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Massively Open Online Courses – the Death of Universities?

Flash Debate for #H800

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Saucy Sailoress
6 April 2011

Welcome!  This is a flash debate created by our group of #H800 students on the MA ODE Course.  I think the title speaks for itself - and we would welcome any opinions from anyone out there!!!

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Saucy Sailoress
10:54am 6 April 2011

OK, I have gone ahead and created the flash debate on a cloud.  I am not sure if it'll work though, it's my first time!!

There were two top running topics, so I took the liberty of casting the deciding vote - and I went for the one which I feel is more relevant specifically to our study; I hope noone minds!

This year (last year?  I'm losing track of time) the kindly UK government announced that it was to cut funding to UK governments, reulting in an increase in student fees for the majority.  Now, I have mixed feelings about this.  My husband believes it can only be a good thing to increase the knowledge levels in society.  I feel it doesn't harm to keep the masses 'dumbed down'.  Does this sound harsh to you?

You see, when I was at university, it was still a mark of 'eliteism' being there.  Not that I have a burning desire to be elite, but I do feel that it's nice to have a reward for my hard work - which a Bachelor's was, in those days.

Now, thanks to the renaming of polytechnics; many many people have a degree.  It's no longer a status symbol.  Now you need a Masters degree to set you above the rest.  Not that that's why I'm doing the MA ODE - I'm doing that because it's a great course, and I'm learning loads.  But at the end of the day, I'monly doing it becasue I can do it online.  I wouldn't drop life to go back to being a full time student.  And that's why I believe that online education will kill traditional universities.  With the help of a government who is culling the ability of the masses to attend traditional university any more!

Gráinne Conole
11:24am 6 April 2011

Great focus for a flash debate! I think these new open courses represent a real treat to traditional educational offerings - in a world where content and expertise is free what is the role of traditional educational institutions? Perhaps accreditation and support.

Ove Christensen
12:17pm 6 April 2011

Good question,

I'm not that sure that the question is as straight forward as it seems because it has a lot of implication, not only on learning and teaching practices but also on the power structure of society, profession identity and what not.

As suggested by Conole accreditation is an important part of our educational system - and it is also at the core of how to delegate power and admittance to (job)titles. Accreditation might be administered from web services as it happens in Open Universities. So accreditation is not an argument for education in specific buildings. I think what will count as an argument for these buildings is the (societal) need to show that knowledge is 'grounded' and those knowledge administrators are well founded – and funded (of course). That’s maybe primarily a psychological argument - but it is also an argument from how power is historical rooted and obtained by institutions.

Basically people learn from others - partly by watching them and talking with them and partly (mainly?) by doing things with them. And although there are a lot of possibilities for doing things together online (social media) my guess is that social live interaction will always play an important part of peoples learning. I think teaching has to do with organizing settings where people act together and are doing things with a common goal. That goes for primary school but I would be careful to leave all this out because it might be convenient to get educated online.

I also think that online education are here to stay and will grow ‘cause it is more flexible and fit in with a society less atomized with everything split in independent silos. It also fits with people educating in different states of their lives – lifelong education (learning).

Mark Melia
12:44pm 6 April 2011

The first question is "what is a university" not only that but what was it in the past, what is it now and what will it be in the future. I think as educational content becomes increasingly ubquitious it is no longer the case that the university is access to knowledge as it might once of been. The internet now allows you access to lectures from top professors in places like Stanford, Berkley and MIT. Okay so we have access to knowledge on our laptop so why go to university - I think Ove is on the ball - its all about accreditation at the moment. We need a respected third party to validate our competencies but why does that have to be a university - well it doesnt and I can see more and more corporates coming into the quailification sphere e.g. Google Degrees in Web Development.

Another value of the University is the social aspect of learning. Bringing learners together to allow for learning of each other through the many aspects of informal learning. Can we replicate the university coffee shop where students and faculty debate the finer points of their respective subject areas - well probably, isn't that what we are doing here (I am drinking my Mocha as I write this)?

