THE UNIVERSITY OF VICTORIA
JANUARY 22, 1999

MAKES COURSE SCHEDULING EASIER

Student creates time-saving software program

by Valerie Shore

For Terry Penner, necessity really was the mother of invention.

After watching a friend struggle with arranging his university course schedule &emdash; a chore that usually takes hours of flipping through the course guide to avoid conflicts &emdash; the UVic computer science student decided there must be a better way. So he sat down at his computer and created one.

The result is Timetable Assistant, a handy and simple software program that UVic students can use to assemble their course schedules &emdash; all in a mere 10 minutes.


Penner

Valerie Shore photo

"I know from my own experience that it's quite an arduous process trying to find a workable schedule using pen and paper," says the 22-year-old, who has set his sights on a career in software engineering. "I had some spare time, so I wrote something that solves the problem."

Penner originally created the software for himself and his friend, but then it occurred to him that UVic might be interested. So last September he showed it to Martin Milner, microcomputer systems manager in computing user services. Impressed, Milner contacted the administrative registrar to see how the program could be helpful to students using the university's telephone registration (TREG) system. After some modifications and fine-tuning, Timetable Assistant was born.

The program has been available on a trial basis to UVic students since late November. All a student has to do is download Timetable Assistant from the computer help desk Web site (http://helpdesk.uvic.ca), access current course information (from records services online), and then choose the departments and courses they're interested in (clicking on options such as "must take," "only open sections," and "times to avoid"). Within minutes, the program will find and display all workable course schedules. The student then selects the best schedule, and registers through TREG, as usual.

The goal was to keep the program simple, says Penner. "I wanted to avoid the Microsoft Word phenomenon where you get thousands of features that just clutter up your screen and aren't used," he explains. "The point is to make it a quick process that you don't need a computer science degree to navigate."

The goal was to keep the program simple, says Penner. "I wanted to avoid the Microsoft Word phenomenon where you get thousands of features that just clutter up your screen and aren't used," he explains. "The point is to make it a quick process that you don't need a computer science degree to navigate."

He seems to have succeeded. As of mid-January, the program had been downloaded 468 times. "It's been well- received so far," says Penner. "I think there's a real market for it."

The program's long-term future will be assessed after the trial period ends this month. But if the rave reviews from university staff involved in the project are any indication, Timetable Assistant is here to stay.

"It's been a big success," says Ron Stevens, scheduling officer in records services, who, along with records services director David Glen, helped Penner groom the program into a companion to the university's TREG guide. "The most exciting part of Terry's program is that it allows a student to build a conflict-free timetable, showing far more detail than our current online timetable display."

Until now, says Stevens, there hasn't been a good way for students to see conflicts, particularly for courses with associated sections that don't require registration. Sometimes a section conflict wouldn't be apparent until a student showed up at class. "I'm just amazed at the level of genius that took someone to see the problem and do something about it," he marvels.

But Penner just shrugs at his accomplishment. "To me, this is what computer programming is supposed to do &emdash; make people's lives easier," says the Courtenay native, who has been hooked on computers since Grade 2 when his dad brought home a Commodore 64. "Programming challenges me, it makes my mind work," he says. "Once you get past the coding, it can be a very enjoyable, creative process."

When he's not going to class or doing co-op terms, Penner works part-time at UVic's computer help desk, just for fun. "It gives me a good feel for the kinds of things people have problems with," he says.

Penner received some compensation from the university during the consultations to modify his program, but says he has no immediate plans to license his creation. He hasn't ruled it out either. "We'll have to see how it goes here first," he grins.

The most logical next step would be a Web version of Timetable Assistant. The current version is only accessible on PCs (or Macs with "virtual PC"), and needs about five megabytes of hard disk space to run. "On the Web, it wouldn't matter what operating system you're using," says Penner. "That's the ultimate goal for me, and it's entirely possible to do."


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