The Of Course 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.
Too big, too small, just right.
JANUARY 2018 - New Feature
There was a time, almost a decade ago, when our primary goal was to simply make a computed schedule. No sheen. No shine. Just a schedule. In the many days, weeks, months and years that have passed, we have reached an enviable point where we are no longer just trying to MAKE schedules, but now we get to focus on making BETTER schedules. To do this, we occasionally step back and study our work looking for opportunities to improve our processes. We have recently put our hooks into something that once again seems obvious enough now, but when you start at the very, very beginning, when things like footnotes or custom durations were for-sure luxury accouterments, you can understand why. This latest extension is adding a new layer to our Preference Collection Engine that we predict is going to be responsible for substantial gains in our school's end schedules.

Before introducing this latest feature, allow me to better describe the current preferencing landscape. Let me start with the Registrar Override as it is the least complicated entry point. All that happens through a Registrar Override is an admin would say I need this class scheduled on these precise days at this exact time, say Mon/Wed at 5 pm. That's what goes in and unless you have administratively double-booked a Professor, Room, or Section at that same time, that is what will come out on the other side.
It slices, it dices, it greets your guests at the door.
DECEMBER 2017 - New Feature
Scheduling season is upon us and do we have wonderful news for you (you being our ofCourse admins that is). This will be the third month in a row I am tempted to begin by saying, "If you liked last month's update, you are going to LOVE this one!" But I'm not going to say that. Instead, I am going to tell you that we are ending 2017 with our most impactful update thus far and closing the year in high fashion. This means our existing admins will enter this year's scheduling season better equipped than ever, and they were already rounding the corner in a super-charged Maserati, so it's starting to look even more unfair than it did just six months ago. If there is a dour part to the story, it is that the feature's working name, Course Tagging, doesn't properly celebrate its full pulling power.

The first thing to note is we are adding another dimension to your Course Controls, and you will now have three dials to guide your courses' core behavior: Course Type, Course Genre, and new to the party, Course Tagging. Each of these levers does a unique thing for you and your schedule. In that everyone who is not me doesn't dream, doodle and delight in scheduling as much as I do, let me take a moment to review the two prior controls before introducing our new member.
A new sort of balancing act.
NOVEMBER 2017 - New Feature
When making a schedule, there is a natural order to things. We observed this early in our work and built a platform to support this organic flow by methodically walking our users through the process. First, do this, then do this. That was the basic model. For admins coming from fully manual-build environments (e.g., excel, magnetic boards), having fewer administrative matters to track, configure and remember was most welcome. After figuring out the initial workflow, we were able to sit back and watch how people moved through the process looking for missing links in the chain. After finding a gap, we would work to fill the void.

I believe this regimented approach resonated with our admins for a number of reasons. Some are obvious and showy like how we handle your preference collection in less than ten minutes of effort or how we backstop your manual changes to a finished schedule ensuring that you don't double-book people or rooms. But some of the abilities get less fanfare, like how you push a button and get a schedule based on your faculty preferences and school rules in less than five minutes.
Your bird's eye view just got a little higher and sharper.
OCTOBER 2017 - New Feature
While full-on technology workers developed the ofCourse scheduling platform, the lion-share of the design comes from school administrators, faculty, staff, and to a degree, students. The latter group drove the process by telling us, the tech-people, what we should make. This is a critical detail because, before my school's Dean of Academic Affairs, Registrar and Dean of Faculty stepped into my office in 2009, I knew absolutely nothing about making university schedules, but we are together today because I am an above-average listener.

Between 2009 and today (Fall of 2017), I have had a great many suggestions left on my voice mail, mentioned in person, and sent to my inbox. Can the system do this? Have you tried doing this? I am not sure how hard it would be to do, but it would be super-helpful if it could do this. Questions and comments like these over the years are what have made the ofCourse Scheduler the coveted and extensive tool it is today.
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 undoubtedly the sense for the requestor and ourselves after the initial call for the feature.
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. The seasonal shifts that happen every year are one of the most prominent and palpable changes. Fall, Spring, Summer, Winter. Each has its own personality and purpose. When you study it (or obsess about 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 gets produced. In the November and December window schools are negotiating the courses to be taught the following year. And then in January we prep for the cycle to begin anew.
In every show, someone has to get top-billing.
JULY 2017 - How-To
I get a disproportionate 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 want 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 case 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 newspaper and she HAD to read the newspaper 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.
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. Smartboard. Check. Projection. Check. Ada access. Check.

Fifteen years ago this was not so much the case, and you had to be careful about the placement of certain courses because of the professor or course's pedagogical needs. But these technologies have become more affordable and accessible making it less of a problem. Additionally, the construction of new buildings and the renovation of old buildings further addressed any lingering room inequities. But, as with so many things, we found ways to recomplicate matters.
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.

Before you can respect the past, you have to remember the past.
APRIL 2017 - New Feature
People did not ask for a good number of the features in this system. Those additions 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. And were I you, and were I the one asked to make my school's schedule, this is the tool I would want if I had to do your job. Granted, I have two added advantages. First I have some experience making these sorts of things. And secondly, and probably more importantly, I have become reasonably obsessed with this challenge.

Now as for the requirement of this system, my system. First and foremost it 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 invade every university schedule. Lastly, it needs to make me look smart.
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 substantial changes, like swapping teacher section assignments because of competing day/time preferences. Those are the sorts of things one does to improve the schedule.
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 precisely 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 deliver 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.
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 somewhat unfathomable proposition. The downside of this is that when that time rolls around; when you've stepped away from it for a while, remembering 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, whispering in your ear what to do next. People say this somehow happens in a way that is not creepy or scary, but the people in the ofCourse offices have trouble accepting that.
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 typical, expected, cooperative parts of something that makes it hard to produce. 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 some 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.
Not all classes are created equal.
NOVEMBER 2016 - New Feature
In a simple and conflict-free world, every class would have a straightforward and traditional course configuration. Every Monday and Wednesday from 9:00 a.m. to 9:50 a.m. 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 passed.

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 every one of these sorts of cattywampus possibilities 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 on our very tall ladder.
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 just be made in our system and then exported into a school's parent system where the faculty and students would consume it as usual.

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) while settling upon that final schedule.
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 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 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.
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 refreshing 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.
Newsletter Signup
The newsletter is sent once a month.
  If you'd like to be notified when new postings are made, please provide your email below and we'll send you a short note when there is something to see.

Email Address

  Of Course  
Of Course software provides temporary use of on-line non-downloadable software for website development. If you are interested in purchasing this software for your school, please click here.