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Randy Lyhus for The Chronicle

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Randy Lyhus for The Chronicle

Every day during the academic year, tens of thousands of students across the country sit passively in 300-person lecture halls listening to 90-minute lectures on freshman or sophomore-level calculus, chemistry, or biology (and this isn't even counting the students who have decided to punt the lecture altogether). Some students take notes to keep up. Most are lost or bored or both, trying their best to stay awake. Professors stare at a sea of blank faces while delivering a lecture not much different from the ones they have delivered in each of the past 10 years.

Students go back to their dorms to work on problem sets in a vacuum. They fight through 1,000-page, 10-pound tomes to get at the nuggets of information they really need or can comprehend. Many give up and copy from their peers.

This cycle continues for several weeks, until just before the midterm or final exam, when students cram everything they should have learned into one or two sleepless nights. Regardless of whether they can prove proficiency in 70, 80, or 90 percent of the material, they are "passed" to the next class, which builds on 100 percent of what they should have learned. Fast-forward six months, and students are lucky to retain even 10 percent of what was "covered."

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This is a grand exercise in labeling and filtering students with arbitrary grades rather than teaching them. It is a hugely inefficient use of time and resources, but no one wants to notice, because it is the way things have always been done.

Perhaps the worst artifact of this system is that most students end up mastering nothing. What is the 5 percent that even the A student, with a 95 percent, doesn't know? The question becomes scarier when considering the B or C student. How can they even hope to understand 100 percent of a more advanced class? Is there any point in studying differential equations if you don't have an intuitive understanding of basic calculus? Is there any point to taking biochemistry when you have less than perfect understanding of first-year biology and chemistry?

There are some college experiences that don't fit this mold. Many seminars and advanced courses are based on hands-on projects and small-scale discussions with professors. Those are undoubtedly valuable. But core classes tend not to be taught that way. The very classes that should establish a student's base understanding of a subject are taught like assembly lines—lecture, problem set, exam—with no quality control. Sure, the product's quality is graded, but nothing is done about defective understanding as the student is pushed down the line.

It's not the professors' fault. Many are excellent teachers and do amazing things within the framework they have to work with. The problem is the system itself. The best calculus teacher on the planet will make little headway with even innately intelligent students if they have weaknesses in algebra. The current system does not allow for addressing those gaps, so both professor and students settle for superficial coverage of the material. Students don't retain anything because they didn't intuitively understand it to begin with.

Apologists for the lack of retention and intuition by students argue that what­ really matters is that they are being taught "how to think." The reality is that because students have ever larger gaps in their knowledge as they progress, they learn to get by through pattern matching and memorizing. They learn to fake understanding, not to think.

In my former career, in the hedge-fund world, I encountered summa cum laude graduates of Ivy League colleges—some were CFO's or CEO's of large enterprises—who couldn't see or solve an eighth-grade algebra problem (for instance, realizing that one can figure out marginal gross margin given the revenue and the total gross margin in two different periods). I have interviewed economics majors from those same elite universities who could confidently repeat words or thoughts they've heard from professors or pundits, but could not explain how the Federal Reserve actually operates or how to analytically decide whether it makes more sense to buy or rent a home. I'm sorry, but these are superbright students, with scores and grades in the 99.9th percentile, who simply weren't taught to think.

There was nothing practical that anyone could do about this broken "learning" model until recently. But we can now deliver on-demand content to any student for nearly zero incremental cost. The video content can be paused and repeated as needed. Content producers can get real-time data on use, including student attention and efficacy. Students can focus on exactly what they need to know. They don't have to be embarrassed to fill in remedial gaps. They don't need to take notes. Crucially, the lectures can be given by superb communicators, with a deep, intuitive understanding of the material.

Why aren't students watching lectures on their own, at their own pace, in their dorms? Why aren't we using the 300-person gathering at 10 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday as an opportunity for active peer-to-peer instruction rather than a passive, one-size-fits-all lecture?

