Jisc case studies wiki Case studies / Student Timetabling Online Project (STOP)
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Student Timetabling Online Project (STOP)

Funded by the: JISC Flexible Service Delivery programme.

Lead Institution: University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

Key Words: Enterprise Architecture (EA).

 

Background

 

Aims and Objectives

 

This project aimed to review, redesign, implement, upskill and evaluate a new administrative system to manage room bookings and timetabling creation in a bid to:

 

  1. Support the student experience by allowing them to access their timetabling information at all times, sufficient to make informed work/life/study decisions.
  2. Enable more efficient and appropriate use of teaching and learning space on campus (estate utilisation).
  3. Increase the professionalism with which the university engages with students.
  4. Reduce wastage of paper used to print and reprint timetables.
  5. Reduce wastage of energy used to heat and light unused rooms.
  6. Reduce academic and administration staff time spent on room bookings and timetable creation by introducing streamlined and standardised processes and managing the administration aspects of timetabling by central services.
  7. Generate new income opportunities by managing certain spaces for other events.

 

Over the last 6 years, 8 new building projects have enhanced the teaching provision of the University's estate at a cost of over £70m. As the demand for rooms increases, it is important that the University makes efficient use of existing space before there is a need for additional building work. 

The project will use a business process review methodology to establish the current “as-is” state and roadmap the required development to achieve the “to-be” state. The project will utilise change management methodologies to manage the introduction and engagement of this project across the University.

 

Context

 

UCLan is a post 92, modern university. The University has restructured over the past three years moving from a faculty-based structure to a schools-based structure. The current structure consists of central Senior Management and shared Central Services, such as Student Support, Student Records, Learning and IT Services, Facilities Management, etc. 

 

The academic provision of the University is delivered through Schools that are responsible for their own portfolios and budgets. Staff in Schools create the timetables for the students in their  School. These timetables are created on a course basis and not by an individual student. The methodology for creation and delivery varies from School to School. As there is a lot of freedom of choice by academics as to when they wish to teach the classes, certain times are often very popular across the University and Room Bookings often struggle to locate all the requested events. The way students are notified of room changes also varies from School to School and there is no automated system to ensure the message is sent.

 

Often students receive a copy of the provisional course timetable in induction week. This timetable is subject to change as clashes are identified and seminars allocated. It is possible that a student will not have their timetable confirmed until the first week of teaching starts and there are instances when it cannot be confirmed until a few weeks into the course. This can cause issues for students who need to arrange child care or have a part-time job.  

 

Due to the current system it is not usually possible to provide the students with their individual timetables. This means that the information students can access about their classes is very limited. Should they lose the paper copy of their timetable there is limited access to information online. This can make it challenging for staff to locate students who might need additional support (such as interpreters) and can also make it challenging for staff whom students ask for help if they cannot locate their class.

 

The business case

 

The student experience is core to the University’s Medium Term Strategy and UCLan is conscious that the provision of a live, online timetable would be beneficial to students and the staff supporting them, ultimately improving the student experience. The project team surveyed students about their current timetables and the responses suggested the need for an online timetable, along with a system that automatically alerts the students to changes to their timetable.

 

The University has seen an increase in demand for rooms and the staff in Room Bookings have been aware of the issues and challenges of rooming events at peak times. The audit of the estate undertaken by Facilities Management found that the estate was sufficient for the needs of the University as long as it was utilised throughout the week. It was felt that this was not possible with the original timetabling system and the process would have to be centralised. Any outstanding uncertainties were to be addressed when the system was trialled in the project environment. The uncertainties we need to explore are if the constraints outlined in the timetabling policy are sufficient to meet the business needs. However, the trial run in the project environment and the 'what-if' testing will resolve any issues before the project goes live.

 

The project maps to the University’s Medium Term Strategy and key corporate objectives across student experience, ICT, sustainability, internationalisation and estates.

