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More than 60 Fall CS50 Enrollees Faced Academic Dishonesty Charges

CS50 course instructor David J. Malan '99 lectures in fall 2015. More than 60 students enrolled in the class last semester faced academic dishonesty charges before the Honor Council.
CS50 course instructor David J. Malan '99 lectures in fall 2015. More than 60 students enrolled in the class last semester faced academic dishonesty charges before the Honor Council. By Alana M Steinberg
By Hannah Natanson, Crimson Staff Writer

UPDATED: May 3, 2017 at 2:21 p.m.

More than 60 students enrolled in Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I” last semester appeared before the College’s Honor Council in a wave of academic dishonesty cases that has stretched the Council to its limits over the past few months, according to two people with direct knowledge of the investigations.

The spate of cases represents roughly ten percent of the 636 total fall enrollees in Harvard’s flagship introductory computer science course. While students from CS50 have often appeared before the Honor Council, last semester represented a marked increase in cases, according to the two individuals.

CS50 head instructor David J. Malan ’99, who has led the course through an enormous expansion in size and popularity over the last decade, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Last academic year, the Honor Council heard 115 total academic dishonesty cases, with a majority stemming from courses in the Sciences Division or the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The bevy of academic dishonesty cases in CS50 placed a heavy burden on the Honor Council, a body of roughly 30 students, faculty, and administrators that enforces Harvard’s Honor Code, according to the two individuals.

The College rolled out the Honor Code, a policy that outlines Harvard’s standards for academic integrity, after a cheating scandal in a government course swept the College in 2012. At the time, one administrator called the pattern of cheating “unprecedented in anyone’s living memory,” and more than 120 students enrolled in Government 1310: “Introduction to Congress” eventually underwent investigation for academic dishonesty.

Brett Flehinger, Honor Council secretary and associate dean for academic integrity and student conduct, said in an interview Tuesday that the Honor Council will be increasing the number of non-voting undergraduates next year.

He said he hopes the new members take on a more public role and declined to comment on whether the expansion in size is partly due to the heavy caseload from CS50. He also declined to comment on the CS50 cases.

“We don’t comment on individual cases, we don’t comment on individual courses,” Flehinger said. “If you’re an individual student going through this, the minute that a course is named or anything about that course comes out in The Crimson, you think they’re talking about you.”

“What goes from being a confidential process now becomes something that you feel like is being played out in public, so we just don’t talk about it—we won’t,” Flehinger added.

The Honor Council can recommend that students guilty of academic integrity violations undergo a “change in status” ranging from probation to temporary withdrawal from the College, and even permanent dismissal in extreme cases.

Malan reviewed potential academic dishonesty cases near the close of the semester, according to the two individuals. As a result, Malan delivered many CS50 cases to the Honor Council in one batch late in the semester.

Malan met with Honor Council members to discuss academic integrity within the class, the two people said. The CS50 website asserts that the course’s “philosophy on academic honesty is best stated as ‘be reasonable.’”

“The course recognizes that interactions with classmates and others can facilitate mastery of the course’s material, [but] there remains a line between enlisting the help of another and submitting the work of another,” the site reads. “The essence of all work that you submit to this course must be your own.”

The website goes on to list acts of collaboration that are “reasonable”—like sharing a few lines of code—and “not reasonable,” like soliciting solutions to homework problems online. In 2014, CS50 introduced a “regret clause,” allowing students who commit “unreasonable” acts to face only course-specific penalties if they report the violation within 72 hours.

Students who report violations within that time frame may receive an “unsatisfactory or failing grade for work submitted, but the course will not refer the matter for further disciplinary action except in cases of repeated acts,” according to the CS50 website.

The course—marketed towards students with no background in computer science—features work-intensive problem sets. This year, Malan introduced several changes to CS50, assigning “trimmer” problem sets and relaxing lecture attendance policies.

After the changes, the proportion of students who reported spending more than 14 hours a week on the class in course evaluations dropped from 63 percent in 2015 to 40 percent in 2016. Course-specific advice and, in some cases, code for CS50 problem sets are available online.

Though popular, the course has drawn criticism for its corporate sponsorships. The course was also the subject of an apparent trademark dispute between Malan and Harvard. Over the past few years, Malan and the University each filed contradictory applications to trademark the course. At one point in 2011, Malan formed a now-dissolved “education consulting” business dubbed “CS50 LLC.”

Asked several times whether he found it concerning that information about confidential Honor Council cases had become public, Flehinger did not respond directly Tuesday.

“You guys, it’s your job,” he said.

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