Proximity report alerts you to courses crowding their neighbors

A schedule administrator's greatest fear comes the first week of classes. This is when if something went awry it would be discovered, namely in the form of two groups appearing at the same spot at the same time each with a published claim to the space. In almost a decade of schedule-building, our record is unblemished in this regard. You might wonder how I know this with the confidence I do. I know this because I'd be the second call that got made after that happened—and I've never had to take that call. And while each of our admins may have a few to a few dozen schedules under their belt, here at ofCourse we count our schedule-successes in the hundreds. Those grey hairs on my head were earned, not given.

But that's the big ugly in scheduling. No doubt. No debate. The thing you can't paint over or excuse in any way. And that unfortunate and embarrassing moment is what has brought a number of schools to us--they never want to, can't afford to, have another one of those on their record. And it is not only about protecting their school's reputation, but it is also about being kinder to their own well-being. There's only so much a nervous system can take before buckling.

After dancing around your faculty preferences and getting all your courses safely placed, the common second challenge is protecting for course diversity. Coincidentally, that is the second best thing we are kinda awesome at. While it is not possible to be 100% perfect in most expectations here (EVERY class on the grid can't be that special), we do quite well. But it is when you get to the next level beyond being collision-free and diversity-friendly where peoples' wants start getting a bit more blurry and undecided. There's a surprising number of things that people express concerns for. Not starting too early. Not starting too late. Honoring lots of first preferences. Or on a few curious occasions, not using any faculty preferences at all. Making sure this room is used lots and this one hardly ever. Scheduling as little as possible on Friday mornings and scheduling nothing at all on Friday afternoons (I mean we want the students to return next year, no?).

But one request you don't hear about much in the early going but gets plenty of traction in the later stages is how close classes may be to one another. This varies from place to place, and it varies in schedule to schedule for both natural and manufactured reasons. The short version is, especially once you get into your polishing-phase, there can be some drift in a schedule. And sometimes things can get close, and sometimes things can get really close.

Of course, there have always been ways to expose such things, but they required a bit of effort on your part and are a touch on the soupy side. As has been said many times before, here and elsewhere, this is just not the ofCourse way. We are here to put concise, and sophisticated (and droolingly beautiful) tools in your hand and to do so with an operating room's precision. But when it came to ferreting out the near misses, there was a hole in our defenses. I mean sure you could go to the Day-by-Day report and eyeball the boxes that were almost touching and make note of these close-encounters and then go back to your polish screen, look the courses up and start sliding them this way and that to create a bit more space between the dance partners. So it was possible.

But is this what we want for you? Is this the best we can do? When these sorts of questions arise, we use our Magic Wand Test. In the Magic Wand Test we ask ourselves if we could wave a magic wand over this page, this feature, this design, is this how we would make it (and yes, our magic wand does leave a trail of glinty sparkles in its wake)? While we are in this magic-wand state, there are plenty of times we say, "well of course not." In this example, what we really want to say is, "Genie, show me all the classes that are close to one another" and they would appear in list-form, magic-like for your immediate review. And better yet, you would say, "Genie, show me all the classes that are less than 5 minutes apart" and after looking at that would say, "Ok Genie, now show me all the classes that are less than 10 minutes apart". Yes, I think we can all agree that that is the better option and the ability we would really want. So, that is the tool we have made--well, after we got tired of running around the offices waving our magic wand around.

Now, when you are in Step 5's Polish and Publish mode and are fine-tuning your schedule, in both subtle and grandiose ways, you can at any point visit the PROXIMITY REPORT and see where a course might be crowding its neighbor. And you can ask this report to show you classes, professors and cohorted-sections with only 5, 10, or 15-minute deltas. With this intel in hand, you can then look to slide the class a few minutes in either direction to create a little more space. After doing so, return to the Proximity Report and see the offender counts going down and down and down.

But, let's say you have a situation where a class or two are totally land-locked, and there is just no wiggle without breaking serious bones on the whole schedule, and it's just not something you're in a position to do. Well, in that case, you can approach the professors who will be living in close quarters and give them a heads up. You might not be able to divine more hours or elbow room, but at least you can get in front of these situations proactively. The alternative is having one, if not both professors darken your door on the first week of classes and thanking you, sarcastically of course, for putting someone right on top of their class time.

We will never be able to eradicate every possible bump and wrinkle that happens in the scheduling fabric. We know this. But we also know that when properly equipped, all endeavors not only become possible but also have the potential to be enjoyable as well. And, that my friends, IS the ofCourse way!

As always, see you on the scheduling pitch.


Troy Dearmitt

Troy is the CTO & Co-founder at ofCourse.

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