Monday, August 08, 2005

Is AERA Too Big to be Useful?

Recently, I attended the CCSSO Large-Scale Assessment (LSA) Conference held this June in San Antonio, Texas. On the airplane ride home, I had a moment to compare the experiences of the two conferences I have attended in 2005: the CCSSO LSA conference and the AERA conference held this April in Montreal, Canada.

Take, for example, the access to sessions. The CCSSO LSA conference was held in one hotel, and all the presentation rooms were on one floor. I was able to leisurely stroll from session to session, and rooms were easy to find. I was able to attend nearly all the sessions that attracted my interest. And, I didn’t once have to leave the air-conditioned comfort of the hotel.

The AERA conference was spread across a handful of hotels, located blocks away from one another, plus having multiple conference rooms on different floors. I had to run from hotel to hotel, and struggle to learn multiple layouts of floors and rooms. I missed many of the sessions I wanted to attend because they were too far from the last session I attended, or because they were scheduled at the same time as another session. On top of that, I walked blocks and blocks in the cold and the rain.

As another example, consider the interaction with colleagues. The CCSSO LSA conference had a number of opportunities to talk with colleagues. Because the conference was held in one hotel, I constantly crossed paths with colleagues between sessions. Furthermore, I could easily arrange to meet friends and colleagues in the mornings or evenings because nearly all of us were staying in the conference hotel. In addition, at least one reception was held every night, providing a relaxing atmosphere in which to meet and talk.

The AERA conference was attended by more of my colleagues but I crossed paths with fewer of them. I rarely crossed paths with colleagues and often, when I did, it was in the middle of a crosswalk as I ran from session to session. Friends and colleagues were scattered across the city at different hotels sometimes miles apart. It was difficult to find people and more difficult to arrange meetings.

Not surprisingly, I enjoyed the CCSSO LSA conference more than I did the AERA conference. I saw more of who and what I wanted to see. I did so in a relaxed and comfortable environment. I don’t intend this as a rap against either Montreal or the AERA staff. Montreal is a great city, and the AERA staff are always pleasant and hard working. But the AERA conference has grown so large that it has out grown being a meeting for professional growth and exchange. An alternative should be considered that is more intimate, perhaps more like the CCSSO LSA conference in size and format.

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