Prestissimo is Back: It Needs to Stay That Way

Every three months or so, it comes time for Oberlin College and Conservatory students to select classes for the upcoming semester. This is a gratifying but precise process; the breadth demands particular attention be paid to future course offerings. Whether a student is looking to fill their quantitative formal reasoning requirements or simply expand their knowledge beyond their comfort zones, everyone is searching for something.

There are several ways to go about this search, two of which — Acalog ACMS™, hosted on the Oberlin website, and OberView/Presto — involve searching courses by keywords. Then, students determine which courses are offered at which times, and determine what fits and what doesn’t. What’s lost there is aimless browsing — this process is best conducted with the student having at least a somewhat formed idea of what they’re going to take. Since 2012, a third way of browsing the college catalog has filled the gap: Prestissimo.

Prestissimo began as a Winter Term project and is a student-created way of searching the course catalog while selecting for specifics such as department, professor, time, credits, and requirements.

This approach offers two distinct advantages. The first is that it aligns well with how students like to search for courses. This was the initial need from which Prestissimo was first developed. As is stated on its “About” page, Prestissimo was “conceived after a particularly frustrating hour and a half spent searching for classes worth 3 credits of social science that also fulfilled the writing proficiency requirement.”

The second and less tangible advantage Prestissimo offers is that it facilitates a sort of branching out that comprises one of the most celebrated aspects of a liberal arts education. From orientation onward, students are told to employ the given resources to grow themselves in all directions — which includes exploring content outside of what they could’ve pictured themselves studying. Because Prestissimo makes it easy to browse courses in every which direction, it’s neither uncommon nor costly to aimlessly peruse the offerings of a distant department. During such a journey it’s more than likely a student will encounter and consider a different and exciting course.

You can imagine that when Prestissimo shut down toward the end of last semester, students were upset. The shutdown was not without cause: Prestissimo was and remains a student project, and, though there’s a disclaimer at the bottom of the site that reminds users of this, people still contact the College’s technical support when it breaks. With the supposition that preexisting tools offered more than enough coverage to allow students to search for courses, it was replaced with a sparse page instructing students to seek out the College’s new online registration platform, OberView.

From a personal standpoint, the loss of Prestissimo was destabilizing. Though I am in my last semester and have no need to register for courses, I am one of the students who has worked on Prestissimo in the years following its creation. It was the first exposure I ever had to web development and in no small part is the reason I’ll be graduating as a Computer Science major this spring. It holds a privileged place both in my development as a software engineer as well as in how I conceptualize the strengths of Oberlin’s Computer Science department. The proximity and access I’ve had to professors and projects is something I cherish and, especially considering its origins, something Prestissimo is indicative of.

The resurrection of Prestissimo was the result of discussions about its place on campus between the Computer Science faculty and the College. In their wake, Prestissmo has been reinstated with the understanding that it is, has always been, and will remain a student project. It shows signs of wear: A couple of current bugs have yielded duplicate course entries, and the schedule can show up a little wonky. However, it remains an invaluable utility, learning opportunity, and student accomplishment that — with continued student participation — can be enhanced and employed well into the future.