Introduction: The Problem + its Implications
When Bill Gates was in high school, administrators asked him to build class-scheduling software for the school. Gates would later reflect on the challenge: “The number of constraints was unbelievable... I was worried we would go back to the school and say a student won’t be able to take physics because I can’t figure out how to offer the class at a time so that the student can get into a physics class and graduate on time, and I thought about it for a few weeks and I said... that's a really hard problem.” - Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates, Netflix
It’s not just Gates who felt intimidated by this tall task—countless schools still struggle to optimize their process.
In higher-ed, course-scheduling remains at the cornerstone of nearly every institutional initiative. An effective course schedule can have an incredible impact on student success, student retention, faculty satisfaction, and administrative and financial efficiency.1 Yet, the opposite is also true; inefficient schedules prevent students from graduating on time, frustrate instructors, stymie administrators, and cost colleges and universities millions.
While the current state of class-scheduling may seem fraught with so many issues so as to not be realistically addressed, we’ve found, through research and firsthand experience, that schools face five central constraints when building their schedules: 1) student preferences and requirements 2) space limitations 3) faculty preferences 4) administrative & operational efficiency, and 5) sticky cultural norms.
Student Preferences & Requirements
While schools tout students’ success as an absolute, institutional priority, few prioritize their needs when scheduling. The American Association of College Registrar and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) conducted a survey of over 700 schools in which it found that among the factors considered when scheduling courses “driven by data collected from student plans of study” ranked as least-influential!3 A separate study conducted by Hanover Research confirmed this result.
For one, only 40% of schools begin planning schedules more than one year in advance, while 22% begin planning less than one academic term in advance (just-in-time scheduling).4 As such, administrators struggle to assess student demography meaningfully in the construction of schedules. Consequently, “a disconnect between students’ course needs and actual offerings” ensues.5 The more-than-one-third of entry-level courses at 4-year, public universities that are over-enrolled illustrates this point.
This disconnect means that universities often fail to offer courses that accurately and consistently service the academic needs and interests of their constituents, operating under the faulty assumption that student demand and institutional capacity remain relatively constant year-to-year. It is for this reason that “only 32% of [higher-ed] courses are considered ‘balanced,’ meaning that the number of seats offered generally matches the number of seats filled. On the other hand, 41% of courses are under-utilized and 25% are over-enrolled...”6 This misalignment of offerings and demand also means the opposite, as 17% of the “total sections/courses in a schedule...could potentially be removed based on insufficient demand.”
Inefficient space management is another obstacle currently plaguing university admins. Hanover writes that “most colleges and universities report that they are ‘out of space’ across their campus. Yet, on average, classrooms are in use for less than half of the weekly instructional hours (46%), and, when in use, are only 62% full.8 It’s clear, then, that while making effective use of campus facilities is challenging, higher-ed remains relatively perplexed.
Moreover, the issue is not solely that campus facilities are not efficiently utilized today, but also that it will be even harder to do so tomorrow. “Nationally, enrollment has grown nearly 12% between 2007 and 2013. Across the same time period, campus space grew only 6%.”10 Traditionally, schools have adopted a “build to grow” approach, whereby construction satisfied burgeoning space needs. However, revenue contraction has made the strategy unsustainable in recent years. As such, schools are being forced to reevaluate how they manage their space.
In the aforementioned Hanover study, faculty availability ranked first among the factors considered in the undergraduate scheduling process, with 90% of schools classifying it as either important or very important.
Though the faculty's availability to teach is invariably an important component in crafting a schedule, instructor preferences often place artificial constraints on the times at which classes may take place. The result, as schools well know, is “primetime,” where a disproportionate number of sections are clumped within narrow timeframes (often between 10am and 2:00pm, and rarely, if ever, on Fridays). This common practice makes it difficult for schedulers to build a schedule that makes effective use of both campus resources and the full swath of hours available in a given working day.
At Coursedog, we’ve recognized that many of the inefficiencies in scheduling may be more a reflection of unnecessarily constrained inputs, than they are a reflection of poor optimization. In an article published on our blog, we note the incumbent approach to scheduling, one that is increasingly faculty-centric, places “inordinate pressure on the optimizer to find solutions in cases where doing so might not even be feasible.”
