Why do timetabling solutions fail to deliver? | EventMAP

Timetabling software 101: It’s now everything from simple spreadsheets to highly automated, artificial intelligence-enhanced master planners.

16-08-2018

Timetabling software 101: It’s now everything from simple spreadsheets to highly automated, artificial intelligence-enhanced master planners.

EventMAP’s MD Dr. Barry McCollum runs through the current state of play with timetabling software.

It’s now 2018 and there can’t be many university or training institutions on Earth that haven’t installed some form of computerised timetabling system. Leaving aside the laborious horrors of timetabling using a spreadsheet, most will have bought into the notion that computerised timetabling will efficiently produce more efficient timetables – in the sense of both being faster and enabling a more efficient use of available space.

Besides being more efficient, there’s also an expectation of ‘quality’: this is generally understood to mean the ability to deliver an end result that works well for as many of an institution’s staff and students or trainees as possible.

At its most basic, a timetabling software package needs to provide the basis for an operational timetable: to ensure training or educational events are delivered within the appropriate spaces in the correct sequence, and ensure students or trainees don’t end up having to be in two different places at once. How efficiently this happens – and whether or not elements of ‘quality’ are introduced – then depends on the timetabling software in question and how it is implemented. And with the more basic types of timetabling software available, limited sophistication means that the process of timetabling can often become equated with the process of room booking. This, of course, means that all the benefits of timetabling automation are largely lost and that any notions of ‘quality’ are entirely dictated by human-based decision making – which will be of highly variable quality. 

At the other end of the software spectrum, the most advanced timetabling tools available today employ considerable automation and use sophisticated scheduling algorithms to produce timetables that are optimised in terms of efficiency and quality. So, once the standard parameters of rooms, staff, students and courses are introduced to the system, highly efficient, high quality timetables can be produced for very large schools with a high degree of automation.

For anyone who’s new to the world of timetabling, here’s a rundown of the main software methods used to produce timetables for teaching institutions:

Spreadsheets

Spreadsheets allow the basic organisation of data but are labour-intensive to keep updated and make it almost impossible to check for any timetabling clashes that have been introduced. Outside of the smallest teaching establishments, an inefficient, disjointed process can be expected.

Room Booking Software

Room booking software uses a database running in the background to keep data organised in such a way that it can be more easily maintained and updated. Activities can be allocated to rooms and clash checking (in terms of space) can take place. Visual representations of bookings are introduced, increasingly with web-based front ends, so timetablers and users can see what has been booked, and where.

Timetabling Software

Timetabling software introduces further sophistication and varying levels of functionality to more fully manage the timetabling process. Clash checking is available for both spaces and people. Curriculum information can be modelled so, for example, activities can be linked to modules, then linked to pathways and in turn linked to courses. Some timetabling software now attempts to introduce a measure of automation to help steer users away from simply room booking – this often works, depending on the sophistication of the underlying algorithms, but can frequently generates only partial or incomplete timetables which still require manual interventions from timetablers to create the final result.

Resource Planning Software

The most sophisticated solution for timetabling currently available today is resource planning software. This, as the name suggests, takes a wider scope and creates a link between the requirements of timetablers and other high-level planning processes within a large university, to introduce an automated solution within an overall planning and management process.

Besides allowing operational solutions to be created, the most sophisticated software tools allow institutions to ask ‘what if’ questions and create planning scenarios by modelling various high-level and low-level constraints and parameters. So besides producing highly effective timetables based on a massively complex set of inputs, resource planning software also introduces the ability to carefully balance resource usage, introduce measures of staff flexibility and create an overall ecosystem that enhances the experience of the student body.  

So, as you can see, when we’re talking about ‘timetabling software’, the state of play in 2018 is a gamut of functionality and sophistication that’s wider than ever. So when considering your timetabling needs, careful deliberation about organisational objectives needs to be undertaken to ensure any selected solution stands the test of time.

Dr. Barry McCollum
MANAGING DIRECTOR