The Report on the Visit of Nepalese Delegation to Athabasca University, Alberta, Canada

A team of representatives from NRNA, NRN-Canada, CFFN and NECASE visited Athabasca University, Alberta, Canada and had a day-long intensive interaction with senior faculties and executives, including President Dr. Frits Pannekoek, to gather the information necessary for planning an ODL system for Nepal and to establish a preliminary contact with the Athabasca University, which is known to be one of the best models in ODL system globally. This reports the outcomes of the discussions and tour and recommendation developed by the team in regards to the Open University initiative.

The Report by the Visiting Team of Nepali Diaspora in Canada

Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA), Americas Region
Non-Resident Nepali (NRN) – Canada
Canada Foundation for Nepal (CFFN)
Nepalese Canadian Society of Edmonton (NECASE)

December 2009

Host Team:

  • Dr. Frits Pannekoek – President, Athabasca University
  • Ms. Pamela Walsh, Director of Operations, Office of the President
  • Dr. Nancy Parker – Director of Institutional Studies
  • Dr. Mohamed Ally – Professor and Director of Distance Education
  • Mr. Tim Slaughter – Director of Learning Services Collaboration
  • Ms. Linda Bonneville – Manager of Course Development at Centre for Learning Design and Development
  • Mr. Sheldon Krasowski – Quality Assurance and Program Review at Institutional Studies
  • Nancy Tarrant-Wood – Assistant to Director at the Office of the President
  • Mr. Ken Krawec – Course Materials Production

Visiting Team:

  • Dr. Arbind Mainali, former President of Nepalese Canadian Society of Edmonton
  • Dr. Drona Rasali, Deputy Regional Coordinator for Americas, NRNA-ICC; Advisor, NRN-Canada; Research Chair, Canada Foundation for Nepal.
  • Mr. Ichchha Nepali, P. Eng. General Secretary, Nepalese Canadian Society of Edmonton
  • Dr. Narayan Pokharel, President, Nepalese Canadian Society of Edmonton
  • Dr. Pramod Dhakal, Member, NRNA-ICC; Advisor, NRN- Canada; Research Chair, International Affairs coordinator, NRN-Canada; Executive Director, Canada Foundation for Nepal.

 

Background: The context

Vast majority of Nepal’s population is unable to overcome barriers to higher education despite the many development initiatives taken in the education sector. The most affected by those barriers are the women, poor, marginalized and rural people. Further, gender and ethnic disparities in attaining higher education have been extremely high (Table 1). This is despite widespread awareness on the importance of education among people. Even among those groups of people, who have attained relatively higher level of education, it is common for them to get their Intermediate, Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees through private examinations. Thus they miss any formal mechanism to assist in their studies resulting in a higher rate of failures.

A series of pilot projects on rural schools initiated by Canada Foundation for Nepal revealed that inability to produce, attract, or retain quality educators has been a major hindrance in improving the state of education in rural areas. Further, in the face of rising emigration of youth from the rural areas, this problem will persist for the foreseeable future. The removal of barriers in higher education is, therefore, an important challenge for Nepal. The good news is that a significant number of educated and skilled Diaspora who have settled throughout the world have a genuine willingness to provide help in the education of the disadvantaged. The members of the Diaspora will prefer to make such contribution from the country of their residence, through distance learning mechanisms. Therefore, an institute of Open and Distance Learning (ODL) in Nepal geared for educating the women, rural and marginalized communities, and the poor may be a winning proposition for the government of Nepal, NRNA, and the target population. It is believed that NRNA could lead and become one of the main partners in this effort if the government of Nepal and international institutions come on board to support the initiative.

Recognizing the fact that ODL could be a potential means of removing barriers to higher education to the masses, the Government of Nepal had earmarked a small fund in the fiscal year 2008/09 to explore its possibility. This matter caught the attention of a group of enthusiastic Nepali Diasporas living in North America, who believe that they have a role to help make the government’s vision a reality. Towards that direction, the first step for them was to explore basic facts around planning for an ODL system. Some members of the Diaspora living in Canada had heard about the Athabasca University as one of the most renowned institutions of ODL in the world. Upon exploring further, they found the ideals and principles of the University an excellent potential model to serve the women, rural and marginalized communities, and the poor as the target people in Nepal. This in turn led them to visit the main campus of the University.