 

Key drivers

 

The key drivers are:

 

  • Student satisfaction and service provision.
  • Ensuring the university estate is utilised to its full potential.
  • Centralising the timetabling process to free up administrative resources in Schools.
  • Reducing waste in the form of rooms heated and lit, but unused. 

 

Designing the project approach

 

The project approach was designed through a series of workshops with key staff including academics, staff from front line student services and Student Liaison Officers—who are recent graduates, providing peer support and acting as a point of liaison between the students, the University and the Students' Union. The Students' Union was also invited to join the Project Board to ensure the students were represented at a strategic level. The project team have had extensive experience in implementing ICT change projects across the University and used a tailored PRINCE2 approach to project management. The "As-Is" state was modelled to understand the current process for developing timetables and the issues faced have been explored, and a "To-Be" state was developed. 

 

The concern at the development stage in this project was how staff across the University would react to the introduction of an online timetabling system and whether sufficient buy-in can be achieved for a successful project.

 

Establishing and maintaining senior management buy-in

 

The project originally came from a 'Student as Customer' initiative at a Heads Conference, and was driven by the Directors of Learning Information Services (LIS) and Facilities Management with the full support of the Vice-Chancellor (VC). The Director of LIS secured support from the Senior Management Team who formally signed up to the project and the VC regularly communicated the need for the new system to staff via regular staff meetings.

 

Technologies used

 

The following technologies were used at UCLan for this project: the Serco Facility CMIS system to book rooms; Banner, student records system; and Trent, the HR system. UCLan was also in the process of purchasing student fitting software and an ePortal system to be used for the publication method. The team in LIS development were tasked with writing the code that linked the students’ records system, room bookings and student fitting system and the Trent system to allow the publication of individual timetables.

 

We also explored what possibilities our “Contact Your Students” system, for communicating with students at a programme, course and year level, SMS Email and VLE systems, might have provided. 

 

Outcomes

 

Achievements

 

The headline achievements of the STOP project was that it created a system that provides students with, live, up to date, personal timetables. As the timetables are online and the system (if used correctly) will be the most up to date source of information staff and students can access, there will no longer be a need for timetables to be printed, which will reduce Schools' printing costs and UCLan's environmental footprint.

 

We are anticipating an increase in our students' satisfaction indicated by the National Student Survey (NSS) and internal UCLan surveys over the next year. We also anticipate that better use will be made of the UCLan estate, as there should be more flexibility for rooming events. It is anticipated that it is likely to take two-three years to identify and iron out all of the issues with the new timetabling system, however once this is achieved it is expected that the system will reduce the administrative burden of timetabling for Schools.

 

Benefits

 

Tangible

 

The benefits the project expected to produce include greater student satisfaction, particularly demonstrated though the improvement in the overall participants who put “agree” or “strongly agree” for Q13 (the timetable works efficiently as far as my activities are concerned). It is hoped the score will improve to be equal to or better than 2008 levels. In addition it is anticipated that UCLan will see improved results to questions about 'organisation and management of my course' in both the NSS and the UCLan internal surveys as students will be able to access a live, personalised timetable online. There will also be an automated system that alerts the students to changes to the timetable through the university email system.

 

This project was expected to reduce School staff's and Academic Staff's time spent on timetabling as well as the number of rooms cancelled, although it may take two-three years for the university to adapt to the new system. Although we have tried to gather data on how much time staff spend on timetabling, responses were limited. The project team was conscious that there may have been alternative agendas behind the estimations staff offered. For example it is possible that staff who were opposed to the new online system could have under estimated their time, whereas staff who were frustrated with the current system may have overestimated their time. In addition it was difficult to estimate the cost of staff time as staff are at different points in the pay scales, and salaries can vary within grades as a result. As the cost created cannot be validated, the project team have chosen not to pursue the capture of staff time data to include in the baseline created.

