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back to article Stob latest: It was a cunning trick, says Open University

Why does the Open University set its students gibberish, Verity Stob asked here recently? We decided to investigate. As our enquiries continued at the Open University, it became harder to find anyone who took the issue seriously. Two weeks into one of the modules in the OU's Comp Sci postgraduate course - M885 Analysis and …

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Degrees

There was once a time whe only approx 10% could pass the 11+, now the government aims to have 50% of the population go to HE and get a degree!

What standard are the degrees??

Unfortunately this is merely a reflection of the lowering of standards in education that now makes degrees worthless.

Prior to the current policy OU degrees were worth having and were regarded more highly than those of many HE establishments because of the amount of effort they took as well as the content. Now......?

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It does make sense

I won't comment on the technical aspects, but the writing itself made sense to me. I'm currently working on a PhD in History, and I read shit like that all the time. Most of it, however, is written by ancient English authors, who seem to specialize in convolutedness.

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A skeptic would say

There appears to be a subculture of "universities" that cater to those trying to acquire a degree while working. There are several around me here in Boston. I have always suspected that they (a) attach themselves (or are spun off from) universities that have a good reputation for traditional (full time) undergraduate programs, and (b) know that employers are paying a portion of the fees.

The true skeptic would say that they see a market and exploit it. A good example is a well known university in this area which has long emphasised a co-operative education, sending its undergraduates out for a semester or two working in industry. It has an excellent reputation. However, its evening and part time division has a reputation which is not quite as stellar. This organization hires part-time instructors (who often work a day job and are picking up some extra cash by working nights as part-time instructors) and somewhat more lax standards (both for instructors and course content). Suffice it to say that the evening courses are nowhere near the standard of the day, full time, ones. But they cost the same (or more, as you're taking them a-la-carte, if you will, rather than as a 4-year integrated program). Degree requirements can almost be guaranteed to change during the time you spend trying to get enough evening courses taken to finish. This means more courses than you had planned, and, of course, more of your time and money.

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@ Dave Ashton

Kudos to you sir - I think you just earned yourself a pass.

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Boffin

credentialed obfuscation

@phat shantz: Well said, sir.

I used to teach math (or maths to those of you across the pond) at University level. I started as a grad. asst. at the prestigious institution where I eventually obtained my MA, and then went to other, not quite so green, pastures.

Since this happened in 1990, just as Communism fell, everybody had to compete with a tsunami of Soviet mathematicians desperate to escape the former USSR and start over, who were perfectly happy to take an entry-level asst prof. position at below-market rates. This put the squeeze on those of us who didn't have pages-long publication lists on their CVs.

As a result, even small Liberal Arts Colleges, and even Community Colleges, could ask for, and get, PhDs to teach remedial courses. I wound up with a succession of sabbatical replacements and other temporary positions, so I saw a lot of different learning environments in the short time before I got disgusted and went into industry.

First of all, grade inflation is alive and well in Academia. At one school, the Dean/VP told me "these students pay $20,000 a year to come here. We have to keep them happy." I replied that I wasn't going to pass them if they didn't do the work, or even bother coming to class. She said "Oh no, of course not." But she still fired me after one semester.

Coddling of students has reached massive proportions, especially when it comes to "accomodations" for "disabilities". So many students get certified as learning disabled when it comes to math, its mind-boggling. I used to comment that it wouldn't be long before someone filed a discrimination suit because the mentally retarded were under-represented among PhDs and we would soon see doctorates being awarded in shoe-tying and dressing yourself. Then one day I repeated that comment to a government scientist where I work now. He said "what makes you think they *are* under-represented?" When I read some of the garbage that I'm asked to post on the web, I see his point.

Second, the slave labor known over here as "adjunct faculty" are treated like dirt. I'm not familiar with the professional designations over there, but I imagine someone teaching a distance learning course at a place called Open University is probably similar. I once looked into teaching a University of Phoenix online course, but the pay was insulting. The also expected me to pas a test on the use of their "educational software," more commonly known as Outlook Express. I told them thanks, but no thanks. I might think about it if I'm ever starving. So far, I haven't been that hungry.

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Stop your whining...

I did my Oceanography degree with the OU and it was fab. I've since changed my career and realised my lifes goal of becoming a sperm whale.

Next I thought I might sign up to a Computeach course that I saw advertised on TV because employers are looking for the qualifications. If I do this I could earn up to £25,000 per year.

Put that salary up yer kilt and stroke it!!!

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Pirate

Peer Reviewed

Quote: It had been endorsed by "a prestigious peer-reviewed journal". That clarifies the level of OU teaching then.