This a briefing report of a visit by a team of Nepalese Canadian delegation to the Athabasca University on Friday, December 4, 2009, outlining the proceedings of the tour program and interactions they made with the officials of the University.

Table 1. The Percentages of men and women (15-49 years) attaining post- secondary education, Nepal Demographic and Health Survey, 2006.

Major ethnic groups Gender
Women Men
All Brahmins/Chhetris 8.3 24.4
Newar 9.1 32.3
All Janajati excluding Newar 2.3 5.8
Madeshi Brahmins/Chhetris 17.5 57.5
Madheshi other castes 0.5 4.2
All Dalits 0.6 1.8
Overall 4.1 11.3

Source: Nepal Human Development Report, United Nations Development Programs (UNDP), 2009.

 

The purpose of the visit:

The purpose of the visit was to gather the information necessary for planning an ODL system for Nepal and to establish a preliminary contact with the Athabasca University, which is known to be one of the best models in ODL system globally.

More specifically, the information the visiting team would seek during the visit revolved around the following facts of life in Nepal:

1. Majority of people living in rural areas of Nepal do not have access to higher education (i.e. beyond Grade 10).

2. Extremely limited resources exist in education sector nation-wide

3. Students have extended age-group in every level of education (primary, secondary and tertiary)

4. Many institutions of learning, especially in the rural areas, lack basic physical infrastructure such as labs, class-rooms and teaching tools.

5. Reading books is the primary, and at times, the only method of learning.

6. Qualified teachers are in acute short supply in the rural areas

7. Extreme poverty among people makes higher education unaffordable.

The Athabasca University (AU) at a Glance:

As a world leader in distance and online education, AU strives to remove geographical, financial, social and cultural barriers that limit access to post-secondary education. In Canada, AU is recognized by the Government of Alberta, and the Government of British Columbia. In the United States, it is fully accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE). No other public Canadian university holds this level of foreign accreditation.

The Athabasca University serves over 37,000 students (over 7,300 full-load equivalents), offers over 700 courses in more than 90 undergraduate and graduate programs. The University employs over 1,200 faculty and staff members, generates $ 3 million annually in research activities, and maintains over 350 collaborative agreements with other Canadian educational institutions, professional institutions and First Nations groups.

Students of the Athabasca University live in every Canadian province and in 87 countries worldwide. The average undergraduate student is 29; the average graduate student, 37. 67 percent of students are women. Over 90 percent study year round, balancing their studies with work, family or community commitments. 63 percent of program students work fulltime while they study. 63 percent of graduate students support their dependents. 74 percent of graduates are the first in their family to earn a University degree.

 

The Interactions at the University:

Dr. Nancy Parker gave an overview of the history and current state of Athabasca University, which is one of the four comprehensive and research oriented universities in Alberta, Canada. It is accredited in Canada, USA, Greece and European Union. As Canada’s Open University, it is dedicated to the removal of barriers that restrict access to and success in university-level study and to increasing equality of educational opportunity for adult learners worldwide. It is founded on four key principles: excellence, openness, flexibility and innovation.

The highlights of Dr. Parker’s presentation were as follows:

