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Yale Considers Proposal To Offer CS50 Next Fall

Hundreds of students crowd Sanders Theatre for the first meeting of CS 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I.”
Hundreds of students crowd Sanders Theatre for the first meeting of CS 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I.”
By Meg P. Bernhard, Crimson Staff Writer

UPDATED: Oct. 8, 2014 at 1:27 a.m.

Yale is currently considering a proposal to adopt a version of Harvard's Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I” for its undergraduate curriculum, Yale Computer Science Department head Joan Feigenbaum confirmed Tuesday.

Feigenbaum said that CS50 course instructor David J. Malan ’99 sent her an email over the summer proposing an idea for a “joint Harvard-Yale CS50.” She said Yale is currently in the process of reviewing the proposal, which must be approved by her department, Yale’s Course of Study Committee, and eventually the college’s full faculty.

Hundreds of students crowd Sanders Theatre for the first meeting of CS 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I.”
Hundreds of students crowd Sanders Theatre for the first meeting of CS 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I.” By Connie Yan

If the proposal is approved, Malan’s CS50 lectures would be streamed to Yale, where an on-the-ground instructor and support staff, including teaching fellows, will hold standard sections and office hours and handle grading, according to Feigenbaum. She added that Malan may even visit New Haven to deliver a few lectures.

Though Malan lectures in-person on Harvard’s campus, all lectures are also offered as video modules, and enrollees are not required to attend lectures.

To move forward, the proposal would also require the approval of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Feigenbaum said. Neither Computer Science Area Dean David C. Parkes nor Director of Undergraduate Studies Harry. R. Lewis ’68 responded to repeated requests for comment on the matter. CS50 course manager Daven Farnham declined to comment.

Malan, for his part, said that he “recently” proposed to Yale that the CS50 staff work with the university on some sort of collaboration, but would not comment on whether the department was in the process of approving the new course or not.

“We are focused entirely on our fall semester right now,” Malan said. “We have indeed spoken with Yale about the process of collaborating on some course that might be jointly offered on both campuses, but as of now we have no plans.”

Malan declined to comment on the steps moving forward with the collaboration, but did note that the “course proposal process, if anything like [on] this campus, takes quite a bit of time” and that he is “not surprised if [Yale] might be discussing if and how we implement some joint course.”

Professor Malan lectures on the role of the binary number system in computer science at the first CS50 lecture of the school year.
Professor Malan lectures on the role of the binary number system in computer science at the first CS50 lecture of the school year. By Connie Yan

If passed by both faculties, the course, Harvard’s highest enrolled offering in five years, would begin at Yale in fall 2015, according to Feigenbaum.

“One of the things that is so exciting about this proposal is that if it stands a chance, if it is approved, and if it works out, [it will] allow us to combine the great things about online instruction and the great things about person-to-person, face-to-face on-campus instruction,” Feigenbaum said.

The proposal comes at a time when the number of computer science majors is steadily increasing in universities across the U.S.. According to Yale’s Computer Science Director of Undergraduate Studies James Aspnes, the college has around 200 undergraduate majors, compared to Harvard’s 253.

CS50 currently enrolls 848 students, not including those students who take it as a massive open online course through HarvardX. As of Aug. 2013, CS50x was HarvardX’s most-enrolled course, with nearly 160,000 students.

Aspnes acknowledged that the introduction of CS50 into the department could draw students away from its other preparatory courses, like Computer Science 112: “Introduction to Programming,” but he said the department will still offer these courses.

Aspnes added that the department has been trying of late to expand its introductory computer science courses to no avail due to limited resources.

“My understanding is that...Harvard’s CS50 has substantially more resources than we do at Yale,” Aspnes said, noting that he believes the department will receive extra resources from Yale to launch its version of CS50.

Feigenbaum said she is hopeful that the proposal will pass and enrich both campuses, adding that the proposed course could possibly culminate in a Harvard versus Yale hackathon at the end of next fall.

“If Harvard and Yale do it in this joint way…we can build into a combination of online instruction and person-to-person on-campus instruction, and a little bit of friendly rivalry and tradition,” she said.

—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at meg.bernhard@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @Meg_Bernhard.

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