I see “Suggested Days and Times” as one of the timetabling process that can stand in the way of creating a timetable that maximises the student experieince and teaching space utilisation. Not only this, but the process typically wastes a huge amount of department and central administration time all in the effort to meet these “Suggested Days and Times”, despite this process not enabling the institution to create the timetable that it really wants.
In the past requesting “Suggested days and times” as part of the timetable data collection process was probably the best or perhaps only feasible way of creating a timetable each year. Each department would spend a lot of time creating their own timetable and then request days/times for all of their teaching activities from the central timetabling team. This solved the problem of the central timetabling team needing to manually collect and process all the building blocks behind the requested days and times, resulting in the central timetabling process being more of a “room booking” process.
Although this may have been the most effective or only feasible way of doing this in the past, over the last 10-20 years with student numbers, choice and expectations have all significantly increased and the use of technical timetabling software now being the norm. Therefore is using these “Suggested Days and Times” still the most effective method of creating a timetable?
Below, I explore what I believe to be the 5 main reasons for why using “suggested days and times” as part of the timetable data collection stage is now ineffective and how relying on a centralised approach to creating the timetable is a much more effective method of creating a student experience and space utilisation focussed timetable.
1) Space Utilisation
The rise in student numbers over the last 15 years and large increase this year, in addition to the student experience focus on increasing contact time has resulted in many cases, large increases in the number of timetabled activities being requested. With an estimated space cost of £90 m2 and income generation of £1500-£2500 per m2 reported recently y AUDE’s HE Estates Statistics Report 2014, the underutilisation of space can cost institutions funds that could be spent elsewhere plus also wastes the high income generation potential, University space has.
The use of “Suggested Days and Times” typically causes a poor utilisation of space, as unless staff know exactly how many and what size classes others have requested at the same day/time, they will not be choosing a day/time where the most suitable room is available (in terms of space utilisation). This therefore either results in rooms being underutilised, with classes in rooms with much larger capacities because that was all that was available at that time, or the central timetabling team have to spend time and effort investigating and negotiating a change of day/time with each department effected. The latter, is typically multiplied 100’s if not 1000’s of times if an institution is really pushing for maximising its space utilisation resulting in this timetabling process becoming unmanageable. In this case, activities are moved to times that the central team believe will work given the constraints available in the timetable software, this a) may not be the case, if all constraints are not within the timetable software and b) still likely to cause a worse utilisation as by moving activities at this stage, the timetabling team are having to search for what rooms are left rather than the room that delivers the best utilisation.
2) Student Module Choice
Institutions have begun to increase student module choice over recent years due to the positive impact this can have on the student experience and learning outcomes. Enabling students to select from a wider selection of modules inside and outside of their home department, adds more and more possible module combinations that students can have, further complicating the timetable.
“Suggested Days and Times” relies on all of those requesting the day/time for each activity to be aware of all the other potential clashes for each student. If students can choose modules from other departments, this adds an extra layer of complication with staff from each department having to negotiate and communicate between each other in order to create a theoretical timetable that works for their students – all this before it is possible to know whether there is even a room at this time. This can create several issues, a) if there isn’t a room, the central timetable team will have to move the activity to another time, b) if the central timetable team spot a clash in the timetable they will then have to negotiate a move and c) if the central timetable dosn’t have all clash checks built in, then a clash may not be picked up until very late in the timetabling process. Each of these options, causes the timetable to become less efficient as it is relying on human interaction to negotiate and move the activities to a time that is not only clash free, but where this is also a room available and at a time that is beneficial to the student experience.
3) Timetabling Software
The majority of institutions now have timetabling software and add-ons such as Scientia’s Syylabus +/Enterprise or Celcat, that have helped to drastically speed up and improve the timetable. This software can hold all the information required to check for clashes between students, staff and rooms as long as this information is fed into it. Not only this, but the software can also use student, staff and space preferences enabling each institution to create an automated approach to timetabling that is structured towards its timetabling objectives as well as delivering a clash free timetable.
Timetabling software enables an institution to automate a significant proportion of the timetable creation, shifting the academic departments focus from creating their own timetable to providing the central timetabling team/timetabling software with the timetable building blocks i.e. student module combinations, staff information, room equipment required, student experience preferences etc (more on this in a future article). By asking for all the building blocks behind the suggested days and times, the central timetabling team and timetabling software have everything needed to create a timetable that delivers a working timetable that can address both the student experience and space utilisation in the most effective way.