  1. Athabasca University is located in a town of 3000 people has 38,000 students and 1400 staff. Founded in 1970, it offered its first distance course in 1973 and steadily built its strength in distance education and emerged as a pioneer and one of the best in the world over the years.
  2. AU offers Bachelors, Masters and PhD degrees fully compatible with other comprehensive universities and fully accredited like other universities.
  3. About 2/3 of its student population is female and a vast majority are those home bound mothers and fathers, those who are in need of continuing their jobs, those living in remote communities, and those who have mobility in life. Students from small and large institutions also take courses to complete their program in time. Studies of employed students are often sponsored by their employers.
  4. Students register from around the country. More students in AU are from Ontario than Alberta, the home province. This in turn is creating policy dilemma as education is under provincial jurisdiction and students throughout the country are attending a university funded by a province.
  5. AU uses technology to its advantage. Open Source Learning Management System (LMS) and Content Management System (CMS) are customized for the university. And ICT, CMS and LMS are not only providing services to AU but also generating revenue through services to others.
  6. It offers over 700 courses, Bachelors of Arts in 25 majors, and Bachelors of Commerce, Applied Science, Health Administration, Nursing, Management, Computing, and more. It uses tests for the evaluation of prerequisite knowledge.
  7. Student satisfaction is at 95%, which is 10% higher than provincial average.
  8. AU is greatly prized by students for independence (being able to learn and work), improved writing skills, research and development, and self-confidence. However, it is less prized by student for mathematical studies, speaking, conflict-resolution, computer skills and appreciation of cultures.
  9. All tutors are part-time; academics are part and full time. Academics are often professors of other universities and industry experts.
  10. Tutors and academics can be home based but all other staff work from campuses.
  11. Staff -mix: 13% full-time academic, 9% part-time academic, 28% tutors, 18% professionals, 24% support staff, 2% management and executives, 6% casual. (50% STAFF WORK FROM HOME)
  12. Budget/revenue breakdown is as follows: 30% from government grant, 60% from fees, 10% from sales of other products and services. Annual budget is $120m, significantly lower per student compared to traditional universities. About $3m research grant was won in 2008-9.
  13. Its services go through seven step iterative processes for continuous improvement and quality assurance: Education Planning, Program Planning, Course Planning, Content Production, Course Delivery, Evaluation, and Revision.

Many helpful materials and books could be found in AUPress.ca, AthabascaU.ca, and also from web sites of COL.org.

The Visiting Team presented the rationale for and the context of the visit. Each member of the team spoke in the following order: Dr. Drona Rasali, Dr. Narayan Pokharel, Dr. Arbind Mainali, Mr. Ichchha Nepali, and Dr. Pramod Dhakal. Dr. Rasali introduced NRNA and the context for the visit and Dr. Dhakal made a power point presentation on Nepal’s current state of education and proposed areas and issues for discussion. The key messages presented by the visiting delegates were as follows:

  1. Nepal is characterized by a large rural population with poor access to higher education, crushing gender gap in tertiary education, lack of resources and infrastructure, lack of practical and technical education, shortage of qualified teachers in the rural areas, overcrowding in lower grades, and low participation at tertiary level education owing to the rampant barriers to education. This warrants the need for open and distance learning opportunities to supplement what has been achieved by traditional system.
  2. Nepalese government has realized the need for ODL and had allocated some budget in 2008 for establishing such a university. NRNA as an association of Nepali Diasporas around the world can take initiatives in improving access to education in Nepal as a way of giving back to their native land. Having been endowed with numerous talented members holding world class academic and industrial experience, NRNA aspires to use that asset and support the government in establishing an open university.
  3. The educated migrants from Nepal are spread throughout the globe leading to a net “Brain Drain” from the country. Now, an opportunity exists in tapping the Diasporas’ knowledge and skills for uplifting the rural poor back in Nepal through ODL. The Diaspora members can be a rich intellectual source for the production and delivery of educational content for such a venture.
  4. Nepal is a geographically small and densely populated country, and is one of the poorest in human development. As per UNESCO statistics, the primary, secondary, and tertiary enrolment rates are at 126%, 43% and 11% respectively. However, only 3.2% women of tertiary age group take tertiary education, indicating severe gender gaps in access to education. Many youth and employed already rely on self studies and “private-examinations” to get tertiary diplomas and degrees due to necessity of retaining jobs or lack of money to attend universities.
  5. The best way to solve Nepal’s underdevelopment is education. And making pedagogy, technology and institutional system for ODL would make a significant positive impact to Nepal. If there was a mechanism to undertake and distribute educational courses, we could use the Diasporas’ vast human resources to develop and disseminate educational content, a significant boon for relatively a small developing economy. ODL could bring a revolution to the massive population of women, people bound in jobs, farms or family obligations, and those unable to afford higher education located mainly in urban centres.
  6. The team’s purpose of the visit was primarily to understand the process involved in establishing an Open University in Nepal, mechanisms for and sources of obtaining technical assistance, and various avenues of collaborations. Also it is to explore the possibilities of running joint courses, accreditation and access to each other’s resources, strategic planning, research collaboration, and faculty exchange. How could we best achieve technical and physical infrastructure development in Nepal?
  7. During NRNA regional convention in May 2010, we intend to have a symposium on ODL and Open University, and we intend to develop a strategic plan accordingly.
  8. As an answer to separately asked question of Dr. Mohamed Ali on state of technology penetration in Nepal, Dr. Pramod Dhakal said that the radio is the most common, widely available and widely used medium of mass communication, wireless phone has been gaining wide penetration in many areas and is steadily expanding its reach, low speed Internet is available in many towns, and high speed Internet is available in some urban pockets.

