Coding Better Conduct

The new changes to CS50 create a more supportive learning environment.

Ever since Professor David J. Malan ’99 started teaching Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I,” the class has experienced a meteoric rise in undergraduate enrollment and consistently pushed the boundaries of what a class can offer at Harvard. Despite its popularity, it has also been the subject of considerable controversy over the years, running the gamut from accusations of circumventing Harvard policies to enigmatic trademark applications to, most recently and notably, a cheating scandal that saw 60 enrollees face charges of academic dishonesty.

In the past, we have not been overly sympathetic to the course administration, in particular criticizing its vague and amorphous academic integrity policy that could have easily led to inadvertent violations by students. Though the course has not followed our exact proposal—in fact, it maintains that recent changes are not in response to this spring’s scandal—it has nevertheless rolled out a set of revamped policies and logistics this semester that will increase the likelihood that Harvard undergraduates will be able to fully take advantage of the opportunities it offers, all the while steering clear of the Honor Council.

Among the changes include making pass-fail the default grading basis for the class. Though students will still have the option to receive a letter grade, this standard will likely nudge enrollees toward the lower stress alternative. Students graded on a pass-fail scale, in turn, will be less likely to be concerned about landing low on the curve and underperforming their peers, and hence less likely to resort to cheating. Instead, they will concentrate on improving their computer science skills, whatever their previous level of aptitude or experience. It will also decrease the potential stigma attached to taking the class pass-fail or the anxiety surrounding a letter grade; students who may otherwise have avoided computer science will feel empowered to explore the field with less risk.

Moreover, the class will now encourage students to attend its weekly two hour lectures and also require them to attend weekly sections until the first midterm. We are hopeful these changes will create a better support structure for students—in particular so that they are directly engaging and interacting with course staff—which should encourage them to ask for help rather than plagiarize solutions off of the Internet when they feel under pressure.

Though these changes may seem small, we are hopeful they will go a long way in remedying the problems that CS50 has faced in the past. As it is never straightforward for such a large class to change from year to year, we commend CS50’s responsiveness to recent events. Indeed, despite all the fanfare and spectacle surrounding the class, it can be changes such as these that make the student experience all the more worthwhile and fulfilling.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.