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 spotlight: A slicker course picker

Student-developed site helps MIT students juggle their course schedules

by Robyn Fizz, IS&T

  Home - MIT For students, the MIT Course Picker takes the plodding out of plotting their course schedules for the coming semester. Developed by five MIT students in only a few weeks, this interactive web service helps students make informed decisions during pre-registration.

Course Picker is compelling because it offers several features not available through the online subject listings and schedule. The latter, designed in the early 1990s, does not offer the flexible searching made popular by Web 2.0 sites. Course Picker does, enabling students to:
  • Browse and sort course information by subject, semester, and date/time
  • Schedule core courses first, and then see what elective courses fit their schedule
  • Filter by criteria, such as course or instructor ratings from the Underground Guide to Course VI, or courses that fulfill the HASS-D requirement
  • See and print a calendar view of their proposed weekly schedule before signing up for courses through the Registrar's Office
The calendar you create with Course Picker is not an official schedule. WebSIS will produce your schedule for the classes in which you are registered. All changes will then need to be processed through Drop/Add forms after Registration Day.

MIT students can now access an improved beta version of Course Picker, launched on January 29 by the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Information Services and Technology (IS&T). This version adds recitation data, lab data, and prerequisites. It is also now powered by IS&T's Data Warehouse.

Behind the Scenes
Course Picker began last winter as a proof of concept by David Huynh, who at the time was a doctoral student in CSAIL advised by Professors David Karger and Rob Miller. He and Karger wanted to develop an application that used all the tools in the Simile suite, to show what can be done when data is freely available. Simile, a joint project of CSAIL and the MIT Libraries, focuses on developing robust, open-source tools that empower users to access, manage, visualize, and reuse digital assets.

Course Picker was built using Exhibit, a lightweight framework for publishing structured data on the Web. To use Exhibit, you provide a simple data file and a hypertext markup language (HTML) file in which you specify how the data should be shown. Exhibit enables enthusiasts who know HTML to build mashups - web sites that collect publicly available data from more than one source and then provide options for searching and filtering that data.

To create Course Picker, Huynh and four UROP students - Margaret Leibovic, Gabriel Durazo, Nina Guo, and Mason Tang - also used several data scraping tools and widgets in the Simile suite. These included Solvent, Crowbar, Babel, Timeline, and Juggler.

The MIT Course Picker project can be seen as its own form of mashup. Since its inception, the project has involved staff and students from CSAIL, IS&T, the Registrar's Office, UROP, the Libraries, and Eta Kappa Nu, whose members produce the Underground Guide to Course V1.

If you'd like to explore the capabilities of Exhibit, check out the tutorials on the Exhibit web site. And if you're an MIT student, make tracks to Course Picker!