Ms. Linda Bonneville and Mr. Tim Slaughter gave an overview of the infrastructure for online learning, and content planning and production process. Key highlights of her information were as follows:

  1. Learning is influenced more by the content and instructional strategy in the learning materials than by the type of technology used to deliver instruction. Course design and quality greatly determines the learning outcome. Therefore, proven learning theories are applied and great care is given in preparation of instructional material at AU.
  2. A learner distant from a tutor uses technology to access the learning materials and to interact with the tutor and other learners. Best breeds of content management systems (CMS) and learning management systems (LMS) are used to ensure quality and continuity.
  3. Several teams have to work together to meet the pedagogic objectives. The 4 person learning design team, 12 editors, 3 visual designers, 5 copyright-officers, CMS Group, Digital Media Technology Unit, Quality Control officers, and the academic staff, all have to work together to produce a course. The entire process is expensive costing AU somewhere around $500,000 to $1million per course.
  4. Copyright is a major issue in content production and requires rigorous work in copyright clearance. The copyright documents must be preserved 10 years beyond the discontinuation of the course.
  5. Planning, production in Alfresco, and distribution through MOODLE, copyright clearance, are critical for success.

Dr. Frits Pannekoek, the President of AU, reassuring the visiting team members that they were on the right track to have thought about an ODL system for Nepal, gave thoughtful hints on key opportunities and barriers in establishing an open university in Nepal. Dr. Mohamed Ally, Professor and Director of Distance Education, also provided some important hints in the same line. Key advices provided are as follows:

  1. There are about 1,200 universities in the world that are involved in distance learning and there is International Council for Open and Distance Education which is supported by UNESCO and the Government of Norway. It is also affiliate member of Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization. These organizations are valuable resources for Nepal.
  2. China and India are the largest and the second largest distance education providers with 3 and 2 million students respectively. They would have interest to commercialize in other countries and there could be interest to take Nepal as a market. Indira Gandhi Open University is already active in Nepal offering its programs through partner institutions at low-cost, which is possible due to their high volume. Great care must be taken so that frictions are not created between institutions already working there.
  3. Most countries are establishing national universities for open and distance learning (ODL) funded by the government. It is understandable that Nepal also takes that route because education is a public good. Although for-profit private schools are also moving to ODL, they may not serve the spirit of ODL. Our mutual spirit is in opening the opportunity for all those who would otherwise be left behind.
  4. Athabasca University is considered among the best two in the world. The key reason is its high emphasis in quality control and adoption of transparent quality standards. Its degrees are not dead-end type but they are articulated with regular universities.
  5. Exclusive or uni-model Open University has better chance for success than blended universities. Otherwise resources could be diverted to traditional infrastructure and the technology system may get low priority. Therefore, it is best to avoid becoming a faculty of extension and source of revenue for the rest of the traditional university.
  6. Establishment of quality system is our strength and biggest gain for ODL success is in quality. That is the reason developing a course costs somewhere from half to one million dollars.
  7. Infrastructure for ODL could be very expensive. Money is required for putting system in place, do have a course warehouse, course production, technology infrastructure, and radio and satellite systems. Maintaining many regional offices could add up to cost escalation. Therefore, securing necessary funds and government budget is paramount for success.
  8. For success, one must either have a large number of students or should have strong state support. Since volume may not be realizable in Nepal outright, government commitment is essential for securing international support. Government must spell that ODL in its priority area and is seriously taken as an instrument for public education. Only when there is government commitment, it would be logical for established institutions like Athabasca University for getting involved in technical assistance. AU has provided technical assistance to Mongolia, Maldives and Saudi Arabia. It could be there for Nepal as well.
  9. Commonwealth of Learning (COL) headquartered in Canada also provides assistance in establishing ODL institutions. Open Universities in Malaysia and Maldives were established by COL, which uses commonwealth term for name sake but has no neo-colonial character. Mozambique joined to obtain help because they felt that commonwealth support was preferable to the aid from the United States. If desired COL could also assist Nepal.

