For CS Class, Office Hours Go Virtual

Computer Science 50, “Introduction to Computer Science I,” plans to offer office hours online this semester. It is the first such program in Harvard’s history.

“We’re introducing virtual office hours to address two needs: efficiency and convenience,” said David J. Malan ’99, who teaches the course. “As such, I think ours might be one of those situations in which the introduction of technology is a good thing. Time will tell.”

The office hours are facilitated by software that lets the course’s teaching fellows chat with students and remotely take control of their computers.

“When a student has a question, he or she can ‘raise’ his or her hand by clicking a button,” Malan said in an e-mail. “Any TFs in the room will then hear a beep and they’ll see a number appear next to the student’s name signifying the student’s place in line.”

CS 50’s venture is largely experimental. The course will continue to host traditional office hours.

Course veteran Andrew K. Chan ’09 said that while virtual office hours will allow teaching fellows to reach more students, any resulting loss of personal interaction could make the class more challenging.

“I remember from freshman year when I took CS 50 that...the personalized attention was crucial for me to get through some of the tougher problem sets,” he said.

Alexandre L. G. Hugon ’11, who may take the course this fall, said that he was looking forward to the opportunity to use the new technology.

“I think this is a great idea,” he said. “A chat-based office hours would allow students to receive help from the comfort of their dorm rooms, rather than forcing them to lug their laptops to wherever an instructor or TF happens to be setting up shop.”

Malan was optimistic about the prospects of the new addition and said that a change in forum for office hours made sense for the course.

“There’s this tendency in academia to introduce technology into curricula simply for the sake of introducing technology. That’s a bad reason.”

Malan is taking over the leadership of CS 50 this year from Michael D. Smith, who is now the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

The course is using technology from Elluminate, an international software company, according to Malan.

“For us, a course whose work is largely keyboard-based, virtual office hours seem to make sense,” Malan said. “I don’t foresee virtual office hours replacing teacher-student interaction altogether anytime soon.”

—Staff writer Erin F. Riley can be reached at eriley@fas.harvard.edu.