Leon Smith says “Hello, Good Evening and Welcome”


It’s 21 years since I started my first timetabling job at the University of Glamorgan, and I’ve experienced managing timetable and related operations at the University of Leicester, DMU, UWE and MMU as well as running a Registry. At no point during all of that time have I felt as optimistic about the future possibilities for system-enhanced timetabling in HE as I do right now.
So, this is my first blog post and I must admit I’ve struggled a little to decide on the right tone for it. As someone who’s spent more years than they care to remember largely writing formal reports, marketing content and academic essays, it’s been a little challenging to put something together that is more ‘conversational’.
As I write this, I’ve just completed my first eight months at Semestry. So, I’ve decided to attempt to share some of that experience with you through focussing on the changes we’ve been seeing in the TermTime product, or the edited highlights at least (as you’ll see there have been a lot). However, rather than just listing all the additional functionality that’s appeared (but don’t worry, I’ll be doing that too, list fans ), I thought I’d highlight the approach that led us to decide the relative priority of these enhancements. This will hopefully offer a little bit of an insight into our product management philosophy and illustrate the drivers behind it.

The Really, Really Big List

So, what follows is a list of all the enhancements that have been added in the past eight months’ releases. At this point I have to give a shout out to my good friend and colleague, Lee Dumbleton, for all his great work in documenting these and our most excellent development team for doing the hard work of making it a reality. The list includes all the enhancements from seven major upgrades and two minor releases that were deployed between May 3rd and December 14th:
1. Redesign of the Schedule page and MoveTime – Providing additional feedback on constraints that impact on scheduling decisions, and the combining of the schedule view with constraint information
2. Staff contract hours and analysis – including the ability to define hours to be delivered by teaching staff over a given range of weeks, providing week-by-week analysis of hours delivered, and whether these are over/under target
3. Enhanced room utilisation reporting – complete occupancy, frequency and utilisation reporting with user control over days, hours, and weeks to report against
4. Collocate rescheduling
5. Horizontal scrolling on large tables
6. Additional Email and Mobile fields against Staff and Students for enhanced notifications
7. Text Messaging service built in to TermTime
8. Room pool constraint against activities
9. Capability requirements for Room Booking
10. Students under/over allocated identification
11. Staff and Student hours reporting by category
12. Campus travel times and staff ‘Transfer’ reporting
13. Activity category weighting
14. Bulk delete activities
15. Unschedule activities from the Schedule Page
16. Module page redesign
17. Room Finder updated design
18. Dry Run progress messaging
19. New scheduling algorithm based on best capacity room or best slot
20. Student free day and lunch break constraints added
21. Under and Over allocation ‘Opt In’ flag
22. Column chooser added to activity section on Schedule page
23. Activity weeks visible on Schedule page activity list
24. Schedule (auto and manual) and Unschedule on activity
25. Auto filter Schedule page weeks based on selected activity
26. Move dialog filter on clashing/unsuitable rooms
27. Move dialog displays clashing activity name rather than ID
28. Updates to room occupancy, frequency, and utilisation calculations
29. Module page hide left hand filter pane
30. Department column added to Add Staff screen for activities
31. Student group count added to top of Module Student Map screen
32. Scheduled activity count on Activity page
33. Repeat activity information shown on Activity page
34. Fixed day and time information shown in MoveTime
35. Activity notes shown on activity dialogs on Schedule page
36. Activity display information on Schedule page now sticky
37. Availability grid day dividers added
38. Activity ‘virtual’ status added to edit activity screen
39. Split Rooms
40. Import student module offer mapping
41. Import student to student group mapping
42. Metrics page problem reporting update
43. Schedule page click through
44. Intelligent room allocation when manually scheduling
45. Schedule page fixed room information
46. Import deletion flags
47. Shibboleth integration
48. Semestry API implementation
49. Student page
50. Click through from the activity page for modules, staff and rooms
51. Schedule page – reload fresh data based on last query
52. Make activity problem checking optional on a toggle – 2nd icon
53. Add staff and student count to clash bar in MoveTime
54. When showing schedule information for rooms, include all split room dependencies
55. More information on template violations and start slot violations in MoveTime
56. Warnings displayed for all activity problems, and staff and student constraints on Schedule page
57. Move dialogs – show drawers for student/activity clashes
58. Default display of room and staff taken of schedule display
59. Collocate field added to activity cell display options
60. Collocate details added to post its
61. Combined start slot constraints with day templates in Schedule page
62. Quick close of all open Move and Information dialogs
63. Slot groups are now global rather than within module offer only
64. Collocates look at slot groups
65. Add comma separated list of dates to the room booking list view
66. When times are selected in Room Booking, highlight those cells on the grid
67. In the portals stop staff and students creating room clashes in bookings
68. Room Booking buttons moved to top of page to prevent excessive scrolling
69. Filter activity list on schedule page based on selected schedule weeks
70. Dynamically change the schedule page activity list based on available space
71. Fixed time headers on Schedule page
72. Activity duration added to Move Dialog
73. Student activity map updates
74. Full screen display for showing more information
75. Activity headers fixed in place when scrolling
76. Staff activity map updates
77. Full screen display for showing more information
78. Filter by selected activities
79. Shift click selection
80. New style tables implemented on Activity page
81. New style tables implemented on Student Group page
82. Add staff directly to activity edit (new chosen) and show staff groups
83. Staff groups – display for filtering on staff page (extra column in staff table with list of groups they are in)
84. Put staff groups in the +staff dialog
85. Make +staff and -staff apply to all selected activities
86. Merge new and edit activity screens
87. Lock scheduled activities to same of Room, Day, Time and unlock
88. Building colours on Schedule page
89. Activity (module) click-through for staff and student clashes on Move dialog
90. Problem page activity ID click through
91. Extra ‘to delete’ columns displayed for imported data
92. Auto-approve bookings by staff member
93. Auto-approve all bookings
94. Approval process for bookings
95. Room Booking email confirmations
96. Room Booking messaging
97. Pending room booking count on Landing Page
98. Quick links to object pages from Landing Page
99. Delete activities from Activity Page
100. Filter indicator and quick filter cancel on new tables
101. Help, Logout, and Config text replaced with icons
102. Pages updated to use new tables
a. Modules Page
b. Rooms Page
c. Staff Page
d. Course Page
e. Bookings Page
103. Table Row Height adjustment
104. Landing page updated to show import success/errors from external data feeds
105. ‘No Staff Constraint Check’ flag for activities
106. ‘No Student Constraint Check’ flag for activities
107. ‘No Publish Staff flag’ for activities
108. ‘No Publish Student’ flag for activities
109. Module page student under/over allocation reporting
110. Schedule Page Undo
111. Enhanced User Roles and Permissions

