CS50: Inside the world’s most elite computing course

From bust to boom

Fifteen minutes into my first CS50 lecture, it’s easy to see why students warm to Malan’s course, but it hasn’t always been the oversubscribed, cross-campus success that it is today. During the lecture, Malan shows today’s students a clip from a 2005 guest lecture from Facebook founder and notorious Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg. Admittedly, Zuckerberg was hardly the draw then that he is today, with Facebook having been up and running only a year before he gave the lecture; by Harvard’s own admission, the course’s popularity had waned with the dotcom bust. The footage shows only a dozen or so students occupying seats in the embarrassingly empty lecture hall, forcing Zuckerberg into a rather stilted one-liner to kick off his speech: “This is actually one of the first times I’ve been to a lecture at Harvard.”

That video of Zuckerberg also betrays another sign of how far the course has matured. The 2005 lecture video is shot from one fixed-position camera at the back of the lecture hall, with a toe-curling 30 seconds or so of fiddling with Zuckerberg’s mic before the lecture commences. The 2015 lectures, by contrast, begin with a television-worthy trailer for the course; the lectures are shot from multiple camera angles at up to 4K resolution with Malan wearing an earpiece, presumably for stage direction; and when he relies on slides to show snippets of code or other information, he shrinks into an in-picture window so that the viewer can read what’s on-screen. It’s the sort of quality you expect from Super Bowl broadcasts, not a university computing course.

CS50 is now a marketable brand. Malan and other students are shown wearing “I took CS50” T-shirts; students who volunteer to help with on-stage demonstrations are rewarded with CS50 stress balls; the final lecture concludes with a DJ mixing Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” to a CS50 jingle. The whole package is slick. Malan has even got into a skirmish with Harvard over his attempts to trademark the CS50 brand, but withdrew his application in 2013 after the university blocked his application.

So is commercial branding now a necessary part of modern education? “I don’t imagine it’s necessary,” Malan replied, “but in our case it’s certainly a manifestation of our interest in building a culture around the course, a global community that brings together students – both on campus and off. That the course’s shirts say, quite simply, ‘I took CS50’ captures precisely the pride that we hope students feel at term’s end after tackling so much, so successfully.”

Online overspill

Of course, not everyone has the grades, money or the right passport to get into Harvard or Yale. Instead, the vast majority of students “take” CS50 online, whether through the course website or online education establishments such as edX or iTunes U.

Although distance-learning students obviously won’t get the personal tutoring, hack days and the benefits of life on campus, Malan believes there are benefits to taking the course remotely instead of sitting in Harvard’s enormous lecture halls. “The reality – and I believe this philosophically – is that lectures are not a particularly effective means for delivering fairly complex information, certainly over hour-plus-long spans of time,” he tells the students during one lecture, urging them to rewatch the videos online. “Indeed, every few minutes… you zone out for a moment, you miss some complex topic, and you’re gone pretty much for the next 45 minutes. And the reality is that, whether you’re here in New Haven or Cambridge or beyond, the simplicity of being able to pause and fast-forward, rewind, hyperlink to related resources, search full text transcripts and the like, is an opportunity that I dare say for our online students well beyond New Haven, offers an opportunity to really grasp the conceptual material that we introduce in lectures all the better.”

cs50_coding_intense_student_laptop_work

But why does Harvard offer these resources for free? “It’s the right thing to do,” Malan said. “If students elsewhere in the world can benefit from the work we’re already doing in Cambridge, applying lessons learned to their own work and bootstrapping further studies, then all the better.

“It’s been wonderful to connect with so many people from around the world,” he added. “Rather than centralise the course’s discussions in one platform, we’ve instead fostered communities on Facebook, Gitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, Slack, Stack Exchange, Twitter and beyond, where there are students already. CS50’s Facebook group alone has 80,000 members, with students from around the world interacting daily.”

CS50’s tentacles are stretching even further. The course is now reaching into schools via the CS50 AP programme, providing a curriculum that teachers can use in their own classrooms from this autumn. That’s also becoming international, with Malan delivering CS50 AP workshops in London.

The most interesting development is CS50 VR, which will see the autumn lectures shot in 360-degree virtual reality, so that remote students can be immersed in the lecture hall. The taster video gives Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR and other headset users a taste.

If students aren’t distracted by the VR then they could be the ones finding new ways to deliver this amazing course around the world.

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