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Codifying Academic Honesty

Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I,” Harvard’s introductory computer science course, recently made changes to its course policies. These changes, after the high number of academic dishonesty cases from fall 2016, include collaboration with an Academic Integrity Fellow, a required session dedicated to the discussion of academic honesty, and a “near occasion of sin” policy that allows students to receive extensions on assignments if they explain that they need more time because they would otherwise be tempted to cheat. While we commend the efforts of the class instructors to address academic integrity issues in the course, we believe that the solutions are minor fixes at best, and, at worst, exacerbate some of the problems at the core of the course’s approach to pedagogy and curriculum.

We recognize that computer science courses face a particularly daunting challenge when it comes preventing academic dishonesty. The culture of coding and software engineering itself is one of collaboration and code sharing. CS50 must balance this culture with the reality that there is no way to effectively ensure comprehension of course material without the assurance that the work students complete is their own.

For this reason, the course’s expectations encourage “incorporating a few lines of code that you find online or elsewhere into your own code” or sending friends one’s code when students are struggling on assignments, but prohibit viewing someone else’s code in the same situation. In the same vein, the structure of the course is also affected by this duality. Tests and quizzes are take-home, open-book, and open-Internet, but the only human help that you may receive is from the course heads.

CS50 summarizes its policy on academic honesty as “be reasonable.” This vague mantra and the policies that follow it ignore the fundamental issues with CS50 that make it prone to cases of academic dishonesty. The supposed balance kept in the course between the realities of modern coding and the integrity of each student’s work has at times left students confused.

Furthermore, CS50’s structural issues are only compounded by the fact that the course, as one of the most popular at the College, may lack the capacity to provide adequate support to its students, many of whom are first-semester freshmen who are adjusting to life at Harvard. Indeed, the course does not emphasize consistent, in-person support to students. Lecture attendance is “encouraged” but still optional, while section attendance is only mandatory until the midterm.

At the core of the problem are course policies that exacerbate, rather than alleviate, the pressures and confusion that lead some students to feel compelled to cheat. Nevertheless, the recently introduced changes—especially the "near occasion to sin" policy—do not address any of the aforementioned issues or work toward their solutions. We thus strongly oppose this new policy, as it ignores all of the fundamental cultural, expectational, and structural problems that cause academic dishonesty in the course. The policies of working with an Academic Integrity Fellow and requiring students to attend a session on academic dishonesty too fall prey to the same problem.

Ultimately, we believe that cheating—once clearly defined—should be unequivocally prohibited at Harvard. We especially oppose the new “near occasion of sin” policy on the grounds that it sends the message that Harvard considers cheating something to be negotiated, rather than something that is wholly unacceptable.

Instead, in order to combat the pressing issue of academic dishonesty in its computer science courses, we urge the Computer Science department to rethink its introduction to the field from scratch, with close attention being paid to making expectations clear and creating better support from instructors and staff.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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