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How Harvard’s Most Popular Class Became a ‘Lifestyle’

August 29, 2019, 2:00 PM UTC
BRB09.19_Harvard-CS50
Oleksandr Babii
Oleksandr Babii

Traditionalists may look aghast at CS50, Harvard’s introductory computer science course, which last year became the school’s most popular course of any kind. It’s taught by a young professor in jeans and a black T-shirt, David Malan, whose lectures are highly polished, fast-paced performances filled with props, demonstrations, and student involvement. Students aren’t required to attend, though; lectures are recorded in a slick, multi-camera format with production values that rival commercial TV, and most students watch them online. In addition to being Harvard’s No. 1 course, it’s offered simultaneously at Yale, with Malan teaching, an arrangement apparently unprecedented in the rival schools’ 318-year coexistence.

But far from being a dumbed-down sop to spoiled students, CS50 is a carefully crafted model of how to teach any subject in today’s technological and social environment. It’s extraordinarily demanding; by mid-semester, most students are spending over 12 hours a week on problem sets. If they need help, dozens of teaching assistants are available for in-person assistance 10 hours a week, far more than in traditional courses.

“There’s so much support,” says Emily Schussheim, a Yale junior who took CS50 as a freshman. “It’s also really social.” Other students have called it a phenomenon, a spectacle, a cult, and a lifestyle.

CS50 is available for free on the EdX education platform, where it has been taken by over a million students. Schussheim tells Fortune she came to college planning to major in economics, with “no real intentions” of ever taking a computer science course. Now her major is computer science and economics, and this fall she’s a teaching assistant in CS50.

A version of this article appears in the September 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “A Crimson Phenomenon.”

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