Computer Assisted Scheduling

Frequently Asked Questions


  1. What is it?
  2. Do we really need it?
  3. How does it work?
  4. How doesn't it work?
  5. Does that mean the computer tells me when I am teaching?
  6. What if I'm not happy in the end?
  7. What is the scheduling overview committee?
  8. What changes for an instructor?
  9. How will it be used at UFV?
  10. Is it possible to create a timetable in parallel with the one we usually create?
  11. Can we find a way to use the present method better?
  12. Isn't it really centralized timetabling?
  13. What's going on?
  14. How do I find out more?

1. What is it?

The power of a computer is used to keep track of information and follow rules to create a timetable. This means that nothing is forgotten whenever a decision is made to schedule a class.


2. Do we really need it?

 

We have run out of space on the Abbotsford campus even though there are times when classrooms are not being used. We have no idea how well the timetable works for our students, although they do comment on surveys that getting classes is difficult. We know that a large number of students travel between campuses to get classes. Part of this is being addressed by scheduling more complete programs on these campuses, but part of it may be a direct result of the way the classes have been scheduled.

If this assistance will give us a timetable that opens more choices for students and allows them to complete their programs more quickly can we afford not to have it?


3. How does it work?

Scheduling means assigning times to classes, but along with classes come instructors, rooms and the students taking the programs that require these courses. The times for the classes are also times for instructors, times for students and times for classrooms. There are several things that must go into the computer.

Times: Since the computer will help in choosing times the system of times should be known. If you think of a weekly timetable grid like a wall, then regular, similar size blocks can be used to build a solid wall with no holes. This kind of wall is ideal for classrooms as it means every available space is used. If the wall is built of irregular shaped blocks, such as field stones, then the wall may have large spaces between the stones. Of course, a good craftsman can build a fine stone wall by carefully choosing which blocks to use and where to use them. For scheduling the end result may be fully used rooms but a poor timetable for instructors and students. Choosing and following a system of time blocks can help scheduling work better.

If the time blocks have no structure, like those field stones for the wall, a significant amount of time will be taken looking for a solution. If the time blocks are highly structured then perfectly full classrooms may be likely, but the other schedules may not be satisfactory.

Instructors: Instructors, unlike classrooms, do not have every time used in the week with classes. They have other things to do. The computer must be able to recognize the effecdt things have on an instructor’s time. Also, instructors may have special requirements for the rooms they teach in. This may affect the room schedules.

Students: The student schedule is even more complicated. Each student has her own schedule. Like instructors they may have relatively little time in classes. They also have other things to do. However, they have courses they must take in order to meet the program requirements. Not all students need the same courses, but many students will need the same course. In some programs the students are all full time and take the same courses; the schedule for them is relatively easy to build. In most programs there are choices and not all students are moving at the same pace. The schedule for each student may have lots of free times in it, but when the schedules for many students are all put together there will be a lot of overlap.

Each of these, students, instructors and rooms, has its own constraints that must be identified. The simplest is to choose how time blocks are to be organized but the choice can have a significant effect on how easily a timetable is created.

The constraints governing the instructor schedules are not as simple, but can be reasonably stated. It should be possible to agree on a set of rules that govern the creation of the instructor schedules – length of day, travel time, non-teaching time for other activities etc.

Determining the constraints on the student schedules is more difficult. Certainly in prescribed programs it is clear which courses must be scheduled without conflict. The real work comes when trying to identify the courses that must not conflict in the other programs – the ones that have many course choices or include courses from different disciplines. It is also possible to consider students in the same way as instructors – length of day, travel time, although some things such as non-teaching time for other activities are difficult to define as they can vary from person to person.

Once we know what is to be scheduled for whom and what rules govern the scheduling, then we need to recognize that there is not a perfect solution. There may not be a solution that meets all of the constraints. A hierarchy of rules may be used to guide the creation of the timetable. Generally, if we are going to require students to take particular courses to meet program requirements those courses should not conflict. If we are going to have people teaching those courses and do other stuff, they should be able to do it. If we are going to have a stock of classrooms that are expensive to obtain and can not be created quickly, we should use them fully.

Scheduling is done by choosing a time for a course from a set of time blocks and applying the rules to the instructor, student and room schedules that result. If there is a difficulty, i.e. rules that can’t be followed, then back up and try another solution. Usually, this means seeing if another time can be chosen for one of the courses involved.

The building of the timetable will require human intervention. It will be an iterative process that can allow different versions to be tried. The computer can be a great help in looking for other solutions as it is able to consider a large number of alternatives in a fairly short time. It will ensure that nothing is forgotten, remove the drudgery of keeping track of the details and allow the examination of alternatives much more quickly that can be done by hand.


4. How doesn’t it work?

There are computer programs that can assign instructors to courses based on certain criteria, but generally computer assisted scheduling starts with a set of courses and the assigned instructors. It does not choose which course an instructor will teach. Also, it does not decide which courses to offer in a given semester. Although there are versions of computer assisted timetabling that can start with student demand, that is, the courses they want, this seems to work best for large institutions where there will be many sections of many of the courses.


5. Does that mean the computer tells me when I am teaching?

Yes and no, the computer can take a great many constraints into account including instructor preferences and then, using a hierarchy of rules, assign the times. So, yes it tells you where and when to teach, but no, it is influenced by your own constraints. If everything works out then your own preferences are followed. However, if meeting a preference means ignoring a higher priority rule, such as two required courses must not be scheduled at the same time, then the lower priority rule overruled. This can be done as a matter of course, although the intent at UFV is to involve the department head in finding a solution.