The only argument I've seen made in favor of the 30- to 300-person lecture today is that it gives students an opportunity to ask questions of a live professor. The reality, however, is that the great majority of students are too self-conscious or considerate of their peers' time to raise their hands. Those who are bold enough to do so are often more likely to derail the professor's pacing than to ask something relevant to more than 5 or 10 percent of the students in the room. With on-demand video, however, the very act of watching a 10-minute video is equivalent to the student's saying, "I don't understand this, tell me more about it" without fear of being judged by peers or the professor, or of wasting everyone's time. Being able to directly learn from the professor actually becomes much more likely when the lecture happens on the student's own time, with on-demand video. Then the professor is freed to be an active participant in an interactive, peer-to-peer problem-solving powwow in the classroom.

Textbooks are even more archaic. The publisher or author has no data on which parts of a book are being used and when. They have no idea whether the changes they make in successive editions make the books more effective. Students get no real feedback on the exercises they do (the solutions to some problems in the back of the book are not real feedback). It is obvious to anyone but the most naïve observers that the focus of the multibillion-dollar textbook industry is on making each new version heavier and more expensive, while making previous editions obsolete with strategically renumbered pages and revised problems, in order to extract maximum revenue from students. Calculus hasn't really changed since Newton and Leibniz, but the powers that be have us believing that a new version of their freshman calculus book is necessary every three to five years.

My not-for-profit Khan Academy, which has recently gotten support from Google and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has a free, self-paced application that generates exercises for students dynamically. It is being developed as an open-source project and is already used by several tens of thousands of students. Over the next two years, we intend to have unlimited exercises covering every major math concept through calculus, and then to continue even further.

We collect data on when a student does a problem, how long it takes, and what happens before and after a video is viewed. And we can present this information in real time to the student, professor, parent, or administrator. We provide immediate feedback on proficiency and give step-by-step explanations of every problem. Most important, students continue to get exercises until they correctly answer 10 questions in a row (not once they have answered 70 or 80 or 90 percent of the questions correctly).

We are developing other applications to create repositories of teacher- and student-generated questions (on which we would collect the same metadata and ratings on quality, difficulty, and importance). Between these apps and our 2,000-plus and growing on-demand video library, which is being used by more than a million students a month, there is a genuine opportunity for educational institutions to rethink the system so that it is both more effective and more economical. We have decided to do this as a not-for-profit venture, so that our goal of optimizing learning never conflicts with profit maximization (which leads to the type of behavior we see in publishers).

The college experience is a valuable one from the perspective of students being immersed in a (hopefully) intellectual residential campus, but the paradigm of lecture, homework, and snapshot-assessment is broken. Ten years from today, students will be learning at their own pace, with all relevant data being collected on how to optimize their learning and the content itself. Grades and transcripts will be replaced with real-time reports and analytics on what a student actually knows and doesn't know.

The classroom will be a place for active interaction, not passive listening and daydreaming. The role of the teacher will be that of a mentor or coach as opposed to a lecturer, test writer, and grader. The institutions that will remain relevant will be those that leverage this paradigm, not fight it.

This is not just another prediction. It is merely a conservative extrapolation of what is already happening. The technology exists, and it is free and open-source. It is already being used regularly by a larger population of students than on any physical campus in the world—and that population is growing severalfold a year. When it is complemented with the human experience that can be had only on a physical campus with leading researchers and thinkers, we should see a new renaissance in learning.

Salman Khan is executive director of the Khan Academy (http://khanacademy.org).


1. anonscribe - November 01, 2010 at 02:17 pm

Some of your essay is polemical and misleading (like the idea that lecture halls aren't already full of active technology - like clicker surveys and multimedia...or that breakaway sections/labs aren't already a part of instruction in large courses). But, in spirit, I agree with you: education in the U.S. will increasingly have to be about intellectual skills and not the provision of information that exists eternally in the internet cloud.

So, okay, professors don't waste time with big lecture halls anymore. That's fine. More small classes, cohort-grouping, etc. I like it. One enormous problem: how do we pay for it without grad student slave labor?

Right now, many departments stay in the black by teaching huge gen ed/lower-division courses that allow them to offer smaller courses in other areas. If you replace these courses with free on-demand video from other professors, where does departmental funding come from? Right now, the professor who teaches 300 in a lecture hall has 6-10 grad students mentoring and coaching students in small sections. If the professor no longer teaches the big class, will she teach, what, 4 of the 18 sections offered for that course? Will six professors teach the 18 sections? Will professors simply disappear, with grad students being the sole instructors (as we already are for lots of courses)?

