2020: a space (and timetabling) odyssey

A return to a socially distanced campus presents unique challenges to timetablers and estates teams. Claire Taylor and Andrea Buttle set out current thinking.

Timetabling sits at the heart of university life. It depends on good quality data. It seeks certainty but allows for change.

The pandemic has thrown everything up in the air for September, leaving timetablers chasing shadows – but presents an opportunity to change the way universities think about physical space.

More draft than usual

This time of year is usually busy for timetabling teams: they’re in a race to publish draft timetables before academics leave for the summer. These will be produced by rolling over last year’s timetable and making changes based on new courses, estate development and returning student option choice.

Until now, data on returning students from progression forecasts has been fairly accurate. Volatility was seen in new students (clearing and late postgraduate confirmation) and, to an extent, an influx of new courses as universities looked for growth.

Enter Covid-19. Whilst some are concerned about student numbers, timetablers need to know when (will teaching start), how (will it be delivered) and where. They will worry about how many later in the summer.

A question of mode

At some institutions, timetablers have been left with little central direction and so have continued to timetable as per pre-COVID. This has been legitimate whilst the country was in lockdown, but now the time has come for universities’ senior management teams to set direction.

Bolton (“Open in September”), Manchester (“lecture theatre environment does not easily support spatial separation”) and Cambridge (“2020/21 lectures online”) have led what we expect to be a string of announcements over the next few weeks. These focus on undergraduate provision; we think some difficult decisions need to be made concerning taught postgraduates over the next month or so. Universities should consider mothballing courses or move to January starts where student volumes don’t justify investment in high quality blended provision for September 2020 – a pragmatic and necessary move, even if it is culturally unpalatable to colleagues.

The how is about modes of delivery. Academics will be thinking about how they will teach:

  • Do teaching events need to be collocated (where people are gathered in one place as opposed to dispersed or dislocated)?
  • Do teaching events need to be synchronous (where people complete an action at the same time, as opposed to asynchronous)?
  • Do teaching events need to be interactive (where there is two-way, or more, interaction between teacher or materials and participants as opposed to broadcast)?

Here’s an “easy” win: we think that universities should replace collocated, synchronous, broadcast lectures with digital, on-demand content, which is dispersed, asynchronous and broadcast, now. Actually, it’s not easy. There is significant additional work for academics and support staff but it’s a key part of reducing risk and may even increase engagement (especially if timetabled for 9am on a Monday!) Universities need to be investing in learning technologists, IT support, instructional design and digital training for academics, and reducing administrative overheads on academics where they can.

Capacity building

The where is about capacities: timetablers want to know how social distancing will impact on room occupancy. Our modelling shows a reduction in occupancy to 20-25 per cent in fixed seating spaces is required to allow social distancing both whilst seated and on entry and exit. And that’s only looking at that one space in isolation, without understanding the movement from one class to another and the other facilities and services required to support space use. Anyone for a coffee? Can I just pop to the toilet?

Estates teams need to set guidance on maximum occupancy so that timetablers can model demand and forecast how much small group activity can be accommodated on campus under social distancing guidelines.

We know that timetabling relies on good quality data. This pandemic will amplify that dependence, highlighting the need for management information for decision makers and good communication up and down the organisation (closed feedback loops).

There are opportunities for timetablers in this: timetables will be cleaner than ever before; timetablers will be engaged in data modelling, information sharing and decision making; timetabling could become more agile, more responsive to university needs. Similarly, for space managers, this may accelerate the move to a more agile, resilient estate and significantly transform future development projects.

A difficult decision

Senior leadership teams need to provide clarity: when students will return to campus, which cohorts will be prioritised and which activity types will be taught face to face, but they in turn are dependent on government advice and the future nature of the pandemic.

Students want to know the when and the how in order to make their decisions. The Tab’s recent poll suggests 63 per cent of students would prefer a January face to face start rather than a September online start and 92 per cent of respondents don’t want to pay the same for online provision, whatever the Office for Students may allow in this exceptional year.

So, the clock is ticking for decision makers. Protecting health points towards fully online provision in September; financial security requires some form of face-to-face.

What timetablers need is clarity. What universities need is flexibility, between online and in-person, a bi-modal, blended approach at institutional and individual level so that universities can rapidly respond as the health situation unfolds and individual students can choose how they wish to engage.

We’ve been looking at different event types, “thinking out loud” about how they could be taught, about how “relaxed” social distancing would need to be. Solutions like clustering, block teaching and individually scheduled are considered. You can read SUMS’ Rapid Response Briefing Paper on the impact of Covid-19 on Timetabling and Space Management here.

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