Category Archives: Development

Day one of the Scientia User Conference

The Importance of Scheduling for Student Satisfaction

The importance of student satisfaction has grown in line with tuition fees and competition from a global higher education marketplace.  It’s always mattered, but in the era of big student debt and funding predicated on performance, it’s now a key strategic aim for most institutions.  That’s why we chose it as the focus of our 2016 White Paper, and also why it became the theme for our 2017 EMEAA User Conference.  How students feel about their institution is influenced by numerous factors: the quality of teaching; access to learning resources; and examination and assessment, to name but a few.  Users of our software are particularly concerned with the impact good course organisation and management can have on student satisfaction.

Timetabling and Student Satisfaction

Timetabling is a niche part of academic administration, and our software is a niche product designed with and for that sector.  With such specialist knowledge and implementations specific to their institution, Timetablers tend to change job relatively infrequently.  That means we get many of the same people coming to Conference year after year, cementing the enduring relationships we have with our customers which go way beyond the usual provider-client transaction.  It’s a partnership in every sense of the word.  So the Wednesday morning of Conference is all about welcoming old friends – and making new ones – before we get down to business.


Darren Woodward at the Scientia User Conference 2017We kicked off after lunch with a high-level session on Syllabus+ Anywhere – our forthcoming Cloud-based scheduling solution.  This was Darren Woodward‘s fourth EMEAA User Conference, but the first since he ‘moved to the Dark Side’, as his former colleagues from Auckland put it.  Our poacher-turned-gamekeeper delivered a great session which looked at the features, benefits and roadmap for the solution.

It’s an incredibly exciting time for us and that came over in Darren’s presentation.  He focussed on how Syllabus+ Anywhere moves timetabling from a required back office function to an embedded service within an institution, able to help with everything from change management to capacity planning in Estates.  This new core solution will encompass much of the functionality currently covered by a number of our current products, not least data collection – the vital first piece in the scheduling puzzle.

Darren touched on some research which shows the connection between self-service and student satisfaction.  Enabling students and staff to do everything from module selection to ad-hoc room and resource booking is proven to increase productivity, efficiency and satisfaction.  The timetable is no longer something which is done to them, but done by them and for them.  Solutions such as Resource Booker, Publish and Enterprise Activity Adjuster already deliver this.

Getting User Experience (UX) right is absolutely key with Syllabus+ Anywhere.  To these ends, we have partnered with Isle Interactive who focus exclusively on UX and have an impressive and diverse roster of clients, including Cambridge Education Group and Muse.

Making a big place seem small: developing an ‘academic identity’

Dr Ben Calvert, USW, student satisfactionNext up was a keynote from Dr Ben Calvert, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Learning, Teaching and Student Experience at the University of South Wales (USW).  Ben’s insightful talk addressed the disconnect between academic pedagogies and processes, and asked: Are we all looking through the same lens?  Ben suggested that student satisfaction could be improved by joining up the dots between academic planning and university administration – not least by considering the timetable earlier in the course design process; the space in which we learn can have a profound impact upon that learning, and yet it is rarely considered during the course design phase.

USW have used Trendence to turn student data into actionable insights.  They discovered that many of their students struggled to find their place at university.  They did not identify as ‘academic’ and therefore had low expectations of their university outcome and future prospects.  USW implemented some changes to help them develop their ‘academic identity’ and make a big place – the university campus – seem smaller and less daunting.  One major change was to reduce the number of course modules.  Reducing the academic complexity meant they weren’t so overwhelmed by choice; it also gave them a more focussed programme of study, which helped to develop their academic identity.  The relevancy for our delegates was that a reduction in course modules makes it easier to create a good quality, coherent timetable.

Self-service: a driver for stakeholder satisfaction

SUC17_hkhThe excellent session on Enterprise Activity Adjuster (EAA), by Hull University’s Helen Kirby-Hawkins, took staff satisfaction as its starting point.  Hull had an interesting problem: if its tutors were unsatisfied with their scheduled classroom, they would simply book themselves an alternative using our Web Room Booking software – without cancelling the scheduled room!  This led to a chronic waste and shortage of space.  Hull’s solution was to implement EAA, enabling staff to make changes to the timetable themselves.

Initially, 30 tutors were given access and the ability to change any element of the scheduled session: day, time, room, teaching staff.  Uptake was great and feedback from staff was very positive: they felt empowered and valued for having control of their timetable beyond the data collection period – some months before the course delivery.