 

In the past, factors affecting the creation of a timetable have resulted in the estate being highly used at certain times and underused at others. The Room Bookings team often struggled to accommodate the requested classes. This project has allowed UCLan to effectively cost the room usage. The CMIS system allows the new Central Timetabling Unit to extract data around room usage, unused rooms and cancellations. We expect to see a more efficient use of the estate as well as a decrease in the practice of overbooking rooms, rooms being booked but unused and rooms being cancelled. The system also allows us to monitor the use of the estate, identifying periods when it is busy and when it is quiet. We are able to quantify this into a cost as we have detail of the cost of the teaching space on campus per metre squared.

 

We have used the JISC infoNet Impact Calculator to try to capture the monetary value of the project including the cost of cancelled rooms and cost of rooms booked but unused. We initially intended to include estimated costs of staff time to create the timetables, however as previously discussed it was felt that the estimates could not be validated and ultimately would provide false information. We will not be able to develop any comparisons until the system goes live in the 2011/12 academic year and a full comparison cannot be made until all Schools have gone live in the 2012/13 academic year. The JISC infoNet Impact Calculator will be a useful tool to capture and compare the baseline over the course of the project and beyond for benefits realisation.

 

At this stage of the project it is not possible to say what the actual benefits to the project and the beneficiaries are as the system will not be going live until the 2011/12 academic year, with 6 of the 16 Schools at UCLan having their timetables scheduled automatically and the remaining 10 creating their timetables as normal and inputting them into the system. We will have evidence of the benefits and the beneficiaries by December 2011, once the system has been running for a semester. We will not know the true impact of the system until December 2012, when all the Schools are live. Feedback from the trials suggests that the system is capable of producing a suitable timetable, therefore, the impact on students across all Schools should be measureable from December 2011 as all students will receive an online personalised timetable—whether their School is automatically scheduled or manually scheduled.

 

The online timetable fits with other UCLan projects that are currently being developed including the Student Portal project, which is due to go live in September 2012. During the development of the portal, the project team has noticed a trend in students requesting access to an online personal timetable. Staff have also responded positively to the feature that they will be able to log into the system to check students timetables so they can assist lost students.

 

The project team has been successful in integrating the new timetabling system with other UCLan systems including Banner—the student record system and User Registration—which creates the network accounts. User Registration is used to extract the lecturer data and Banner is used to extract student data along with modules and programme codes. The timetables are then published through ePortal. UCLan has also invested in and written code for the API (Application Programming Interface) which produces a daily timetable which can be viewed on a mobile or published on the Student Portal, which is developed on Blackboard. Models of how the system integrates with Banner and User Reg are shown in the Appendix.

 

The project team has learned how to use the scheduling functionality of the CMIS system, which we use for room booking. The Central Timetabling Unit has also developed an understanding of the course and event structures within Schools which is essential for their new role. In addition a member of the team has been exploring Enterprise Architecture (EA). The project team members who learned how to use the scheduling aspect of the CMIS system did so through training provided by the suppliers of the product. The knowledge of the course and event structures has developed through the close working relationship the team has developed with the Schools. The knowledge of EA was developed through the JISC EA Foundations programme and the JISC EA Practitioners Group.

 

Intangible

 

As the online timetable will be the most accurate source of information students can access about their timetable, we have been asking staff to ensure they do not print the timetables for students, as is custom, but encourage the students to regularly check their online timetable, ideally before they come to university each day. We anticipate that this will have an impact on the amount of paper used in the timetabling process although exact savings will be impossible to determine.

 

As discussed above, we anticipate that staff time spent on timetabling will decrease however it is difficult to measure this as it is virtually impossible to establish the current situation other than estimates. One of the areas where workload will potentially be reduced is through student fitting. Student fitting refers to the division of a cohort for teaching events such as seminar groups. There will be instances where the student fitting will have to be undertaken manually as the division of the groups may be based upon data that the CMIS does not hold, for example hospital sites for student nurses. However, when the requirement of the group is simply to divide the group into seminar sessions the student fitting element of the CMIS software allows this to be done automatically. The lecturers simply have to determine the maximum number of students in a group and the system will allocate students to groups as they enrol and are registered to the course and modules.