It seems this model, to be efficient, could do two things: 1) increase the number of full-time faculty but eviscerate grad student funding or 2) decrease full-time faculty by maintaining the exploitation of grad student labor.

2. 11122741 - November 01, 2010 at 05:17 pm

What an aunt sally straw person argument; who learns calculus in 300 person classes anymore or are you teleporting the the 1950's every day/ let's try to do a serious assessment, set of arguments and comparisons please. how did this article even get in the Chronicle? Says more about the chronicle than the author.

3. alistair - November 01, 2010 at 07:15 pm

"The only argument I've seen made in favor of the 30- to 300-person lecture today is that it gives students an opportunity to ask questions of a live professor."???

There are many reasons why the live lecture is still a valuable part of the HE box of tools and ntat is that it allows the student to watch and listen to the process of developing a complex argument over an extended period. It may be possible to get that out of a book as well, but the book doesn't respond as well as a speaker to the quizzical looks that an audience gives a speaker when it doesn't understand and doesn't reiterate a point in a different way until the looks become looks of understanding.

That's also the reason the question 'Why aren't students watching lectures on their own, at their own pace, in their dorms?' is misplaced and why watching TV is second-rate compared to being there.

4. oldassocprof - November 01, 2010 at 11:08 pm

Part of the purpose of a live lecture of any size is to hear and watch the professor make connections. And make connections as a student. And watch and hear other students make connections. Yes, students can participate in even large lectures. Yes, the physicality and living presence add something. Some of the content is emergent, not canned.

5. jizbetty - November 02, 2010 at 08:26 am

Who is this? Textbooks are archaic. I do not think so. Textbooks are the foundation of learning. I am not a textbook seller, but I am a veteran teacher with 25 years of public school experienc. This author needs to get a grip. The brick and mortor classroom is the traditional setting for learning. This includes lecture, notes, and some interaction. I agree that to be interactive is ideal, however, the reality is that the larger classes require a different learning mode from the students. The purpose of education is to adapt and learn simultaneously. Put down the computer gadgets and have a real live conversation with the teacher and classmates. I enjoy technology but sometimes we go too far.

Have A Great Day.

6. rcoons09 - November 02, 2010 at 10:56 am

I agree with jizbetty's comment "put down the computer gadgets and have a real live conversation..." It's far too easy for our students to sit in the back of the room (or the front if they're bold enough) and text or surf the web on their iPod for the entire class. It's far to easy to avoid face-to-face interaction, and while I agree that there is a time and place for technology, I have also seen first-hand the problems this causes students in interpersonal communication skills. It's easier to send an email than to pick up the phone and actually going to a professor's office hours is the absolute last resort. I think we need to ask ourselves how we can pry our students away from their cell phones, iPods, laptops, and other gadgets long enough to have a meaningful face-to-face interaction with their classmates, faculty, and staff.

7. skaking - November 02, 2010 at 01:20 pm

Is this a paid advertisement? Shouldn't it be noted as such? Why is the owner of a for-profit academy allowed to write an "article" about himself? wtf?

8. sophia1 - November 02, 2010 at 02:08 pm

Never in my life have I sat "passively" in a lecture hall, and I went to college before the introduction of iPacifers in the classroom. The premise of this article is based on falsehoods intended to achieve profits for technology companies eager to exploit college students and the schools willing to tell those students anything to lure them onto their campuses.

9. duchess_of_malfi - November 02, 2010 at 03:32 pm

Oh, this is too easy! The student matching this argument is the one who complains, "You're so picky, wanting facts and everything. It's what I think. That's what makes it an argument. You're so unfaaaair!"

10. jr2033 - November 02, 2010 at 05:19 pm

Are we in Higher Ed so afraid of the profound changes brought about by technology that the only thing we can do is circle the wagons and shout ad hominem arguments against our perceived aggressors? The comments directed toward this article seem to concede one of the implicit arguments of Khan's argument: we cannot justify the contemporary organization of higher education in an era in which interpersonal communication has become much more selective and student living patterns are much more diverse without relying on circular arguments based on tradition and professional inertia. Despite the fact that Khan's methodology can clearly do little with the problems of cramming and information-based assessment, the development of skills over time can be helped by encouraging students to be flexible in their learning and practice habits.

