CS 50 TFs Given Free Tablet PCs

The teaching fellows for Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science” each received a free tablet PC laptop from the Microsoft Corporation last Tuesday—a donation valued at more than $70,000 in total.

The computers—which the TFs will be allowed to keep for personal use once the course is over—are one of several corporate donations engineered by the course’s instructor, David J. Malan ’99.

Malan said the computers will help the TFs with grading, which he said has always been one of the most time-consuming aspects of their job.

“My hopes were to do whatever we could to optimize that process so TFs could focus their time more on the teaching aspect rather than the minutia of adding or subtracting points,” Malan said. “Tablet PCs struck us as a wonderful opportunity technologically to chip away at what is otherwise a fairly laborious process.”

Malan said he reached out to representatives from Microsoft last spring.

According to Shafeen Charania, the director of marketing in Microsoft’s education product group, Microsoft agreed to donate a tablet PC to each of the course’s TFs “to facilitate better teaching outcomes and help students effectively visualize the concepts of computer science.”

Although the 30 tablet computers—Dell Latitude XT models, valued at $2,351 each on Dell’s Web site—only arrived this past week, the intial response has been positive.

“Our students submit PDFs of code and we can write comments on it,” said Peter H. Lifland ’10, one of the almost 30 TFs for the course. “It makes the grading process a lot faster.”

“It’s like when an English professor highlights or marks stuff,” said Kenneth A. Parreno ’11, another TF. “It helps us give a lot of feedback in a faster, more efficient way.”

The tablets have also proved helpful as a teaching tool. Malan said he took advantage of the technological capabilities of a tablet this week in lecture, “particularly so I could draw attention to interesting elements on the screen.”

“We found it to be much more effective than using a tiny laser pointer or trying to describe verbally what students should be focusing on,” he said.

According to Charania, Microsoft has not yet decided whether they will continue to work with Malan in coming years.

“Think of it as an experiment,” Charania said. “Our intent is to see if great things happen. If the experiment proves to be very successful, then we want to see how much success we can create.”

The tablet computers are not the only thing that CS50 has received from technology companies this year as a result of Malan’s efforts.

Amazon.com has provided students in CS50 access to their own server space independent of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ server, which has allowed the course to create “virtual machines” on Amazon’s physical servers.

“Among the features we gain is the administrator access we have over the machines,” Malan said. “There are fewer technological barriers that get in the way of working with students.”

The servers also give students access to more software, memory, and CPU power.

Google has also supported the course’s experimentation with virtual machines on Amazon’s servers through a $25,000 grant awarded earlier in the year, according to Malan.

Three CS50 TFs are Crimson editors—Daniel C. Carroll ’09 is The Crimson’s IT chair, Kent Rakip '11 is an IT editor, and Yuhki B. Yamashita ’11 is an IT and design editor.