 

We are expecting that, as long as the system is used correctly and any changes to the timetable will be reported to the Central Timetabling Unit so they can update the system, students will no longer experience turning up to a room to discover that their class has been cancelled or moved. Instead they will receive an email and will have their timetable updated. Although student satisfaction is measured through the NSS and UCLan's internal surveys, we do not capture the students’ opinion of the professionalism of the University. It is also expected that the students will consider the University better value for money when the increased fees are introduced if we have effective and efficient systems. Again this will not be attributed to the timetabling system alone and therefore will not be measured. In addition frustrations over a timetable can lead to student attrition. Again retention figures cannot be attributed to the new timetabling system specifically, but it is expected that it will have a more positive impact on the students’ experience than the previous system.

 

A potential benefit has been identified, which if successful will help to reduce the administrative burden.  The data around student fitting will be captured on the CMIS system and potentially could be used for other systems such as Student Attendance Monitoring (SAM). As illustrated in the system map below, there is a potential to export the data from the CMIS database to the SAM system. Usually, when the cohort is divided into groups, the group data has to be entered into SAM separately. However, as this data is now captured through the timetabling system the project team will attempt to extract this data directly from the CMIS database into SAM so re-entry will not be necessary.

 

In addition there is further potential use of this system, which could continue to refine business processes within the University. The system could be potentially used for adhoc room bookings such as meetings.  Currently the system requires staff to email or telephone as well as send a confirmation email to the Central Timetabling Unit.

 

Drawbacks

 

We have yet to discover any disadvantages or drawbacks to the project, however some may become apparent when the system goes live in September. Some Schools who have managed their timetables effectively are concerned that the new system will not be as good. However, it is expected that the number of Schools that will see improved services to students are likely to outnumber those that see a lower standard of service. There will also be potential to refine the system in future to introduce some of the additional benefits the Schools were able to offer such as scheduling events during one section of the week. The system has highlighted other issues around the University such as: deadlines for module registration and enrolment and the subsequent impact on timetabling; and management of certain buildings with regards to timetabling and the two different week structures the University works to. One key issue that has been identified is that if the ePortal system, which the timetable is delivered on, for any reason fails, students will not have access to a timetable. This would have a significant impact across the University. The project team is reviewing potential backup plans should this occur. Timetables could be printed directly from the CMIS system, however it is essential there is a process in place should this unlikely event occur.

 

Challenges

 

It is fair to say that although the introduction of an online timetabling system was perceived to be a positive step, Schools were naturally concerned that the system would not meet their requirements. The project included trials of the system prior to the go live as well as three planned schedule runs of the live system, before the timetable was released to students to allow Schools to address any issues with the data and the timetables. Unfortunately, the project was unable to complete a full trial of all Schools and subsequently opted to go live with 6 of the 16 Schools. The reasons for the inability to trial all the Schools resulted from a mixture of the project team not fully understanding the timetabling process and the complexity of many of the timetables as well as the Schools not having time or resources to complete the data capture process. The timescale of the go-live for 2011/12 is outlined below.

 

 

As the image illustrates there were three runs of the timetable scheduled. The first run would identify errors with the data and it was anticipated that this run would not produce a usable timetable.  The second run would produce a timetable and the Schools would be given an opportunity to identify any issues with the timetable such as the system being unable to schedule some events. The final run would then be the timetable that went live to the students. However, the project team faced a number of issues, generally with the system itself. For example the team should have been able to take an extract of the data, work on it and then upload it back into the system. Unfortunately the data load was running for numerous hours and never completing. This issue was raised with Serco and it was discovered that the settings the project team were using, as directed by Serco, were incorrect.  

