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To the Editor:
I was disappointed by last week’s editorial about Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I” and its handling of academic dishonesty. Having taught CS50 once upon a time and, I believe, introducing "cheat-detection," allow me to clarify a few things.
The reason cheating appears to be a more significant problem in computer science than other disciplines is because we have the technology to detect it. I am confident that if other subject areas had automated ways to detect such behavior, they would find similar patterns.
Having investigated academic dishonesty in computer science for 25 years, the vast majority of cases are not the result of intentional malicious action. Instead, they arise from academic stress of the form, "My problem set is due in an hour and I'm completely lost. I cannot afford to get a bad grade on this." The fact that CS50 chooses to deal humanely with such stress is, as we say in computer science, a feature, not a bug.
Saying CS50 does not provide suitable support for students is false: CS50 has a staff of approximately 80 for approximately 700 students, with a student to staff ratio of approximately nine-to-one. CS50 offered 308 staff-hours of office hours per week. Thus each student could potentially have had almost 30 minutes of personalized office hour attention. CS50 offers free tutoring. The course staff held 147 tutoring sessions last fall. These sessions have a maximum three-to-one student to staff ratio and last 60 minutes. Note that these are all in addition to weekly lectures and sections.
I treat Harvard students like adults. Adults realize that they damage only themselves by cheating. If we can make it easier for students to complete work honestly, they will learn more. I personally applaud CS50 course instructor David J. Malan '99 and the CS50 staff for being responsive to observed student behavior. They are deeply thoughtful in watching what happens in their class and paying close attention to best practices at other universities.
Margo I. Seltzer '83 is the Herchel Smith Professor of Computer Science and former instructor of CS50, CS51, CS61, CS161.
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