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New Web site aids class scheduling

A new Web site developed by a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and the Registrar's Office allows students to explore potential class schedules on-line and could greatly simplify the process of class selection.

Mike Wessler began the project of integrating Registrar's Office information-including subject descriptions, meeting times, faculty in charge of each subject and categories of Institute requirements-and putting it on the Web at the beginning of the school year, when he found it difficult to create his own class schedule. Finding subjects of interest that meet various requirements and don't have time conflicts can be hard to do with the printed catalog and other materials, he said. To make the task easier, he downloaded all the course and subject information from TechInfo and set about combining and translating the files into HTML, the format used by the Web.

While registering last fall, Mr. Wessler mentioned his project to Registrar's Office staff, resulting in the current collaboration. "The Registrar's Office, Information Systems and the Communications Office got really excited about the project," he said. "This was a lot of fun to work on, in part because of the great help and support I received from the Registrar's Office, and in part because of the tremendous response and enthusiasm I got from everyone."

The key feature of the site at is a search tool that lets users specify exactly what they are looking for. Subjects can be located according to individual number (such as 8.01), topic keyword, what term and what time of day they meet, prerequisites (with links to the relevant courses), faculty administrators, and which Institute requirements they satisfy. Each criterion is represented by a distinct graphical symbol. Those using the Netscape browser can select a set of subjects that interest them by clicking on a special button in the description. A selection page lists the complete subject descriptions of interest and generates a schedule chart showing different-colored blocks for each subject. This final schedule page includes the subject descriptions and tells the students if he or she has selected courses with time conflicts.

An integrated on-line subject listing/class schedule system had long been a dream of David Wiley, registrar, and Mary Callahan, associate registrar for facilities and scheduling. Ms. Callahan worked with Phoebe Minias, assistant to the registrar for catalogue and publications, to display the subject listings and class schedule on TechInfo as separate text files. Working from that effort, Mr. Wessler used his ingenuity to create a system that allowed students one-stop shopping when looking for classes.

"We were really delighted," Ms. Minias said. "He's done a fantastic job." Stephen Turner, a senior analyst/programmer in the Registrar's Office, and Suzana Lisanti, CWIS facilitator with Distributed Computing and Network Services, also helped out.

Since the information is globally available on the Web, high school students as well as cross-registered students from Harvard and Wellesley and other prospective enrollees can get a good look at MIT's academic offerings ahead of time. Faculty and staff can also use the Web site to answer questions about subjects and requirements, Ms. Minias said. The site is linked to the "Educational Uses of the World Wide Web at MIT" page, which is in turn accessible by clicking "Academics and Research" from the MIT home page. The Registrar's Office is also anticipating using the integrated subject listings/schedule for on-line pre-registration.

Gill A. Pratt, assistant professor in EECS, is working with Mr. Wessler and the Registrar's Office on a second phase of the project: a real-time degree auditor that will allow students and advisors to determine if a tentative program of study for future semesters meets all Institute and departmental requirements.

Once complete, "this will relieve students, advisors and departmental administrators of a great deal of work and worry during the process of subject selection," Professor Pratt said. "Students and advisors will rest assured that a decision made today will not adversely affect a student's ability to graduate on time."


Also planned is a third phase of enhancements, which will incorporate the work of Dae-Chul Sohn (MEng '95), a former graduate student of Professor Pratt. After this phase is implemented, the system will include a "possibility display." Instead of choosing specific subjects, the student or advisor will enter the desired degree(s), dates of completion, and any constraints or preferences such as maximum units per term or types of subjects desired. The program would then explore possible schedules that meet all the constraints, choose the most desirable schedules from many possibilities, and display them to the student or advisor.

Such a system would be able to answer detailed student questions such as, "I want to graduate in Course Y in three years, I don't want to take more than 48 credits per semester, I want to take a certain class in the fall, and here are the classes I've already taken. Can this be accomplished, and what do I need to do?"

"Part of the excitement and difficulty with this project is not just how to control the combinational explosion, but how to present the results so that the answer isn't more confusing than the question," Mr. Wessler said.

Completion dates for the next two phases are still undecided. Other, more immediate issues must also be resolved, such as how often the on-line subject information should be updated. It may eventually be possible to save money by printing fewer copies of the MIT Bulletin with course and degree descriptions, although it still contains information not on Mr. Wessler's Web site, Ms. Minias said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 31, 1996.

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