ocMonthlyMinute500  
   
 
The ofCourse Monthly Minute is a newsletter that discusses course scheduling, namely at universities and professional schools. As its name implies, it is added to monthly.
 
   
Newsletter Archive
The most recent items are listed first.
First the Romans made plumbing sexy, now we do.
SEPTEMBER 2017 - New Feature
Last month I talked about the different kinds of updates we made--sexy, routine, and plumbing. What I failed to mention is that sometimes we work on something that could fall into all three categories. This is the case with this month's new feature--Custom Course Durations.

Yes, I know. It seems like the sort of thing that we should have addressed some time ago, but surprisingly, it was not something people were clamoring for until quite recently at least. However, once discussed, it became one of those middle-of-your-back itches that won't let you rest until addressing it. This was certainly the sense for the requestor and ourselves after the initial call for the feature.
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Tis the season.
AUGUST 2017 - Informational
The design of our universe is breathtaking. There are so many intelligent parts to the construction. If you take some time to think on it, it leaves you agog. One core element is order. Another is balance. Another is change. One of the most prominent and palpable changes can be seen in the seasonal shifts that happen every year. Fall, Spring, Summer, Winter. Each has its own personality and purpose. When you study it (or obsess on it as we do) scheduling work shares all of these same elements--order, balance, and change. It even has its own sort of seasonal cadence, and thankfully so, because without these shifts we'd all be in trouble.

For all schools, whether they schedule just a semester or a year at a time, January to April is peak season for scheduling. This is where the heaviest of the lifting takes place. From May to August is a lull in the scheduling routine. For schools who build their schedules one semester at a time, August-October is round two where the Spring schedule is produced. In the November and December window schools are negotiating the courses that will be taught the following year. And then in January we prep for the cycle to begin anew.
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In every show, someone has to get top-billing.
JULY 2017 - How-To
I get an undue number of calls that begin, "Troy, we have a bit of an odd request". When you are attempting to automate a process, odd requests are the last thing you are wanting to get tossed your way. But anyone who deals in scheduling knows it is not a matter of IF you will receive any odd requests this year but instead a matter of HOW MANY odd requests are you going to receive this year.

Our approach to this certainty is to keep a log of all of those odd requests. Yep, we write them all down. All of them. Even the one where the professor said she couldn't teach before 10:30 a.m. because then she wouldn't have time to read the paper and she HAD to read the paper before teaching (one observer commented, "That must have been one thick paper"). Of course, what we are looking for are the ones that are less odd or unique than the others.
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How many scheduling systems do you know that include room service?
JUNE 2017 - New Feature
For the most part teaching rooms these days are pretty comparably equipped. Smart board. Check. Projection. Check. Ada access. Check.

Fifteen years ago this was no so much the case and you had to be careful about where certain courses were placed because of the course's pedagogical needs. But as technologies became more affordable and new buildings were built, or old buildings renovated, these sorts of room inequities were addressed. But, as with so many things, we found ways to re-complicate matters.
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Oh, Collisions Manager, how I love thee!
MAY 2017 - New Feature
The schedule has been produced. The schedule has been approved. The schedule has been published. You are breathing freely for the first time in many months.

Just as you turn your chair to begin your next (of eleven) tasks, someone appears in your doorway and says, "about the schedule, we were wondering if we could make a slight change".

Your chest constricts.

It tightened because you know you are about to be asked to cut into a perfectly healthy body.
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Before you can respect the past, you have to remember the past.
APRIL 2017 - New Feature
Many of the features we have added to this system have not been specifically requested. They come from a game I play. In this game I pretend I am you. You the Registrar. You the Dean of Academic Affairs. You the Schedule Admin. This is the tool I would want if I had to do that job, your job. Granted, I have the added advantage of (1) knowing how to make these sorts of tools and (2) having become reasonably obsessed with the problem.

First and foremost my system has to be easy to use and understand. A close second is my system needs to do what I need it to do, namely, make a schedule that accounts for all of the obvious and odd and nuanced exceptions that tend to inhabit plague every university schedule. Thirdly, it needs to make me look smart.
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Half the battle is knowing who to yell at (or thank).
MARCH 2017 - How-To
They say it is possible to have too much of anything, even good things. Believe it or not there is a downside to being able to produce an optimized, preference-based schedule in just five minutes, namely remembering what might be different between them all. And, this is especially true when they are all stacked like neat, corded firewood on top of one another as they are in the Schedule Manager view.

When you start running schedules the name of the game is increasing your schedule score. This involves making adjustments, sometimes small, like dropping a class size from 65 to 55 so it has more room options, or large changes, like swapping teacher section assignments because of competing day/time preferences. Those are the sorts of things one does to improve the schedule.
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Riddle me this batman.
FEBRUARY 2017 - How-To
Last month I talked about the Scheduling Assistant. This month I want to talk about another helpful tool you have access to, The How Do I Library. This is exactly what it sounds like, a library of documents that tell you how to do various things within the system.

