April 21, 2005

The clamour for exam timetables

The updated exam timetable software went live last Friday, the same day as the summer exam timetable was finalised (exactly on time according to plan). After some "real data" testing on Monday, we finally made personalised students' exam timetables available on Tuesday.

The student-facing system is essentially unchanged – the PDFs are generated on request from the database. Under the covers there was some improvement to the code for better maintainability. But most of the new development went into a new system for departments to nominate their invigilators via web forms instead of the old paper forms. We start piloting this tomorrow.

What surprised us was the huge demand for the personal timetables, much higher than last year. In spite of the complete exam list being published on a noticeboard last Friday, and in spite of us opening the system quietly at the very end of the working day on Tuesday, by 8am on Wednesday the system was overloaded and I had to restart it with more memory. The load was significantly higher than last year's peak.

Aside from the IT systems perspective, students seem to have been clamouring for exam timetables this year – I don't know why this should be different from any other year. A particularly immature student union officer decided it would be clever to organise a campaign of students emailing the exam office to demand publication. Several hundred students did so, although some of them apparently emailed to say they disagreed with the union's position and were quite happy with the current system.

There are two reasons why such a tactic could never work. Firstly, and very obviously, the task of reading hundreds of emails can only slow down the work done by an office, not speed it up. But secondly and more importantly, the exam office is an example of a central service department which depends heavily on academic departments. The main reason why producing an exam timetable is hard is that departments will not provide accurate information in a timely manner. They prevaricate, delay, provide wrong information and change their minds. The task of co-ordinating what exams need to happen is one of chasing up departments and meeting, in some cases, much less than full co-operation. It must be a frustrating job.

Module registration is subject to much the same kind of process: although modules for next academic year are supposed to have been finalised at this point, some modules are missing, some are still 'provisional' because departments failed to submit them to the approving committee in time, and one department has even completely opted out of the pre-registration phase for Online Module Registration because they intend to make so many changes to their courses (which should have been finalised by now) between now and October that it would be pointless.

It's a shame that students often perceive these issues as problems of the IT systems or the Academic Office. We can't do our jobs properly unless academic departments provide us with the information we need. Some departments are good at it, and some bad. It seems to me the University, on behalf of the students, ought to be a bit firmer with departments about what their information management responsibilities are. It's not a very sexy subject, and not one which academics are likely to be very interested in, but it's vital to being a smoothly run university.


- 5 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Chris May

    I wonder whether students do perceive this to be a failing of the Academic Office (or ITS), or whether in fact they simply view it as a failing of 'the university'.

    Is it reasonable, from the POV of a student, to have to make allowances for the organisation's inability to co-ordinate departments and services? From an staff point of view I can see why it is the way it is, but I can understand a student not accepting that that's the way it should be.

    21 Apr 2005, 16:03

  2. While I'm sure many students don't make a distinction between specific service departments and 'the university', I have from time to time heard comments from students showing that some of them do. The SU officer's simplistic belief that the exam office is solely responsible for exams is a case in point!

    The fact that it's not reasonable for students to have to make allowances for organisational failings is exactly why I suggest that it's on the students' behalf that the university should correct these failings.

    21 Apr 2005, 16:14

  3. As far as I understand it the SU has known there has been no likelihood of getting the timetable published significantly earlier due to the late deadlines for people deciding whether to be assessed by exam or coursework in certain subjects.

    The University asked the SU to find out whether students would accept earlier deadlines to have the exam timetable printed earlier (i.e. in future years). This was done and the answer is yes but apparently this was taken back to the University but they weren't satisfied.

    What's the point of the SU finding out student opinion if the University won't listen? I feel slightly sorry that the exam office was swamped in email, but hopefully it might mean that the message that students want earlier timetables gets passed on to the people that can do something about it. For the record I didn't email, so add one more person to the list who would prefer earlier timetables.

    22 Apr 2005, 13:04

  4. As I outlined, "the people that can do something about it" aren't in the exam office at all. I suspect it would take the Registrar, if not the VC to solve the organisational problems.

    25 Apr 2005, 10:34

  5. This provided very entertaining reading especially with my involvement with the exam timetable publication etc.

    As a student, most tend to perceive ITS, Academic Office, Exam Office etc. as the 'university' and things like OMR, timetables belong to the 'university'. The departments just teach the subjects.

    From an ITS point of view, could the exam timetables change following the last deregistration as surely deregistering deletes the entry from the database which provides the timetables. My exam timetable has 12 exams on it and I'm only taking 8 of them. It would be nice to know that the deregistration info has been informed to the exams office.

    27 Apr 2005, 14:22


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