The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 26.0°F | A Few Clouds

HASS-D Notification System Goes Awry, May Be Overhauled

By Jennifer Lane
Contributing Editor

An electronic mail notification system glitch handed some students incorrect class assignments following the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences Distribution lottery onRegistration Day, said HASScoordinator Bette K. Davis.

As a result, members of the HASS office and Information Systems will hold a meeting this morning to discuss possible future changes in the system. The main topic will likely be the ending of the e-mail notification system, said ISAnalyst Programmer Regina L. Gogol. Gogol was responsible for sending the personalized e-mail notifications to students.

Now in its fourth semester of use by the HASS office, the lottery system itself ran without flaw, and the usual 90 percent of students received their first choices, Davis said.

Questions started early

Davis started to get phone calls during the early evening on registration day from students with suspect results. "Things just seemed all wrong," she said. For example, one student had apparently entered six choices but received no assignment even though four of those classes showed up as not filled.

The office thought the lottery had run correctly, and were consequently unsure of why students were receiving these messages, Davis said.

Gogol said that she noticed program problems while she had the e-mail notification procedure running on her machine. "It looked suspicious that several students in a row got lotteried out, so Ikilled the procedure," she said.

It took awhile to realize that the source of the problem was the notification system and not the lottery itself. At that point, Gogol chose to send new messages to everyone so that each student would be assured of receiving the correct message.

By 10 p.m. all students had received correct responses. There was some confusion for a few hours in the early evening, but "Ithink in fact it was not a problem for students," Davis said. "My only concern was that students receiving the first incorrect message would not read their mail in time to get the second, correct message," she said.

"I was hoping that the grapevine would be strong enough to get word out, and Ithink it was," she said. "Ihave yet to hear from a single student who didn't get the second message."

E-mail notification may cease

There were several changes made to the HASS-D lottery system this semester. The program was updated, although the lottery ran on the same server as the physical education lottery. The two lotteries also ran on the same day.

"We were stretched a little thin, running both lotteries on one day," said Andy Oakland, the Distributed Computer Network Services analyst programmer who designed the HASS-D lottery system. However, none of these changes caused the e-mail notification breakdown, he said.

"Ithink that we can get something positive out of this fiasco. IS has mentioned to the HASS office that we want to get rid of the e-mail notification system," Gogol said.

"Actually running the lottery is real quick. Where things can go wrong is in the constructing of 2,000 individual e-mail messages," Oakland said.

"The e-mail procedure is not an automated procedure, and we should not use it at all. We should create more secure ways of notifying students of their assignments," Gogol said.

The alternative that Gogol and Oakland are presenting at today's meeting is simply to dump the results of the lottery back onto the server in personal, secure directories. Students would then be able to ask the server for their assignments, Oakland said.

The e-mail notification script takes three hours to run. Getting rid of the system would allow all results to be available at the same time, Gogol said.

"The PE lottery system also currently uses e-mail notification, but only because the HASS-D system does," Gogol said.

Davis is concerned that students may forget to check for their assignments, especially those students who had entered the lottery back in December.

"We'd have to do a publicity blitz to make sure students realize the change," Davis said.

"The other, bigger thing is that the eventual goal - which is part of the student services re-engineering effort - is to combine everything that has to do with registration into one system, so the HASS-D system would be integrated into the whole system," Davis said.

"The details have not been worked out, but it's a goal that everyone agrees on, and that would mean a change in the system," Davis said.

These changes and goals will also be discussed at this morning's meeting, said Oakland, who previously served on a student services re-engineering committee.