It is hoped that the computer software can be used to assist department heads in scheduling by suggesting times that are confirmed by the head.


6. What if I’m not happy in the end?

The department head has final say on the timetable, and so, changes can be considered as long as the rules with higher priority are met. If you are still not satisfied then you may appeal the time assigned to a scheduling overview committee which will adjudicate based on UFV scheduling principles and common sense.


7. What is the scheduling overview committee?

The idea of a scheduling overview committee is new to UFV. It was taken from something similar at Queen’s University. The idea is to have department heads, who are members of the Timetable Advisory Committee, provide assistance to scheduling whenever concerns arise. This come from people who are familiar with scheduling and the problems that department heads encounter. It will provide a human antidote to the computer assistance.


8. What changes for an instructor?

The biggest change for an instructor is that the freedom to choose when he or she will teach is replaced by the need to specify when he or she is not available to teach. This will give scheduling more flexibility but still meet the needs of the instructors.


9. How will it be used at UFV?

The rules for timetabling are being developed. We don’t know how the computer can be used, but here is how I expect it to go (with appropriate deference to current practice and the roles of the deans).

The department head:

  • decides which courses to offer in a semester and how many sections
  • decides which instructors will teach which sections
  • collects from the instructors
    • the kind of time blocks that are to be used for each class
    • any special requirements with respect to the teaching space
    • instructor requirements or preferences for scheduling in the form of when not to schedule, as opposed to when to schedule
    • other commitments on their time, such as UFV committees or research activities
    • preferences for unscheduled time
  • participates in producing the lists of the courses that the students’ programs require
  • forwards the information to the scheduling office . It may be possible that the department head can keep the data in a department management tool that can be useful in tracking instructor assignments and workload as well as supply the information needed for the timetable
  • assists the scheduling office by deciding on the best course of action whenever departmental and instructor requirements can not be met
  • approves the final timetable

The scheduling office:

  • sets up the
    • overall institutional rules, such as, travel time, length of instructional day
    • classroom inventory
    • the list of courses required by the students’ programs in consultation with program heads
  • accepts the information from the department and fits it into the software files
  • runs the software to produce a timetable that meets as many of the rules as possible
  • consults with department heads on the times to be used for their courses
  • consults with department heads whenever department and instructor requirements can not be met
  • consults, along with the department head, with the scheduling overview committee or the deans whenever institutional requirements can not be met
  • publishes the final timetable upon receipt of department head approval.

10. Is it possible to create a timetable in parallel with the one we usually create?

Certainly it is possible to have a ‘dry run’. In order to be a good run the department heads must collect all the information needed by the computer assistant and the scheduling office must handle this information to produce a test timetable. The problem with this is that this work must be done at the same time as the ‘real’ timetable is being produced. It would be difficult to offload this work from both the department heads and the scheduling office as their particular knowledge is required in both versions.

Then if we had two versions of a timetable how would we know which was better? Certainly they would be different, rooms may be better used in one version, but the real proof is whether they meet students’ needs. You can’t tell by looking, although, we would know that the computer assisted version would meet the defined needs of students, instructors and rooms or identify when they couldn’t be met. The ‘regular’ version would meet the needs of instructors and rooms.

While it is possible to have a parallel timetable, it is not practical. We will need to work together to ensure that the one we get is the best it can be.


11. Can we find a way to use the present method better?

The present method does have schedules created for instructors based on intimate knowledge of their needs. It also can include special considerations with respect to students’ needs. It falls down when courses are required by students from more than one program or when ensuring good room use. The scheduling office can finish timetabling and have classes without rooms and space in rooms, but the two don’t match. At that point it is very difficult to go back to see which class can be moved. It is also possible in the heat of the moment to forget some constraints.

One suggestion has been to have all department heads meet to work out interactions amongst their courses or similarly to post the timetable to a central location so that everyone can see what is going on. This may let everyone feel more comfortable when making changes to their timetables; it only works if there is communication of intentions to make a change before it is made. It doesn’t help if two people change a class to the same time and that creates a conflict.


12. Isn’t it really centralized timetabling?

Yes and no! Yes, the assignment of the times to classes can be done centrally. No, the assignment of time is done according to rules, preferences and priorities set locally, Yes, the clerical tasks in building timetables according to well defined rules are done centrally. No, decisions about the timetable assignments, especially when rules must be broken, are made locally.


13. What’s going on?

The Timetable Advisory Committee is working on a set of timetabling principles and rules that should govern the way timetabling is done. These will cover any method of timetabling – the way we are doing it now and in the future. A second draft was considered at the meeting on 18 March. After that there will be consultation with department heads, deans and other sundry bodies. It is hoped that a final version will be available for consideration by UCC in May.

At the same time a small group will begin the selection process for a suitable system. The timetabling principles will guide the selection. Both processes may move at about the same pace.

The earliest that a timetable can reasonably be prepared using computer assistance is for Fall 2009. This means that we must be ready to go by December, 2008.


14. How do I find out more?

If you have specific questions or want to discuss some aspects of this project you may contact Bill Cooke. While he tries to hide, email to bill.cooke@ufv.ca can usually find him.

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