Harvard approves joint CS50 venture

Updated: Dec. 1, 2:45 a.m.

CS50 is coming to Yale.

Harvard approved the joint venture — in which students at Yale will watch live or archived lectures of the popular Harvard computer science course — Harvard computer science professor David Malan announced to his CS50 class last Monday.

“So the rumors are indeed true,” Malan said during his final fall lecture last Monday. “For the first time in history students at Harvard and Yale alike will be able to take a course called CS50 this coming fall 2015. We will put aside the rivalry.”

Harvard’s approval was the last step in the process of finalizing the joint venture after Yale faculty voted overwhelmingly to bring the course to New Haven earlier this month. Following Harvard’s approval, Yale Computer Science Department Chair Joan Feigenbaum confirmed that Yale will introduce the course for the first time in fall 2015. While Yale students will watch Malan’s lectures from afar, they will participate in sections and office hours in New Haven.

According to Yale computer science professor Holly Rushmeier, Harvard’s decision to approve the venture does not come as a surprise. Indeed, Yale computer science professor David Gelernter said “they’d have been crazy not to” do so.

“They have a successful course and can only make it more successful by adding some Yale-Harvard rivalry and — even better — some Yale students,” he said in an email. “Yale undergrads are the best around when it comes to creative entrepreneurship and independent thinking; and we can learn a lot from Harvard about this sort of hypermodern, high production value Disneyland course.”

Computer science and mechanical engineering professor Brian Scassellati will direct the course at Yale, and Harvard computer science professor Harry Lewis said Scassellati will work to build a program akin to the popular Harvard course. Scassellati will recruit undergraduate learning assistants to staff the Yale version of CS50, and Feigenbaum said in November that the training for these assistants will begin in the spring.

The course will also be overseen by current Harvard senior Jason Hirschhorn, a longtime CS50 teaching fellow who will work full-time at Yale after his graduation.

Hirschhorn said a top priority will be to integrate CS50 with the preexisting Yale Computer Science Department infrastructure and other “robust [computer science] and hacker communities” on campus.

“The CS50 community and culture are certainly unique,” Hirschhorn said in an email. “I’m very much looking forward to helping to put a Yale twist on them so as to meet, and maybe even exceed, the exceptional ones that already exist for students in Cambridge. I daresay my allegiances will be tested.”

Malan said that once Yale approved the course, he and his team at Harvard only needed to think through the implementation details before announcing the news last Monday. He added that CS50 has long been available as OpenCourseWare — course lessons created by universities and published for free using the internet — via a Creative Commons License. Any new material that Scassellati or Malan create this year will be similarly made available online.

Scassellati said he is happy to have final approval to move forward, but also identified several logistical challenges he will need to tackle: training the undergraduate learning assistants and finding room space for potentially packed evening office hours. The unpredictable size of the course will be an additional hurdle, he added.

“We are all anxious to get started, but we also want to make sure that we do this right the first time,” he said. “We are working hard behind the scenes to put all of these pieces in place so that we can begin to make public a more comprehensive view of what this experiment will look like.”

Still, student reactions to the decision were mixed, expressing excitement for the new course but noting that adding CS50 does not alleviate problems with Yale’s Computer Science Department.

Computer science major Aileen Huang ’17 said that bringing CS50 to Yale is a “lazy way” of getting around the department’s problems, including issues with understaffing and few electives. Her sentiment, she said, is shared by most of the other computer science majors she knows.

“CS50 is merely a band-aid solution,” Huang said.

But computer science major Daniel Pearson ’15 said that the increased interest in computer science resulting from CS50 will be worthwhile even at the loss of one faculty member to another introductory course. The understaffed department is a separate issue from CS50 that should still be addressed, he said.

Electrical engineering and computer science major Kimo Hon ’15 said it has been clear for years that Yale’s introductory courses have not been up to par, adding that by this point, the computer science department should have created a CS50 of their own instead of “importing one from Harvard.”

“I would be very disappointed if the University does not press on with adjusting the hiring policies for the Computer Science Department and expanding offerings for students,” Hon said. “The size of the faculty has been a huge limiting factor in what we have been able to offer and the number of students we are able to accommodate.”

Although Pearson said he has no problem with the implementation of CS50 at Yale, he and Hon agreed that CS50 is not a course fashioned directly for computer science majors. Pearson added that CS50 will be helpful in attracting students who have never been involved with computer science before and for students interested in the tech industry.

“If someone who is not a computer science major takes our current intro [computer science]  class it is kind of a dead end,” Pearson said. “It doesn’t lead to a place where you know what to do with it, like how to make anything. [CS50] may not be for [computer science] majors but will be helpful in improving technology on Yale’s campus.”

Computer science major Jessica Yang ’16 said that she is concerned that CS50 will adversely affect the gender ratio within computer science at Yale.

“In some ways CS50 epitomizes the worst of hacker culture,” Yang said in an email. “The last thing we need is more ‘dude-bros’ looking to make a quick buck off a sexting app joining the [computer science] department.”

Still, other students took the opposite position. Computer science major Alex Reinking ’16 told the News in November that he hoped that CS50 would attract more female students to the major just by the large number of students the course attracts.

“At Harvard, there are more than 700 people taking the class. They can’t all be men,” Reinking said.

Regardless, professors interviewed at both schools were mainly pleased to hear the news.

The joint venture is a historic change, Harvard professor of computer science and electrical engineering Woodward Yang said. He added that he hopes it will help the Ivies continue to attract and educate future leaders.

Computer science professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies Jim Aspnes said he looks forward to seeing CS50 at Yale. Aspnes said that while it is hard to predict how introducing CS50 will affect the rest of Yale’s Computer Science Department, he hopes it will make computer science accessible to more Yale students.

Lewis said he is thrilled by the development, adding that CS50 is a great course and can only be good for both schools. He also explained that Yale CS50 students will be invited to attend CS50 events in Cambridge, like CS50 Puzzle Day in September and the CS50 Hackathon in December. At the end of the semester, there will be a CS50 Fair on both campuses, he added.

However, some professors also recognized drawbacks to importing the course.

Computer science professor Michael Fischer, who is not involved with the venture, said that introducing CS50 will, in the short term, reduce the department’s ability to offer other courses and also take focus off other serious departmental issues like necessary curriculum revisions and the dearth of faculty and graduate student teaching assistants.

“The joint venture is billed as an experiment,” he wrote in an email. “It is unclear is what the criteria for success are and how the results will be evaluated, both by Harvard and by Yale. It is also unclear what each school hopes to learn from the experiment, except perhaps that by combining forces this way, both schools might save money and get by with fewer faculty.”

The big question, he added, is how well students will learn in this new environment.

Yale computer science professor Drew McDermott said in an email that he hopes that importing CS50 will help alleviate some of the department’s problems.

“If [introducting CS50] convinces the administration that we are open to new ideas, it might get them to take our problems seriously,” he said.

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