Unfortunately I don't really have an answer but that is my $0.02

Alice Childs
7:06pm 6 April 2011 (Edited 10:15pm 6 April 2011)

Hi Saucy et al

I agree with Mark that the social aspects to learning are vital and there are other rites of passage which contribute to a university experience e.g. living independently, having "timeout" from family life etc.  Mind you I have been pleasantly surprised by how much peer support I have found doing MAODE (I'm on my last module).  Having lecturered and supported school leavers for ten years I do think there is a significant difference between them and the mostly mature (and motivated) students on these OU Masters courses.  I know this because I also tutored mature undergraduates and post grads and they tended to be extremely focused.  I fear that school leavers would find this learning an entirely on-line experience difficult and possibly not the best preparation for the work place. 

I would also like to say that I wouldn't trade my university years for any money.  As a middle aged student I'm loving working from my kitchen table but I don't think it would have suited in my early 20's. 

I have come across a website in Ireland   Trade name "Alison"

offering free high quality on-line courses.  The only  catch seems to be the number of adverts you are subjected to and you can even get rid of them by paying a flat 50 Euro fee for the year.  Does this send shivers throught OU management?   The courses are not, however accredited even though they carry names such as Microsoft Access and Excel.  The idea is that when you go for an interview you fire up the Alison website and show the prospective employer how you got on.  It feels like the future for short courses.

I'm with Oscar Wilde on cynicism (knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing) when it comes to education.  I love the idea that we create space, both  economic and social, for people to pursue knowledge and creativity.  I hope we never lose that.  However the technology should be a part of that ideology.  I would have loved the possibilities of the VLE threads, wiki pages, the doodle voting system etc to help my students in their team working.  It will enhance the on-campus learning hugely and make for better tutorial experiences and communications in general.    

alice (H800)


Steve McGowan
8:54pm 6 April 2011

What a great choice as a topic, sure to encourage a good debate. I read with interest and feel  confident that we are not looking at the death of our universities. The OU leads the way in this field and I am sure are feeling confident about the future. As many universities start to ramp up their tuition fees the OU would seem a viable option now for the younger generation provided subjects chosen make up a sensible degree.  (it  is possible to get a BA with a bit of art, technology, maths , history, politics etc ) It is much better to focus on a subject area making the degree more attractive to employers.

There is however always going to be a certain amount of elitism to the degree from Oxford or Cambridge for instance but in the current climate it is all about making yourself attractive to employers. What is also interesting is how many universities are also offering online/distance learning courses.  Oxfords’ portfolio list many courses, they seem quite expensive though. Anything that is free is likely only to be useful only for CPD rather than an accredited qualification of any worth.

To study online takes a certain amount of motivation and time management, it can also be a lonely experience. Despite online conferences the lack of face to face contact can be a problem for many students. Universities offer the chance to move away from home, gain some independence, attend the odd party, albeit at the cost of a student loan. However I think the alternative is less attractive to the younger generation, it’s certainly hard work. 

Steve (H800)

Stefaan Vande Walle
3:37am 7 April 2011


Inspiring debate indeed!

1/ The few MOOCs I attended were all very rich and inspiring courses.  There was a wealth of materials, interesting discussions (in particular the first few weeks) and it's a good opportunity to expand your PLE.

2/ I agree that there mainly intended for CPD purposes.  They don't offer accreditation (although I do think CCK11 does offer the possibility  to work towards accreditation - for a fee) and they require a strong motivation and discipline from the learners.  

3/ As educational content becomes more commodotized I believe that the added value from universities lies in curation, student support and accreditation.  For the time being accreditation remains a privilege for universities and it remains to be seen whether MOOCs will be able to challenge this role.

4/ MOOCs could be incorporated within traditional universities' activities.  The LAK11 course on learning analytics was organized ahead of a conference on the same topic.  I believe that the course was very interesting for the organizers as well in discovering new viewpoints and resources and getting to know actors in the field (blurring the distinction between teachers and learners).  The course is also excellent publicity for the organizing institute, and may result in additional enrollments in their accredited programs.

Stefaan (H800)

Joanne Pratt
7:33pm 7 April 2011

Death of Universities as we know them for sure, our grandchildren’s children will probably wonder why we didn’t want to learn in a virtual environment.  Consider when the printing press arrived, people wondered why you would want to read alone and not listen to a story with others have we not arrived at a similar intersection in history.

