it was much improved.”