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Harvard University’s popular computer science course, CS50, is undergoing a transformative upgrade in the era of ChatGPT and artificial intelligence (AI). With over 40,000 online participants and hundreds of on-campus students, CS50 plans to leverage AI to automate assignment grading, facilitate coding instruction, and deliver personalized learning tips. Professor David J. Malan, known for his energetic and captivating teaching style, recognizes the challenge of engaging with a rapidly growing number of students from different time zones and varying levels of expertise, despite the assistance of over 100 teaching assistants.
In a phone interview, Malan, 46, highlighted the difficulty of providing tailored support to students at such scale, emphasizing the need for a solution. To address this, his team is refining an AI system that can assess and grade students’ work. Additionally, they are experimenting with a virtual teaching assistant (TA) capable of evaluating and offering feedback on programming assignments. Instead of merely identifying errors and debugging code, the virtual TA employs rhetorical questions and provides suggestions to aid students in their learning process. The ultimate goal is to free up human TAs’ time, allowing them to focus on in-person or Zoom-based office hours.
The introduction of AI into CS50’s curriculum occurs against the backdrop of concerns among educators regarding the potential for technologies like ChatGPT to facilitate undetected cheating and plagiarism. Consequently, some public schools and universities worldwide have banned such tools. The rise of AI has also impacted the stock prices of online education companies, including Chegg, a homework assistance platform based in Santa Clara, California. Chegg recently reported a slowdown in subscriber growth as individuals explore the capabilities of OpenAI’s free chatbot.
Malan sees CS50’s integration of AI as an opportunity to showcase the advantages of technology in education, particularly in enhancing the quality and accessibility of online learning. According to Grand View Research, the online learning industry is projected to reach a value of $348 billion by 2030, nearly tripling its 2022 figures.
Initially, CS50 was a single introductory computing class. Over time, it has evolved into a series of courses with 1.4 million YouTube subscribers and a range of branded merchandise, including stress balls and T-shirts. To make the course widely accessible, CS50 is now available on edX, a digital learning platform created by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Despite the optimism surrounding the use of AI in education, some experts urge caution due to the technology’s developmental stage and inherent propensity for errors. Earlier this week, CEOs from prominent AI companies, including OpenAI and Alphabet‘s DeepMind, issued a joint statement highlighting the “risk of extinction” associated with AI.
Moreover, ethical concerns arise regarding the use of AI in education, particularly in data collection for personalized lessons. Emma Taylor, an analyst at London-based consultancy GlobalData, emphasized the importance of platforms incorporating privacy safeguards and maintaining transparency in data collection processes to protect students’ privacy.
As CS50 embarks on this AI-driven educational journey, it hopes to demonstrate the tremendous potential of AI in education, while remaining mindful of the challenges and ethical considerations that lie ahead. By leveraging AI, CS50 aims to elevate the quality of online learning and foster a more inclusive educational experience for millions of aspiring computer scientists worldwide.