Changes will happen, in fact they are happening now, education is free in Turkey thanks to Muvaffak Gozaydin, the Khan Academy (CA) who has the backing of the Bill Gates Foundation

May I suggest that it will all come down to what (employers) value, the how (online, on campus), the where (name of issuing institution), the what (degree, experience).  Our culture is changing (I think John Seely Brown or could have been Sir Ken Robinson module 1 is now a little fuzzy ) said we are what we share and from the profiles of the youngsters who run the Khan Academy it certainly rings true.  The value (cost) of a course will no longer give the elitism that we currently experience. 

As the younger generations turn university age their expectations of a University will be different from ours, they will have been using virtual / distance technology since birth.  Technology 5 -10 years from now and how it will be used in a learning context again will be different from what it is now.  I see employers guiding or forcing the events, will they except the qualifications from the free learning institutions or not.

Another option is to consider the free learning on the web as a cost saving option.  Can these sites extend a benefit to Student and University, regard them as a tool rather than a doomsday toll.

Adelaide Rodell
10:17pm 7 April 2011

For all the social reasons already pointed out by almost everyone here – i hope the answer is a resounding no.  Perhaps the future will be a blending of the two?  John Seely Brown (2009) (approx 20 mins in) talks about a three tier system for learning law at Havard,  tier one - the on-campus student who actively participates in the course with the professors and lecturers, the assessments and the qualifications;   tier two is in second life where the learners participate on-line with instructors and exams but you pay less for this course and  tier three is free online, no interaction, no exams.  I hope selection method is not financial and/or exclusive (i'm with your husband on this one Kate!) but i fear it will be.   But whoever gets to go i don’t think we’ll lose the university, the new media is fantastic but it can’t replace the being there? For me, it was wonderful to be able to watch Randy Pauch on the internet (thanks to Jonathan Vernon, H800) and to listen to Marshall McLuhan but to have been there must have been awe inspiring.

Jonathan Vernon
6:18am 8 April 2011

Universities will flourish as they become part of the mainstream and engaged with the world, rather than distinct from it. Relationships with governments, industries, schools (for future students) and alumni (for past student) will develop and become continual, rather than passing. Student cohorts may look the same on the ground, but in the virtual world will be broader and deeper, technology and systems allowing a greater diversity. Not all institutions will have the ability, whether through lack of financing, the burden of their past and costs, to be flexible and change. The overall impact will be of an evolutionary change, though for some it will be a fight for survival.


Established, motivated, well supported and well known colleges and institutions, where there is strength as a brand, as well as financially, in their governing body and from alumni will thrive. They can afford to exploit the changing circumstances (and they can’t afford not to). Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Bristol, UCL and the OU are not about to go under. On the other hand, new, complacent, poorly supported, paracohial, little known educational institutions where the sources of income and grants may be narrow or uncertain, with weak leadership and ill-established (or disloyal) alumni will fail.


The opportunities to flourish are extraordinary; the global demand for tertiary education with tens of millions of people from Asia, for example, seeking higher education over the next decade means that there is a growing and hungry market if you have the right ‘product.’ Education is a business, whether the model is that students are educated for free or pay part of the fees, cash flow matters. Retailing has been in constant flux, from the high street to out of town shopping, with national and international brands dominating, and then online shopping cornering certain markets, from books to electronic goods. Retailers have had to change the mix, where they locate and what they sell. Universities are less agile and less prone to the vicissitudes of short-term purchasing decisions, but the impact on them of new technologies is no less profound. Negotiating their way through this will require skill, the most vulnerable institutions will fail.


Letters after your name differentiate you from other candidates for a job or promotion. Where there are many applicants for the same position where you studied, indeed, who you studied with, will matter. It helps to study under the best in your field.  It depends entirely on where you wish or plan to go afterwards, where and if a position or job requires a certain qualification, and if a qualification from one or another institution has greater perceived or actual value. However, as those with experience of the job market will tell you, it is how what you have been taught is applied and how you relate to other people, that will determine your success.


Technology is blending the two: increasingly students are opting for this, to be campus-based, but to take advantage of the technology to better manage their time or support their learning. Far from being the death-knell of the traditional university, new technologies will assist in their finding ways to develop and support a broader and deeper student body. Participation and collaboration, socialising away from the screen, is a vital component of the university experience for those coming out of secondary education – the demands and expectations of a mature student are very different. How people get on, how they work together, is a vital lesson that a campus based university offers. Whilst increasingly our online experiences are as ‘real’ as everything else we do, it is how and if we can work as a team that will decide how we progress. The student experiencing this will better know themselves, their strengths and weaknesses, and suitability for different career paths.