By inputting all the information required at the start, the drastically decreases the amount of last minute changes and issues that can arise during and after the timetable creation process as the software is aware of the constraints and therefore can stop clashes as well continually keep in mind student experience/space utilisation objectives. This all helps to reduce the amount of time and pressure associated with putting together a timetable particularly for the departments and can also drastically improve an institutions ability to improve its timetable objectives such as improving the student experience and space utilisation.
4) Student Number Predictions and Clearing
Student number predictions and more specifically clearing, typically causes everyone in the timetabling world some or a lot of pain due to the impact consequential changes in class sizes can have upon the timetable. I mention clearing specifically, due to the time it takes place i.e. just before the start of teaching and how unpredictable student numbers for teaching activities can be as a result. Any sudden increase in the number of students on a module, can result in activities having to be moved to larger rooms or additional timetabled activities having to be timetabled or even worse, both. This is at a point in the timetabling process where the final timetable is likely to have already been completed and published, or at least very nearly completed.
Finding a larger room at the same day/time requested at this point of the timetabling process in many cases won’t be possible without moving other activities as the teaching space is now as utilised as its ever going to be for the upcoming academic year – i.e. most hours are timetabled. If this is the case, either this or another activity will need to be moved and as discussed earlier this can cause a lot of issues if the central timetabling team/software is unaware of all the building blocks behind the suggested days/times for all the activities.
One request may result in multiple moves having to be made in order to find a suitably sized room and the timetabling team may be actioning several of these types of requests all at the same time, whilst having to check with all staff involved to ensure the requested moves are causing clashes. This is at a time, where the timetabling staff need to resolve all issues as quickly as possible to restrict the impact any move has on the students. This not only makes the timetable process longer it leaves a lot of room for innocent mistakes to be made, adding a lot of pressure to the timetabling team who want to deliver the best timetable they can. If the timetable software contains all the timetable building blocks, the central timetabling staff can find the very best option and either make the move or suggest this to the department, this not only helps to ensure the move is the best option but also significantly reduces the amount of administration time negotiating and investigating options.
5) The Student Experience
The student experience is one of the most significant reasons for not using the “Suggested Days and Times”. Timetabling software can not only account for all the possible staff, student and room clashes it can also factor in student experience preferences such as length of teaching day, number of hours between lectures or number of timetabled days. Even if staff requesting activities are trying to factor all this in themselves, it is unlikely given the demands mentioned above that all will be successful in doing this. Not only this, but if (or when) moves have to made due reasons mentioned previously, unless the central team and/or software is aware of these student preferences, they are unlikely to be accounted for.
Removing “Suggested Days and Times”, importing all the required timetable building blocks and relying on the central timetabling team and software to create the timetable, will ensure that the timetable requires minimum changes once released, therefore minimising the potential of negative impacts on the student experience (changing lecture days/times late on is rarely see as a positive!). Plus, by ensuring the software has all the building blocks the timetable can focussed towards maximising the institutions objectives such as the student experience and/or space utilisation, given the constraints and resources available.
I believe these 5 points highlight why using “Suggested Days and Times” to create the timetable, is no longer the most effective method. The added complexities and demands a timetable has and the new technology available, means that institutions can now hold all the building blocks in one place and use the technology to create a timetable that is focussed on delivering the institutions objectives, as best as possible. I must point out though, that without the building blocks – i.e. all constraints and any preferences, the timetable will still be littered with issues where unsuitable days/times have been timetabled – simply because the timetabling software and/or central timetabling team were unaware the day/time caused an issue.
With technology now providing the opportunity to manage all the required data in one place it is perfectly feasible to now have all the information at your fingertips, as long as the timetable building block data collection processes are put in place, as it is for many institutions already. Getting these data collection processes in place to collect the building blocks and kicking out the “Suggested Days and Times”, can create a much more efficient and successful timetable – surely the time of “Suggested Days and Times” is over?
What do you think? Are you using “Suggested Days and Times”? Have you anything to add? I hope you enjoyed this article and found it useful, please don’t hesitate to leave your thoughts and questions in the comments field at the bottom of the page I will always respond, plus it is always helpful for others to see your thoughts or questions and continue the discussions.
All the best