This past year schedulers have had to work harder than ever to solve puzzles
Over the past year, the coronavirus crisis has greatly increased work pressure on Radboud University schedulers. A situation that’s unlikely to change as long as there is no clarity concerning coronavirus measures in higher education, say the three schedulers. ‘I didn’t take any time off last summer.’
Normally speaking Radboud University schedulers have two busy periods a year, in March-April and in October-November. This is when they have to put together a timetable for the upcoming semester, so that students and lecturers know when and where lectures and exams will take place.
‘Wherever possible we build on the timetables of previous years,’ says Cecilia Stutvoet, scheduler at the Faculty of Arts. ‘But we still have to process a lot of new information every time. Are these lectures or seminars? In which period do they fall and how long are they? Do they require a large lecture hall? Etc.’
40 teaching timetables
The schedulers feed all this information into Syllabus Plus, a computer program used throughout the campus. Then they organise a bottleneck meeting with all the other University schedulers to try and divide the larger lecture halls as fairly as possible among the faculties. Finally, rooms are scheduled for smaller groups.
That’s where the fun begins. ‘Once the software has generated the timetables, we have to make sure they actually work for students and lecturers,’ says Stutvoet. ‘The most important thing is making sure that there’s no overlap between lectures. It’s often quite a puzzle to get the timetables for the next semester to work.’
‘We create more than 40 teaching timetables,’ says Priscilla Read, scheduler at the Nijmegen School of Management. ‘Especially the larger study programmes offer lots of seminars that are attended by various groups of students, such as pre-master’s, law and management students. We have to make sure there’s no timetable conflict. This is why it’s important to keep timetable changes to a minimum. Otherwise, things quickly become chaotic.’
Which is precisely what happened last spring. When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, most schedulers had just finished putting the final touches to the timetable of the first semester of 2020-2021. ‘Suddenly, everything had to be changed,’ says Stutvoet. ‘We had to decide which lectures would take place online and which in-person. Because of the 1.5 metre distancing rule, we could only fit 30 students in a lecture hall intended for 160.’
So the puzzling had to begin all over again, with lots of new puzzle pieces. In-person lectures could not all be planned at the same time. All programmes were assigned one day a week when students were allowed on campus. The starting times of lectures had to be adjusted because some students couldn’t come to campus by public transport during rush hour.
Radboud University went in search of new and larger lecture halls on and off the campus, including Concert Hall De Vereeniging and the Stadsschouwburg (City Theatre), so larger groups of students could attend in-person lectures. This also had consequences for the schedulers. ‘We had to take into account the distances between these locations,’ says Stutvoet. ‘Locations couldn’t be too far apart, otherwise students wouldn’t have time to get from one location to the next in the break between two lectures.’
‘We also had to take into account the students’ commuting time’
‘The students’ commuting time also played a role: after a lecture on campus they couldn’t be expected to attend an online lesson straight away,’ says Saskia Segers, scheduler at the Faculty of Science. ‘At our Faculty, pretty much the only teaching allowed on campus was practical lessons; everything else happened online.’
All three schedulers experienced high work pressure in the past year. ‘We had to work overtime a lot,’ says Segers. ‘It’s not so bad if it’s temporary, but at some point I indicated that if this continued for another year I wasn’t sure I would be able to cope.’
To make things worse, at the Faculty of Arts one of the three timetable makers became ill, which only increased work pressure for the other two. ‘Since scheduling is not something you can temporarily assign to someone else (see box, Eds.), we had to work overtime a lot,’ says Stutvoet. ‘Luckily, we could temporarily hand over some of our other tasks to colleagues at the student and staff administration.’
‘I didn’t lose any sleep over it, but I certainly felt the pressure’
Read also felt the effects of increased work pressure at the Nijmegen School of Management – she was even unable to take time off. ‘In June it finally became clear that we’d have to start scheduling all over again, since all teaching would still have to take place online in September. As a result I wasn’t able to take any time off. I guess I could have if I’d really wanted to, but there always has to be a scheduler on call. In the end, I only took time off in January.’
Since January of this year, work pressure has more or less returned to normal, says Stutvoet. ‘Luckily we know a little better what to expect for the coming period. Having said that, uncertainty remains the biggest challenge: Will in-person teaching resume any time soon? Hopefully, we’ll find out in time.’
‘Before the coronavirus crisis, we were also quite busy, but it was something you could prepare for,’ says Read. ‘Now it’s beyond our control. Something happens and you have to respond. I didn’t lose any sleep over it, but I certainly felt the pressure.’
Despite all this, the schedulers wouldn’t want a different job. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as putting down the last piece of a challenging puzzle.