Like retailers, manufacturers, broadcasters, publishers and the post office, we are in a period of significant change, new technology was already having an impact, the economic down turn has aggravated this, obliging some forcing other institutions to act. How this change is managed will decide who survives and who struggles on. There is a fine line to tread between innovating early, or too late, changing wholesale or piecemeal. The wise institution not only spreads its risk, but also casts its opportunism just as wide as spreading your bets covers you in a world where nobody knows what will work or not. Libraries, one of the draws to a campus-based university, cannot be as influential as hundreds of millions of texts become instantly available in digital form. Senior lecturers and researchers should be employed for their ability to communicate, support and rally students around them, not simply because of the paper they are working on. Students will demand more if they feel it is the cash in their pocket that is buying what the institutions offers. Errors, failings and shortcomings of a person, a module or course, can be spread through online reviews and will decide their fate. New blends of courses will invent themselves where a student feels able, supported through e-learning, to cherry pick, even to study simultaneously quite different subjects. Cohorts, if on the ground still that 17-23 year old age group, will become far more diverse, with groupings formed by mutual interest in a subject. Life-long learning, already apparent in some professions, will become more common place as people recognise the need to refresh their understanding of some topics, while gaining new skills and additional insights. 

Rachel Fisk
1:28pm 8 April 2011 (Edited 1:29pm 8 April 2011)

Good choice of subject Kate.

For me, I think that moving from 'A' Levels to university has become too much of an automatic progression with a lack of thought to why or if a degree is the right choice. So many students have no clue what to do with the qualification they achieve (especially where they have made a non-vocational choice). They suddenly find themselves at the end of their full-time education without a plan and that can be a scary place to be.

Personally, I feel that a greater emphasis on alternative options including apprenticeships would be beneficial. Improved careers advice would also be a good plan!

Universities are so popular at the moment and yet are also so set in the past with traditional methods of content-based learning being their mainstay. Perhaps encouraging a bit of change and modernisation would be a good thing...?


Amanda Healey-Browne
10:25am 9 April 2011

I’d like to expand on the points that Steve and Stefaan make about motivation. Last year I joined in the PLENK2010 MOOC. I was really excited about the idea and wanted to see how the course progressed.

At the time, I was in the process of moving and in and out of broadband connectivity. I tried to follow the course, but due to my own personal circumstances and other factors I rapidly lost contact.

The other factors (for me) which impacted on my motivation and buy in:

  • Lack of online socialization activities that typically occur when studying a formal course
  • No small study groups gave me a feeling of lack of personalization
  • Too much content generated by so many people meant that you really had to pay attention and have some time to keep up

I found it easy to drop out of the course. Was this because I hadn’t paid for it? Would I have felt differently if I had handed over cash for the course?  Probably.

So for me, the structure of a University course (online or face to face) has won over the MOOC. Maybe this would have been different given other circumstances.

Amanda PS: I've added in some interesting links above.

Darren Gash
1:32pm 9 April 2011

I think there are two issues being discussed here that can be separated. 1 is the future of the concept of university; the other is whether online learning will eventually replace face-to-face learning. Focusing on the second issue, I believe there will always be a desire for humans, as social animals, to come together and experience the physicality and immediacy of direct contact and engagement with others, be it for learning or any other purpose. I also think that people assign more value to such experiences than they do online equivalents. There is more effort involved and it is more of an occasion, in the same way that going to a live gig is (people may not be prepared to pay anything for online music nowadays, but they are prepared to pay to be stuck in an overcrowded sweaty venue with overpriced beer and a crappy sound system – at least I am!). Physical and online spaces have their strengths and weaknesses and will continue to complement each other. What will change is a move away from the large centralised seat of learning that is the current university model towards the provision of smaller, more local and accessible sites.

Eileen Frampton
3:16pm 9 April 2011

I undertand and agree with what Ove is saying about learning being a social activity.