Administrative & Operational Efficiency
On average, schedulers spend roughly 2-3 weeks each term fixing and editing schedules. Moreover, 50% of universities still schedule manually, while 33% of those hope to implement a solution within the next year. Needless to say scheduling has become a tedious and time-consuming process.
Importantly, schools can actually quantify the burden that scheduling inefficiencies impose on a dollar-basis. For example, by placing the efficacy of their scheduling process at the forefront of the institutional agenda, admins at Stark State College in Ohio were able to cut superfluous instructional costs by $2mio and increase tuition yields by $1mio. Another institution estimated that by redeploying just 2% of its general education space, the campus can avoid new construction for several years. At a cost of $300 per square foot, the university will save $45 million in avoided construction fees.”
Simply put, schools that make it difficult for students to complete their courses of study efficiently inevitably incur the costs associated with doing so. Thus, schools that prioritize student-centric, data-driven scheduling are able to both augment student success and eliminate expenses.
The Status Quo
Finally, intangible and cultural phenomena at a school can make it especially hard to effect change. As EAB notes, “space management in higher education is complicated by historical culture and shared governance.” Unfortunately, making a change is rarely, if ever, simple.
Students’ needs are changing drastically and universities recognize that they need to do more to keep up. However, taking the necessary steps to de-prioritize faculty preferences in order to better service students can strain relationships between departments, instructors, and administrators as they endeavor to find common ground.
It is for this reason that garnering support from all facets of university life has become indispensable in the process of making tangible, substantive progress. In order to alter a culture, one needs buy-in from all the individuals who compose it.
Identify the Key Pain Points
Before overhauling your scheduling process, it’s imperative to understand the incumbent circumstance and to pinpoint precisely where your school may be falling short. So, how do you determine the state of scheduling on your own campus?
What percent of classes take place during “primetime”?
How long does it take to build the schedule?
How many people are involved?
How often do students complain during registration?
How many semesters in advance do you schedule?
A full academic year or more
One semester or less
How satisfied are students with their schedule?
Not so much
Qualitative analysis can provide color to certain circumstances that quantitative data cannot. Schedulers can also engage in self-reflection in order to determine their campus’s general perception of scheduling. Ask yourself and your team these questions to guide the conversation:
● Do you typically deal with after-the-fact change requests, or are they a non-issue?
○ It can be easy to normalize an influx of disparate change requests. Routing, reviewing, and accepting change requests, as well as the additional time taken to implement such changes, needn’t occupy a majority of your scheduling process.
● Is there ever tension between schedulers and faculty? Is it mutual
○ We often hear from Registrars that feel faculty expect priority treatment during scheduling. If the tension is palpable, work across the institution to agree on common objectives and values, and use them to carve a path forward.
● Do you rollover like-term?
○ As Hanover Research notes, “scheduling cannot be a ‘one-and-done.’ Each term is different and requires a different approach that should be based on student demand, not on what was offered in the past.”15 The convention of “rolling like-term” ignores the variable nature of student demography; student demand and academic needs do not remain constant over time, so why should course offerings?
● To that end–how do you use data to make scheduling and course-offering decisions?
○ As discussed above, student demography is not stagnant; it changes year-to-year, and even semester-to-semester. Consequently, scheduling and course offerings need to change accordingly. Overenrolled or underutilized classes may be a symptom of this practice.
● How much of your time is spent on manual data entry vs. on the other tasks for which you or your staff are responsible?
○ Gauging how much time is spent on menial tasks like manual data entry and clean-up can provide insight into your staff’s capacity to spend time on more strategic, substantive initiatives.
● Do you feel like your scheduling process improves year over year?
○ Think about the advances technology has made in the last ten years, or even five years. Smartphones are now commonplace and nifty apps enable us to streamline even the most complicated of tasks in our lives. If you’re scheduling the same way the university did 5-10 years ago, you’re likely falling behind and placing unnecessary burden on yourself or your staff.
● Do you use paper forms?