 

The team then struggled to run a schedule and despite having on-site support from Serco, it was discovered again the settings Serco had advised the team to use were incorrect. As a result the system took a lot longer to run the schedules than planned and the team were not able to schedule a timetable that would give Schools confidence in the system. This also had significant resource implications as the project team within the Central Timetable Unit  were forced to resort to making manual changes. The project team also discovered load issues with the publication mechanism within ePortal. This issue has been raised with Serco and a contingency plan has been put in place (see outputs below). In addition to managing the challenges the project faced with the suppliers, Serco were requested to join the Project Board to ensure they were aware of the issues and could respond to the project board as to how they would be resolved. 

 

Key lessons

 

Communication is essential for developing a project such as this. During the development of the project there were misconceptions which lead to negativity towards the project. For example, staff thought the system would “decide” when they would teach, rather than understanding that the system only worked from the data provided by the Schools. In addition, although the use of the estates was a driving force for the project, it was assumed that this was the only reason for undertaking the project. However, the most important driver for the project was improving the student experience.

 

Communication is a significant issue within UCLan and it appears to be a double-edged sword. Staff complain that they are not aware of new projects, information, etc. and those distributing it complain that staff do not engage with the methods for internal communication. This has been improved over the last year, with new methods of communication being introduced. However, there will always be the issue of staff taking the time to read information or attend events. We found that meeting with staff face to face, was for the most, the most effective method for communicating the project, discussing issues and explaining methods for data capture. These conversations allowed us to identify issues that may not have come up if the communication method had been limited to electronic or one-way means.

 

During the project we identified an issue with the method we used to capture data. There are two areas of concern with this lesson. Firstly the data capture proforma distributed was not completely fit for purpose as the primary key initially identified to be the unique data attached to each event, was not the primary key. In addition the data form was developed for ease of uploading data to CMIS. However, this was not a timetabling approach that staff were used to and so they struggled to understand it, and even if they did, it did not always capture the right information and the forms were not intuitive to use. Due to a change in project staff, we were unable to address this issue for the 2011/12 go-live data-capture.  However, this is something the team will be exploring for the 2012/13 academic year. 

 

Looking ahead

 

We are now at the first stage of the project go-live. As discussed above only 6 of the 16 Schools at UCLan will go fully live, having the system schedule their teaching events. The system will not go fully live until the 2012/13 academic year with all Schools having their timetables scheduled for them. As discussed above the project team has identified that data from the CMIS system can be used for the Student Attendance Monitoring system, which will reduce work load. In addition the new system should make it easier for staff to help lost students as relevant staff will be able to access students’ timetables. As of the 2012/13 academic year it is anticipated that the students will have access to timetables at an earlier stage and will be able to watch them develop. In addition discussions have already started as to whether the timetables could be used in the marketing of courses to show students example timetables. It is also being discussed how the system can be used to provide better service and support across the University by providing details of events in buildings in the foyer. There is potential as discussed previously to use the new system to manage all room bookings to reduce administrative burden in the Central Timetabling Unit.

 

The project has highlighted several issues that have caused concern in Schools for a period of time. These include: the impact of the deadline dates of factors that impact the timetabling system; the recruitment of ad hoc lecturers; enrolment deadlines; module registration deadlines; module/course validation dates; etc. The project team has kept a record of these issues that are recommended for review but are not within the scope of this project. Following the completion of the JISC project, the project team will continue to review the process for data capture. It was identified that the initial proformas were not fit for purpose and the lessons learned in the data collection and the discussions with School staff will continue to inform the development of a process to capture the data.

 

Once the project has been completed and the system is scheduling for all Schools the team will explore how the project could be taken further such as information in buildings, timetables for prospective students, etc. In addition the team will explore how else the system could be used ie for students to explore how electives would impact their timetable or scheduling induction and exam events.

 

Sustainability

 

This project was identified as a priority by the Information Strategy Panel, which governs all strategic ICT projects, therefore it has commitment from the University to continue after the JISC project is complete. The section of the University responsible for managing the room booking system has been restructured and is now the Central Timetabling Unit in preparation for the new timetabling process. Through this project a new policy is now in place that governs timetabling in the University. As previously stated the project is not yet complete. The 2011/12 academic year will only see the automated scheduling of six of the sixteen Schools at UCLan. The following academic year will see the complete scheduling of all sixteen Schools. A significant catalyst for the implementation of this project was the feedback from students through the NSS, internal UCLan surveys and other methods for student feedback. There was a clear message from students that they wanted access to an online, accurate timetable and that changes to the timetable should be better communicated, which is why the University is committed to this project. 

