World's hit online computer class, Harvard's CS50, turns to AI for help

"Providing support tailored to students' specific questions has been a challenge at scale, with so many more students online than teachers," said Malan

AI, ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, tech, education, management, online, digital


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By Saritha Rai

The world’s most popular online learning course, Harvard University’s CS50, is getting a ChatGPT-era makeover. 

CS50, an introductory course in computer science attended by hundreds of students on-campus and over 40,000 online, plans to use artificial intelligence to grade assignments, teach coding and personalize learning tips, according to its Professor David J. Malan. 

Malan’s energetic and engaging teaching style is credited for turning dry, entry-level lectures on the basics of web development and software programming into an entertaining class full of interactive exercises. Even with over a hundred real-life teaching assistants, he said it had become difficult to fully engage with the growing number of students logging in from different time zones and with varying levels of knowledge and experience. 

“Providing support tailored to students’ specific questions has been a challenge at scale, with so many more students online than teachers,” said Malan, 46, in a phone interview. 

His team is now fine-tuning an AI system to mark students’ work, and testing a virtual TA to evaluate and provide feedback on students’ programming. The virtual TA asks rhetorical questions and offers suggestions to help students learn, rather than simply catching errors and fixing coding bugs, he said. Longer term, he expects this to give human TAs more time for in-person or Zoom-based office hours. 

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The endeavor comes at a time of growing fear among educators that technologies like ChatGPT could enable more students to cheat and plagiarize undetected. Some public schools and universities across the world have banned it. The rise of AI has also hit shares in online education businesses, including Santa Clara, California-based homework helper Chegg Inc., which recently reported a slowdown in subscriber growth as people try out the free chatbot created by OpenAI. 

Malan said CS50’s use of AI could highlight its benefits for education, particularly in improving the quality and access of online learning — an industry that Grand View Research forecasts to grow to $348 billion by 2030, nearly tripling from 2022. 

“Potentially, AI is just hugely enabling in education,” he said. 

CS50 was originally a single, introductory class on computing but has now evolved into multiple classes with 1.4 million YouTube subscribers and branded merchandise like stress balls and t-shirts. Over the years, more than 4.7 million people have enrolled in the course. It’s now available as part of digital learning platform edX, which was created by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to offer university-level courses online in various subjects.

Some experts, however, are advising caution on using AI while the technology is still in development and prone to errors. Earlier this week, chief executives of leading AI companies, including OpenAI and Alphabet Inc.’s DeepMind, issued a statement warning of a “risk of extinction” from AI. 

Others said its use in education also posed ethical risks, particularly when collecting data to personalize lessons. 

“To ensure students’ privacy, platforms will have to ‘inbuild’ privacy and ensure data collection processes are transparent,” said Emma Taylor, an analyst at London-headquartered consultancy GlobalData Plc. 

First Published: Jun 3 2023 | 7:24 AM IST

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