This is (Yale) CS50.



Harvard’s decision to move its more taken class.

In the near-final step of what has been a longtime consideration for both schools, Yale faculty voted Thursday to concretely approve the adaptation of Harvard’s CS50 course into the Yale curriculum. On Monday, Rob Bowden, a member of CS50’s technical staff, answered some questions about the move, and about the course itself.

CS50: Introduction to Computer Science I, one of Harvard’s most popular classes, currently enrolls 848 students, a full 12% of the entire college population. Because it offers a rigorous instruction in the basics of a discipline whose popularity is currently exploding (a point reinforced by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s recent visit to campus), it appeals to both engineering students and English majors; it also generates a self-proclaimed cult by offering its students weekly free lunches, t-shirts, and other paraphernalia. Its unique approach to teaching basic computer science has attracted the attention of many industry professionals and other schools. The head of the Yale computer science department, Joan Feigenbaum, admires CS50’s ability to “combine the great things about online instruction and the great things about person-to-person, face-to-face on-campus instruction.” Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft, visited the class last week and emphasized that “leadership in computer science is fundamental to Harvard remaining the leading institution in education,” a concern he demonstrated to be a priority by donating a large sum to the Computer Science department.

While the adaptation of CS50 at Yale is nominally a big change, most of the course is already available to the public online. A version of the full course has been available online through edX for several years; over 160,000 students enrolled last year, and the number this year has unofficially topped two hundred thousand. Despite the ready availability of the class’s lectures and resources online, though, Bowden emphasized that there’s something to be said for actually taking the class: for “having a structure for the course, and having local, on-campus support… having these structured deadlines, having a section you can attend, having office hours available to you.” In fact, the only component of the projected Yale class that will be taken exactly as is from Harvard is the taped lectures themselves, as the Yale course will have is own private office hours and sections. What the adaptation of CS50 at Yale ultimately represents is the weakening of an ideology that sets arbitrary boundaries on the dissemination of knowledge; Bowden called into question the entire notion of courses exclusive to single universities, saying, “Hopefully, it isn’t seen as something that is a bad idea, these universities sharing these ideas and resources and courses.” He admitted that seeing a Yale course taught here would feel “kind of strange,” but ultimately expressed objective support for progress towards course-sharing between the two schools.

One of the unique advantages of CS50, said Bowden, is its separation into different components, such as short videos on specific topics, problem sets with built-in guidance, and notes organized on the course website. These separate components all happen to be available online (with the exception of discussions and office hours), a fact that makes the course very conducive to online sharing. Inter-school course sharing, though, is not strictly limited to the field of computer science; other courses, said Bowden, can be run similarly, where “the lecture itself is something that’s filmed or live-streamed, and then at various universities they can have their own private discussion sections on the material… even if it’s a humanities course.” There’s no “absolute best way” for computer science to be taught, said Bowden, but “if there are some ways that are better than others — and that’s again not to say that CS50 is better than others — I don’t think other schools should be afraid to adapt a different school’s course just because it doesn’t originate from that school… if you want to offer your students the best courses possible.”

The final decision to implement CS50 at Yale (or not) awaits final approval by Harvard faculty. If approved, the Yale course will begin next fall.

Hannah Kates ’18 (hkates@college) doesn’t know any computer science (yet).