But what effect did changes to the published timetable have on student satisfaction?  Attendance data and feedback showed that they didn’t mind about room or staff changes, even at relatively short notice.  In fact, students were frequently happy that their tutor had moved the session to a ‘better’ room.  What they did mind were changes to the scheduled day and time – particularly if a lecture was being moved forward to earlier in the day.  With this insight, Helen and her team were able to limit the changes staff could make in EAA.

Questions from the floor centered on notification of frequent timetable changes.  Helen acknowledged that the number of changes had increased from 1,800 to 2,500 a year since EAA was rolled out.  Even a few years ago, promptly notifying students of this many changes would have been impossible.  But these days, she said, students tend to live week to week, constantly checking their academic calendar – updated from Syllabus+ throughout the day – on their mobile device or computer.  So despite the frequency of changes, students judged the timetable to be better overall.

Syllabus+ Anywhere: ambitious, agile, incremental

Mark Dickens, ScientiaThe final plenary of the day was a more technical look at Syllabus+ Anywhere – the stuff ‘under the hood’ – and how Scientia is gearing up to meet the challenges and opportunities it brings.  It’s a big and ambitious project, but thanks to a high-level of customer engagement and an Agile approach to development, we know we’re getting it right as we go.  There won’t be an Apple-style ‘big reveal’, as customers are so involved with the development process.  Despite that, we hope there will be a few pleasant surprises once they start using it later this year.


The day ended with dinner, the forging of new friendships, and the now-famous Dinesh Vaswani Memorial Quiz, named after a former Scientia colleague.  This year, we asked those present to donate their spare change in support of Jimmy’s Cambridge, a local homelessness charity.  Attendees generously gave £285, which Scientia has matched, meaning that Jimmy’s will receive £570 in total.  Heartfelt thanks to everyone for their contribution.

Winning Quiz team photo
Victorious Celts – the winning team at this year’s Conference Quiz

More insights and photos from our 2017 EMEAA User Conference soon!

Introducing Syllabus+ Anywhere

What’s in a name? For us, everything, says Darren Woodward, Head of Product Management at Scientia

Darren Woodward, Head of Product Management at ScientiaWhat is a technology year worth in human years?  Can we apply the same 1:7 ratio we do to calculate ‘dog years’?  At approaching 30 years old, Syllabus+, our core scheduling software, should be pushing up the daisies by now.  And yet it’s not.  Hundreds of iterations on from its launch, Syllabus+ still gets a lot right, which is why it’s the number one choice for academic scheduling worldwide.  That’s why many of our clients have been with us almost as long as Scientia has existed.  Syllabus+ is also Scientia’s most-recognised brand.  For a company which is known as Cyon across half the world, that’s important.

The recognition and trust in the Syllabus+ name is the reason we’ve retained it for our forthcoming solution.  But that’s about the only thing we’ve retained.  Syllabus+ Anywhere is a completely new system, built on leading-edge technology and free from the constraints of a legacy system – but underpinned by the knowledge and experience we’ve gained through its forebear’s faithful service.

Communication: the foundation of healthy relationships

This is the most fundamental change Scientia has made in almost 30 years of business.  We knew that this was not a journey we could take without major input from our customers.  Product development at Scientia has always been collaborative and based on actual need, not perceived need.  But as our client base has grown to some 450 institutions worldwide, we’ve sometimes found it a challenge to maintain the levels of communication which are easier for smaller organisations.  As a former customer, I know how frustrating that can be.

As the saying goes, the first step is admitting you have a problem.  You told us, we listened, and we’ve worked hard to improve communication and feedback opportunities for customers.  In the past year alone, we have:

  • Launched Idea Manager, a platform which enables customers to influence our development focus by voting for candidate features. These candidates are themselves derived from client requests and suggestions.  The first voted-for features will be implemented in the forthcoming 3.14 release of Syllabus+ Enterprise;
  • Surveyed users to discover what functionality they most use in our current solutions, resulting in more than 75 individual use cases which will feed into the development of Syllabus+ Anywhere;
  • Run detailed User Journey Mapping sessions at client institutions, enabling us to drill down into the requirements of different roles at an institution; and
  • Launched a simplified Customer Satisfaction Survey, making it easier for users to tell us when we get it right – or wrong.

This is on top of ongoing customer support activities, which include:

  • A dedicated Account Manager;
  • Our Customer Support Portal with ‘Knowledge Base’ – solutions to more than 400 real-world Service Desk queries;
  • Free monthly Webinars, enabling customers to keep abreast of the latest developments in our software; and
  • International Conferences and User Groups, providing much-needed ‘group hug’ opportunities for the tortured souls in the unique world of academic timetabling.

