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Education: Timetabling for the New Normal

May 5, 2020

EventMAP’s Vernon Chapman discusses some of the long-term effects of COVID-19 on university and college scheduling.

Whether it’s in business practices, social interactions or cultural norms, commentators have been quick to suggest that the Covid-19 lockdown will have a lasting impact on the modern world. The extent of this is still the subject of considerable debate, but one thing is true: in the short to medium term it will continue to have a considerable impact on all of our lives. Not least among these impacts will be the need to continue with some form of social distancing and enhanced hygiene routines until a vaccine or some other treatment is discovered.

How, then, can universities and colleges – in fact any educational establishment – continue to function effectively while protecting students and staff from the ravages of the Coronavirus?

Right before the lockdown I was walking through a campus at one of central London’s busiest universities and it was a familiar scene of the ‘old’ normal – one of people jostling en masse in corridors between lectures. So while it’s obvious that when universities return they’ll be ensuring that a two metres distance is observed in lecture theatres, classroom and laboratories, the ‘new’ normal in education will be much more complex than that. It will also be about timing classroom changes so that students and staff don’t all pour into corridors at the same time, that lunch breaks are staggered and that students arrive and leave campus at different times. So, at the same time as trying to ensure the same broad, rich curriculum needed to impart the skills students need to equip them for life, it’ll be a major organisational exercise for all concerned.

So… what are insitutions considering?

Well, the two metre rule is obviously a given… Already timetablers are also trying to ascertain what the revised capacities for their lecture theatres are. Some are considering capacity reductions in excess of 80%. Additionally, they are contemplating how many students can safely fit into a general classroom and so-forth. But I have also mentioned the need to answer the crucial question of how to manage traffic flows in corridors and communal areas between classes, and somehow accommodate student numbers in such a constrained environment.

Many are contemplating such measures as:

  1. Separating out classes into smaller groups – thereby increasing the number of groups.
  2. Rotating timetable activity by using alternate weeks.
  3. Staggering event timings such as start, finish, breaks and lunch.
  4. Restricting student movements – for example, changes of venues during the day
  5. Implementing earlier start and later end times.
  6. Staggering days of teaching by day/morning and afternoon split by programmes.

Such considerations will put tremendous pressure on timetablers, with modifications for distancing and constrained space introducing whole new levels of scheduling complexity.

Additionally, timetablers will still have to contend with academic staff regularly making demands for space in excess of their actual needs – such as the lecturer who always insists on using a particular lecture theatre when a general classroom may be sufficient to accommodate their group’s size. In this new environment such excess will be more difficult to accommodate and the changes required may even provide an opportunity to force the breaking old habits where room preferences are concerned.

Plato is often attibuted (not entirely correctly) with the proverb ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. So, we may ask, is the management of space the only consideration that can be employed to accommodate our new requirements around social distancing? If not, how can we employ our creativity to further adapt to this new normal?

Well, other modalities can be considered to assist in delivery of programmes. For example:

  1. Can additional space be turned to teaching such as re-purposing sufficiently sized office accommodation near teaching areas?
  2. What about modifying certain recreation areas to accommodate teaching?
  3. Businesses, government and even individuals have been accustomed to using conferencing software through the lockdown, so can meeting rooms and academic offices be set up to allow teaching staff to give lectures remotely over the longer term?
  4. Should more teaching be delivered online via conferencing tools, podcasts, video and so forth? On this point there is an interesting blog post by Andrea Buttle that suggests that a purely campus-based social distancing approach is impractical.

So a combined approach to how programs are delivered, including a re-examination of the modality of delivery, may help timetablers square the circle.

Having said all of this, another important requirement is having the right tools to be able to manage such a process. Not all timetabling tools are made equal and a great deal of flexibility in the chosen solution is needed to ensure a suitably complex schedule can be easily created. It also needs to be able to do so in short order, as the time left to undertake such a substantial overhaul of the timetable is reduced.

The heuristics incorporated within the chosen solution need to be able to accommodate a highly flexible pattern of delivery, incorporating different, and sometimes novel, modes of execution. Automation of the timetable process will also have benefits in seeking to optimise the use of staff and space given the new constraints. In this way, timetablers will be effectively modelling the new delivery schedule prior to publishing, taking into account the need to stagger activities and accommodate more groups of reduced size.

For many years now, JISC has promoted the value of centralised, computerised timetabling. An interesting analysis of utilisation data, obtained by EventMAP as a result of its space utilisation services within university environments, has shown that spaces that are centrally timetabled tend to be better utilised than those departmentally timetabled. So the need to make more efficient use of space in the current timetabling environment may therefore lend itself to more centralised approach to the use of space in the near term.

In summation, it’s pretty clear that universities face a massive planning task ahead of the new academic year. EventMAP is involved in scenario planning and space modelling exercises with universities currently wrestling with how to modify their campuses and teaching spaces to make them safer in the current environment. This involves taking timetable data, including information on any new constraints such as different pedagogical modalities (distance learning, video conferencing, staggered classes, podcasts etc.), and constraints on space, such as severely reduced lecture theatre and classroom capacities and creating various scenario plans – allowing universities to select and implement optimal space and curriculum plans without first committing to reductions in desk space and traffic flow systems through the campus. This is something that’s largely unachievable by using a purely campus-based solution to meet teaching objectives. EventMAP’s tools also allow the various scenario outcomes to be benchmarked against their previous years’ timetables, allowing users to measure the quality of the solution in terms of pedagogical objectives. This way organisations are empowered to quickly identify and implement a scientifically tested, workable solution.

Vernon Chapman



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