Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Time Machine

Many years ago, I wrote up a set of guidelines for timetabling one of the more complex educational schedules in the country. It was nowhere as complex as a university timetable, but it was pretty messy as high school schedules go. I included guidelines such as not allowing teachers or students to go more than about three hours without a break, guidelines for not having too many periods of the same subject in the same day, and so on.

Although the timetabling itself was done mainly by software, the point of the guidelines was to reduce the number of possible software-generated outcomes which were not human-friendly. For this, humans had to think about what constituted human-unfriendly, and where rules had to be broken if no outcome could be found by the software. We also had to gather data which would make us knowledgeable enough to break constraints, eliminate pointless constraints, or alter constraints that were 'nice to have' but were making the job literally impossible.

When I produced my first timetabling report, the boss remarked that he had never seen a timetabling committee produce a timetabling report. This made me feel uncomfortable. I've always believed that any committee set up to carry out a given task or function should report on its ideas, considerations, actions, follow-up and other relevant matters. Minimally, such reporting ought to be submitted to oversight every six months. I used to do this for every committee I chaired.

But then, I was told that my report was controversial because it contained too many details and ruffled too many feathers. I suspect this was because I had included a section highlighting inefficiencies and what could be done about them.

One such inefficiency was the hiring of teachers in excess of the number required for the teaching periods available. This allowed the offloading of teachers for undefined general tasks. Some departments were more culpable than others. The more 'innocent' or naïve departmental heads were actually allowing their teachers to absorb the workload of these departments. Some struck back by counter-offloading.

I assessed the cost to the school budget at a fairly large figure. It would have been enough to pay for a hefty bonus for everyone, if we had not hired so many extra teachers. It would have been more than enough to pay for the science lab equipment which I had been told there was 'insufficient budget for'.

When I highlighted this particular fact, I was waffled at and told not to worry. After all, it wasn't my money, they said.

Two years later and after my second round of timetabling committee reports, I was 'rotated' out of the chair. Fortunately, I kept records. I had been a good 'time machine'.

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Blogger LoneRifle said...

Software to generate timetables based on rules? Sounds interesting, am working in that general area. Do you remember the name of the software used?

Captcha: grati - when timetables can be generated without constraint.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010 9:25:00 pm  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

LR: I do indeed remember the name of the software used. It was a French programme called ADE. See http://www.adesoft.com/ for more details. I did such interesting things with it that the vendor asked me if he could use my stuff as examples for his marketing purposes. Of course, I had to decline. It wasn't a fantastic piece of software, but it served its purpose well; and any software can be abused by administrators.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010 1:26:00 pm  

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