In these strange days of early 2020, many universities and colleges around the world are suddenly facing the task of moving most (or even all) of their teaching online; where it can be presented remotely from just about anywhere a lecturer has an internet connection and beamed out to students scattered all over the country, or even the world! In all that sudden and extreme change, one immutable fact remains; two classes that share people (either students or staff) cannot happen at the same time. In short, you still need a timetable; even when you remove rooms (and other physical spaces) from the equation completely.

This throws into a stark light a fundamental truth often lost in the way institutions approach timetabling; there’s a reason it’s called TIME-tabling and not ROOM-tabling. The distinction is often lost at institutions where you will find people referring to timetable events with words like ‘bookings’; or (even worse) ‘room bookings’. While physical space is certainly important and can have significant influence on a timetable’s planning and construction, it is by no means the primary driver in timetable construction. The primary driver has been, and always will be, “two events that share people cannot happen at the same time”. Once you’ve found the non-overlapping slots for your events that the people involved can share, then you can start looking for a room. Of course, in the case of specialist teaching, which requires labs or specific equipment, you must make the room a part of that decision from the outset but, at most educational institutions, the vast majority of teaching events do not require a bespoke space. For probably at least 80% of your timetable, the primary decision driver for events is the avoidance of double bookings for students and staff, after which you can go in search of a free teaching room. As your timetable fills up it could be that no more rooms can be found; you may need to backtrack or build in some awareness of limited room availability into the process to avoid painting yourself into a corner, but the primary driver is always people and their availability.

With remote teaching, this remains the case. Given the current crisis where institutions are finding themselves moving to remote teaching with very little notice, the pragmatic solution is to use the existing timetable. The availability of staff and students taking a class at 11:00 on a Tuesday morning on your campus will be retained at 11:00 on a Tuesday, but from their various living rooms and studies across the country instead. Assuming your original campus-based timetable is clash free, those same students and staff will be free at the times of their other classes. It should therefore be possible to continue using the existing timetable without rooms, assuming all the staff presenting their teaching have easy access to the appropriate equipment.

However, how would a long-term or permanent shift to remote teaching impact on timetabling? The good news is that, without rooms, it not only makes it easier to construct timetables, but it also improves the timetables of both students and staff. Before we get to that, however, we should look at the bad news, specialist teaching. For courses where students need complete practical, hands-on training for a qualification, remote teaching will be limited to their non-specialist classes only. Specialist spaces will still be limited and, probably, based somewhere on a campus where students will have to travel to access them. On a campus, a practical class could attend a lecture or seminar where students could just be a five-minute walk from the lab, but longer travel times will need to be included in timetable planning for remote teaching and, quite possibly, have to take into account public transport schedules where potentially large groups of students would be required to arrive on campus for specific classes.

The clustering of such classes also becomes crucial. Practical classes could be scattered throughout the week, alternating with traditional sit-down lectures and tutorials where the spaces are relatively near to each other, but this can lead to highly impractical timetables when the non-specialised teaching is remotely delivered. Classes requiring practical space will need to be clustered together on specific days to allow for travelling, but be balanced against a maximum, continuous teaching time. If students require 7 hours of practical teaching in a week, placing it all on one day may reduce travelling, but fatigue, potential health and safety implications will negate that and so necessitates more spreading. Students could also have, say, 20 hours of remote teaching to complete, with some of it scheduled on the same day, giving the Timetabler a very delicate balancing act to perform.

For staff (and students) the other consideration for remote teaching would be the dangers of sitting for too long. They may not realise it, but traditional class-based teaching leads to a fair bit of walking and stair-climbing that is lost when teaching moves online. The NHS website in the UK warns of the dangers of excessive sitting, citing the discovery in the ‘50s that double-decker bus drivers who sat down for 90% of their shifts were twice as likely to have heart attacks as their conductor colleagues who worked the same hours on the same buses, but who climbed about 600 stairs each working day.

Students and staff walking between rooms, offices, labs, canteens and other facilities over the course of a standard timetabled teaching day will also get a fair bit of ‘stealth’ exercise, all of which is lost in remote teaching; not to mention the effects constant sitting has on their posture, spine and muscle health. While office workers the world over have had to deal with this for decades, for remote teaching the responsibility to build in breaks and variation will be on the shoulders of the Timetabler. This adds some complexity, but not being constrained by room availability should provide some breathing space. 

When it comes to improvements, there is a great opportunity to fine-tune the human aspects of timetables which no longer rely on the availability of physical space. That unpopular class for 300 students who are all free on Tuesday morning but waits till Friday, 16:00, as that is when a large enough lecture theatre is finally free, can now be scheduled on the Tuesday. Any odd gaps, clusters, continuous teaching, late hours or early starts in your timetable from a consequence of limited teaching space can all be addressed if you timetable for remote teaching; so remote teaching should be welcomed by Timetablers everywhere.

To summarise, remember that the primary driver for timetable construction is the fact that any two events that share people cannot happen at the same time. This remains true for remote teaching when the people involved are in their beds, studies, offices and living rooms scattered across the country. Timetables remain as important as ever, but Timetablers now have an opportunity to make even more people-friendly timetables if they are unconstrained by the scarcity of physical space. New challenges will arise, such as travel times and the need for gaps and breaks to provide opportunity for exercise, but it is a shift in focus rather than a completely new challenge.