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Message from Steve Pettifer, Academic Lead, The Timetable Project

Thank you so much to everyone that took part in the first part of our Timetabling Priorities survey. We've had 381 responses from staff, and 272 from our UG, PGT and PGR students, and I've read through them all and discussed them with the rest of the team. This post is my attempt to distil what we’ve learned from those, and to let you know what will happen next.

The results in brief

There were many suggestions for improvements and tweaks to the wording of the example items that we suggested in the first phase of the survey. We’ve made changes to these original items, that you should see reflected in the next phase. There were also suggestions for -- what boils down to -- three new possible priorities that weren’t in our original list. They are:

  1. Minimise interleaving synchronous and asynchronous activities (i.e. something that requires being in a particular physical location for an in-person activity mixed with needing to find a quiet study space).
  2. Avoid fragmented days (e.g. one hour on, one hour off throughout the day; this is arguably the inverse of something that was already on our list, but it came up often enough to seem worthwhile including it as a new item; the purist in me winces at this, the pragmatist recognises there is already some cross-talk between the things we’re asking your rank order anyway).
  3. Minimise teaching on Wednesdays (if you like, this is a stronger version of something that’s in the policy already which is that Wednesday afternoons should be teaching-free).

There were loads of other useful, interesting and -- in some cases -- challenging comments that we’ll need a bit of time to think through and that may have implications for the final version of the policy; more on that in a later post. 

What happens next

Our original plan was to run a survey in three phases:

  • Phase 1: Generate a 'long-list' of possible things to prioritise by asking for items we'd missed from our example list (this is the survey that's just closed).
  • Phase 2: Slim that long-list down to a short-list of maybe 10 things.
  • Phase 3: Rank order that short-list.

I originally expected to end up with a load of new things to add to our examples, but that’s not what happened. Although there were plenty of suggestions, they ended up being variations of things we’d already put in the list, or variations of one of the three things I mentioned above.

Because we’ve only ended up with three new substantive additions to our original list, it doesn’t really seem sensible to spend time doing a short-listing exercise, so we’re going to skip the second phase and go straight to the third one. That means the next phase of the process will be a ‘forced-choice’ survey where you’ll be asked to rank-order all the items from most-important to least-important.

We’ll be looking at the results in aggregate, so please don’t spend too much time agonising over whether something is first or second place in your response: just make sure that things that matter most to you are towards the top of your ranking, and those that matter least are towards the bottom.

Some reflections so far

The first survey had the option to include free-text comments. What’s been really clear from your responses is that, while there are significant areas of agreement, there are also many things that we all fundamentally disagree about; as a huge and diverse University, that’s perhaps not surprising. I’ll resist talking about the details here to avoid skewing the results of the next phase of the survey, but hopefully it’s clear up-front that this process isn’t likely to result in something that’s absolutely perfect for everybody in every respect under all circumstances.  

That’s absolutely not to say this process is pointless – I’m reasonably confident what we’re doing here is the most open, transparent and inclusive approach to timetabling that’s happened anywhere so far. But it is to recognise, that this is mostly about balance and compromise: we’re trying to find an outcome that is as equitable as we can make it in the first instance, and that has the scope for becoming more fair and equitable over time as we learn more. There may be ways of taking contradictory views into account, and we should absolutely try to do that; but we won’t know whether that’s possible until we get there.

Most of the free-text comments fell into one of three broad categories:

  1. Some, perhaps most, of these comments related to our current processes and policy. I’m reasonably confident that we’ve addressed these in the development of our new timetable policy and standard operating procedures, and I hope that when you get to see these, you’ll see your concerns have been taken into account. In tandem with this survey process, we’ve been holding workshops with our Timetabling teams who have helped in shaping what I hope is a fairer and more efficient timetabling process that will work better for everyone.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  
  2. There were several comments that from a ‘users’ perspective seem related to the timetable, but from a ‘project’ perspective are outside of our control; for example comments to do with the quality of equipment in various parts of the university or decisions about the shape and size of course units or programmes. While we can't do anything about that ourselves, we will make sure to pass that feedback on to colleagues who can do something about it.                                                                                                                                                                                                               
  3. Finally, there was a category of comments that relate to more complex and sensitive matters such as caring responsibilities or religious observance. We’ve taken the view that these would not be appropriate to include a broad open ranking exercise like our next survey, but we absolutely recognise that they are of importance to many staff and students. We hope that many of these are already addressed in the new policy/process (and in particular by the introduction of Teaching Availability Arrangements), but it’s also really clear that others will need some further thought. I’d be happy to discuss those with anybody that has concerns.

That’s all for now – any questions or concerns, please do get in touch with me by email or on Teams.