Joining the dots with Syllabus+ Anywhere

From our earliest days, we have had to ensure effective data transfers within Scientia’s scheduling suite and between third party applications.  As we have shown with Connect, integrating Syllabus+ with applications such as student records systems is both achievable and beneficial.  But our suite of distinct ‘boxed’ products has led to what could be seen as a disjointed offer.  All that ends with Syllabus+ Anywhere.  The micro-services architecture enables us to provide a scalable offer with the flexibility to pick only the elements you need from a holistic solution, with effective interoperability with other enterprise solutions baked in.

One thing clients have been keen to discuss is the process of migration from the current system to the new one.  We will help each customer to create an individualised migration plan.  When all of the functions currently covered by Enterprise are fully supported by Syllabus+ Anywhere so that any customer could choose to migrate, we guarantee that we will continue to support the products being replaced for a further two years.  We will make an announcement to that effect when we reach that point in development.

At the end of that two-year period the legacy software will continue to run indefinitely, and you will still own a perpetual licence to use it.  All that changes is that Scientia will cease to devote development resource to the legacy products.  But looking at what Syllabus+ Anywhere delivers from a customer point of view, institutions are going to see the benefits of migrating to the new system as soon as they can – and we’re going to make it a no-brainer to do that.

Beyond the back office

By providing powerful reporting functions, timetabling moves from a required ‘back office’ service to a valuable strategic resource for any institution.  For example, accurately predicting your institution’s future space needs will be easier than ever with Syllabus+ Anywhere.

More than ever, the university timetable is visible and accessible by students, staff and faculties.  Self-service selection of study modules, booking rooms and resources, integrating lecture or teaching timetables with your personal calendar: all possible from any web browser on any connected device.  Our software has the ability to powerfully represent the student voice in the scheduling mix; maximising this to enhance student experience and engagement is yet another way of activating the strategic value of timetabling services.  This is particularly pertinent in the UK, where university funding is now partly dependent on student satisfaction outcomes.

Right now, I’m looking forward to sharing the progress we’ve made with customers coming to the Scientia User Conference this week.  Hope to see you there!

Darren

Across the pond and over the desk: Introducing Darren Woodward, Head of Product Management at Scientia Ltd

Darren Woodward, Head of Product Management at Scientia
Two weeks in – still smiling!

Academic timetabling’s one of those curious professions: almost no one outside of it knows exactly what it is or what it entails – and that goes for other university staff, too. The flip side of this coin is that those in the profession get to know each other very well – particularly those in the Scientia family, facilitated by the Company’s range of excellent user events and virtual networking opportunities.

As the title of this post suggests, I’ve recently made the leap from Scientia client to employee, joining as Head of Product Management. With our Product and Development teams based in the UK, I’ve also relocated here from New Zealand. Having spent the past 16 years in a range of strategic roles at the University of Auckland, a long-term Scientia client, it’s fair to say I was a pretty well-known face on the Asia Pacific (APAC) scheduling scene. So whilst I’ve been to a few of Scientia’s European User Conferences and met some ‘local’ Timetablers, my name isn’t exactly synonymous with Scientia beyond APAC. That’s something I hope to quickly change, and I’ll be drawing heavily on my experiences as a client to shape how we do things – and not just from a product perspective.

As with most big career changes, the decision to jump wasn’t a single issue thing. Suffice it to say that I was ready for a new challenge just as Scientia was tooling up for the biggest change in its near-30-year history: the development of a brand new, Cloud-based scheduling solution. Let’s be honest: Cloud services are hardly innovative these days. Nonetheless, the benefits for our clients of moving to a Cloud-based, service delivery model are compelling:

  • Flexibility: the ability to scale up (or down) with ease, without further investment in hardware or space
  • Automatic software updates: the latest releases installed remotely by the expert service provider
  • A lower total cost of ownership: users save on hardware costs/upgrades and on-premise consultancy time
  • Reclaimed space: in some cases, entire rooms which were once full of server racks can be repurposed
  • Access from anywhere: with flexible working practices becoming more common, the ability to access business-critical data from anywhere is vital

What piqued my interest were the opportunities for the next generation of Syllabus Plus – whatever it’s ultimately called. Being part of this development and seeing how much work has already occurred is, frankly, thrilling. The new architecture and design approach will see the delivery of a range of innovative new solutions, with a huge capacity for rapid responsiveness to an ever-changing tertiary market.

