Rubik’s cube or Battenburg? The university timetable

At its best, the relationship between staff with teaching responsibilities and those who manage the schedule can transform the student experience. But scheduling is often perceived as the endpoint of a curriculum delivery process, and staff who create and manage the university timetable can often attract criticism from those who don’t understand how the whole system fits together.

But they do a difficult and fascinating job. Schedulers have to be multi-skilled professionals who think laterally and mathematically: data analysts, negotiators, change managers, complaint handlers, crucial links between central and faculty operations, and contributors to institutional sustainability.

In 2009, the Academic Registrars’ Council (ARC) and the AUA created a professional development group for schedulers. This has become a thriving network spanning academic administration, estates, space planning and learning and teaching staff. The network also encompasses the small but growing number of software companies. There are international connections, and links to sector organisations like Jisc. The field supports an international conference (PATAT) dedicated to the theory and practice of automated timetabling, and the work of SUMS Consulting is prominent in our discussions.

Where is timetabling?

The location of timetabling activity varies – the trend is towards centrally located units with faculty links, sometimes within estates, connected to space management functions – and sometimes within academic administration and close to curriculum delivery.

The ARC timetabling network was formed in recognition of the role of timetabling in the vital interdependency of functions underlying institutions:

Image: Oakleigh Consulting

Timetabling ‘can feel like it’s at the end of every other process’ as an anonymous respondent told Jisc and Oakleigh Consulting in 2009. Over the years, this perception has begun to shift – with recognition that timetabling is not just a ‘back end’ but links into many other processes – curriculum design, student enrolment, HR, workload planning, lecture capture and estates. Within institutions, there is a need to connect students and curriculum, attendance monitoring and timetabling systems. There are opportunities to capitalise on the linkage of data systems to support student engagement through learning and predictive analytics – an interest at Southampton Solent.

Data Interoperability

Data quality is central to many processes, and institutions need to expose, clean and use their data to support evidence-based rather than anecdotally and politically driven decisions. Our task as schedulers is to help regulate the flow of data through the interconnected processes that underlie curriculum delivery. Some institutions are using their systems to validate each other, with benefits for data quality: for example, students only have access to their personalised timetables if they are enrolled. 

Progress is not always linear, but we have worked on ‘maturity and capability models’ and a more proactive approach. There is a competitive advantage on offer to institutions from these models. Meanwhile, market and resource pressures have brought timetabling to the fore, with more emphasis on space planning and scope for student number growth and commercial development.

Weaker institutions still treat timetabling as a scapegoat and struggle to move away from that debilitating academic/admin divide. Others involve their schedulers in vital processes such as curriculum design from the earliest stage, and in wider institutional transformation. Manchester Metropolitan, for example, has run projects based on a model of the factors that influence student experience, realising that course organisation is crucial to student satisfaction along with consistent, accessible, personalised information and the integration of mobile technologies into every aspect of university life. Notable improvements have been achieved in some institutional NSS scores on course organisation, learning resources, and overall satisfaction – alongside the transformation of the curriculum, estate, and space utilisation.

What do people want from their timetable?

The ARC/AUA group have developed good practice on how to ‘measure’ the effectiveness of the timetable, trying to avoid the undesirable effects, including the distraction of measuring the operational over the strategically significant.   We have looked into what makes a good/student friendly timetable. Of course, the answers will vary widely across a diverse student body, but students across our institutions have given us their ‘top ten’ issues:

  • A clash-free timetable
  • Early release/publication of timetables
  • Clear and accurate information (e.g. room codes)
  • A full year timetable
  • Minimum changes
  • Effective communication of changes to timetables after publication
  • Gaps in the day – varying views between students:
  • No single hour events timetabled on a single day
  • Day(s) free
  • Consecutive hours

Manchester Metropolitan used surveys to set measures of a student-friendly timetabling and constraints and invested in modelling technology to support operational and strategic development. Leeds Beckett has linked timetabling policy, learning and teaching requirements, student experience and attendance with measurable benefits to student satisfaction. The University of Suffolk has carried out a programme of institutional change with an evidence-based view of constraints enabling the balancing of student and staff preferences with the practical need to use the estate effectively.

Coventry University’s insight is that what counts is not timetabling but the quality of teaching: students want stimulating teaching, and staff who know their names. Timetabling emerges as a hygiene factor. Timetabling has a major impact. ARC is interested in the link between effective scheduling and space use, learning and teaching and the use of technology. We met recently at the University of Kent to look at the use of learning spaces and the effect of the learning environment on cognitive health. There are many examples of institutions using rich timetabling data to plan the balance of teaching and social space and to optimise the flow of people through buildings.

How does student choice of study options help or hinder learning and teaching and the student experience? A recurring theme is that of curriculum complexity and its hampering impact on institutional sustainability and curriculum deliverability. Curriculum complexity occurs on several levels, including (using the SUMS model):

  1. Programme level – joint honours, major/minors
  2. Module level – option choice
  3. Elective level – “free” choice of any module
  4. Teaching style – Rubik cube (teaching changes every week) vs Battenburg (regular teaching pattern through the year)

Some institutions have discovered that they have actually validated programmes of study that are partly undeliverable, with extended option choices, pathways and shared study tying up staff resource, time and space and generating multiple clashes.

The University of Leeds is using a curriculum viability tool to help assess whether the contact hours fit the working week and Loughborough has a tool for checking module deliverability. There are examples of institutions streamlining the curriculum, making problems less likely. Again, the challenge of data quality is apparent, with institutions finding that their curriculum catalogues are not granular enough to describe the sub-modular level. 

What’s next?

What are schedulers’ emerging interests? There is growing demand for curriculum management systems to complement student records and timetabling and we are involved with the introduction of a new generation of systems. The growth of flexible, flipped, online provision alongside regular provision is another theme.

We have to address the Teaching Excellence Framework: one issue is the relationship between formal teacher/student contact hours and independent/flexible learning and how to express that in personalised timetables. We need to work with teaching staff – not least in the creative arts – who find the published timetable too fixed to meet their demand for flexibility. Concurrently, we have to tackle timetabling volatility to publish accurate timetables at an optimum point.

The overall message is that there is a premium for institutions where teaching and support staff use their shared expertise to plan curriculum delivery from the point of origin onwards; with benefits for institutional sustainability and strategic focus.

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