09 August, 2021

The double-impact for zero-conflict course schedule management, part 2

By: Omar Abdulhafiz
Vector image about timetable management

In our previous article, we stated that there are two main systems for creating a conflict-free course schedule. Then, we discussed the role of the registration management system in creating it. In this article, we shall pick up where we left off and discuss the role of the other element we briefly mentioned: The timetable management system.

And to begin with, it is safe to say the conflict elimination is one of the most critical missions of a timetable management system. The more the system can generate a coherent, efficient and conflict-free course schedule, the more we are inclined to consider it a powerful and reliable system.

What do we mean by a zero-conflict course timetable?

To begin with, we might as well start by defining exactly what we mean by a ‘zero-conflict timetable’, and discussing briefly the challenges of generating one.

To put it simply, a zero-conflict course timetable is one that has absolutely no overlapping or conflicts in terms of course timeslots, facilities, resources, or academic staff availability. As we mentioned in the previous article, generating such a timetable has been a known challenge within a wide spectrum of academic institutions for so long.

As such, a complicated challenge such as this one requires an agile solution, one that finally puts an end to the hassle of conflicting courses once and for all.

How to boost timetable automation efficiency?

Nowadays, the market is full of software solutions that claim to offer zero-conflict timetable management. Generally, though we can categorize them into two main methods.

The first method depends on sheer mathematical probabilities. According to this method, the system would randomly generate an entire timetable without much control by the user. And if the user is not satisfied by the generated timetable, all they can do is run the program once again so it generates a new random timetable, and so on, until they find a distribution that suits their needs.

A slightly better variety of this type of systems tends to provide you with options as to which subjects can fit into certain timeslots. For example, it can give you the option to assign the second timeslot to either math or biology and so on. As such, this method does not provide you with a final result that you can depend on. It leaves the burden of choice almost entirely on your shoulders.

Even more importantly, this type of timetable management does not guarantee a zero-conflict timetable. This is because they heavily depend on probabilities, which means there is always a considerable chance for conflict to occur, which is the main problem we are trying to eliminate here.

For example, since there are no rules that govern the timetable generation process, the system might book a chemistry lab class in a regular classroom whereas it should be held in a lab facility. Another scenario that could happen with this type of systems is booking a small classroom for a large student group only to find out later that the room is not big enough to accommodate all students.

Furthermore, this method of timetable management tends to be much harder to manage when working with very large numbers of courses and students. And it is certainly not what we mean by automation.

Yet to be fair, we do not mean to say that this method is entirely bad, or that it is completely ineffective. However, all we are saying here is that it is no longer state-of-the-art.

The newer generation of timetable management systems, however, comes offers a rule-based method.

Rule-based timetable automation

A rule-based timetable creation method, as its name suggests, operates according to a strict, pre-determined set of rules for eliminating conflict while generating the overall course plan for the entire semester. In other words, the school/college management would provide the system with the rules so that it generates a complete course timetable according to them.

One point that needs to be clear here is that this is not a simple process. To achieve these accurate results, a rule-based timetable creation system uses a highly complicated algorithm of sophisticated calculations (e.g. probabilities, permutations and combinations, and so on).

Diagram about timetable generation rules
Generally, the rules provided to the systems fall into three main categories:
  • Course rules: These are rules related to the nature of each course, its type, level, required resources, etc.
  • Teacher rules: These are rules related to the academic staff members, their positions, availability, office hours, and so on.
  • Facility rules: And these are rules related to the nature of each facility within the school/college, its type (classroom, laboratory, etc.), location, availability, and similar details.

The system is therefore supposed to work according to these rules to produce a coherent and conflict-free timetable. For example, it will not associate an applied chemistry class with a regular classroom when it must be held in a lab.

But how do you enforce these rules and make sure the system works according to them?
Well, here’s where things get even more interesting.

Priorities of distribution

Now that we discussed rule-based automation, one more question that comes to mind is: How do we enforce these rules upon our timetable/course schedule creation process?

Well, this is where the system follows a strict order of priority. For example, let us say we instructed the system that math must always be the second class every day, never first. Also, let’s say we instructed it that the chemistry class must always be assigned in the lab, and that it must never be assigned to the last timeslot in the school day.

What we just did is we gave the system a number of rules related to 2 subjects: math, and chemistry. What the system then does is that it gives these two subjects a higher priority, and so it begins by assigning them in their suitable slots first. Having done that, the system would then distribute the rest of the subjects randomly among the remaining slots since they are not bound by any restrictive rules, and can therefore fit anywhere with ease.


How are rule-based systems better?

As we have explained, rule-based timetable management systems are much better for three main reasons:

  • They give the user much better control over the timetable generation process.
  • Since they follow predefined rules, this allows them to work in a much more structured fashion. As a result, conflict elimination becomes much easier and convenient.
  • They do a better job and producing a final result: an efficient and smooth class timetable that is conflict-free.

Wrapping up..

In the end, one truth stands clear: class timetable creation and management is certainly no easy task. It can be very exhausting to deal with effectively and efficiently. However, it can become much easier with a timetable management system that lets you provide a strict set of rules to govern the class distribution process.

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