However I am studying an online course with the Open University at present which is higly interactive. I am enjoying much more socal interaction than my youngest son who is studying law in the traditional manner at  University.  Now in his last year he attends University only one day a week and needs a great deal of self-discipline to use the rest of his week to pursue his studies.  He is much more isolated than I am!  However, his social life and the opportunity to gain his independence and make new friends from other areas is enhanced. But in this day and age surely the opportunity to gain higher education must take priority!

Online education is also much cheaper and opens doors for the less able and disadvantaged within society

Debbie Meharg
9:09am 11 April 2011

As students begin to pay more for their education, their expectations and demands for quality increase, and rightly so.  For most, this includes taught face-to-face content delivered in a mainly traditional manner.  Online tools may well be used extensively to support and enhance learning but this will not replace traditional methods for the majority.

In Scotland, the situation is different, our students don’t pay fees but funding to Colleges and Universities has been cut.  We are expected to deliver the same quality and level of education for less money.  In this situation the growth of online courses is inevitable but I can see the positive here.  Scottish campuses will be forced to embrace technology but to keep the quality and experience high.  This should be a win, win situation.

Sukaina Walji
9:01pm 11 April 2011 (Edited 9:02pm 11 April 2011)

This is a great topic. For me, the value of a formal university module as opposed to a 'self-service peer curated free option' somewhere online is my expectation of being around amazing people (both faculty, tutors, and students) who are interested in the same things at the same time - learning together.  Having some kind of assessment and validation along the way is also important. (I want to know that I now know what I didn't know ;->) Previous to starting H800, I had been going along the self-study route, but I felt that there was something missing.

I think it is inevitable that more blended and fully online solutions will emerge from our traditional universities, but I can't see that these institutions will suddenly disappear due to the availability of free and open courses as competition. What I do see is the opportunity to extend lifelong learning to more people so that more and more universities will become 'Open' as online becomes normal.

Sukaina (H800)



Jonathan Vernon
9:28am 13 April 2011 (Edited 9:39am 13 April 2011)

Traditional universities will and are exploiting the internet, e-learning tools and social networking.

They can with a degree of ease develop a distance learning offering. If they make mistakes they will learn from them, construction online is organic, more like growing a Victorian kitchen garden then putting up a building. Though some have lost vast sums getting it wrong (New York), the costs are now far lower (off the shelf software, hoards of agencies who know what they are doing, even create your own in-house team from scratch).

The only threat is the perception the institution has to CHANGE and dealing with the unexpected.

Traditional universities offer online tools and distance learning, but those on campus want it too. The result is a blend, the best of both worlds. Chris Pegler (2007) makes a persuasive argument in 'Preparing for Blended e-Learning.' 

If blended learning is the best model (or simply the inevitable), then organisations like the OU too may need to change, but in a different direction - offering undergraduate courses that last three years not six, and even having students on campus?

Not even living in town like original 11th century universities of Northern Italy, but in purpose built residential blocks.

Far from being the death of universities I believe most will flourish.

They are too clever, too established and despite what they saw, responsive to the myriad ways to achieve adequate funding.

The competition will be healthy. They are after all a business, as well as a state necessity.

The onus on serving the needs of the student population bottom up ... rather than shoehorning students into what the institution has decided will work for them, will result in more engaged, motivated students and more engaging, attractive and effective learning.


Pegler, C. and Littlejohn, A (2007) Preparing for Blended e-Learning. Routledge.

Saucy Sailoress
10:10pm 13 April 2011

What an interesting debate this has turned out to be!!!

I'd like to refer to a point I made in the first post of this thread: "I feel it doesn't harm to keep the masses 'dumbed down'.  Does this sound harsh to you?"  Now, by making that comment I was partly aiming to be a troll - one who stirs just to get people incited and to provoke reactions.  But do you know, it might actually be a lot closer to the truth thatn I would have hoped.  I just read a blog by von Prondynski (e-learning in times of crisis) who suggests that elearning will be a way that universities can cut costs in a world where universities will be laying off staff due to funding cuts. 

And it got me thinking...  What will those unemployed professors do?  It will be hard for them to get jobs in supermarkets and the likes, simply because they will be over qualified.  Employers want to take on people who are likely to stay for longer.  So, these out of work lecturers will probably need to take ecourses in elearning so they can develop their skills to divert into the e-university (is that a term yet?) market.  And then we will be able to continue to educate the masses to a Higher level, and then who will stock the supermarket shelves?  Probably students who are studying online because they can't afford to attend university in person!!