I thought, this piece of information about Mozambique was related to being a member of Commonwealth rather than about ODL in Mozambique.

  1. It would be a matter of pleasure to AU if Nepal seeks to model its Open University after AU. AU would be happy to show stage-wise development of computing infrastructure, and to let it start first with international service providers and slowly build its own computer centre and other centres over time.
  2. There is enormous international experience with AU that would prove valuable in ODL initiative in Nepal. With two decades of experience in delivering distance education, President of AU Dr. Frits Pannekoek is also the President of the International Council for Distance Education (ICDE). Former Director of Information Resources at the University of Calgary and the chair of a consortium of more than 300 libraries, Dr. Pannekoek is recognized nationally for his leadership in the creation of digital resources and the transformation of academic publishing and is regularly called upon to serve as a provincial and national policy advisor. An author and editor of books on mobile learning, Dr. Mohamed Ally is the past-President of International Federation of Training and Development Organizations (IFTDO), Board Member of Canadian Society for Training and Development, and Founding Director of International Association of Mobile Learning, and has chaired a number of conferences on distance learning. Besides AU at present has earned three Canada Research Chairs, on distance learning, computer science, and indigenous studies. This is a testimonial for the wealth of experience that the AU has in international and Canadian arena of ODL. AU has a number of internationally reputed staff.
  3. Since Nepal is entering into ODL, it should jump start from best available technology as much as possible. Nepal should strive for wireless Internet access throughout the country. Village Internet Kiosk and mobile learning devices would be most prized in developing countries. Radio and TV could also play an important role. It would be advantageous for developing countries to go directly on mobile personal devices. The way USAID helped to fund wireless Internet access infrastructure throughout Macedonia, Nepal might also have some opportunity like that somewhere. CIDA funded the establishment of Open University in the West Indies. Therefore, Nepal could use CIDA and IDRC as potential sources for the technical cooperation in the field of ODL.
  4. The United Nations and World Bank may provide funding as part of fulfilling their MDG missions. ADB has also been supporting such endeavours. For this the following may be key characteristics that would appeal in Nepal’s favour:
    1. Strong government commitment to ODL as priority area and allocation of state funding.
    2. Collaboration of organized Diaspora members in content production and delivery
    3. Involvement of capable Nepalese living abroad in execution of the establishment work
    4. Commitment to quality system and transparent quality standards
    5. Partnership with right institutions

 

Conclusions and Recommendations:

The team had a productive visit to the Athabasca University as well as an ample window of opportunity to interact with leaders and officials of the University. They have strong commitment to public education and they themselves are part of a publicly funded institution in Canada. The visiting team’s conclusion is that the AU is the right kind of institution to get the technical assistance in establishing an Open University in Nepal and their willingness to be of assistance to Nepal is very strong. The precondition for a formal involvement would be that Government of Nepal shows its full commitment and readiness in establishing such institution in Nepal. Strong support of the Diaspora, would prove to be of all the more value in promoting the project and in garnering external support. Given those instruments are in place, it should be possible to harness institutional supports from world bodies to acquire necessary financial support to establish such institution. The Diaspora having a strong role in building, managing and operating the university with a backing of government of Nepal would build a strong case for Nepal and better reason for Athabasca University to help Nepal emulate its model in ODL.

Based on the experience the visiting team members gained, the following set of recommendations are made for a way forward in the direction of put in place a vibrant ODL system in Nepal in not distant future:

1. The envisioned ODL system is an autonomous University or a deemed University owned by the Government of Nepal in partnership with NRNA and in collaboration with international agencies such as UNESCO and academic institutions such as Athabasca University (Canada) and Indira Gandhi Open University (India), with the bilateral/multilateral funding assistance and technical cooperation from World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

2. The NRNA commissions that within the Skills, Knowledge and Innovation Transfer Task Force (SKITTF), a strong team of recognized professionals and academics be formed (herein after referred to as the “Team”) to support the initiative of establishing an ODL system in Nepal. The team will be comprised of a core group of people, who have envisioned putting such a system in place. The team will work with selected group of interested members of the Diaspora, educational and political leaders in Nepal and potential donors.