 

Summary and reflection

 

The data capture has proven to be one of the most challenging aspects of the project. This is due to the complexity of the data, the proforma and the various restrictions and requirements different Schools have for events. The project team has discussed the project with Leeds Metropolitan University, who are currently running an almost identical project to UCLan and experiencing almost identical issues. Leeds Met directed UCLan to a JISC mailing list, where other universities were discussing timetabling and UCLan were reassured that they were achieving similar results to other universities. Developing a suitable data capture process will be essential for the ongoing management of the timetabling system. One of the main challenges has been that Schools did not have the resources to complete the exercise. This meant the project was in a catch-22 situation where these Schools were concerned the system would not suit their needs, however the team did not have the data to test the system.

 

On reflection there are different approaches the project could have taken. The timing of the data capture exercise was an issue as Schools were completing enrolment. It is unlikely that the project team could have identified a time of year that would have been convenient, however a longer time period for completing the exercise could have been allowed. The data capture proforma was designed so the data could easily be loaded into the system, however it did not suit the data itself and the initial primary key identified, the module code, was discovered not to be the primary key. Potentially, if the team had started with one School and worked through the data in more depth to develop a greater understanding of the process for creating a timetable within a School, a more suitable process for data capture could have been developed. The team is also currently experiencing other issues with the system, for example UCLan use a SQL server database for the system, which the software is supposed to be compatible with, however there are known issues with this. The project team has discovered that these issues cause the loading of data to the system to be exceptionally slow, which has had a significant impact on the project as it has required overtime from staff.

 

Although the system has not gone live, initial feedback from Schools during the trials was that it could potentially produce a suitable timetable. However, the issues faced during the go-live preparation have somewhat dampened confidence. The success of the system should lead to an increased score in the NSS and internal UCLan surveys, which will have an impact on UCLan reputation leading up to the introduction of  higher fees. Despite the issues identified above, the project is considered to be a success and although there are a few members of staff who are wary of the system, in general staff recognise the potential benefits of the system and see it as an essential development for improving student satisfaction.

 

Communication has been identified as a key issue for the success of the project. As a result the project team has reviewed the communication strategy, based on lessons learned, and redeveloped it (see below). The project team has now produced an introduction video for staff as well as training videos to support its use (see below). The project team would strongly recommend that stakeholders and particularly the future owners of the system are updated and communicated with at all stages of the project and that spending time in face to face discussions to develop a good understanding of the timetabling process is not underestimated. It is difficult to reflect on the potential impact the use of EA may have had on this project, however a short case study below outlines some of the issues the project faced and discusses how EA may have impacted them. 

 

Appendix

 

Project Website

 

http://www.uclan.ac.uk/information/services/rustel/stop.php

 

Project outputs

 

  1. Evaluation case studies of experiences in the STOP project
  2. STOP Communication Strategy
  3. STOP As-Is
  4. STOP Pilot Test Schedule
  5. STOP To-Be
  6. UCLan Timetabling Policy (July 2011)
  7. Load issues with ePortal
  8. Introduction to STOP for Staff (Video)
  9. Using the software (video)
  10. Banner CRN Interface to CMIS 
  11. STOP Banner  Programme  Interface to CMIS Course
  12. STOP User Reg School Staff  Data Load to CMIS Lecturers
  13. STOP Banner Student Interface to CMIS Student
  14. System Map 
  15. Reflection on potential impact of EA
  16. JISC InfoNet Impact Calculator

 

Dissemination

 

  1. Attendance at ARC May 2011.
  2. Meeting with Colleagues from Manchestester Business School, University of Manchester—Link with our project to their JISC Business Intelligence project.