To effectively utilise teaching space and other teaching assets, it is necessary to plan as precisely as possible what demand will be, in advance.
As student attendance varies and is unequal and uncertain, this is not easy.
There is a significant risk to institutional reputation, and potential for both a negative student and staff experience, through a lack of a sophisticated approach to the planning and management of timetabling. Overcrowded and/or sparsely populated learning spaces, disjointed student timetables and lack of student subject choice are symptoms of where planning and modelling have either been absent or in disarray.
To minimise this risk, a sophisticated flexible schedule is required, whereby student, staff and other teaching assets and activities are respectively treated as separate jobs and operations. The endeavour is to envisage an entire institution as describable and schedulable in one integrated approach. A scheduling model can be defined and used to reschedule activity timings after any deviations, such as, delays, postponements, or cancellations. It also needs to include such activities as setup times and travel times between activities. Other issues such as timing and occupancy restrictions, buffering for robustness, fixed activities and sequences also need considering. To solve these issues, more is needed than just a mathematical formula. A complex, well tested, and designed set of constructive algorithms and heuristics are required. So how can educationalists teaching in a complex environment ensure that they can meet the challenges posed by the changes impacting organisations, and warrant that students attain the skills required in a modern dynamic post-Covid world?
Much work has been undertaken over the years to research these, and similar problems, in related sectors. Related sectors are those with similar complex scheduling environments such as healthcare and aviation. Any process that relies on assets and resources being optimally used, whilst balancing multiple variables will face similar issues, they are manifested in different ways.
So, having determined the complexity of the issue, what do we mean by an integrated scheduling approach, and how does it help?
An integrated scheduling approach broadens the scope to encompass much more than just the day-to-day operation of a teaching timetable. If the teaching timetable delivered to staff and students has as its basis, a non-integrated methodology, then inefficiency and compromises are already built into the operation. It will also make modifying the timetable to cope with deviations much more complex, ensuring that the scheduling solution is even more sub-optimal. So, what is proposed?
An integrated approach brings together a broader array of considerations. Even before a building is remodelled, or a new build constructed, or a change in modalities is introduced, the proposed change needs to be modelled based on the best estimation of demand; a corresponding plan is derived. As new data is fed into the model, the model is updated, and the plan adjusted. This approach informs the design of the proposed new space, as well as informing decisions about the provision and feasibility of new modalities of delivery before money is spent, or a project completed. Once the proposed change has been modelled, and the plan developed, the project can move on to a real-world phase of delivery. The model is developed to assess the impact of changing scenarios, informing the project as it progresses. Once it is determined for example how many labs of what type are required in comparison to the number of general teaching rooms, it is possible to ask what-if questions, such as what if the number of required general teaching spaces become fewer, how do we ensure the space can be appropriately reconfigured, and what is the most likely desired configuration given what we know?
Once we have gone through this iterative process and have identified the solution, we now have a good sense of what teaching delivery will be, how the timetable will appear, and what optimal use of the facility should look like. We can now incorporate this plan into the timetable. This process can now be managed on a daily basis, always with an eye on the data. As soon as we start to get into sub-optimal teaching scenarios, we can revisit and update our original model. We can then ask, how can we modify elements to ensure best use of our resources, and the highest level of delivery? Identify the best outcome, incorporate a revised plan, feed it into the timetable, and begin to manage delivery on this new basis.
Of course, we live in the real world, and it is not always practical to rip apart buildings every time we need to deliver a new programme, or modify teaching delivery. Teaching spaces may be in buildings listed for conservation, or budgets may be too constrained. Does this make an integrated approach impractical? If anything, currently, the need for a more holistic approach to timetabling and planning is even more critical. The pressures of new styles of delivery, the demands of an ever more commercial approach to post-secondary education, with students being viewed more as customers than in former times, and pressures on funding, mean that better efficiency, and high-quality delivery are more pressing. When working in spaces that were not specifically designed to accommodate required activities, careful modelling, planning and management of teaching is critical. Otherwise, student and staff experience is undermined, and ultimately building use will deteriorate further as staff and students vote with their feet, or find ways to circumvent the overall plan.
An integrated scheduling environment, is one that takes a strategic approach to teaching delivery. Such an approach is needed, ensuring educational institutions are equipped for the demands of the 21st Century. The use of tools that were adequate at best in the last century, are not going to deliver for the needs of organisations today. They will be as effective as the canal system of the 18th and 19th centuries are to the needs of modern international travel.
At EventMAP we have recently been involved in a range of projects, from the pre-construction of teaching facilities to the examination and modification of delivery of teaching to cope with changes during, and post-pandemic. The recent health crisis has had a major disruptive effect on the education sector, and those reverberations will continue in the years to come. Disruption can lead to positive outcomes, providing a springboard into a brave new world of opportunity and advancement. All that is needed is a willingness to embrace the change.
If you would like to know more about our relevant recent projects, and how we may be able to assist your organisation to embrace change, visit our website to view some of our case studies. Alternatively, just contact us, and we will gladly discuss any of the topics raised here.