If the gibberish was about the impact of global warming, it would be impossible to figure out the truth from the excess of alarmist crap anyway.

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Not surprised

Since the middle 80s I've gained 2 OU computing units (as an associate student) and also looked over the shoulders of friends taking another 3.

All of them were either irrelevant or seriously out of date. There were fairly obvious errors in all of them. I regard them as a waste of time and money.

These are the only units I've seen so can't, of course comment, on any other subject matter.

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Anonymous Coward

The Aussie OU is just as bad

The OU setup here seems to be a bit different - to do my BAppSci(IT) I have to pick units from 4 'real' universities - the standards of each unit varies from the 'wow' to the 'what a complete waste of time (a '3rd yr database course springs to mind) - but mostly its in the 'huh?' area - how students with no IT background pass is a mystery to me.

I learnt more in a week long courses paid for by my employer (Java, Proj Mgt, C, C++, Database /Object/Analysis Design) than I have in the 2 years (studying fulltime through OUA) and have calculated that if unis treat the Bachelor level as a degree mill(which they do now) we can finish a degree in a year (1 week short course at a time !)

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Paris Hilton

Fortune 500 University

We don't want an education. We just want the paper. And Wassamatta U. is happy to oblige. No one cares except the huge multi-national corporations. And the medium-sized regional companies. And the small businesses. And Ma and Pop stores. They are all victims of academic fraud. The credential says the candidate can do the work. But they can't.

Not now, but soon there will be a demand to improve education. But don't ask the drunkard for the solution to alcoholism. Don't ask the college presidents for the solution to academic fraud.

The solution to academic fraud must come from those who stand to gain the most from better education -- those who need the educated employees.

Boeing needs engineers. They should teach them internally, to standards that exceed their requirements.

Dow needs chemists. They should teach them internally, to standards that exceed their requirements.

Wal-Mart needs cashiers. They, too, should train them in simple arithmetic and personal skills.

None of these companies can find employment candidates of sufficient skills or experience, regardless of academic background. Many years ago I learned of a major American employer who had started basic literacy classes because their line workers could not read. (Anyone wonder why we've replaced low-skilled labor with robots?) I know of a major American retailer who teaches arithmetic and change-counting to their trainees. And they hire mainly high-school graduates.

The trend for college graduates is not much more encouraging. A group of Ph.D. biochemists worked for seven months at an R&D facility before an outsider introduced basic standardization techniques that chemists should learn in 101. They were in utter failure before that. The academic system had failed a whole department of Ph.D.s, and consequently a large biochemical company. Businesses will soon begin to protect themselves by teaching their own.

Before long, business will realize the benefits of taking capable candidates and educating and training them to the specifics of the industry: aeronautics, mechanics, chemistry, physics, mathematics, management, systems architecture, programming, warehouse management, distribution, international commerce, and the host of unique roles that make each business different.

In previous decades, airlines found enormous benefits in ab-initio (from the start) training of pilots. Taking candidates who didn't even have a single-engine land certificate, airlines like Lufthansa and American Airlines would train pilots all the way to Air Transport Pilot in less than two years. And it would be done "their way." Any pilot working for the company would respond exactly the same way, with exactly the same words, to any situation. The cockpit management and emergency procedures of these commonly-trained teams was a phenomenon.

Once trained, industry graduates could be granted an industry-specific certification, very much like the ones we wave about during interviews. (They mean nothing, either, but we still brandish them like blessings from heaven.) Would Exxon hire a Dow chemist? I think so. Would General Dynamics hire a Boeing engineer? I'd think they would.

Nobody would have to worry about grade inflation. The best and brightest would not apply to Cal Tech or Florida State. They would apply to 3M or General Electric. And they would be rewarded with the kind of education that companies will need in the coming decades.

Were this to happen, and I an optimist, I would think the exodus of superior freshman candidates from engineering and science programs would be a warning sign and encourage failing universities to pursue greater academic rigor. But I'm a pessimist. It will only accelerate the academic trend of attracting the greater and greater numbers of elementary education, home economics, and journalism majors.

After all, for every hard-to-find physics major candidate, there are 1,000 easy-to-find education major candidates. And they both spend equal amounts of money at the registrar's office.

I fear classical education has died. No one wants the one thing the classical education guaranteed, anyway: a common cultural, scientific, and philosophic foundation on which to build the remaining life and career.

Nobody wants to earn an education, either. Everybody wants the job that George Jettson had, pushing a button all day. Can't we train rats to do that?

Paris. 'Cause she pushes everybody's buttons.