Khan's project is a nonprofit endeavor that allows individuals the opportunity to practice certain kinds of mathematical activities repeatedly in small segments. The flexibility and independence of this kind of activity can be useful for many core classes in math and the sciences. The lack of development in the humanities and social sciences, however, demonstrates the difficulty with extending this methodology into the more traditional lecture-based general education and foundational courses of the liberal arts. The criticism raised against Khan praises the ability of the lecture to develop an extended argument over time, but Khan's central claim is that these "core classes" are designed to equip students with basic, necessary, and often, measurable skillsets that can be taught in smaller pieces. As a result, professors that want to develop more complex arguments in courses should feel no fear from Khan's methodology; that would be akin to a novelist decrying a short story writer: they are two similar-looking activities with very different goals and methods.

Leaders in Higher Education should critically consider the kinds of profound reorganization that Khan proposes and encourage faculties and departments to consider their teaching goals and outcomes. Foreign Language instruction could easily adapt this kind of instruction for basic grammatical concepts, and it could also be used for composition, rhetoric and reading comprehension across all disciplines.

Perhaps the adoption of video-on-demand will not be ideal for every course in every major, but developing a canon of lessons that allow students to develop the necessary vocabulary and foundational concepts to engage the theories and projects of a rapidly-changing world will give students confidence, allow professors to avoid repetitious explanations, and offer administrators measurable benchmarks for learning and achievement.

11. arrive2__net - November 03, 2010 at 04:23 am

The overall argument, that the potential power of newer educational technologies will forge a new learning paradigm...is easy to agree with. The tricky part is developing the new paradigm. The article seems to describe electronic 'programmed learning', which is not a new idea. One of the problems with programmed learning, based on my experience with it, is that it can often become boring and students lose interest in the material.

Many courses don't have a set agenda for the content the student is supposed to learn. In some classes students write papers, all the papers are supposed to be different from one another... representing some unique things that student has learned. You couldn't program that type of advanced learning, although no doubt advanced technology may be able to enhance learning, students don't all learn the same things even in the same class.

For interested students ... lectures are not necessarily passive, in that the student creates notes that personalize the concepts the prof professes, describes, or illustrates. Students develop varying levels of skills at note-taking, as they develop varying levels of skill in assimilating or accommodating new ideas. That process of developing skills in assimilating or accommodating new ideas may be part of the core of how the student benefits from college.

Sure, new tech is likely to reshape higher education to a large degree, but its ability to slice, dice, and predigest the content should not be allowed to interfere with the student's development of his or her ability to slice, dice, and digest the content for themselves.

Bernard Schuster

12. triumphus - November 03, 2010 at 05:56 am

Why don't the bored students go home and make room for someone who isn't?

13. sanjoaquin - November 03, 2010 at 10:16 am

This is Maria Montessori's educational model updated to the for-profit higher ed tech sector.

Let's see what the data say about the relative success rates of students in this modality on a comparable basis before we throw out the baby, though. There may be some students for whom this is the best model, but I'd like to see objective randomized trials before making a decision.

14. jbergmann - November 03, 2010 at 10:21 am

I wonder if higher ed needs to re-think how they do busniess. K-12 is beginning to catch on to the "flipped" classroom. In this model students who don't understand things can get the helpt that they need. If you want to learn more about the flipped classroom go to: http://learning4mastery.com/news.html

15. demery1 - November 03, 2010 at 10:58 am

skaking- Khan academy is a not for profit organization. In fact, the article says as much.

jbergmann-inverted classroom is the term used in higher ed, I think, but the same principles apply.

16. aclutz - November 03, 2010 at 11:09 am

I use statistics in my research and recently bought a dvd on statistics for my own interest. Yet, even I, someone who was interested enough to go out and purchase a dvd about statistics have been procrastinating watching it. The idea of watching a multi-series statisitics video on a screen in 1 1/2 hour chunks seems, well, even more boring than going to a class and seeing someone do the equations on a blackboard. I can't imagine that students who are taking a required course and watching the lectures online would find it better than going to class where they can at least go outside, see friends, and interact with live people even if they don't have an interest in the subject material. How many students would actually watch the video without keeping facebook on in the background (as many already do in class)?