○ Many schools continue to make use of paper forms and hardcopies to accomplish tasks and workflows related to the scheduling process. From stickies used to represent scheduling time blocks on the walls of the registrar’s office, to paper forms making after-the-fact change requests slipped gently under the doors of the relevant approval personnel, we’ve seen it all. Doing so puts the institution at greater risk of human error, often results in the unnecessary duplication of a process, and ties the hands of those involved
Preparing for Change, a Cultural Approach
As discussed briefly above, and as we’re sure your school can attest, effecting change across an institution can be incredibly difficult. Decades of custom and fatigue have calcified what one, medium-sized university in South Carolina referred to as a “natural behavioral conservatism.” Folks are staunchly resistant to upset the status quo, even if they’re willing to acknowledge its shortcomings. That is, people would rather make predictable mistakes than they would endeavor to fail in ways possibly unbeknownst to them. We’re working with dozens of schools to understand best practices in changing administrative and faculty cultures to be more data-driven, student-centric, and efficient. We document our findings below, though for a more in-depth case-study of how some of our partners are changing the cultures at their school, check out this webinar with the Vice Provost of Northern Arizona University.
Widespread and diverse involvement of institutional personnel is imperative. By encouraging collaboration between instructors, department chairs, administrators, and university executives in the process, schools can more democratically and substantively institute change, while decreasing the likelihood of discord moving forward. Doing so will not only facilitate analysis and solutions more consistently representative of the school as a whole, but will also foster a culture of common purpose and accountability. Education Advisory Board (EAB) highlights the importance of using very specific language to hold people accountable for change. For example, identifying titles and their associated responsibilities as they relate to ongoing initiatives proves to be far more effective than such vague language as “faculty” or “engagement.”
Before any tangible change can occur, there needs to be consensus on your campus that i) a problem exists, ii) what that problem is, and that iii) it’s worth fixing. Though seemingly obvious, schools use contention and discord as evidence that there is an issue with little-to-no diagnosis ever taking place. Consequently, initiatives geared toward improvement garner little legitimate support and are destined to fail from their inception. It is for this reason that investing in university-wide collaboration upfront is invaluable. The problem must be contextualized within the broader context of the school’s objectives and the relevance of each end user’s function to them.
At many institutions, stakeholders remain unaware of the implications of poor space utilization for both the campus community and the institution’s operational success. At other institutions, stakeholders fail to see how they would benefit from improved utilization and are thus unmotivated to act. As a result, they deprioritize space management, often citing political fragility as a reason not to act. By tailoring space, time, and resource management communications to specific audiences, and by highlighting the impact of potential solutions, higher-ed leaders can better leverage people across the university.
The indispensability of data to the process of motivating and actualizing change cannot be overstated. For one, getting data in the hands of those potentially at odds with disturbing the status quo is a compelling way to motivate action. Moreover, making data-driven decisions geared toward retention, persistence, and graduation rates, especially as they relate to the optimization of administrative processes on campus, will validate the effort required to do something new when the time comes to evaluate the success of a given initiative. For more on how your institution can effectively gather, document, and leverage school-wide data, see EAB’s research here.
Policy Enforcement & Elimination of Manual Processes
New initiatives only work if policies are actually enforced, and policies will only be enforced if it’s feasible for people to enforce them. Focus on strategies that support the aforementioned metrics; consult with peer institutions to share best practices; and empower the folks at your school to implement new initiatives with ease and as little time-intensivity as possible. If policy enforcement proves to be a grueling undertaking, few will reliably do so, regardless of the ends an initiative purports to serve.
Selecting Scheduling Software
Features to look for
Exploring the marketplace can be intimidating, as vendors offer a seemingly endless list of bells and whistles. Many vendors provide a competitor analysis for schools in the market for new scheduling software. Making use of these enables you both to familiarize yourself with the features currently offered at a market-level, and to then identify which vendors most effectively align with your needs.
In general, those features that enable ease-of-use, data-driven decision-making, policy enforcement, and that most seamlessly reduce manual workload are likely to be the most important.
In addition to exploring new features a vendor can offer, it’s important to consider which might overlap with your existing systems. Doing so can help you make a more informed decision, especially as it relates to pricing and ROI. It might not make sense to pay up for a product whose price reflects functionality you already have.
No matter your industry, adopting new technology is scary. And for good reason. Often, your school is making a massive financial investment that affects people at all levels of university operation: from students and faculty to administrators and staff. How can you be sure you’re doing your due diligence in finding and ultimately contacting a third party vendor?