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@You can't judge a University

"You can't judge a University on one paper/course/professor"

Why not the person who set the course either had not read the paper or worse read it but did not know his subject well enough to realise it was gibberish.

The tutor on the course by his own admission had not read the paper, yet was still prepared to mark answers on question about the paper.

When these filures were pointed out the OU as an organisation refused to admit there was anything wrong and implied the student was somehow at fault.

So we have a gibberish papers included in a course, tutors who have never read the material and mark students down for pointing out that a paper is giberish, and an organisation that refuse to admit or correct obvious failings.

One gibberish paper creeping into a course may have been forgiven, a lazy and unhelpful tutor may have just been bad luck, but an organsation that pockets a thousand quid for a sub standard course and tries to imply that you are just too thick for the course or are being unreasonably awkward when you bring these matters up tends to suggest widespread problems.

Would you go back to a restaurent where only one person at your table caught salmonella?

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Anonymous Coward

RE: OU Consistency Issues

You don't know how relieved I am to hear someone else say that.

I thought it was just me ?!

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a few points

1. In any educational institution, you are going to be dealing with people that teach rather than do. They are going to be a bit of a mixed bunch - some good, some not so.

2. I did a Diploma a few years back with OU, over 2 years. I was in the electronics game, had gotten into some embedded stuff, and wanted to up my software skills. I found the course materials, the content, and the tutorship to be absolutely A1. I did well, and I still use and build on what I learned in those 2 years (I now have a pretty good job with a Fortune 500 company as a software engineer, and I enjoy what I do). There were probably a few dodgy bits, but then not all my code is perfect either ...

You get out what you put in, people. The OU may screw up some stuff, but they do a hell of a lot of good stuff. A lot.

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Standards

Having completed a Masters I have come to a number of conclusions:

1. 41% is 1% too much work.

2. Give them back exactly what they gave you - further reading to develop an argument just confuses most lecturers who are already confused by the question they set.

3. Never, on any account, disagree with what is written in a book (see point 2) as this is the font of all knowledge (and the publisher is where the lecture notes came from).

4. Wikipedia is really the font of all knowledge but some lecturers think it is a secret.

5. You have a life afterwards; they will still be unable to 'do'.

6. A huge number of peer reviewed papers are the same paper writ in a different style.

7. A number of academic authors only ever write one book and change the title at regular intervals once they think no-one is looking.

At risk of coming over all filisofikal, wikipedia really is the font of all knowledge: either you know it is wrong and why, or you don't know in which case it is good enough lol

Anon because.......well, you know already.....I'll fetch me Harry Potter suit

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Alien

Spoof papers

I would like to see how easy it is to get these kind of papers through peer review, but I need a co-author. Is AManFromMars out there somewhere? Coward, A. & Mars, A.M.F. (2009) has a nice ring about it.

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Boffin

RE: Fortune 500 University

Just one problem with your corporate education programs. Boeing, Dow, etc. don't have football or basketball teams.

I don't know if British universities even have Homecoming, but on this side of the pond it is a very big deal, not only generating a lot of revenue for the school and surrounding businesses, but also providing an outlet for aging alumni to relive past glory and blow off steam. I don't see a similar phenonmenon developing when they all still work at the company.

What I suspect is going to happen is the companies will start giving aptitude/placement/achievement tests and/or refusing to hire graduates of certain programs. These will then lose their accreditation, and be forced to shape up.

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Some things do not change

My knowledge of the OU spans 22 years from 1978 to 2000 and I would like to comment in particular on points made by Dave Ashton, Edward Kenworthy and Luther Blissett.

Most OU courses have too much in them, and this becomes disproportionately worse the shorter the course eg. 2 x 15 pointers cause more work than 1 x 30 pointer. The trick is to optimise the work to achieve the best results. A good tutor can help here.

Correcting mistakes in the question has definitely caught us all out in the past but I have known a few instances where the marking scheme was amended after the event if sufficient students complained / appealed. Keep at it until the matter has been satisfactorily resolved.

Yes, you can also be penalised for providing a critical analysis - it is not generally liked anywhere and it is not just confined to the OU; and yes, by all means make you own mind up, but you still have to answer the question (sometimes swallowing hard in the process).

There is always a tendency for academics to jump on fashionable bandwagons when offering courses, whilst at the same time throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and a small number of courses do end up being badly written with the inevitable result of puzzlement and frustration. Given that, it is still down to each student to try and get the best out of it. That's life. Nobody should be put off having a go.

Experience says that if, for any reason, a course is not going well, it is better to ditch it and go for a close alternative. Cut your losses so to speak - it's better than struggling against the tide and becoming ever more dispirited.