Gráinne Conole
10:49am 14 April 2011

All great comments - what an interesting flash debate! Totally agree about the role of accreditation and also pedagogically well designed structured learning pathways and support. MOOCs can be very rich but also complex and confusing to navigate. My view is that these will sit alongside traditional educational offerings, they wont replace them but traditional courses will need to change and be more explicit about what their value added is....

David Kernohan
11:09am 14 April 2011 (Edited 11:18am 14 April 2011)

Fantastic discussion - thanks "Saucy Sailoress" for starting it and Gráinne for linking to it.

I love both MOOCs ( 4 LIFE!) and thoughts about the future shape of Higher Education. I also work for JISC, though I'm not claiming to speak for them here.

Traditional Higher Education models are currently under attack from two sides.

 Primarily we are dealing with the changes to the funding model in the UK (similar, but less drastic, moves are happening elsewhere) and a greatly renewed emphasis on links between education and employment and the need for job focused training.

But we are also seeing an attack based on stuff like Anya Kamenatz' idea of a DIY U (  and to which end stuff ranging from the MOOCs and P2PU ( through to Khan Academy (as Joanne mentions above) and the OER movement are often co-opted. This is the idea that independent, learner-centred learning is key and that institutions are just unwieldy, expensive, blobs in the way of change. There's also a focus on employment training in this world, with "knowledge" and "skills" taught at universities often seen as out-of-date.

As Rachel Fisk points out above, "moving from 'A' Levels to university has become too much of an automatic progression with a lack of thought to why or if a degree is the right choice." There's an idea of the degree becoming almost a safety net (US venture capitalist Peter Theil wrote on this recently, see a summary in the Economist  ) which leads to better employment chances.

My concern is that HE has been mis-selling itself. In MOOCs or personal learning, we are comfortable with the idea that we find and learn stuff for ourselves, however well or badly we do that. One thing that traditional HE does very well is to pass on that kind of research/discovery practice - giving you the critical and intellectual tools to pick up stuff that you find and decide whether it is any good or not, and the aptitude to discover and learn new skills as you need them. A danger of the "student as customer" model is that students are paying for the right to do a shedload of hard, painful, personal growth - but unis and the government are telling them they are paying to be "taught" like they were at school.

I've blogged on this recently at , which may be of interest to some.


Cris Crissman
4:50am 16 April 2011

Great question!  Reminds me of James Paul Gee on the future of education:

"What I have called "situated embodied problem-focused well-designed and well-mentored learning" will either come to exist primarily for elites who will get it 24/7 on demand across many institutions and their homes or it will be given to everyone.

In the first case, the regular ("mainstream") public school system will continue to teach the basics accountably and will exist to produce service workers. In the second case, we will have to reinvent a public sphere and transform our view of society, civic participation, markets, and what constitutes justice, fairness, and a good life. We are headed the first way right now, but there is always hope for the future."

Henry Jenkins interview of Gee, March 28, 2011.  Retrieved from

I’m a MOOC junkie and I credit them with showing me the light when it comes to the power of lifelong, networked learning.  I’d like to think that they won’t so much compete with universities as they will “keep them honest.”  I think that MOOCs can become the public sphere that Gee describes, but that universities can contribute to this public sphere in a significant way – in fact, can become the leaders. The university that I envision is one that makes learning free for all but charges for credentialing.  I just want them to do a better job of keeping that credentialing updated and relevant.

Antonella Esposito
6:49pm 10 November 2011

Participants in this cloud might want to join the live chat - Friday 11 November - organized by The Guardian - Higher Education Network, about:

Imagining the university of the future

The way universities deliver learning, see their role in society and fund their activities is changing fast. But what will HEIs look like in 2020?

More information at:

Alice La Rooy
2:36pm 24 March 2013

I came across this cloud on my cloudquest. I am also on H800 although imagine most who contributed to this flash debate may have graduated by now. Given the recent rise in MOOC popularity it was really interesting for me to read your perspectives on how they could challenge Universities -it seems to me you were ahead of your time with your comments on this cloud.

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