But that is really the mechanics under the hood. What I am most looking forward to is being part of a team which will deliver a whole new level of functionality, visibility, interoperability and usability to its existing and future customers. This is where my experience lines up with Scientia’s vision: moving the traditionally ‘back office’ functions of timetabling to a core strategic service within the university. Everything from planning capital building programmes to academic delivery modelling can benefit from timetable data. Combined with powerful integration and reporting tools, our vision is for a complete planning and scheduling solution which goes way beyond putting students and staff in a room together. Now that’s exciting to me and is something I wanted to be a part of.

Moving from Scientia client to employee gives me the ability to see things from a customer perspective, and that’s how I intend to operate: as our customers’ champion and conduit; a channel to make their voice heard in the ongoing development of our current and future solutions. It’s an exciting time to be part of the Scientia family, and I’ll be sharing further thoughts as I get my feet well and truly under the desk.

About Darren

After graduating with an Art History and Politics Degree, Darren spent the following 10 years working in the corporate sector, primarily as an Account Manager with Apple Education, before entering the tertiary education sector.  Originally entering the Auckland College of Education prior to its amalgamation with the University of Auckland, he was involved in special projects, data analysis and strategic reporting before being seconded onto the Automated Timetabling Project in 2009 as Modelling Analysis to support the implementation of Scientia’s Syllabus Plus Enterprise solution.

Having been appointed the Manager of Timetabling Services in 2010, that service merged with the Examinations Office to form the Examinations and Timetabling Office, supporting both academic and exam scheduling.   A focus that Darren brought to the role was to move the ‘back office’ functions of timetabling to a core strategic service within the University, consulted with on future major capital works building programmes and academic delivery options.  During this time he continued studying, completing a Graduate Diploma in Business Administration on Information Systems.  He is currently studying for a Master’s Degree.

Darren joined Scientia as Head of Product Management in January 2017.

Darren Woodward appointed Head of Product Management at Scientia

Darren presenting at the EMEAA Scientia User Conference 2016
Darren presenting at the EMEAA Scientia User Conference 2016

Since the start of 2016, Scientia has been undergoing strategic restructuring to prepare for the shift in its focus from software products to software services. We are thrilled to announce that Darren Woodward, currently Examinations & Timetable Services Manager at The University of Auckland, will be joining us as Head of Product Management from January 2017.

Those who have met or worked with Darren will agree that he is perfect for this key role. Auckland is New Zealand’s largest university with over 40,000 students and some 5,000 full-time staff. It is the only New Zealand university ranked in the top 200 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Since joining in 2004, Darren has built up an exemplary scheduling team from scratch and has driven a programme of positive change – not least its paradigm shift to centralised timetabling.

He has long been an advocate for Scientia’s solutions – particularly Enterprise, of which Auckland was an early adopter. His broader experience includes being Chair of the Asia/Pacific Syllabus Plus Reference Group (ASPRG), and he has regularly attended our EMEAA Conference to discuss his experiences of using our solutions.

Darren is well aware of the demands and pressures of timetabling in a complex, pressured environment. He brings a great deal of knowledge and empathy, ensuring that Scientia continues to put the needs of its users at the heart of its operations. Darren will be leading us on our journey towards a Cloud-based scheduling solution, building on the significant progress we have already made.

Andrew Lau
Director of Scientia Ltd
For and on behalf of Scientia’s Executive Committee

“Change is vital, improvement the logical form of change.” J C Penney

Duncan Corbett presenting Scientia's Cloud visionA few weeks ago – hot on the heels of a ‘big birthday’ – Duncan Corbett, Project Manager for Enterprise Foundation, celebrated his 17th year at Scientia.  The occasion was also marked by an exciting new chapter beginning in the history of the Company.  He explains all in this guest blog:


When I arrived here in 1999 to help train users of our software, Scientia essentially had two products: Syllabus Plus Course Planner and Syllabus Plus Exam Scheduler.  Some of you reading this may have already been users of those products as far back as the early 90s.  I think it’s those long-term users who coined the term “Classic” to refer to those original products in much the same way as people use the term to refer to a much loved older model of car.  Much has changed in those 17 years.

Snake game on a Nokia phoneIn 1999 the internet was only 10 years old.  If you were lucky you had an Intel Pentium II processor with a speed measured in MHz.  It was probably running Windows 3.1, NT or – at a push – 95.  Windows 98 was still seen as uncharted waters for most.  Your mobile phone, if you had one, had a small screen, buttons with numbers on and you used it to make phone calls or to play “Snake”.