If it is any consolation to Verity (and others) I can recall similar instances emanating from the same faculty in the past. Some things just do not change.

Brian Gooch

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Submitted for your approval

@Anon

8) No one in the real world cares about your grade. The guy who graduated dead last in medical school is still called "Doctor."

This may be a corollary of #1, though.

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Typo

Good to see Reg hacks doing a bit of legwork to try and maintain academic standards - but ironic that the article includes a glaringly obvious punctuation error. 2nd page, 4th para, use of "it's" where it should be the possessive "its"

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Paris Hilton

standars innit

There you go look, all we really crave is recognition. We do the thing, now tell me I am clever. My old Irish Grannie used to call me 'her wee preoffesserr' and all because I was a tad cleverer than my thicko. now millionaire, cousins. Well fuk my old boots, that recognition was worth all of the houses, boats (yots is way too hard to spel) and cars they have innit.

Why was it we need the comfort of a bit of paper again? For the sake of my (your?) old granny?

A CV is only as good as your last success, after a while (as pointed out by phat schantz) no-one cares - but come-on, whose going to admit to being anal enough to have a distinction on their Masters. Come on, you KNOW you're out there, come out of the bookrack......

Jings. Do a Masters. Still think in terms of points make prizes.

Jings. Be stupid enough to think that this is a qualification.

Jings. Not to be clear enough to understand this merely points up your own and other's ignorance - which is the actual point.

Doing a Masters, you are no longer on 'receive' and are not educated enough to 'send', but in limbo. Yep the good old OU FU. And? So what. One reads for a degree, that the ignorant sit in judgement is merely incidental; or is it? If you worry about passing, pass and then set about learning. If you are bright enough to pick up on the HRM aspects of managing dipwits above, you learn to manipulate them. A Masters is brilliant for that; most of the lecturers there will believe they have 'earned' the 'right' to 'teach' (rather than merely being 'there') and you can have a whale of a time negotiating extra time and making them feel guilty at not passing you. It's (note the apostophe, cos I is clever innit) like shitting ducks. Maybe that last bit was not exactly right. Pissing pups......farting trucks.....no, well you get the idea, let's just throw this on the wall and see what sticks.....

What is the right answer was (and remains) utterly anassailed, aside from Moi (i is clever innit, my Grannie said so) and phat schantz.. Perhaps the clever finger-in-the-chest poking hacks at the Register (and of the respondents in this commentary) simply do not know this wee truth. No biggie. You can't know everything after all. But you can whine about everything. As long as you get the qualification.

L'cturers are a longer time dead than you. They're dead already. They live in an afterlife called 'publication'. sad fucks. So let the baby have it's bottle, what's the big deal. Whatever you think is up to date when you thought you learnt it is yesterday's news. That goes treble for HE. So perhaps the POINT of HE is to train you in critical thinking rather than remaining the spoon-fed whiner that many have come across as in this commentary, and I have no doubt that is NOT how anyone regard themselves. (it's not fair, it's not fair I should be.......) If this be so, then, regardless of the self-serving excuse of the OU's tame hack, this piece of poor education has succeeded - lucky for the reciprient and the OU. Apparently. According to me. But what do I know. I died in the bookrack...... there was this orange monkey there.....

41% is 1% lower than the answer to life, the universe and everything. And It Was In %, not real numbers, which is why those at the Hellish Collander will have got it wrong - there is history, the French think in centimeters so for them 6 cm is BIG (sad but that is why French women love us really.....oh......only me then.......). Or it could be the Brits thinking that missing by 6ins is no big deal. Either way we're all doomed.

Paris cos she can tell the differ'nce between cm and ins. Where's that damned Harry Potter suit

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When in a hole, stop digging

I have now had a chance to look at my old records.

In 1982 TM361 TMA 1 contained a question that was open to interpretation: more than one solution was feasible. The marking scheme portrayed only one solution. To err is human, but is how you handle the error that counts.

Robin Wilson, the course chair, instructed that the TMA be remarked and the students' marks upgraded accordingly. No fuss, no bother, just do it, ... and it was done.

I will set out an analogy concerning the present fiasco. From medieval times it has been accepted that when a person performs well in his/her trade and has the recognition of his peers, he is called a master. Thus, today, for example, a master thatcher is so called because his peers approve of his having reached the collective high standard of workmanship. Should his work fall below par and the said thatcher is expelled, then if he were to continue calling himself a 'master' he would be guilty of misrepresentation. Misrepresentation is fraud and is an offence which is both actionable and punishable.

