From fire extinguishers to a professor's preference, scheduling is delicate task
To the 144,000 or so Arizona State University students who will start planning their spring semester when the schedule of classes becomes available on Sept. 19, they are invisible.
Nameless. Faceless. The picture of anonymity, working in a cubicle, a computer staring back at them.
Kim Marrone Beckert knows better.
Beckert is an assistant vice provost on the Undergraduate Education Team in the Office of the University Provost. Ask Beckert about the people who work tirelessly to put together the schedules for ASU’s 17 colleges and she says, “They’re hidden heroes.”
“That is 100% true,” said Julia Himberg, associate chair of curriculum in the Department of English. “The work of scheduling is complicated, and a lot of people are involved. It’s a true group effort.”
How are class schedules put together at ASU?
Let’s start here: It’s a complicated process that takes at least a year. Beckert said class schedules for the 2024–25 school year will be due in November, just three months after the kickoff of the 2023–24 school year.
Himberg said the Department of English works on its schedules two years in advance in order to try to best serve its more than 6,600 students.
“Schedules are an enormous part of the student experience,” Himberg said. “It’s not just about having the chance to take a variety of classes. I think it also affects their day-to-day quality of life.”
Here’s how the process works: As the schedulers for each college begin to map out the schedule for the following school year, they have to consider several factors.
How many students will take a respective class? How many rooms are available? When are those rooms available? Does the proper technology exist in those classrooms? Is faculty available to teach? Is there faculty on sabbatical? Does a certain professor prefer on teaching only in the morning? Or on Thursdays? How does course modality fit into the schedule?
Then there’s the unexpected.
“I was just talking to someone who told me a story. They said a fire extinguisher blew up in a room,” Beckert said. “So some shuffling and rescheduling had to take place.
“It’s a big puzzle. I find the best schedulers are people who love puzzles because that’s ultimately what it is.”
Jennifer Malerich, the assistant vice provost for academic and global engagement in the Office of the University Provost, said school schedulers also have to be mindful of all the construction on campus.
“I was driving to work the other day and noticed a building had been taken down in the few days I was away from campus," Malerich said. “There is a lot of advance planning and coordination that goes on in conjunction with the Office of Enterprise Planning, Enterprise Technology and Facilities Management. Classroom scheduling needs to know what’s going to happen to these buildings ahead of time, whether it’s a new building, renovations or technology improvements.
"It’s very important for us to look ahead and understand how we can maximize our footprint in a way that makes the most sense for our students.”
Kim Sjostrom, the coordinator in the School of Molecular Sciences, said schedulers have to be great negotiators. As they begin the process of composing a schedule, they’re trying to appease the requests that might come from the various parties involved.
For example, is the Chemistry 101 professor or the Chemistry 453 professor going to get the classroom they both request on a Tuesday afternoon?
“The scheduler really is the liaison between the faculty, the leadership of that academic unit and the provost office in terms of policies and things that they need to be paying attention to,” Beckert said. “The faculty has its own set of needs. The unit has its own set of needs. They have to manage all these relationships.”
Once schedulers have the necessary information, they input the schedule into the PeopleSoft scheduling software that’s used throughout the university. After the schedule is designed by PeopleSoft, it’s fed to another software called Ad Astra, which considers logistical hurdles.
“So students don’t have to go from one end of campus to the other with back-to-back classes,” Sjostrom said.
Then schedules are submitted to central class scheduling in the provost’s office where they are tweaked as needed before being released.
“I remember the days when I first started doing this,” Sjostrom said. “We got printouts on computer paper, and we went in with a red pen and Wite-Out and made all of our changes. “Then they all went to central scheduling and somebody sat down with a pen and was like, ‘OK, this is what needs to be changed.’
“What we do now saves a lot of time.”
In the end, Beckert said, everything schedulers do has one purpose.
“How we deliver classes in a way that is most beneficial to student success,” she said.
Top photo of a classroom in Hayden Library by Charlie Leight/ASU News