3. The NRNA takes the removal of barriers to higher education among the women, rural and marginalized communities, and the poor in Nepal as one its core missions, including it in its collective declaration during the forthcoming global and regional conferences.

4. The NRNA gives the responsibility in this matter to the “Team” to handle this mission on behalf of the NRNA, making contacts with the Government of Nepal, foreign governments, international agencies, relevant academic institutions to garner their support and participation in the initiative.

Acknowledgements:

Many people and organizations have contributed directly or indirectly to the success of the visit.

Firstly, the visiting team expresses its gratitude to Dr. Fritz Pannekoek, the President of the Athabasca University for his acceptance to receive the team over a day’s visit to the University.

The team expresses thanks to Ms. Pamela Walsh, Director of Operations in the Office of the University’s President, who agreed to host the proposed visit and formulated the program of the visit, when Dr. Drona Rasali from the visiting team initially made contact with the President’s Office.

The team expresses its thanks and appreciation for their cooperation to the other members of the host team: Dr. Nancy Parker – Director of Institutional Studies, Dr. Mohamed Ally – Professor and Director of Distance Education, Mr. Tim Slaughter – Director of Learning Services Collaboration, Ms. Linda Bonneville – Manager of Course Development at Centre for Learning Design and Development, Mr. Sheldon Krasowski – Quality Assurance and Program Review at Institutional Studies, Nancy Tarrant-Wood – Assistant to Director at the Office of the President, and Mr. Ken Krawec – Course Materials Production.

Mr. Ichchha Nepali and his family who hosted a pre-visit meeting over a dinner in his house, and Dr. Arbind Mainali, who volunteered to drive the team from his residence and the Athabasca and back on a day when the red alert for a snowstorm was on for the area, are gratefully acknowledged by other members of the visiting team. Dr. Ai Bahadur Gurung and Mr. Gautam Narayan Singh hosted out-of town delegates and provided opportunity for interactions about the mission. NECASE arranged community interaction program and provided opportunity to obtain community input on the mission.

Finally, The visiting team expresses thanks to Dr. Ambika Adhikari, Regional Coordinator for Americas, NRNA-ICC and Mr. Naba Raj Gurung, President, NRN-Canada, for their moral support and cooperation extended to the team, and Dr. Narayan Pokharel, the President, Nepalese Canadian Society of Edmonton (NeCaSE) for accepting the invitation to participate in the visit program.

This draft of this report was prepared by Dr. Promod Dhakal and Dr. Drona Rasali.

Appendix 1: NRN Association Introduction

The term Non-Resident Nepali (NRN) refers to Nepalis irrespective of their nationality (citizenship) living outside of Nepal. The Non-Resident Nepali Association was instituted to represent the interests, concerns and commitment of all NRNs and to encourage their involvement in the economic and social life of Nepal. For practical purposes Nepalis citizens living outside of the SAARC member countries are considered NRNs and come under the fold of NRNA.

The NRNA came into existence at the first Non- Resident Nepali Conference held on 11-14 October 2003 where the assembled delegates decided to join their hands together to create a common institution of Nepalis residing outside of Nepal. NRNA is a global network of Nepalis associations and is committed to streamline their energy and resources for the transformation of Nepali society. From the nationality pint of view both Nepali nationals and foreign nationals of Nepali origin are regarded as NRNs.

Motto: “For Nepali by Nepali”

Objectives:

· Protection and promotion of the sights and interests of Nepalis residing outside of Nepal;

· Coordination among Nepalese communities and their organization and establishment of global network of Nepalis;

· Mobilization of knowledge, skills, capital and other resources in disposal of Non-Resident Nepalis in the socio-economic development of Nepal in cooperation with government and society of Nepal;

· Promotion of Nepali culture and tourism abroad;

· Facilitate the foreign investment in Nepal.

Functions:

· Organizes global conferences, regional conferences and meetings for members;

· Facilitates strong networking among the NRNs worldwide and with Nepali and resident Nepalis;

· Liaises with the National Coordination Councils, Nepali associations abroad, government and international organizations;

· Lobbies for NRN friendly laws/procedures and rules;

· Acts as a forum for the promotion and protection of the interests of the NRN community both in Nepal and abroad.

 

For further information, please visit at: http://www.nrn.org.np

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