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Improving MIT's scheduling system

New system provides flexibility for timetabling, student scheduling, final-exam scheduling, and event scheduling at the Institute.
Photo of a seminar class in session

With the September publication of MIT's fall 2014 final-exam schedule, the first phase of the project to implement a new scheduling system – UniTime, an open-source system developed by Purdue University – was successfully completed. This complex project was designed to replace aging technology, originally developed in the late 1960s, and to substantially expand the functionality and flexibility of our scheduling processes. The system supports four components: timetabling, or the process of generating a class schedule for each term; student scheduling; final-exam scheduling; and event scheduling, which supports community use of classrooms that are managed by the Office of the Registrar.

The focus of the first phase of the project was to eliminate our dependence on a dated algorithm for classroom scheduling and to meet emerging pedagogical needs. More specifically, it:

  • allows us to define different instructional periods – a critical feature in terms of accurately scheduling subjects that are taught for less than a full term. With modularity becoming more prevalent in the curriculum, our ability to support faculty innovation in the delivery of subject content has been greatly enhanced by the new system.
  • integrates scheduling with the curricular-review process, thereby substantially improving the accuracy of the Online Subject Listing and Schedule.
  • supports complex subject configurations, such as classes taught in different formats during the same term and subjects for which departments manage the use of assigned classrooms on a weekly basis.

In addition, UniTime provides a range of powerful tools for managing the many facets of scheduling. For example, UniTime:

  • allows us to run simulations of term scheduling, final-exam scheduling, and student scheduling — and to share results with stakeholders. For instance, we can provide departments with detailed information about projected section sizes and how enrollments align with classroom size, all of which are germane to decisions about resource allocation.
  • optimizes, within minutes, student schedules and final-exam schedules to minimize direct time conflicts.
  • links events associated with the teaching of a class — such as tutorials and office hours — to the subject, thus giving us a more complete view of how faculty use our classrooms for instruction.
  • includes email tools to facilitate the confirmation process for classroom reservations.
  • provides users with a graphical view into the schedule of any classroom in the registrar’s inventory, coupled with powerful query tools to find specific scheduling information.

As we look ahead to the next phase of the project, UniTime will become an even more visible, impactful presence to the MIT community. The first priority is to develop robust and intuitive tools for staff, faculty, and students to use in requesting classrooms (and keeping track of submitted requests), identifying the availability of classrooms, and communicating with the Schedules Office. Along the way, we will fine-tune the process and seek opportunities to integrate with other systems. We will also further modernize term scheduling, student scheduling, and final exam scheduling — recognizing the dynamic nature of academic scheduling at the Institute.

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