Like I said, it is really, really long…   mj

Just a couple of notes before I get into some of the highlights; I appreciate that a lot of the terminology is TermTime specific (do message me if you’d like me to describe anything in more detail though). Also, I fully appreciate that some of the enhancements listed may seem ‘basic’. I could have easily cut it down to the really clever stuff, but a full list will illustrate a couple of points about how we work. Firstly, we are honest with the sector that we serve and, secondly, that we are always looking to improve our interface and enhance usability. TermTime will never be finished, but it will always be getting better and better.

Our Approach to Product Design

Reflecting on this list I think it mainly highlights two important aspects of the Semestry approach to product design. The first is that we believe in and produce a unified solution. So, when you see references to self-service booking, utilisation reporting/parameterising, data collection, notification (email/text), etc., we aren’t just talking about integration, we are talking about a single system with core, staff and student interfaces, all of which work against a single database. That means everything is standard and available if a client choses to make use of it (and our current clients, the most excellent LSBM and PCA, certainly do). This approach offers up a lot more functional possibilities than in many traditional systems.

Self-Service Booking

For example, the self-service booking for staff and students doesn’t just enable them to book rooms, but allocate their colleagues/students to the bookings, with full clash checking and instantaneous updates to individual timetables/calendars (assuming they aren’t subject to request confirmation). We’re currently having a lot of fun taking advantage of the single database approach in our design of ExamTime (our exam timetabling solution – due for release any day), but more of that in my next blog.


The second aspect it highlights is the fact that we really engage with and listen to the sector. Not only do our clients offer constant insights and suggestions for improvement which directly inform the content of our releases, so do the 44 HEIs (to date) we have demonstrated to and, in some cases, carried out proof of delivery work with. I can honestly say that this engagement, coupled with the freedom to assist in the development of a new system with so few technical constraints, has been hugely rewarding. The fact that I then have the absolute privilege of sharing this experience with fellow timetabling professionals in the sector, the most innovative and responsive developers I’ve ever worked with and internal colleagues with huge experience of Higher Education, is incredible.
Anyway, that’s about it for now. If anyone feels moved to comment on this I promise to reply as soon as I’m able, and within 48 hours at the latest.