Education

So many students, so little room

The monster job of a rosterer

The RUG has 31,000 students, 148 educational programmes, and more than 25 buildings. Scheduling classes is a logistical puzzle. ‘It’s like sudoku, but with a lot more variables.’
By Lyanne Levy / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Scheduling coordinator Edwin Kiers doesn’t think holding statistics lectures at the Pathé film theatre is a good idea. Lecturers need a blackboard, students need a surface to put their notebooks or laptops on so they can take notes, and the plush chairs are too comfortable to pay attention. It’s one of many things he has to keep in mind when he makes the schedule for the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences, which has been his job for the last decade.

The university has grown significantly over the past ten years. His faculty has so many psychology students the lectures no longer fit in any of the university halls. So he often schedules them in Pathé or the Stadskerk. But a four-hour lecture in a film theatre is exhausting, and students need more than fifteen minutes to go from the Academy building to the Stadskerk at the Friesestraatweg.

Sudoku

Those needs are something automated scheduling generators don’t have access to. FSE scheduling coordinator Merel van Rees Vellinga: ‘It’s so mathematically complex that a computer can’t do the work. It’s a puzzle. Like a sudoku, but with a lot more variables.’

Edwin Kiers, GMW

  • 4 bachelors
  • 3 pre-masters
  • 23 masters
  • Academic teacher training
  • 4500 students
  • 500 courses
  • Oude Hortus, Bloemstraat

The planners struggle to manage the pace of growth at the RUG; courses are outgrowing even the largest lecture halls, of which there are too few as it is. ‘We have to make the most of the space we have’, says Kiers. ‘We already know that we’ll be short on lecture halls next year.’

Kiers schedules makes do by scheduling psychology lectures in the evenings and at other locations. Van Rees Vellinga also started planning evening classes early this academic year. ‘I couldn’t schedule all the classes before five in the afternoon anymore. It’s a big step. It’s asking a lot of the staff and has far-reaching consequences. But we’ll be forced to keep doing this if we don’t get any new spaces. Honestly, I think we’ll be scheduling an increasing number of classes at night. It’s the only option we have right now.’

You always have to make compromises

She has rooms available to her in the Bernoulliborg, Linnaeusborg, Nijenborgh, Energy Academy, and the building at the Antonius Deusinglaan, but the biology bachelor has outgrown all the rooms at those locations. ‘Biology courses must now be scheduled in the Aletta Jacobs hall, but every single faculty wants to plan their classes there. So sometimes we teach these classes in the Pathé, the Stadskerk, or the UMCG. But it can be hard for students to get there on time. The Stadskerk is located well out of the city centre. If I schedule classes there, I have to schedule an hour break between classes. That’s not ideal.’

Perfect

A perfect schedule doesn’t exist, she says. ‘You always have to make compromises, either when it comes to the location, the order of classes, or the lecturers. Almost all lecturers want to start the week off with lectures and schedule their seminars later in the week. Some programmes have 24 to thirty weekly contact hours in the first year, consisting of lab hours, seminars, and computer sessions. The week is full before you know it.’

Peter van Rooij also needs computer rooms. He’s been the schedule coordinator at the Faculty of Economics and Business for seventeen years. The faculty has four bachelors, sixteen pre-masters, 21 masters, twelve double degree programmes, and four executive masters. Van Rooij calls the scheduling for all that a ‘complicated puzzle’.

The planners start making the concept schedule for the next academic year around February. They base the schedule on the previous academic year and work together with programme and educational directors.

When Van Rees Vellinga started as a planner five years ago, there were no deadlines for the scheduling process. ‘But it’s become very strict. Everyone needs the rooms, so we don’t have the luxury of waiting to make the schedule.’

Lack of rooms

Sometimes, the planners have to make decisions for the students. ‘We can’t take students’ regular schedules into account when we’re scheduling the elective courses’, say Van Rees Vellinga. ‘That means students don’t always have access to all elective courses. The planners determine which courses students can and cannot take, although it’s usually not on purpose. If there are a load of electives, it’s usually just a coincidence which courses a student can take.’

Van Rooij says this, in addition to the lack of rooms, is a planner’s biggest challenge. ‘There are programmes that have twenty-five to thirty electives each on top of the standard lectures, seminars, and lab hours. That makes it really difficult to enable students to pick every single possible course they might want.’

Sometimes we decide which courses students can go to

Van Rooij also makes the central exam schedule by collating the schedules of all faculties into a single schedule. He’s looking forward to the expansion of the Aletta Jacobs hall, which will add two lecture halls and 1,200 exam tables.

Until then, the planners are bound by time and space. Starting in September, exams will be scheduled at four moments during the day rather than the current three. The university has also added another exam location at The Village, behind the former Suikerunie lot. Students sat exams in this building for the first time last week.

Peter van Rooij, FEB

  • 4 bachelors
  • 16 pre-masters
  • 21 masters
  • 12 double degree programmes
  • 4 executive masters
  • 7000 students
  • Kapteynborg, Duisenberg, Mercator

‘Psychology exams are the worst’, Kiers says. ‘This year, we have 1,048 psychology first-years.’ You can’t fit that many students into a single exam hall, which is why psychology actually has exams on Saturdays.

Thousand

He first schedules all lectures in the big halls, then plans the exams, the tougher courses and programmes, and finally the bachelor and the master. ‘Students come first; lecturers are more flexible in their schedule. If a lecturer is truly unavailable, we’ll adjust the schedule. But a lecturer is just one person, when the classes sometimes consist of a thousand students’, Kiers explains.

The job can be stressful, like when a planner has incorrect information or information is missing, says Van Rees Vellinga. But it’s impossible to make the mistake of planning two classes in the same room at the same time; the scheduling system they use prevents this. Anyone who does end up making the mistake only makes it once, says Van Rooij. ‘It happened to me once, a really long time ago. Nobody wants that.’

Kiers once accidentally hit the wrong button when making a schedule, causing him to lose part of it. ‘It was just gone. There was no button to back, to undo anything.’ It took him the entire weekend to recreate his lost work.

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