News - April 6, 2017

Conjuring up more space and time

Albert Sikkema,Linda van der Nat

Evening classes at Wageningen University seemed inevitable. Until last week when the Executive Board suddenly pulled an alternative out of a hat: the extended day timetable. Rector Arthur Mol explains why this is the best way of coping with the university’s growth.

Illustration: Pascal Tieman

The working group at Wageningen University & Research which studied scenarios for coping with growing student numbers got clear signals from students and staff that they are not keen on evening classes. ‘Teaching in the evenings interfered with the students’ society activities,’ says rector Arthur Mol. ‘To leave space for these activities, the committee started pondering the option of a timetable that didn’t go on so long into the evening.’

This led to the Extended Daytime Timetable which the Executive Board presented last week. This new timetable frees up a surprising amount of extra teaching space per year in the existing education buildings: more than evening classes do. And that extra space is needed. With an expected growth in student numbers from 10,800 now to 15,750 in 2025, the university calculated that it is going to need 9500 square metres more teaching space per year. The new timetable represents a gain of 5700 square metres because more courses can be taught per day in the existing classrooms.

This is how it works. At present the Wageningen timetable works with 45-minute periods of class time. If you start at 8.30 and stop at 18.00, you can fit ten such periods into a day: five in the morning and five in the afternoon. This is not very practical, however, since most lectures and practicals take two or four periods. As a result there are lots of empty rooms at the end of the morning (the fifth period) and at the end of the afternoon (the tenth period). In the new setup there are 12 periods of 40 minutes between 8.20 and 19.00: six in the morning and six in the evening. So you can fit not two but three double-period classes into one morning or afternoon, or three triple-period classes. This makes it possible to timetable far more courses per day. Mol: ‘In fact, we are going from an inefficient 10-period timetable to an efficient 12-period timetable.’

Thanks to the new timetable we don’t have to invest in bricks and mortar.

Educational consequences

This could create the impression that with the extended timetable Wageningen students will have more classes per day, but that is not the case, says Mol. ‘They now usually have between 20 and 30 hours of teaching a week. That will stay the same. The total programme won’t expand.’ Indeed, the timetablers are going to consider students’ needs, says Mol. ‘We shall minimize the number of students with classes both right before and right after the lunchbreak, and hardly anyone will have classes up to 7 o’clock in the evening three days a week.’

The rector does think the new schedule will have some educational consequences. The teachers currently plan their material in blocks of 45 minutes and now they will have 40 minutes. To cope with that, they can provide more of the material digitally, he suggests. Or teachers can structure their classes differently so they get almost as much teaching time as they used to have. Mol gives an example: a teacher who now teaches five two-period classes (450 minutes in total) could in future teach four two-period classes and one three-period class (totalling 440 minutes). He thinks most teachers can integrate this adjustment when they update their courses.

Another possible sticking point is that the breaks within a block of two periods are shorter in the new timetable: 10 instead of 15 minutes. Yet these breaks are very useful for students who need one-to-one explanations of the material. Mol: ‘Perhaps the teacher can plan in question time instead. If necessary, that can be timetabled.’

Wi-Fi measurements

Besides the extended timetable, the board has thought of another way to optimize the use of the available teaching space. The organization has started measuring Wi-Fi use to check whether teaching space that was reserved is really being used. Just announcing this intention had an effect, says Mol. ‘Already then we found teachers returning teaching space they didn’t actually need to the timetabling office. Now that we are measuring Wi-Fi use we are going to make new progress. We can even gauge in real time how many students are in a room. That way we can find out where there is a room available at any time.’ The Wi-Fi measurements will make about 10 percent more teaching space available in the coming years, or 1000 to 2000 square metres of teaching space per year, estimates the board. The rector hopes to bring in the new timetable next academic year. If that is not successful, then he wants to use the teaching space at the Dreijen for the coming year. That is only temporary, as the board wants to get rid of the Dreijen and concentrate all teaching on the campus. So after 2021 a small modular education building will need to be built on the campus to cope with further growth. The building will primarily be for laboratory facilities.

No new building

The big advantage of the chosen approach, says the rector, is that the university won’t need to construct more 100-million-euro education buildings. ‘With this plan we can sustain our funding model for education. We don’t have to invest in bricks and mortar, and we can continue to invest in education itself. The growth will bring us more income, which we can put towards new teachers and educational improvements.’

The board did not consider putting student enrolment on hold. ‘We had that discussion and we agreed that we are going to accommodate the growth. There is broad support at this university for maintaining the accessibility and quality of our education. We very much want to provide for future generations of students.’

More teaching space

With the growth in student numbers, WUR needs more teaching space; up to 9500 square metres more by 2025. The executive board is taking four steps:

1.     Preventing empty teaching space by measuring wifi use (gaining 1000 to 2000 m2  per year)

2.     Bringing in the extended daytime timetable from 8.20 to 19.00 (5700 m2)

3.     Using additional teaching space at the Dreijen (temporarily) and later in Atlas and a new, flexible teaching building (2000 to 3000 m2)

4.     Digitalizing education (almost 0 effect on number of square metres)