Saving time with appointment slots

A short article about why automating your diary is a good idea.

Since for those of us who work as academics in the UK system teaching is about to commence, Below is a summary of some work I did automating my diary so students could book straight into it. Since writing it, I’ve switched to Calendly because of its integration with O365 but the basic principles remain. 

The TLDR version – it’s a real time saver, students come to meetings better prepared, it reduces the administration burden on me and I prefer it to office hours. 

Summary:

·         Students were given access to an electronic diary for a period of twelve weeks which allowed the booking of appointments without needing to email or speak to the academic about their availability.

·         This system resulted in a reduction of email traffic/information overload for the academic and a more transparent appointment system for students. Informal feedback from students suggests that they find the system both easy to use and highly valuable in helping them to manage their time on campus and seeking advice/guidance from academics.  

·         This is a very limited one person POC, a wider trial of such a system should be consideredin regards to 1) reducing the administrative burden of academics and 2)  the possible positive impacts on the students/academics and wider universities and by extension areas of the National Student Survey such as ‘Academic support’ and ‘Assessment and Feedback’.

Aims:

The objective of the proof of concept was to explore what would happen if students were able to book appointments without contact or permission with me. The hope was that such a system would reduce email traffic (information overload) and free up time spent fixing up appointments to be better spent on research, service or learning and teaching activities.

How the system works:

As the student body makes use of Google apps accounts, it was decided that the best approach was to make use of the built-in appointment slot system[1]. The account holder simply decides on what time periods are open for students or others to book appointments and then the time allowed for each appointment. For the purposes of this trial, 30 minutes slots were provided to students.

The link to the diary page was then added to my email signature. Students when clicking upon the signature were taken to the following page:

The open slots in the diary
The open slots in the diary

Students are only able to see when there are available appointments and not appointments made by other students or any private appointments that are present in the diary. A student would then click on and book whatever appointment slot was available and then add some information about what the appointment was about. 

What they see when booking
What they see when booking

Below is the view seen by the account holder, it show not only the appointment slots but also other appointments and teaching commitments.

My full diary, students cannot see my other appointments. 
My full diary, students cannot see my other appointments. 

 The account holder receives either email notification or a text message providing the name of the student and the time and purpose of the appointment.  If a student was unable to attend a slot or no longer needed an appointment, they deleted it from their calendar and the slot reappeared for others to book. If a student (as many have done) had linked their university account to their mobile device (iPad, smartphone etc.), then the appointment would appear there as well.

 

Impacts for academic:

From a lecturer perspective, the main saving has been from the reduction in the number of speculative emails from students seeking to book an appointment at a certain time on a certain day and the email traffic and administration that this results in. It was made clear to students that this did not mean that I was not in my office at other times but simply that they could know with confidence that I would be available to speak to them at those specific times. Over a 12 week period, 150 slots were booked out and the attendance rate was 86%. Many students continued to simply ‘walk in’.  As an individual academic, I plan to carry on using this system because of the many benefits that both I and the student body obtain from it. Other academics  who have heard about the system have used it on an informal basis to better manage their time and it appears to be seen as highly valuable.

Feedback from students:

A number of students were asked about their experience in an attempt to gain some informal feedback. The general consensus was that the system was easy to use and was seen as much more productive than simply trying to guess if an academic was available or make a trip to the university for the same purposes. Typical comments included:

·         ‘no offensive to anyone but it can often take a week to set up an appointment, you set them an email, wait a couple of days, you email them again, then the original date has gone’ (Student 007);

·         ‘I don’t like bugging lecturers so if they don’t reply after a couple of days, I just try and get on with it’ (Student 003)

·         ‘It is really really simple that is the good [aspect] of it, I saved a link in my ipad so if I need to see you, I just look up your diary and often I can see you are free in an hour, so I book, stay on campus to do some work and then come up and see you’ (Student 004)

·         ‘I don’t understand why I have to spend so long hanging around in corridors waiting to try and find a lecturer. Most places in 2012 don’t work like that, why does this place?’ (Student 003)

Wider usage scenarios?

It is arguable that such a system may have a number of positive benefits for the individual academic, the student body and the University as a whole. In particular, such a scheme may have a positive impact on categories with the NSS such as ‘organisation and management’ and ‘access to lecturers’.

At present, the Higher Education system has a myopic focus on Teaching Enhanced Learning from a limited perspective of what happens within contact hours or from material provided to students via VLEs such as blackboards. It is undeniable that such facilities need to be provided and utilised to best benefit. However, the re-engineering of processes such as student contact with academics outside of the Lecture threat/classroom might have an equally positive benefit but for a more modest economic cost.

 

[1] A number of UK universities including the University of Sheffield and the University of Glasgow already use Google appointments for this purpose.

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