Now, an academic paper is vetted and approved by peers prior to publication in an institutional journal. If that paper is subsequently found to be below par and is withdrawn, then it no longer has peer recognition.

Here it would seem that a TMA of M885 refers to such a discredited paper. TMA questions are written each year and are therefore current. That an error was made in not checking the validity of the referenced paper is bad enough - after all the students were really being asked to comment on somebody else's personal and unapproved views, but to compound the error is inexscusable. Remember, the mistake is one thing; how you handle it afterwards is much more important.

As the precedence had already been set many years ago, the OU does not have any alternative but to remark the TMA, leaving aside the erroneous question, and marking it out of 85. The marks can then be proportionately upgraded to be out of 100.

The present toing and froing does the OU no service whatsoever: it just leaves it in desparate need of the moral high ground, but that it cannot attain from the way it has handled the situation.

When in a hole, stop digging. Just do the right thing.

Brian Gooch.

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OU arrogance

Over the last four years of an OU Law Degree I met several assignment questions that contained serious faults. My experience is that the OU does NOT admit to error, but I also learned that these questions are set by committees which, being truly ultra democratic do not have a chair, so no one can rule anything in or out!

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Anonymous Coward

Pity

It's a pity that the OU are getting a bad name here because of one problem with one course. I've done a few of their courses and they are generally excellent - much better than the ones I have looked at from more conventional universities. The tutors I have had have all worked in the sector that the course relates to, unlike other universities where you end up with an academic with no real experience.

I doubt if there is a university in the country that doesn't have issues like this. I can thoroughly recommend the OU. Don't be put off because one persons rather public moans.

Stob says:

"...the Good Study Guide full of timekeeping and studying advice that is meant to encourage but actually would put off all but the most hardened swot, and a vast amount of miscellaneous paperwork containing many assorted further instructions and prohibitions.

Especially homework. One might expect a week or two's grace at the start of a course since, not yet having learned anything, one has nothing to regurgitate. However, at M885 they subscribe to the principle, familiar from schooldays, that if the hockey pitch is waterlogged, you can always send the kids on a run."

Sounds like Stob was just after an easy ride and found it too difficult to deal with. I've never considered the Good Study guide to be anything other than a helpful guide. If Stob thinks it's only for hardened swots then Stob needs to look for something easier.

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I was waiting to see...

... who would be the first to spot that.

Isn't that the line Captain Mainwaring in "Dad's Army" always used when he was caught out making a mistake?

David

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Fair and accurate reporting

The Open University has given the Register a full explanation of the use of the article questioned by Verity Stob. To date, that explanation has not been fairly represented in the Register’s reporting. The first two chapters of this postgraduate course are meant to equip students with skills to critically examine sources of new information in this emerging field of knowledge, which is a standard expectation of any postgraduate education. The assignment in question tests students’ ability to critically evaluate content. The text is not part of the teaching material for the course, but a means to let students demonstrate mastery of the first two chapters of the course. It is ironic that this blog, and subsequent posts, largely illustrate the purpose of the course: the encouragement of robust and open debate.

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Boffin

What a shame Darrell

What a shame - Darrell Ince's books were prominent on my bookshelves in the early '90s when OOAD related methods/approaches were gaining credence in the Industry. Sounds like aspects of this course such as content and thought leadership haven't changed since then...

(Hi-level content icon as after years of leading/training/coaching OOAD inc. whole lifecycle modelling & development in a variety of contexts, from Agile thru RUP to PRINCE2 that I'm obviously missing the importance of the ability to critically analyse the relevance of questions to higher education standards)

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OU Mistakes

I've just sat an OU exam, and I identified a mistake in one part of the question which rendered another part impossible to answer. I contacted the OU (via email) and much to my surprise was told that they were fully aware of the error, and would be marking that question accordingly. Which is good.

What's really BAD is that in an exam a question which IS impossible (as opposed to difficult) can really throw someone - not everyone is confident enough in that stressful environment to be certain that they (and not the experts that set the exam) are right.

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Anonymous Coward

Have you tried?

Passing the gibberish paragraphs onto Amanfrommars?

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Fellow OU Sufferer

I have done several OU courses and I have found that the OU is intent on making life as hard as possible for it's students.

I have been lucky and had a couple of good tutors who were told off for helping us to understand the course. ?!

These tutors were also redbrick uni lectures who said that they were still giving us lass assistance than we would have received if we had attended a red brick uni.

I can only surmise that the OU is desperately trying to make the courses extra hard in an effort to convice the red brick uni snobs that an OU degree is worth having.

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