Shortly before I joined, Syllabus had moved to a tab-based interface, with logical groupings of properties being displayed on separate tabs.  Prior to that the controls for every property of an object had been crammed onto a single page.  In spite of the fact that this meant you needed 20/20 vision and rock-steady mouse control to do anything, some users were uncomfortable with the move to tabs because it required more mouse clicks to get to the information they wanted.

In 2004 we released our Web Room Booking solution, enabling students and staff to make ad-hoc room and resource bookings themselves through a web browser, reducing the burden on admin staff and giving greater transparency to the process.  We also introduced browser-based data collection tools to gather the timetable requirements of stakeholders; previously most customers were using paper forms that required manual data entry with the associated risks of misunderstanding and error.  Similarly, in Student Allocator we delivered a browser-based solution that enables students to choose modules and activities, broadening participation further whilst reducing cost, time and duplication of effort.

Possibly our biggest leap until now in the development of our timetabling solution came in 2007 with the release of Syllabus Plus Enterprise – or Enterprise Foundation, as the core suite of software scheduling tools is now known.  This is essentially a re-working of the user interface elements of Syllabus Plus.  It provides a more modern look and feel, a more task-centric, rather than data-centric interface, and a more granular set of permissions.  This meant that Enterprise Timetabler, for example, might be given to users that would not have been trusted with Syllabus Plus Classic for fear of the damage they might do to the data.

Cloud computing iconMeanwhile, back in the world of technology, the big shift in computing has been the trend towards Cloud-based solutions and the supply of software as a service.  Before the advent of Cloud computing you would need to source and maintain sufficiently powerful hardware to cope with your maximum demand for computing power; implying a level of built-in redundancy.  A Cloud-based solution means that the software provider supplies and maintains the computing power and the supply can flex to meet your requirements.  Enterprise Activity Adjuster (EAA)was our first toe in the water with respect to this new technology.  I can remember vividly standing in a lecture theatre in Auckland, New Zealand, using a prototype of EAA to make a change to an activity in a Scientia Database hosted in the cloud; the server was actually in Dublin, Ireland.  It struck me at the time that, without leaving earth it would be difficult to pick two places further from each other; a powerful demonstration of the potential of the Cloud.

Scientia Publish on a mobile phone
Our Publish product gives students personalised timetables on any connected device

Since then we have made further forays into the world of Cloud-based solutions: Resource Booker is slowly gaining market share from our highly-successful Web Room Booking solution, empowering students and staff to manage their own room and equipment bookings.  Publish enables staff and students to receive personalised timetables directly to smartphones, tablets and laptops, letting them view their timetable in the browser or calendar apps of their choice.

And that brings us back to the new chapter in Scientia’s history that’s about to begin.  In March this year, at our annual EMEAA User Conference, we announced the development of an entirely new, Cloud-based scheduling solution.  That’s exciting: despite the fast-paced nature of the technology industries, it’s not every day that you are afforded the opportunity of spear-heading a completely fresh start on a company’s core product.  A store of enhancements that I’ve been building over the course of years, all of which would be too disruptive to introduce to the current solution, are now back on the table.

No doubt there will be challenges.  Customers will naturally have questions about data security and privacy.  This will, of course, be a vital component of whatever the new solution looks like, but holding large datasets securely in the Cloud is not an issue that Scientia uniquely has to address.  It’s an issue that is common to all Cloud-based solutions, some of which are dealing with data that’s much more sensitive than the timetable information we are managing.

It’s natural that we approach change with caution.  I can remember talking to users in my early days who were uncertain how they’d manage with the move to “this new-fangled tabbed user interface”, but I don’t think that any of us would now vote to move back to the cluttered single window approach.  We recognise that the change has brought improvement.  Similarly, reimagining our scheduling solution for the Cloud is not just exciting for me – it will also bring benefits to our customers: the 400+ tertiary education institutions worldwide which rely on Scientia’s products to maximise the use of their resources while providing students with an excellent education.  A timetabling solution based in the Cloud will bring a lower total cost of ownership, and improved scalability.  Free from the constraints imposed by legacy software, we can design for easier integration with other software, easier localisation and improved performance.  What’s not to like?

Our developers are currently busy planning the development project and thinking about the first prototype application that we’ll use to test our new Cloud-based scheduling engine.  I’ve already had the opportunity to share my aspirations with them so that we ensure that those goals are not excluded by anything we do in the early stages of development.  We have promised our customers a detailed development plan in July so look out for an update from me then.

Duncan Corbett is Product Manager for Syllabus Plus Enterprise.