Timetabling for this year’s student intake

October 12, 2021

In a previous blog we discussed some of the challenges facing institutions in meeting expectations for this year’s 2021 student intake.

We commented on the construct that post-pandemic, the move to newer teaching and learning modalities were a natural progression of the crisis.  However, as noted, many institutions have been considering and implementing such moves for several years, as means of improving student teaching and learning outcomes. There have been a number of studies that highlight the difficulties with large lectures as a medium for teaching and learning, and consequently there has been considerable comment on the issue.

In an endeavour to improve teaching and learning outcomes many institutions have been moved to consider new teaching modalities, hence the rise in the use of terms such as blended learning and hybrid learning. These terms are often used interchangeably, although this is not necessarily wrong, there is a subtle difference. JISC defines blended learning as a combination of face-to-face learning and dynamic digital activities with content that facilitates anytime/anyplace learning. Hybrid learning is less common in the UK but more correctly defines a form of learning that allows the student greater degree of choice between face-to-face and online learning activities. (QAA Building a Taxonomy for Digital Learning).

Because hybrid learning is less practiced, we will now focus more on blended approaches.

As universities move to more flexible approaches to teaching and learning, they need to give consideration to how they manage their curriculum delivery. Traditionally, it would be wrong to say creating a timetable was easy, but it was at least quantifiable. Timetabling was the process of bringing together a group of students into a physical space at a specified time to engage with a qualified subject expert for the purpose of learning a specific subject. Once we move to more digital platforms some constraints around learning are removed, for example you no longer need a room location at a fixed time for teaching to take place, save for a quiet place with good internet connections for lecturer and student. This may sound liberating, but other considerations such as sequencing of teaching material to ensure the best outcome may be more challenging.

From a learning perspective there are some advantages to a blended approach:

  • Students can move at their own pace. Those who are familiar with the subject matter can work through online material faster, while those who are less confident can pause and review complex content.
  • Material is available at all times. Whatever time a student works best at, they can log on and access the classes, lectures, and other materials when they’re going to learn best.
  • It introduces new technologies. Blended learning gives scope for learners to experience new software and hardware. Discovering how to use such technology can prepare them for future endeavours.
  • Technology can facilitate different pedagogical approaches. Using blended learning can encourage active learning, the use of real-world scenarios, social learning, and the application of knowledge to new situations.
  • Create a tailored approach. By creating online resources, educators can then focus on tailoring their face-to-face time to the needs of their students.
  • Focus on Collaborative on-campus learning. Through moving content to digital learning platforms, the student and lecturer can then use face-to-face learning on-campus to undertake active and collaborative learning activities that improve learning engagement and outcomes.

From a planning perspective these very advantages do provide logistical impacts, creating potential difficulties for curriculum planning.  Some institutions have responded to this challenge by attempting to locate traditional on-campus learning activities on digital platforms, including highly experiential learning activities.  There are, by way of example, software solutions designed to emulate some laboratory-based teaching activities. There are also some discussions as to whether all forms of laboratory-based teaching are needed, or whether they could, perhaps, be replaced by theoretical teaching. Others see a strong advantage in using lab sessions as a teaching resource, arguing that laboratory skills are essential to the teaching experience. The challenge of learning in a pandemic world has required innovative solutions to the acquisition of practical skills.  This has included the transition of some lab content to online, particularly for first year practicals, or the use of block delivery for labs. The reality is that some laboratory teaching is best retained, as a mix of virtual and actual lab teaching is preferred over either extreme.

The expectation is for a continuation of a mixed learning environment trend where large lecture  events are replaced with online based teaching and learning, whilst synchronising activities to accommodate physical group-based teaching or other face-to-face learning. This adds additional complications to an already complex situation requiring forethought and planning.

The adoption of more active and collaborative activities as an alternative to large lectures, will require the need for more flat floor learning spaces with reduced capacities compared to traditional lecture theatres. Several large capacity flat floor collaborative learning spaces have been constructed by Universities in Australia, where groups of up to 280 or more, come together to engage in curated collaborative and active learning activities. These examples are typically new build projects rather than retrofitting existing lecture theatres or classrooms.  An active and collaborative learning space requires two to three times the amount of space per student than a traditional lecture theatre.

This puts additional pressure on institutions in how they accommodate the need for more face-to-face teaching. Without large lecture capacities to fall back on, institutions need to fully utilise smaller capacity teaching spaces whose capacity will be further reduced through adoption of active and collaborative learning.

Consideration must also be given to how we learn, because people assimilate information in different ways. A one size fits all approach to teaching and learning has long been understood to be sub-optimal, but the alternatives are costly. The significant expansion of Higher Education over the past two decades has required considerable economies of scale to deliver learning outcomes. The learning-at-scale approach has relied on the use of large capacity spaces such as lecture theatres, to meet demand, at a cost to the perceived quality of the student experience.  However, the modern economy needs graduates who are collaborators, innovators, and team players rather than skilled at taking lecture notes. The major challenge facing learning institutions is how to incorporate the growth of blended learning not only into their physical spaces, curriculum development, and staff professional development, but also providing flexible and responsive solutions, whilst strengthening quality for the learner.

Thought needs to be given to those that may struggle due to certain special needs, students that may have less access to resources that could make technology-based learning more difficult or even impossible, and so-forth. Some direct contact between learner and educator is needed to ensure the student is receiving the right level of support and that they are progressing, and to monitor their progress.

So, in a blended learning environment the requirement to plan, model and manage a teaching timetable is not removed, rather what we have done is throw additional complications into the mix.

What does this mean for teaching organisations?It means they need to ensure they have the tools to deliver not only a gradual shift towards a more technologically driven learning environment, but also provide an effective platform to manage a fully implemented blended or hybrid teaching approach.

Most timetabling applications have been developed in a world of traditional face-to-face teaching methods. The emergence of a move to evolved modes of delivery also requires a move to solutions that are aligned with the times and can respond to  the demands of modern teaching methods.

Do such tools exist?

Well, yes, they do…

At EventMAP we regularly use such tools to plan, model and manage a wide variety of flexible teaching and learning environments. Our evolution over the past 20 years, from a spin out collaboration between Queens University, Belfast, and Nottingham University has uniquely placed us for the very challenges now faced by Higher Education. With our university background, we are heavily involved in the research into the practice and theory of automated scheduling. As we expanded the practical application of the science of scheduling, we became involved in a wide variety of environments, from workplace, to industrial and commercial processes, from teaching to planning and architectural design and build. This breadth of experience has enabled us to stretch the capabilities of scheduling algorithms, to such a point that when Covid struck we were well placed to successfully respond to the challenges inherent in alternative methods of learning. We have been heavily involved in a number of interesting projects where we not only planned and modelled demand within Higher Education traditional teaching environments, but we also planned the management of innovative teaching methodologies as required by Covid restrictions.

The result of this experience is that we now deliver solutions that accommodate the needs of a 21st Century teaching and learning environment, rather than trying to adapt old timetabling tools to the task. Not only do we use these tools in a variety of environments in managing this flexibility, but with knowledge transfer educators are using them to undertake the task themselves.

If you would like to see some of the work we have been involved in, you can check out some of our case studies. We also would like to hear your thoughts, so why not contact us we would love to engage with you in the discussion, as to how you see the future of modern tertiary education.

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