Like many initiatives in higher-ed, advances in technology can be lethargic and difficult to implement. Though it may be the norm today, stagnant innovation shouldn’t be taken for granted
It’s imperative that you find a vendor that’s making waves in innovation and design, and is committed to changing with and for the market it serves. As a customer, you’ll remain at the forefront of the latest updates and industry initiatives. However, be cognizant that new developments can necessitate additional training for end-users. As such, it’s important to partner with a vendor that prioritizes client success, so you can make the most of your investment.
Always ask for references. Chances are, the vendor in question will supply you only with those of their happiest clients. We also recommend that you reach into your network and solicit your peers’ preferences via a listserv or other communities. If their customers are happy with their services, they will be singing their praises.
Not only should you research the basics, like if they can integrate bi-directionally with your SIS, but you should also be appraised of their full technical requirements and capabilities. Nothing derails the success of new technology more swiftly than the inability to implement and onboard it properly. As such, your IT department should be intimately involved in the decision-making process in order to ensure seamless integration across all relevant and necessary systems.
Client retention is important to consider in making your decision. While one vendor might have an impressive rolodex of clients, they might also be churning customers regularly. In tech, a high churn rate can indicate slow product development, poor customer service, or yearly price spikes. That is, while a product might show well on paper, its functionality and user-experience can be quite poor.
The tools a third party vendor provides can be powerful, though their impact is predicated entirely on the ability of end-users to leverage them. If a vendor cannot provide a concrete, functional training plan, a documented track-record of supporting diverse staff, and a dedicated, on-demand support team to set your people up for success, then their software isn’t really valuable.
The long term success of your scheduling process relies on its continual refinement and maintenance over time. Many class scheduling solutions will give you the tools necessary to do this. However, it is up to the scheduler’s office to make use of them.
Assembling a Task Force
First and foremost, tagging a specialized team to own the class scheduling solution is paramount to its success. Typically, this team will consist of individuals from both the Registrar’s office and the IT department. Their goal is to help troubleshoot issues and support the use of the software across the university, as well as to be responsible for its day-to-day maintenance.
Iterating on Rules and Policies
The data-driven rules and policies governing the schedule should be revisited at least once a year in order to ensure their relevance, accuracy, and impact. Make use of as much available data on student academic needs as possible, and consider collaborating or consulting with peer institutions in order to gauge best practices to achieve a resource-efficient, student-centric schedule.
Surveying Students, Faculty, and Staff
While software solutions can have an immediate impact on the experience, efficiency, and outcomes of the school’s schedule, implementation can be difficult and time-intensive. As such, it’s imperative that, in partnership with your third party vendor, the school take an active role in surveying all individuals in proximity in order to assess the software’s impact for end-users. Doing so will ensure that the solution is improving the lived experiences of those using it on a day-to-day basis and that it’s achieving its intended outcomes.
Measuring impact & ROI
Quantifying the impact of a scheduling solution is indelibly the most exciting (and hopefully rewarding) final step in the long process of onboarding new technology. You should be able to quantify the software’s impact on such metrics as graduation and retention rates, seat utilization, and tuition yields. The institution, then, should ideally be able to assign a dollar value to its impact. In this way, the institution can calculate the return on its investment (ROI) in order to evaluate the decision.
AACRAO. “Class Scheduling (Aka Timetabling) Practices and Technology.” AACRAO, 2016, www.aacrao.org/research-publications/research/registration-records-reports/class-scheduling-(aka-timetabling) -practices-and-technology---sept-60-second-survey-2016.
Keil, Jack, and Peter Partell. The Effect of Class Size on Student Performance and Retention at Binghamton University. 1998, The Effect of Class Size on Student Performance and Retention at Binghamton University. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/453b/014bc6b779e3a928dab28bc6958594e7a3b8.pdf
Hanover Research. Best Practices in Course Scheduling. 2018, Best Practices in Course Scheduling, www.cmich.edu/colleges/se/Documents/Hanover%20Research%20-%20Best%20Practices%20in%20Course %20Scheduling.pdf.
EAB. “Working with Academic Leaders to Improve Space Utilization.” EAB Research, 2016, attachment.eab.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Working-with-Academic-Leaders-to-Improve-Space-Utilizat ion.pdf
EAB. “Developing a Best Practice Faculty Training Strategy.” EAB Research, August, 2019, https://attachment.eab.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/PDF-SSC-Faculty-Training.pdf