In recent blogs we have had much to say about strategic planning in universities and colleges. It is true that these are currently facing many challenges as they adapt to constraints imposed by the Covid19 pandemic. However, there is a whole sector of training providers, in a variety of specialisms. These too struggle with, often very complex, planning and scheduling scenarios, some of which can be found in more traditional tertiary education establishments, and some that are more unusual.
Organisations that are developing intricate new products and services need to train staff and clients in their use and implementation. To illustrate, defence contractors developing new aircraft or sea going vessels, may develop highly complex, multi-facetted assets. We can think of ships and aircraft that push the boundaries of science. Technicians will need training to be able to build, and use, these technologies. Others will need training to maintain and repair them, and so-forth. Similarly, telecom providers are investing billions in new technologies (such as 5G). They need to train technicians and staff to install and maintain this equipment. This may draw our attention to some of the issues around the current controversy surrounding the supply of 5G equipment. Providers who may have developed training programs to support staff in the implementation and maintenance of one company’s technology, will now have to modify training programs to accommodate equipment from other suppliers. As we consider these situations, we begin to realise the level of complexity that exists around generating training programs covering so many different specialisms.
Once the areas of course material to be covered are understood, and planners have identified how much time each module will take to deliver, and which pedagogical mode of delivery is to be adopted for each component of the program, delivery can be modelled, planned and then managed. When delivering training in a volatile environment, unseen issues may throw program delivery into difficulties. To illustrate, where technology may impose unseen constraints, that are only manifested once course delivery is underway, or external factors that might require very short notice adaptations to program delivery, like a change of supplier. Planners will need to be able to respond quickly, sometimes in real-time to these issues to ensure, where possible, that trainees are not adversely impacted by them. So, a planning solution would need to allow users to go into the system to modify rules and re-run scenarios. On this basis they could find an optimal solution, allowing changes to the program to be seamlessly integrated into the curriculum delivery.
As we can see here, we have discussed the management of course delivery without once discussing the issue of space, what teaching space (classroom, lab, on-line, and so-forth) is required. Of course, this is a consideration. But we can see that when planning a program of study, space is just one consideration, and not necessarily the first.
How can this level of complexity be managed? Some may consider that it is a simple mathematical problem, and it is simple to develop software solutions to deal with it. However, even when organisations invest in scheduling tools to manage their training programs, staff are often forced to revert to all sorts of cheats and short cuts to bypass the solution, so that they can manage the complexity effectively. It can take an inordinate amount of staff time, and the chosen scheduling tool is seldom well maintained. Why is this?
A key reason is that over time programs have become more convoluted to reflect the higher levels of intricacy involved in the subject matter being delivered. Additionally, there are also more flexible methods of delivery available to trainers. Yet the tools designed to manage course schedules have remained fundamentally unchanged since the 1990s.
The research community through forums such as Practice and Theory of Automated Timetabling (PATAT) and the Multi-Disciplinary International Scheduling Theory and Applications (MISTA) conferences, has been pondering the solutions around similar scheduling issues for some years now. The result is that the scientific community has enabled the development of heuristics, that in clever combinations, have advanced the ability to manage very complex scheduling problems such as these here described.
As a result of this work, EventMAP, a spin out from Nottingham University, and Queens University Belfast, has developed a range of scheduling applications that incorporate these developments, enabling complicated scheduling problems to be modelled, planned and managed in a wide variety of industries. Combining such tools with the advent of the cloud, has made it easier than ever, to deploy these types of tools to end users. It means that organisations both large and small can deploy solutions quickly to large numbers of staff. For this reason, we have close working relationships with organisations in Healthcare, Aerospace, Defence, Media, Policing, and Education.
If you have a particularly complicated curriculum planning, resource management or scheduling problem, we would be pleased to discuss it with you. The more varied the scheduling scenarios we encounter, the more we can add to the sum of knowledge in managing these situations.
The key lesson to take away however, is that regardless of the complexity of the scheduling problem you face, there are tools that can help you manage them.