Now yes the system is highly intuitive. That is one of its core attributes and why so many people love it so. And yes, we have had users effortlessly swimming the waters for years. This is why we have been able to delver the top-flight customer service we have since our start. But, and there's always a but, since most schools only go through this scheduling process once a year, it means the schedule-makers are in it for about two months and away from it for about ten. No matter how long you've been building the schedule or how bright you are, a lot of things can happen in ten months that might nudge a seldom tapped piece of knowledge out of the way.
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The Scheduling Assistant and how it became known as Troy-in-a-Bottle
JANUARY 2017 - How-To
One of the best and worst facets of the scheduling life cycle is that it only happens once a year. The good side of this coin is that it is such a grueling process, doing it all year every year is a rather unfathomable proposition. The downside of this is that when that time rolls around; when you've stepped away from if for a while, remembering each and every step along the way can get slippery.

This is where our Scheduler Checklist comes along. It's working name is Troy-in-a-Bottle because that is what a few of our client schools call it because they report that having access to the checklist is a little bit like having me, Troy, sitting next to you whispering what needs to be done next in your ear. I'm told this somehow happens in a way that is not creepy or scary, but the people in the ofCourse offices have trouble accepting that.
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A schedule without footnotes is kinda like a picture without a frame.
DECEMBER 2016 - New Feature
As anyone who has ever made anything knows, it is not the normal, expected, cooperative parts of something that make something hard to make. It is the unusual, the unorthodox, the difficult, or put collectively, the exceptions of something that prove most burdensome. And this is not just applicable when it comes to schedule making, it is super-applicable to scheduling.

Pareto's 80/20 rule is in full play here. It doesn't take too many 'exception' needs or scenarios to mar the playing field. And, there are very few schedules that get made that don't have an exception or seventeen in the mix. Over the years we have built a number of tools to deal with these scenarios but something we discovered is that it is one thing to account for an exception, it is another to explain it. And, as we often preach, OUR job here is to make YOUR job more tenable.
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Not all classes are created equal.
NOVEMBER 2016 - New Feature
In a simple and easy and conflict-free world, every class would have a nice and simple traditional course configuration. Every Monday and Wednesday from 9:00am to 9:50 am. Or perhaps the class meets on Tuesday or Thursdays. Or it is a big one and meets three days a week on the MWF format. There was a time that was about the extent of the variety of course formats. But that time has past.

Now you have weekend options, online options, options that meet in the courtyard or options that meet when a student wants to meet. Leaning on a mechanized solution to address each and every one of these sorts of cattywampus options is a reasonably big ask. But, the lion-share of the things we have asked the ofCourse scheduler to do have been unreasonable to some degree (like solving a 150-class constraint-heavy, preference-governed schedule in 300 seconds). So, we just folded it in as just another rung in our very tall ladder.
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First impressions aren't just for dates and interviews.
OCTOBER 2016 - New Feature
Our earliest system prototypes did not include a way for people who were not administrative users of the system to view the produced schedules. We assumed that the schedule would simply be made in our system and then exported into a school's parent system where it could be consumed as normal by the faculty and students.

What we didn't account for were the reviews and approvals our administrators would need to attain before fully publishing the schedule. It's a little embarrassing how much we had to learn about the intricacies of this world. The good news for you is the lion share of that learning is behind us, that and the fact that we are good listeners and willing learners. So, we made a publicly viewable schedule that could be reviewed by deans, committees and faculty (who were not users of the system) before a final schedule was settled upon.
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Without a goal, you can't score.
SEPTEMBER 2016 - Informational
On our marketing site, we cite our three goals in a very succinct way. And I quote:

1. To make schedules that took into account when professors actually wanted to teach.
2. To make schedules that protected course diversity for students, that is, not scheduling all the, say, tax courses at the same time.
3. And, to make the process of creating a schedule easy enough that any administrator, dean, faculty member, or staffer could oversee the process.

End quote. The above is definitely true and I'd never waver or hedge from those points BUT we have another less public objective that sits over our entire operation. And, it is this fourth governing principle that is, in my opinion, what has truly made our work resonate with our clients. It is this:

Our goal is to make you look awesome.
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If you love it so much why don't you marry it?
AUGUST 2016 - Informational
I was the technology director at an empirical research center. I loved my job, like quite a bit. Everything we were doing was fun and cool and rewarding. Heck, I designed the modernized version of the Supreme Court Database (supremecourtdatabase.org). Tech work in the academic space doesn't get much sexier than that. We were working on some very cool stuff. Then one semester, at the request of my dean, I agreed to work on a system that could modernize the scheduling process for our school and everything changed.

That initially small and seemingly innocuous request turned into a multi-year, multi-resource Everest that quickly became the most daunting project I ever participated in after more than two decades of I.T. work. There may have been a few panic attacks and more than a few missed dinners with the family in the mix but in the end we summited.
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