Monday, March 9, 2015

Scheduling Systems: Same Old Tune

by: David Porreca, FAUW President

This blog post represents a synthesis of my own experience with scheduling systems over my 22 years of involvement with the University of Waterloo, along with the sharp observations of a more senior colleague. (h/t to BC)

Over my time at Waterloo, I reckon I’ve been through at least three (if not four) changes in timetabling systems, and all have followed a recognizable and consistent pattern in their deployment:

1- Disaster is widely predicted.

2- Disaster does not occur but there are numerous problems.

3- People responsible for the new system deny that any problems are real: they will disappear when the system is fully implemented.

4- Departmental administrators gradually discover the levers that control the system and devise workarounds and local optimizations that mitigate the problems.

5- Four or five years later the system has returned to what it was before the change, in terms of functionality.

6- The Registrar discovers that they still have the same problems they had before the change.

7- Acquiring a new system commences.

The current iteration of the scheduling cycle is sitting somewhere between points 2 and 4, with some units working with the system, and others working the system to their advantage – and it’s unclear whether the latter represents a disadvantage to other units.  Any complex system can be gamed to the advantage of certain participants, but not all such systems are zero-sum games. 

The extent to which the InfoSilem system and its attendant procedures amount to zero-sum is still unclear to me.  The number of potentially competing factors is substantial: does one prioritize student completion times, student conflict-free schedules, room usage, professors’ optimal performance in the classroom, efficiency of the process of timetabling itself, pedagogical considerations for individual courses and for programs, or any number of other factors that one could devise?

The issue is as confounding as it is important to our working lives as faculty members.  According to the scheme outlined above, we still have a couple of years to go before the current system is made to work well.  Will it work well enough to (gasp!) break the cycle?  

To include your input on the issue, take part in the FAUW scheduling survey before Friday, March 13. 

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