SFU scheduling team solves timetable puzzle amid pandemic uncertainty

April 07, 2022
SFU’s central scheduling team, from left, Alexandra Chow, Andrew Cochrane and George Christou, near their office in the Maggie Benston Centre.

Asked if the ground-breaking video game Tetris might serve an apt analog for the daunting task of shoehorning 4,500 courses into hundreds of classrooms across three campuses, Andrew Cochrane agrees.  

Tetris, sure – but you don’t know what shape is coming next.”

For Cochrane, SFU’s manager of schedules, and his team at SFU Student Services, the uncertainty of the global pandemic threw a wrench into a scheduling process that starts more than half a year before the start of a term.

“Planning for September and January was epic. The past two terms have been the toughest I’ve seen, but our team stepped up,” says Cochrane. “For us, the return to campus was a challenge.”

The team was expecting everything to be 100 per cent back on campus, but when September came, remote classes were added, which resulted in late and some missed deadlines.

Despite the confusion caused by the global pandemic, schedulers from across the university made sure SFU’s return to campus was relatively smooth for students.

“Students have a lot on their plates. Some of them are away from home for the first time. They’re juggling their studies and their social lives and some have jobs. It’s important we centre the process around students and make sure they’re top of mind when we are scheduling.”

Typically, planning begins nine months in advance, when SFU’s 60 department schedulers ask professors what courses they’ll be teaching, and how, when and where they’d like to teach them.

Then comes the difficult job of juggling the requests, establishing a departmental course timetable without too many conflicts for faculty and students, and following a scheduling policy laying out patterns that create enough randomness to give students the best access to electives.

But the process doesn’t stop at the department. Once the departmental schedulers have completed their tasks, they enter their data into GoSFU, where Cochrane, and his team members, Alexandra Chow and George Christou take over. Katrina Warniez also helped with the fall scheduling, but has since moved on to the Centre for Educational Excellence.

The trio juggle lecture theatres and classrooms with dates and times across all three campuses, working with Kinson Lo in Surrey and Milly Butler in Vancouver to negotiate rooms with the departmental schedulers.

SFU’s central scheduling team, clockwise from top left, Milly Butler, Katrina Warniez, George Christou, Alexandra Chow, Andrew Cochrane and Kinson Lo.

However, uncertainty around the pandemic and the constant navigation of evolving public health orders caused delays and confusion for the scheduling team. Despite the challenges, the team worked with their partners to successfully schedule this fall’s term.

Cochrane got his start in scheduling “kind of by accident,” backfilling a maternity leave at another university in 2012. He says it was a job he never thought he’d get the opportunity to do again, until a paternity leave brought him to SFU’s Surrey campus in a 2014. When a full-time position opened 2016 at Student Services at Burnaby campus, he jumped at it.

Tracey Anbinder, manager of academic and administrative services for the School of Criminology, says balancing in-person classes with remote exceptions posed unique challenges for the team.

“Normally there is a standardized process, including timelines,” says Anbinder. “During COVID-19 and the return to campus, we needed to redo things as procedures and rules changed on the fly. The scheduling staff were fantastic. They had to deal with changes for all units, all across campus, while the rules, dates and procedures were changing daily.

“They provided calm and efficient service throughout – I don’t know how they kept everything under control, but they did.”

Cochrane is also quick to credit the solid work and professionalism of departmental schedulers, like Anbinder, who worked under tremendous pressure amid a lack of information.

“The departmental schedulers have been fabulous,” he says. “We couldn’t have done the job without their compassion and collaboration.”

Now, in a brief reprieve before works gets underway on planning the summer term, Cochrane says he’s hoping to see a return to normalcy.

“We have lots of space and fewer classes this summer. I’m hoping things begin to seem normal. For us, it’s been a time of learning and we’ll continue to adapt as we go forward.”

This is a story in our People of SFU series, where we’re celebrating SFU’s unsung heroes—those who go above and beyond the call of duty to create community, advance SFU’s mission and make the university a great place to work and learn. You can read more stories here.