Conflicted About 'New Yorker' Article on Harvard’s CS50

Not the online education that I know.

July 29, 2020

Have you had the chance to step away from Zoom long enough to read Eren Orbey’s July 21 New Yorker article, "How Harvard’s Star Computer-Science Professor Built a Distance-Learning Empire"?

What did you make of it? I find myself, well, conflicted.

Harvard’s CS50, as the article points out, tends to polarize. Personally, I’m a big fan. I have nothing but admiration for the spirit of experimentation and passion that David Malan, his teaching team and Harvard have brought to HarvardX’s Introduction to Computer Science.

Where I am conflicted is about the New Yorker article about CS50.

The challenge that I’m having is that The New Yorker's description of online learning is not the online learning that I know. I worry that anyone who is not a higher ed insider reading this article will come away with the wrong idea of online education.

On a fundamental level, The New Yorker is guilty of the all-too-common journalistic sin of conflating scaled courses with online courses. Scaled courses may be delivered online, and they may be evolving to include more of the elements of traditional online courses. Still, their goals and design differ dramatically from the vast majority of online courses.

In describing CS50, The New Yorker makes much of Harvard’s investment in high-quality video production. Orbey writes,

As Malan reminded me several times, he shoots CS50 in 4K high resolution, the standard for professional digital filmmaking, in order to achieve an experience “on par with what you would expect from Netflix.” He has written that the course’s high production value is “part of its pedagogy,” allowing students who tune in remotely to “feel no less a part of the classroom than students on campus.”

Again, I have no issue with Malan prioritizing production values for CS50. Recording lectures in 4K high-resolution video can make sense in an online course with an intended audience of thousands of learners. For this professor, and this university, and this material, and this audience, the CS50 pedagogical approach might make sense.

What is left unsaid in The New Yorker article is that investing in high production values is not a priority for the vast majority of traditional online courses. Most online learning is small scale. The online education movement is not about educating thousands of students at a time, but instead about creating meaningful and authentic learning opportunities for tens of learners at a shot.

The real action in the online learning community is not about 4K video, but about learning science. The conversations in the online learning community have minimal overlap with digital filmmaking and instead center on issues related to learning design and student success.

CS50 is interesting, but it is not representative of online education.

This is not to deny that the New Yorker article raises some interesting questions. At one point, Orbey asks,

Will a handful of élite institutions grow dominant by expanding their online enrollment, while second-tier schools go under? If the pandemic leads colleges to embrace online coursework to a new degree, what will become of campus life as we know it?

Now that is a good question. Answering this question, however, would require looking beyond the world of Harvard and CS50.

The challenges of nonelite schools have very little to do with Harvard’s experiment in a scaled online computer science course. The real story in higher education is not experiments like CS50, but the confluence of public disinvestment and demographic challenges.

Journalists will not find answers to questions about the future of higher education by hanging out at Harvard or any other elite institution. Much better to spend one’s time at the places where most students experience higher education -- the community colleges and nonflagship public universities.

Nor is CS50 particularly enlightening as a window in understanding the next great postsecondary trend on the horizon, creating low-cost/high-quality online degrees. This is a story taking shape at Georgia Tech, Boston University, the University of Illinois and other schools.

The story of low-cost/high-quality scaled degrees is so far concentrated at the master’s level. This is the trend that has the most considerable promise to bend the postsecondary cost curve (at least for graduate degrees). This trend is also likely to provide the greatest threat to nonelite schools, as many depend on their high-priced master’s programs to offset money-losing undergraduate programs.

What we need, I think, are higher education insiders willing and able to write for a nonspecialist higher education audience. Or maybe we need journalists who cover higher education to have a better understanding of our ecosystem.



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