Having taken the course myself, I can’t say I’m surprised. The course is excellent: it has a fantastic instructor; it offers a rich learning experience; and the course content is refreshed every year, on January 1st.
Most notably, the course is entirely free, and it includes a free certificate of completion. But understanding how to obtain it can be a bit confusing. So in this article, let’s discuss CS50 and explain how you can earn a free certificate.
(Harvard also offers other free courses on topics such as Python, web development, and AI. Learn more in ourHarvard CS50 guide.)
CS50 is taught by Harvard ProfessorDavid J. Malan, who’s also been teaching the course on campus since 2007. Malan is a real showman. Forget dull PowerPoint presentations with monotone voice-overs. Malan takes the stage in Harvard’s beautiful Sanders Theater to enthusiastically teach computer science in front of a live audience.
It’s one of the most striking aspects of the course. It’s really well made. Malan paces the stage while filmed from multiple angles, using props to explain concepts, inviting students on stage for interactive demos, or standing at his laptop in front of a green screen for live coding sessions.
The course production values are off the charts, and Malan’s passion for teaching computer science is palpable. Naturally, this has contributed to the course’s success. Even by campus standards, CS50 stands out. With around 1,000 students enrolled every Fall, CS50 is the largest course on Harvard’s campus.
I think the main strength of the online course is that Malan treats it just like his on-campus course. The online and on-campus courses are one and the same, rather than the former being a lesser version of the latter. Both have the same lectures, same problem sets, and same final project. In terms of learning, it gets really close to the full Harvard experience.
What’s New in 2023
Another strength of CS50 is that the course is updated every year, allowing it to keep up with the latest trends in the field. More specifically, the course is recorded every Fall on campus at Harvard. Then, come January 1st, the online version is updated to use the new recordings. For instance, CS50 2023 uses the recordings made at Harvard in Fall 2022.
In my experience, annual recordings are exceptionally rare in online education. In the vast majority of cases, lectures are recorded once and reused throughout the lifespan of the course. The only other course I can think of that has annual recordings isMIT’s Introduction to Deep Learning. This seems to be a privilege restricted to a few, popular courses at rich institutions.
The annual recordings are also an opportunity for curriculum updates. In 2023, CS50 introduced the following changes among others:
Practice Problems: Every week, before tackling the lab and problem set, you’ll now be able to complete optional practice problems to cement your understanding of the week’s lesson. For instance, here are the Week 1 Practice Problems.
More Labs: In Week 1, the Population Growth lab, present in 2021 but absent in 2022, has returned. And an entirely new lab, Smiley, has been added to Week 4, where you’ll learn to manipulate images at the pixel level.
More Problems: Last but not least, new problems have been added to problem sets. In Week 2, you’ll be able to complete the following new problems:
Bulbs, an entry-level problem, where you’ll practice binary encoding.
Wordle50, a more challenging problem, where you’ll write a program to play the popular word game Wordle.
Like in previous years, CS50 ends with an open-endedsoftware project — an opportunity for students to put into practice what they’ve learned throughout the course.
Different Certificate Types
So, you think this course is for you, and you’d like to get started. Great! But before, there’s one thing worth clarifying, because it often confuses learners. CS50 is offered on four platforms, but only one offers a free certificate.
❌ These three platforms offer CS50, but they do not include a free certificate of completion:
EdX, which is the platform most people are usually familiar with. On edX, you can audit CS50 for free. However, edX doesn’t offer a free certificate. It only offers apaid verified certificate, which costs $149.
Harvard Extension School, which is part of Harvard’s distance education division. Through this school, CS50 doesn’t include a free certificate. Instead, students can take the course for credit and receive a formal transcript, which costs $1980–3100.
Harvard Summer School, which is also part of Harvard’s distance education division. Though this school, CS50 doesn’t include a free certificate either. Instead, students can take the course for credit and receive a formal transcript, which costs $3500.
✔️ This platform offers CS50, and it does include a free certificate of completion:
Harvard OCW, which is Harvard’s open online course platform. On Harvard OCW, CS50 includes a free certificate of completion, like the one below. Note that the course content is exactly same as on edX, including all the assignments. The only difference is that the free certificate doesn’t involve ID verification.
Finally, to further confuse matters, even when you take the course via Harvard OCW, you’ll be asked to create a free edX account. To be clear, this is just a logistical step that will allow you to submit your assignments. You do not need to buy the edX verified certificate.
How to Get a Free Certificate
Since its launch, CS50 has maintained a firm stance toward openness through the Harvard OCW platform. In 2023, the course remains entirely free on the platform, including itscertificate of completion. Above, you can see how the free certificate looks.