Insufficiently Random

The lonely musings of a loosely connected software developer.

Friday, November 25, 2005

When Did Microsoft Break The Web?

I'm taking a distance learning type course this semester, so every lecture is video taped and put on the web. This is a great resource as it means that you can go back and review any segement of lecture at any time of day or night when you need to. With an exam coming up on Tuesday its very useful. I wish all of my classes were like this.

But... the files are posted on the web as Microsoft Windows Media Player streams or something like that... which means the media file linked to by the index page is actually a small (5 line) XML file which has HTTP urls to another site, which if you fetch one of those URLs is just a plain text file of 2 lines long... so I can't download the videos onto my laptop, and even if I figure out how to get the actual video file its a rather convoluted process. *sigh*

But it would be nice to download the videos as I'll be away from a network connection all weekend but would still like to have the lectures available to me. So now those of us who don't have network access this weekend won't have access to the lectures, while those of us who can keep their broadband network access (or are physically nearby to campus and can just walk/drive over to campus to review them) have an advantage. *sigh* Thanks Microsoft. I'm sure the guy who thought up this round-about why to describe a video file is quite proud of himself. He probably got a few extra thousand dollars bonus money one year, and the rest of us get to suffer with a web of links which don't work with conventional tools (e.g. Safari, Firefox, curl, wget, ...).

Friday, November 11, 2005

Randomly Grading Problems

So the class I was complaining about last week? The instructor typically assigns homeworks with 6 problems in them. We are to turn in solutions to all 6. The instructor then "randomly" selects 3 and uses those 3 to determine your grade. From what I can tell of the 6 problems all are equally worthy questions related to the course material, so its not like 3 questions are more accurate tools to judge student ability than the other 3 are.

With 6 questions per homework and 5 homeworks in the semester each question is worth 1.16% of my final grade. Remember that since this class is essentially pass/fail with 93% and below considered failing, 1.16% of my final grade is really worth 19.3% of the pass/fail grade. So each homework question is worth 19.3% of whether or not I am a good enough student to work on a PhD in Computer Science.

Remember that questions are randomly selected on the homework. So if I get 5 out of 6 completely correct and the one I got wrong is one of the ones graded, I lose 19.3% of my pass/fail grade. If another student gets only 3 out of 6 completely correct, but was lucky enough to have gotten all 3 of the graded questions right, they lose none of their pass/fail grade.

How exactly is this a fair judgment of the student's ability? For starters we have no idea if the other student (who only got 3 of 6 correct) really did get 3 of 6 correct or got 6 of 6 correct, as 3 of the questions weren't even graded. Secondly we're talking about 1 question being worth 19.3% of the pass/fail grade. If both students scored the same on all other homeworks and exams and both are close to the 94% pass/fail line, it is possible for the one student who got 2 more questions right on a homework assignment to actually fail the class, while another student who got those questions wrong will pass the class without a problem.

The instructor is grading this way to "save work for the TA". Other graduate courses on the same material at other schools require the students to grade their peers; thereby removing the grading load from the TA entirely. If the instructor wants to save work for his TA then maybe he should use such a grading policy. But isn't the point of a TA to help the instructor with work such as grading, not sit around and twiddle his thumbs and get a free ride? I'm also a TA and I don't get a free ride. The TA for this course shouldn't get a free ride either.

So not only am I stuck having to deal with this class, but now I also get to find out on which side of the lucky/unlucky line I reside on. If it is the lucky side I better run to Vegas quick, because I'll make more there in a weekend than I ever could in a lifetime as a PhD. If it is the unlucky side then I have a lot of studying to do this winter so I can pass the oral exam for this qualifier component, as I failed the class. *sigh*

More interestingly, even if I could find and document such a case of one student passing while the other failed, yet the failing student did better overall on the homework than the passing student, I would be unlikely to win a petition on the subject to the graduate curriculum committee, as such a decision could possibly void a number of grades given for this class over a number of years. Talk about tipping over the apple cart.

So the short of it is: Life is a bitch. And any grade earned in this course is pretty much irrelevant, as only 6% of your grade actually matters but 30% of the grade is randomly determined. Uhm yea, I'm motiviated to care about this material.

I might as well just flip a coin to determine if I would make a good PhD student.

*flip* Damn. Tails. I guess its time to pack up, go home, and get a real job.

Thursday, November 3, 2005

Since When Is 93 Failing?

So I am taking a required graduate course this semester at RPI.

The course must be passed with a score of 94 or higher (out of 100) to have it count as having met one of the core requirements for a doctorate degree.

The syllabus of the course specifically states that a score of 90 or higher in the class will be marked as an 'A' (the highest grade one can earn in a course at RPI) to the registrar, and thus on your transcript.

So therefore I can earn a 93 in the class, have an 'A' (remember, this being the highest grade available at RPI) appear on my transcript, BUT I FLUNKED THE REQUIREMENT. No doctorate degree for me. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. But collect an 'A' on your transcript.

Of course the syllabus also defines scores above 80 and below 90 as a 'B', lower scores as a 'C', etc. So obviously the course is not pass/fail. But it might as well be. And nobody can tell by looking at my transcript whether or not I received a 93 or a 94 in the course. Yet a 93 means I can't get a doctorate while a 94 means I can continue working on one.

Clearly not all values of 'A' are equal, just as not all values of 1 are equal, such as in 1 + 1 = 3. Wow, I guess this professor at RPI just proved that 1 + 1 = 3 since 'A' does not equal passing. Or something like that. Its a little too late in the day to be trying to construct such a proof. But I do think it is horribly unfair.

RPI should just relabel this class as pass/fail for doctorate students. You either earn the grade required to pass the course or you don't; giving out 'A's while failing the student is just plain wrong. Its sort of like firing people while giving them a huge raise at the same time. "Hey Bob! Good news! You are getting a raise of $30,000/year! Oh, and your fired." Uhm, thanks.

What's worse is its not very hard to get a 94 in this class. Make a small mistake on an exam (like forgetting to explicitly return from a subroutine when it seems obvious to you at the time you wrote the pseudo-code that everyone would think it obvious you would return at that point, so you just put a paragraph break and continue on) and you automatically lose a couple of points on your final grade. Make similiar small mistakes on two (of five) homework assignments and you are already looking at a 92 or 93, tops. So at this point in the semester (with 4 weeks left to go) I'm already failing the class, but I'm sure I'll get an 'A' on my transcript. Go RPI!