In the most prestigious computer science course in the world

Few university courses can count Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Ballmer among their professors. There aren’t many college courses where more than 100,000 people have turned up for lectures (although mostly online). There aren’t many college courses that have their own brand, merchandise, and battle to register the course name as a trademark. But then there aren’t many university courses like CS50.

CS50 is without a doubt the most prestigious computer science course in the world. It is taught not only at Harvard, but now at Yale, another Ivy League institution, where it instantly became the university’s most popular course in its freshman year. If you are one of the many who cannot get a place for the course at one of the universities, you can take CS50 online, either through digital institutions such as edX or iTunes U, or simply through the website of the courses, where all lectures, tutorials, materials, assignments and their solutions are published for free. Lectures will soon even be viewable using VR headsets, as if you were actually sitting in the halls of Harvard.

So what makes this course so special? What drives thousands of America’s brightest minds and hundreds of thousands of people around the world to broadcast the lectures? I’ve spoken to the course leader and the students, and I’ve attended a few conferences myself to find out.

IT for everyone

CS50, or Computer Science 50 to give its full name, is not purely the preserve of those who write Perl in their pajamas. Almost three-quarters of students who enroll in Harvard have never taken a computer course before. As Professor David Malan told students during his introductory lecture during 2015: “We are not purporting in this course to turn you all into majors or CS concentrators, but rather to give you the opportunity, hopefully. it, to go beyond the world you are currently familiar with and bring back from that world skills, knowledge and know-how that you can apply to your own world, whether in the humanities, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences or beyond. The fact that you learn programming along the way is, according to the website, “perhaps its most empowering return.”

This is not to say that there is nothing to be gained from those who already know their procedures from their variables. Each of the “sets of problems” that students are challenged to solve come in two levels of difficulty: Standard, which over 90% of the class are expected to do, and Hacker Edition, for those with the technical skills and who want to surpass themselves. Indeed, the entire course at Harvard and Yale is organized into three different courses: those who are “more comfortable” with the programming language, those who are “less comfortable” and a group for those who are “somewhere in between”.

Almost three-quarters of students who enroll in Harvard have never taken a computer course before.

The course and many lectures – delivered live to hundreds of students and on demand via very polished video streams – are led by Professor Malan: an engaging speaker who reminds me of former Windows chief Steven Sinofsky, in that sense that you are clearly dealing with with such a fierce intellect that the words cannot come out of its mouth fast enough to follow its brain. He can speak to the beat of the machine gun, but he’s also brilliant at distilling complex concepts into digestible chunks.

In the 2015 introductory lecture, for example, he used a set of light bulbs to teach students how to write numbers in binary, explaining how each light bulb (on for 1 and off for 0) represents a bit. This is the clearest explanation I have ever seen. Thanks to the additional videos on the CS50 site, I can now add, subtract and multiply in binary as well.

He also begins to explore the development of divide-and-conquer algorithms by tearing up a phone book (a bit awkwardly, given his orthodox geek physique). This graphically illustrates that even with 40 billion names listed alphabetically in a phone book, it would only take 36 steps to find the person you are looking for if you opened the book in the middle and snatched out the half that did not contain the name of. the person. name (to explain the concept of log n).

Then there is the demonstration of how commands written for computers require a degree of precision that we are not used to when instructing humans. He asks the students in the Yale lecture hall to shout commands on how to make a peanut butter and jam sandwich, one of his cronies on stage carrying out the orders to the letter. So ‘opening the bag of bread’ results in the bag tearing and the bread spilling all over the place, while later in the ‘program’ the sandwich maker gets caught in an endless loop that doesn’t end well for the pot. peanut butter.

Coded connection

This engaging way of presenting the potentially arid and intimidating subject of programming certainly seems to be a hit with students, especially those who have never studied computer science before. Ed Rex, the founder of UK music startup Jukedeck, recently told me how he was inspired to start coding after attending a CS50 conference. “I was completely overwhelmed,” Rex said. “After an hour in his [Malan’s] conference room I walked out thinking, first, why no one told me this before; second, the programming is amazing; and thirdly, it seems like it’s a lot more doable than people in the UK would have you believe.

Kyle Schmigel, 23, is part of the current CS50 squad. He told me that “learning to program in general allows me to focus my mind in a very different way from what I usually do in my day-to-day life. It’s a fun way to challenge yourself and solve problems.

“The most important thing I have learned so far is to look at things from multiple angles,” Schmigel added. “Maybe I am not looking at the problem the right way, or I could do it in a simpler way. The CS50 is a tough course, but I’ve never done anything so fun as to challenge myself to take it.

Malan is too modest to attribute his teaching style as one of the main reasons for CS50’s success, pointing out other factors. “We have certainly benefited from a growing wave of interest in computing internationally, especially with the technology so popular right now,” he told me. “But we hope that the accessibility of the CS50, coupled with its rigor and culture, will resonate particularly with students, especially those with no previous experience.”

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