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CS50 Revises Office Hours to Be More Social, Efficient

Thomas M. MacWilliam '13. right, and Rob Bowden '13 help students during CS50 office hours using the new computer and app-based interface. CS50 implemented the new program to better serve students.
Thomas M. MacWilliam '13. right, and Rob Bowden '13 help students during CS50 office hours using the new computer and app-based interface. CS50 implemented the new program to better serve students.
By Radhika Jain, Crimson Staff Writer

Computer Science 50, Harvard’s popular introductory computer science course, is taking efficiency to a new level with a revised office hour format that is simultaneously tech-savvy and social.

For the first time, office hours for the class will be held in House dining halls instead of the Science Center basement. And in a format inspired by the Apple Store’s Genius Bar, arriving students log in to the course website, cs50.net, and access CS50 Queue—a new application crafted this summer by Teaching Fellow Thomas M. MacWilliam ’13.

The program has students “raise their hands virtually” by typing in a question and giving it a topic label, according to David J. Malan ’99, who teaches CS50. A designated CS50 “greeter” equipped with an iPad is immediately alerted, and when a staff member becomes free, the greeter pushes a button that causes the student’s laptop to start flashing—signaling that help is available.

“We hate seeing those FMLs: I didn’t get help one time in CS50 office hours!” MacWilliam said. “Our goal is that students don’t have to be waiting.”

Malan said he hopes that the new system—which replaces an antiquated office hour format in which students often waited 30 minutes or more to speak individually with a teaching fellow or course assistant—will facilitate a more social and collaborative atmosphere.

“[The old wait time] has proved unacceptable pedagogically,” Malan said, adding that a key motivation for the change was not only greater efficiency but also the opportunity to make House dining halls a center for academic study and conversation.

Since the CS50 greeter can see all of the questions posed by students, he or she can send multiple students with the same query to a single TF or CA. In addition, CS50 Queue allows students to see the questions their peers have asked so that they can collaborate on their own, and an optional Facebook chat mechanism embedded in the application makes it even easier for students to interact—even if they’re not sitting right next to each other.

Students also have the option to make themselves “invisible,” in which case their names and questions will not show up to their peers.

CS50 Queue will enable CS50’s teaching staff to track trends in the types of questions students are asking and adapt lectures accordingly. They hope to continue unrolling new features, such as pictures of TFs and estimated wait times.

With the first problem set due on Thursday, students are already flocking to office hours—such as the session held in Leverett dining hall Tuesday night—and many find the format very helpful.

“If all office hours are like this—that’s pretty cool,” said Trevor J. Brandt-Sarif ’14.

The new design was largely inspired by Apple’s Genius Bar and the Physics 16 “Physics Nights” organized by Professor Howard M. Georgi ’68 in Leverett dining hall. Georgi was instrumental in garnering support for the shift, Malan said.

Office hours will be held Monday through Thursday, from 9 p.m. to 12 a.m., in Pforzheimer, Leverett, or Lowell Houses. The College and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences will supplement Brain Break food on these evenings in order to relieve the burden on Houses.

—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at radhikajain@college.harvard.edu.

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