Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Scheduling System Update

Bryan Tolson, FAUW Director, Civil & Environmental Engineering

UW continues to move closer to implementing a proposed new scheduling system based on InfoSilem software. FAUW has been working hard to understand the impacts of the proposed system and has taken the position that the new software should not be implemented until it has been clearly demonstrated that it produces better results for all stakeholders than what we currently have. The Provost has agreed to this request. We want to share what we understand about the proposed scheduling system and urge you to join the discussion on this important issue.

Why you should care

As we all know, the inherent flexibility in course scheduling is one of the principal benefits of being a faculty member.  This benefit functions to improve our work-life balance and allows us to do our jobs to the best of our ability.  For some of us, this means that we get to teach when we believe we teach best.  For others, it means we get to define blocks of time for research tasks and regular out of town research meetings and these blocks of time help us work as efficiently as possible.  For some, like me, this benefit functions to ensure we can have a life where we can pick up the kids from daycare at a reasonable time or take them to hockey practice.  

Moving to the proposed system could reduce our scheduling flexibility.  Such a change is totally reasonable if it is demonstrably required, e.g., students are not graduating on time under the current scheduling system.  It is not so clear cut given the primary reason for the new system, as FAUW understands, is to provide virtually all students with conflict free schedules instead of forcing them to settle for their #2 or #3 choices of electives.  To me, this lack of clarity defines the scheduling problem as a balancing act between undergraduate student scheduling preferences and faculty preferences (benefits).

Current status of proposed scheduling system

FAUW has been told that the results of Simulation 3, which is the proposed system’s attempt at scheduling the 2013 Fall term for comparison with the actual Fall schedule, will be made available to individual faculty members within a few weeks.  FAUW is very concerned the results of Simulation 3 will be the last piece of evidence examined to ultimately deem the proposed system better and hence go live with the software for scheduling the summer 2014 term. Despite Simulation 3 being the most realistic test of the scheduling software to date there remain serious problems and ambiguities that are currently unresolved.  Let me share a few of these with you (note that this is not an exhaustive list):
  • Simulation 3 results will not be an accurate representation of reality because
    • An unknown and potentially significant number of faculty who are teaching in the 2013 Fall term did not specify their teaching constraints or preferences (you should have been asked for yours by your departmental scheduling representative and the assumption by the Registrar’s Office is that you have been asked).
    • The settings for faculty preferences in Simulation 3 will virtually ensure all faculty preferences are met because all preferences are ranked equally.  While in a real schedule build, these preferences would be assigned the lowest priority.
  • FAUW does not know the form of the objective function the scheduling software is actually trying to optimize when it builds a schedule.
  • Despite the reality of balancing student preferences with faculty preferences, there is no plan currently to use the software in a way to understand the balance or tradeoff between these competing objectives
  • There are seemingly no plans to conduct a simulation (i.e., test the software) for the Winter or Summer terms
  • We are concerned about the impact of this new system on the academic life of our students because we feel they also have not been consulted adequately
Another reason Simulation 3 is not accurate is that faculty members were not told what the software could do with individual schedules if preferences to the contrary were not specified.  For example, the software settings used in Simulation 3 could create a schedule that has you teaching back to back classes or teaching 5 hrs in one day…unless you specified an instructor preference to avoid these.  After I examined all the things the software could do based on the Provost’s Advisory Committee on Timetabling (PACT) documentation for Instructor Accommodation requests, I developed my list of Accommodation requests (my constraints and preferences) that I plan to submit for the next Simulation (or real schedule build).  I list them below so that other members can have some insight into the kind of accommodation requests they want to consider.

Bryan Tolson’s instructor accommodation requests for Winter & Spring terms

  • 4:30 – 5:30 pm, M-F:  child care logistical constraint.  Level 1[a]
  • No teaching at after 5:30 pm, M-F:  child care logistical constraint.  Level 1[a]
  • Regular University Level Administrative meetings (no teaching):
    • Mondays 3:30 – 5:30.  Level 1
    • Thursdays 2:30 – 4:30. Level 1
  • No back to back lectures.  Level 3
  • No lectures longer than 1.5 hrs.  Level 3
  • Prefer teaching 1 lecture per day.  Level 3[b]
  • No lectures on Fridays after 2:30 (Winter).  Level 3[c]
  • No lectures on Fridays after 11:30 (Spring).  Level 3[c][d]
  • No lectures 3:30 – 4:30 (Spring).  Level 3[d]
a There are two levels of child care accommodations with Level 1 having higher priority than Level 2.
By default the software assumes you prefer 2 days of non-teaching and thus squeezes two or more classes per day for one or more days.
c Many others will likely ask for this so if I don’t, the chances I teach Friday afternoons skyrocket.
d Teaching in the summer is not great because of an increase in family activities. Hence, if I‘m teaching I want my days to end early enough to allow for these activities.  Plus there should be more flexibility to build faculty-friendly schedules during the spring term.

How much you have to justify each of your preferences depends on your department, I suppose.  After you submit accommodation requests, I am not sure how much chairs will filter these requests.  I am also not sure if there is a feedback loop to tell you if an accommodation has been rejected by the chair.  So there appear to be some important departmental level discussions that you may want to ensure take place. If you are unclear about the definition of Level 1, 2 and 3 accommodations, this is something your chair/department scheduling representative or the PACT committee should be telling you.  Go to the same sources for the other potentially undesirable things the scheduling software will enable by default to happen to your schedule. FAUW will eventually step in to clarify these questions to our members if that becomes necessary but we are hopeful the communication lines to faculty are soon wide open.

Next steps for FAUW and faculty members

We will continue to try and understand the proposed system and work with the Registrar’s Office to iron out problems that come up.  We want to understand if the new system is better for faculty.  We want the best balanced schedule for everyone on campus.  Assuming the proposed scheduling system becomes a reality, we want a smooth transition and our insistence on continued simulations (testing) will help in that regard.  Reaching these goals requires feedback from our members.  If you are as concerned as we are about the proposed scheduling system and want to be more engaged, there are three things you can consider doing:
  1. Contact your departmental scheduling representative and make sure you understand how the process in your department works for specifying instructor accommodations.
  2. If you are teaching this term, please provide direct feedback to your scheduling representative or chair on your satisfaction with the scheduling results of Simulation 3 (which will supposedly be released within a few weeks).  Please respond to the survey you will eventually be asked to fill out regarding Simulation 3.  Be aware that the official feedback mechanism to the administration on faculty satisfaction will go through the chair/department scheduling representative and not FAUW.
  3. Consider contacting one of your Faculty’s PACT representatives with feedback they can bring to their next meeting.  PACT members are listed on the STEP Project website.

FAUW’s ideal case scenario

Each individual faculty member should be empowered to designate a certain number of hours per week of non-teaching time, regardless of the rationale.  So far, this solution has been deemed infeasible for reasons that are unclear to us, but we will continue to explore ways in which it can be achieved.  Importantly, any such solution must have minimal impacts on our students’ timetabling.  Please contribute to the discussion by commenting below.

2 comments :

  1. Why would the results of Simulation 3 not be made available to the entire community at UW? This would add an element of transparency to the process and allow the widest possible assessment by all those who are to be affected, including students.

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  2. Good question - I think that would be a good thing but I am not sure if campus wide distribution is planned. FAUW can likely ask for that. The system should be fully tested before it goes live and that would seem to have to include things like the distribution of Simulation 3 schedules to students.

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