17. barklind4 - November 03, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Salman Khan should be pleased to know that I see this prototype modeled in at least one classroom at Bellingham High School - Honor's Chemistry. There is no less classroom lecture/lab time (much to my daughter's dismay); but rather the expectation that the students will spend 'more' time outside of school hours reviewing the more challenging of chemistry concepts via the teacher's chemistry YouTube videos and online practice modules.

18. jbergmann - November 03, 2010 at 01:11 pm

Since we "flipped" or inverted the classroom 4 years ago students from around the country have been using our chemistry videos. We have trained teachers all over the country (I think I trained those in Bellingham WA) in how to flip the classroom. We have a collection of some of our videos at our website: http://learning4mastery.com My own children are using videos from good teachers (Including Kahn) in some of their courses.

19. earthscienceprof - November 03, 2010 at 02:01 pm

I spent the last 10 years of my career at a major research university attempting to address the problems Kahn describes (in a large general education oceanography course). Kahn's perceptions and ideas are "right on." The argument that "what will departments do without the credit they get for large classes" is correct, but maintaining a broken system for the sake of administrative systems is bound to eventually fail, and forward looking entities will then be way ahead of the curve.

I found that my colleagues had a way exaggerated opinion of the value of their lectures.

20. kwerthmu - November 04, 2010 at 01:58 am

I would imagine that Khan's model of education could be useful and productive in certain disciplines, especially those requiring a mastery of technical, scientific, and/or mathematic competencies. I have a hard time envisioning it as especially effective outside of the hard sciences and professional programs, though: as someone commented, this couldn't possibly work in more subjective fields. History, English, Composition, Humanities?

The problem lies in Khan's assumption that all fields and disciplines function like mathematics... not unlike the shift of the entirety of higher ed toward convincing itself that anything and everything can be quantified.

The other deficiency in Khan's argument is that it extends the problems of major research institutions - massive lecture halls, oodles of grad TA's, etc. - to a broad spectrum of higher ed contexts, many of which are on a far more personable scale. I agree that lecturing to a group of 300, or even 30, makes for a group dynamic in which little interaction happens. But what about campus where 15-20 students take intro courses with a single, full-time faculty member? And what about upper-division major courses, in which face-to-face interaction, the organic give-and-take of the classroom, are a regular and necessary reality? In these settings, I find it hard to imagine a video screen helping, but rather only alienating our coming generations of students further and further from actual human interaction.

21. tcli5026 - November 04, 2010 at 11:56 am

I have no objections to Khan's model in principle--it seems quite interesting from way he describes it. Yet, I wonder about "scalability." Khan's model presupposes that all students will be appropriately motivated to view videos on their own, and to view them in a manner that allows them to learn the materia well. He then uses that presupposition to assert that classroom time can be spent in peer-to-peer learning, where the faculty act as mentors or coaches. Again, without no sarcasm intended, this sounds like a wonderful model.

But, what if students don't watch the video? What if they are reluctant or unable to engage effectively in peer-to-peer interaction? What if the majority of those same students who found lectures boring also find the videos and their peers boring? Again, I think the issue is scalability: what works in a relatively small setting with appropriately motivated (and self-motivated) students, may not work in a large state university. Or, perhaps it could? Honestly, I don't know. But, it's an issue that needs serious consideration. (Consider, on this point, that there are some wonderful charter schools at the K-12 level, but overall the results from charter schools are no better than the results from public schools at large).

Then, of course, the other issue is money. This sounds as if it would be a tremendously expensive system to implement. Who's going to pay for it, especially in public universities? The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation may have a lot of money (enough to fund Khan's institute), but certainly no where near enough to fund such a program at a national level.

22. tcli5026 - November 04, 2010 at 11:58 am

Please excuse the typos in my posting ...

23. meinholdt - November 04, 2010 at 01:35 pm

An interesting title for an article with debatable premises. While U.S. students fall behind those from other countries in science, math and engineering, students in many other countries go to school 6 days a week for longer hours and in some place with less technology than in the U.S. I am not aware that the rest of the world abandoned the lecture-homework-assess model of learning.

