By Harry Lewis, Professor of Computer Science, Harvard.
Computer science is booming at Harvard (and across the country). The number of concentrators has nearly tripled in five years. For decades, most of our students have been converts; barely a third of recent CS graduates intended to study the field when they applied to college. But sometime in 2010, we realized that this boom was different from those of earlier years, when many of our students came to computer science from mathematics, physics, and engineering. Today many seem to be coming from the life sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Never having studied formal mathematics, these students were struggling in our mathematically demanding courses. Their calculus and linear algebra courses did not teach them the math that is used to reason about computer programs: logic, proofs, probability, and counting (figuring out how many poker hands have two pairs, for example). Without these tools they could become good computer programmers, but they couldn’t become computer scientists at all. It was time to create a new course to fill in the background.
I’ve developed big courses like CS 50, our introduction to the field. Courses for specialists, like CS 121 (“Introduction to the Theory of Computation”) and CS 124 (“Data Structures and Algorithms”), the theory courses in the CS concentration. A lecture course mixing math and public policy—my “Bits” course, part of the Core and General Education curricula. Even a freshman seminar for 12, outside my professional expertise: on amateur athletics—really a social history of sports in America, heavily laced with Harvardiana.
So I figured I knew how to create courses. They always come out well—at least by the standard that I can’t possibly do a worse job than the previous instructor!
This time was different. Figuring out the right topics was the easy part. I polled faculty about their upper-level courses and asked them what math they wished their students knew. I looked at the websites of courses at competing institutions, and called some former students who teach those courses to get the real story. (College courses are no more likely to work as advertised than anything else described in a catalog.) Thus was born CS 20, “Discrete Mathematics for Computer Science.”
But once I knew what I needed to teach, I started worrying.
Every good course I have ever taught (or taken, for that matter) had a narrative. “It’s good for you” is not a winning premise for a course.
Every good course I have ever taught (or taken, for that matter) had a narrative. CS 121 is the story of computability, a century-long intellectual history as well as a beautiful suite of mathematical results. “Bits” is the drama of information freedom, the liberation of ideas from the physical media used to store and convey them (see “Study Card”). CS 20, on the other hand, risked being more like therapy—so many treatments of this followed by so many doses of that, all nauseating. “It’s good for you” is not a winning premise for a course.
And what if students did not show up for class? I had no desire to develop another set of finely crafted slides to be delivered to another near-empty lecture hall.
I’ll accept the blame for the declining attendance. My classes are generally video-recorded for an Extension School audience. I believe that if the videos exist, then all my students should have them—and they should have my handouts too. In fact, I think I should share as much of these materials with the world as Harvard’s business interests permit. I could think of ways to force students to show up (not posting my slide decks, or administering unannounced quizzes, for example). But those would be tricks, devices to evade the truth: the digital explosion has changed higher education. In the digital world, there is no longer any reason to use class time to transfer the notes of the instructor to the notes of the student (without passing through the brain of either, as Mark Twain quipped). Instead, I should use the classroom differently.
I decided to change the bargain with my students. Attendance would be mandatory. Homework would be daily. There would be a reading assignment for every class. But when they got to class, they would talk to each other instead of listening to me.
So I decided to change the bargain with my students. Attendance would be mandatory. Homework would be daily. There would be a reading assignment for every class. But when they got to class, they would talk to each other instead of listening to me. In class, I would become a coach helping students practice rather than an oracle spouting truths. We would “flip the classroom,” as they say: students would prepare for class in their rooms, and would spend their classroom time doing what we usually call “homework”—solving problems.
And they would solve problems collaboratively, sitting around tables in small groups. Students would learn to learn from each other, and the professor would stop acting as though his job was to train people to sit alone and think until they came up with answers. A principal objective of the course would be not just to teach the material but to persuade these budding computer scientists that they could learn it. It had to be a drawing-in course, a confidence-building course, not a weeding-out course.
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