What is a timetable?
An academic timetable is a way co-ordinating four elements:
- Academics or teachers
Currently the timetable is something that is often done to teachers, academics and students, over which they have minimal input or control.
In the world of Education 4.0 where we want to transform teaching, provide a personalised adapter learning experience and re-imagine assessment, all within a fluid digital and physical campus, the timetable as it stands now is something that constrains and blocks this potential vision.
As a student at school, college and university I had no control or influence over my timetable. When I first started teaching, I was given my timetable, I wasn’t asked to input into the process. It told me what I was going to teach, who I was going to teach, where I was going to teach and when I was going to teach..
As a programme manager in another job I had a bit more input into the whole process. We didn’t have a system or mechanism for creating the timetable, just large sheets of graph paper. It felt like some kind of three dimensional chess combing the four elements outlined above. What I do remember about the process, the first static aspect was the rooms, then the part time cohorts, after that everything else was just fitted into what was left.
Back then following student feedback, it was apparent that some of our timetables for our full time students weren’t exactly student friendly. They were expected to be in every day, and there were large gaps in the day between lessons. The end result was a fair bit of absence and a fall in retention.. So one year we decided to build the timetable around the student, we condensed their week into three (longish) days. Then we fitted in the rooms and teachers into the process. The end result was an improvement in attendance and retention.
These days we have timetable systems, some are based around Excel, others databases and some proprietary timetabling systems. There main focus is to avoid clashes, and enable people to discover when to if rooms are free. However in my experience they are still quite static systems that are still done to students and academics.
You have a cohort of students, you have a number of weeks to deliver your subject and you are assigned a room or space for that year. If you want to do something different than you normally do, you sometimes have to make do, and undertake it in the same space, or you have to struggle to find a space, do things out of hours or just give up. You want to deliver online, then you still find you have to retain using the space, because otherwise you might lose it!
We need to build an intelligent timetable, one that adapts and changes to the changing requirements of different subjects, teachers, spaces, cohorts and individual students. This is easier said than done.
So what is the current landscape like? Most timetable systems operate in a silo, a fixed point in time. It is hard to make dynamic changes to the timetable, as it is rather inflexible. Once it is set up, because the fact it inflexible, only very small changes can be made, but making a large number of changes wouldn’t be possible.
So could we build a smart timetable? A smart timetable would be able to flex and change as the demands placed on it allow rapid shifts and changes. I need a larger room, the timetable would be able to accommodate it, whether it be for one week or the rest of the year. A smart timetable would inform decisions about space.
An intelligent timetable would be able to make changes in advance, based on information gathered from across the college. It could predict what spaces would be available and what changes would be needed, based on data and make changes as required. So as a cohort increases, it would automatically assign a bigger room. As a curriculum changes, they change the cohort to the most appropriate space.
There are some challenges on this, especially if the campus is diverse and large. Students may not know where specific spaces are, going to a different space each week. A smart timetable would need to know how long it can take to move between different rooms to accommodate room changes. Students would need some kind of way finding process to find the rooms. So in order to build a smart or intelligent timetable you need to have already created a digital map of your campus. You need to have already identified route mapping, timings and accessible routes.Similarly students may need to receive notifications about which rooms they will be in, how will these be sent?
If you are changing the curriculum, how would the intelligent timetable system know what the space needs are for different kinds of activities? So you then need to be able to define the curriculum in a way so that the timetable can interpret that and make appropriate decisions about spaces.
What spaces are appropriate for what activities? How do we know this? Does the space have a huge impact on learning? How do we describe this from a digital perspective?
When you start down the road, moving from a static timetable to a smart timetable, and then onto an intelligent timetable, you start to realise that the timetable is actually a small part of the work involved. There is a whole lot of data needed to enable the timetable to make smart or intelligent decisions.
Of course with a whole lot of data, you can then start to think about timetabling analytics. Can we start to use our spaces better? Can we improve the timetable for students? Can we improve the timetable for staff? Can we utilise resources for efficiently? What interventions do we need to make to enable this?
We need more detailed advice and guidance on why we need an intelligent timetable and how it could support the future that is Education 4.0.
We need to design the data infrastructure required to feed into any future intelligent timetable product.
Could we even build a prototype of a smart timetable, or even an intelligent timetable.
How do we overcome the tyranny of the timetable?