Many students do not know 'exactly what they need to know' or even what to major in. Discovery and innovation doesn't follow a step-by-step instruction sheet. Otherwise, show me exactly what I need to know to invent an alternative mode of transportation that will replace cars once fossil fuels are too expensive or used up entirely. And I want to ensure all my students will have jobs upon graduation - what exactly do I need to know to make this happen? Many life opportunities are not yet reduced to an engineering equation to solve for the unknown factor. Trying to put all education in this model is missing a lot of life and maybe development of some thinking skills.

Psychology and other behavioral sciences have wrestled with defining and measuring human mental abilites for more than a century. It is nice to know that computer scientists will be able to resolve all these questions and debates in the next 10 years with "analytics on what a student actually knows." Being a bit skeptical, I wonder if we will only have student answers to a series of questions or probelms on a computer screen, pretty much as we are doing today.

But thanks for the open source software. It sounds interesting and I will take a look. But first there is advising for 65 students, references to write for grad school applications for 5 students, running a research review committee for the university, writing a document for the dept. chair on my assessment philosophy, papers to grade to 2 classes, meeting a ph.d. stduent whose committee I chair, a faculty union meeting to review the tenative contract with that was suppose to be settled last. . . yep, I'm adding the open source software to my list of things to do.

24. grward - November 05, 2010 at 03:44 pm

I've been pondering the problems of communicating via large lectures for about 15 years, and I have a couple of observations. First, it is not necessarily the highly complicated concepts and ideas that bog down most students. When I make a specific "difficult" concept in my field (Health Sciences) absolutely required through a mastery quiz, pretty much everyone (say, 99.5% or so) will learn it. I simply announce that everyone has to understand it or they do not pass the course, regardless of how well they are doing on the rest of the course requirements. The students will then make the effort and do the required reading to understand it. What happens though, is that a certain percentage will simply not try to understand the concepts that required holding a lot of information in their heads at once and coalescing varied facts and concepts together to make sense of a larger concept. It's almost as if the size of the concept (how many parts have to be held in one's brain at once) makes then not bother to learn it, rather than the difficulty of the concept. A simple concept with many parts is probably more likely to be neglected by certain students that a difficult concept with only a couple of parts. Try this experiment: give the students a choice of answering either of two questions, one of which is very simple but takes up a lot of space on the page, and the other of which is difficult but takes only a single line of the page. Far more students, if my experience is any indication, with try to answer the short one even if they don't know the answer than try to answer the long one which, though well within their knowledge level, requires them to bump up their concentration to an uncomfortably high level.

I actually provide videotapes of my lectures so that students who have difficulty understanding something can go back and listen as many times as they wish (this is in addition to the recommended readings, etc.). Since I started doing so, the grades in my course haven't changed a bit. When I discuss this with students, I find that the students who use my videos aren't the ones who struggled with the lectures: the ones who struggle generally accept their "ignorance" and don't bother to watch the videos. The ones who watch the videos are the ones who have good marks in all of their classes, and the ones who also do the recommended readings.

Maybe we need to have the conversation that we are all avoiding. Are there some students who simply won't learn if they have to work too hard to do so, regardless of what we try to do for them? If so, should we be allowing them to remain in our programds for years, taking their money, or should we be encouraging them to find something else to do with their energies and potential, whatever that might be?

25. austinbarry - November 05, 2010 at 11:15 pm

How much is the large lecture about education, and how much is it about shared experience, perhaps even ritual.

26. tee_bee - November 07, 2010 at 07:22 pm

For all the merits of this essay, and the author's ideas, I would rather see the author's institution pay for display advertising, rather than get a free space in the CHE. Alternatively, can someone tell me how I can get this many column inches published on one of my pet projects?

I would have taken this a bit more seriously had this not turned out to be closer to a sales pitch than to a careful analysis.

27. been_there_done_that - November 08, 2010 at 05:58 pm

Sorry for the naive question, but has anyone done research on the effectiveness of a lecture as a delivery mechanism for information?

28. greenm - November 22, 2010 at 09:32 pm

This is a win win situation for everyone. The slow or unmotivated can stay home or in their dorm and pretend to learn with their computers. They don't waste anyone's time and they pay the school well for their pretend diploma. The best students (always so rare) can share a more intimate and productive classroom experience with their professors now that the rabble are out of the way. Faculty morale may rise now that they will have more time for research and qualified students.

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