Harvard University to encourage AI use in popular Computer Science coding module

Students enrolling in Computer Science 50 at the Ivy League school next semester will use AI to help them find bugs in their code.
Shubhangi Dua
Harvard students to use AI chatbot in learning CS50 course
Harvard students to use AI chatbot in learning CS50 course

Esteban Martinena Guerrero / Getty Images via Canva 

As artificial intelligence experiences a boom and AI-powered tools like ChatGPT and Google Bard expand rapidly around the world, education systems have been considering how to incorporate the new technology into their curricula, and how they can catch up with the students who are using AI to get ahead.

Last month, Harvard University announced the introduction of AI to its popular Computer Science Coding module, where students will be able to use a class bot to learn.

Computer Science 50 (CS50) professor David J Malan stated in an email:

“Starting this fall, students will be able to use AI to help find bugs in their code, give feedback on the design of student programs, explain unfamiliar lines of code or error messages, and answer individual questions.”

Until last year, Harvard did not have a policy on AI, however, administrators have encouraged conversations around its functions in class. 

The CS50 module has used AI software in the past and referred to this latest development as “an evolution of that tradition.”

Malan said that the course educators are experimenting with both GPT  3.5 and GPT 4 models.

He adds, “Our own hope is that, through AI, we can eventually approximate a 1:1 teacher: student ratio for every student in CS50, as by providing them with software-based tools that, 24/7, can support their learning at a pace and in a style that works best for them individually.”

The Harvard Crimson reports that the IT course will have a personal AI model – CS50 bot which will be able to respond to frequently-asked student questions on Ed Discussions

The discussion board is widely used in STEM classes at the Boston-based university where human staff review AI-generated responses. Malan says that the feature is currently under beta testing in the summer school version of CS50.

Ethical implications

The course professor emphasizes that the course’s AI tool will be “similar in spirit” to ChatGPT and GitHub Copilot, but will aim to lead students toward an answer instead of handing it to them.

“The AI being incorporated into CS50 will assist students in finding bugs in their code “rather than outright solutions,” Malan says, “the new programs will also explain potentially complex error messages in simpler terms for students and offer potential “student-friendly suggestions for solving them.”

When concerns about students cheating through AI came up, Malan says that students will always find ways to access information in an unauthorized way, however, AI may be able to facilitate such actions.

He said, “Better, then, to weave all the more emphasis on ethics into a course so that students learn, through guidance, how to navigate these new waters.”

The inclusion of AI will not remain limited to the Harvard course but also extend to its edX version, a partnership between MIT and Harvard. The features will benefit students both on and off campus, The Harvard Crimson says. 

Until now, the course staff used AI software to grade efficiently to save time and now the teaching staff is opening it up for students to use it too. 

“Assessing, more qualitatively, the design of students’ code has remained human-intensive. Through AI, we hope to reduce that time spent, so as to reallocate TFs’ time toward more meaningful, interpersonal time with their students, akin to an apprenticeship model,” Malan said.

The Biden Administration recently released a report summarising the opportunities and risks of AI in teaching, learning, research and assessment, based on public input. 

The Department of Education report emphasized the need to advance understanding of the technology, including the enablement of new forms of interaction between educators and students, helping educators address variability in learning, increasing feedback loops and supporting educators.

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