Rage against the machine

Since I came to this school, I’ve been continually amazed at how professors and others in various academic departments seem to think that online homework is somehow the best thing for us. Physics has CAPA, Statics has Mastering Engineering, and Mechanics of Materials has added an online homework set. At least we don’t have to use calc-checker anymore. Having homework online isn’t the problem, though. That’s actually quite nice; we can work on it at our leisure, and we aren’t restricted to a specific time or place.

No, the issue is the programs themselves. CAPA used to be the bane of my existence, but having seen Mastering Engineering, there is a new horror in my academic life. Not only does the program hate your guts and refuse to grant you the common decency of telling you what you’re messing up, it penalizes you for entering the incorrect answer! At least CAPA gives you 10-15 tries(Physics 2 and Physics 1, respectively) and you got full credit whether you used nine tries or one. Mastering Engineering takes off 3% for each incorrect answer, and only gives for 6 tries. It’s not all bad, though. If you’re incredibly smart(or incredibly lucky), and you answer correctly on the first try, you can get 110% on that problem. This is only a remedial thing, though, because you will very rarely get the oh so illusive ‘CORRECT’ on the first try. Some questions give you the option to look at a hint, for a 2-4% deduction, depending on the instructor.

Now, this is all made worse by the fact that the parsers that interpret algebraic equations are very particular about how you must enter said equations. In CAPA, if you aren’t very exact about your placement of parentheses and signs, it will reject the answer outright. I have personally had Dr. Kohl tell me that I had the correct equation, and then CAPA wouldn’t accept it. As you can well imagine, this is very upsetting. The problem is that computers don’t posses sophisticated AI and are incapable of interpreting slight variations from what they’ve been pre-programmed to accept. You may have the correct equation, but if you have a term somewhere that CAPA didn’t expect it, you’re screwed. It’s that simple.

It’s aggravating when CAPA thinks you’re stupid and won’t accept an answer, but it’s even worse when Mastering Engineering does it. Not only do they flip you the bird, they shoot your arm off and take away credit that you deserved. “Hey, there’s no difference between a vector starting at the center of a tiny ring and the outer edge of a tiny ring! It’s a freakin’ FBD, the forces act on a point!!!”. Geez. Anyway, I have very little patience when it comes to online homework programs, as I’m sure you are now well aware.

Not all online homework programs are bad, in fact, there are some that make life easier and are actually helpful. One example of just such a program is the online quiz program I used when I took Chemistry. This was at another school, which, in my opinion did a much better job at teaching chemistry. But that’s another rant for another article. The program of which I speak was explicitly for quizzes, so it was just multiple choice, no algebra nonsense or any of that junk. Now, this program didn’t give you ten tries, but if you paid attention in class and knew how to use your textbook, you didn’t need more than two tries, which you did have. It wasn’t difficult to get 97% with this program, unlike Mastering Engineering.

All of this is to let my fellow students know that their voices are being heard, and to send a message to our beloved faculty: Quit penalizing us for entering the wrong answer, and fix those defective problems that don’t know what a true FBD is. It’s not hard. Also, why should we have to input our algebraic answers? You can see if we’re doing it correctly or not, stop making us try to figure out which way CAPA wants it.

People say that Mines is in the top three most depressed schools in the nation, and I think this is partly why. I know that I’ve personally experienced a sharp increase in hair loss since I returned to school, and it’s only the third week!

If I may add one suggestion: Ask students what they think of the programs used in their classes, and take their feedback seriously. Yeah, there are some who just like making a stink about stuff, but most of us really do want a better learning experience. This has been a message from your friendly neighborhood PO’ed Mines Student.

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