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

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Why does the Open University set its students gibberish, Verity Stob asked here recently? We decided to investigate. As our enquiries continued at the Open University, it became harder to find anyone who took the issue seriously.

Two weeks into one of the modules in the OU's Comp Sci postgraduate course - M885 Analysis and design of enterprise systems: an object oriented approach - students were set a tutor-marked assessment. The basis of the questions was a paper published by the IEEEs Software journal. However, the paper contained passages that made about as much sense as a computer-generated spam blog. Some of the words used were relevant to the topic, but sentences and whole paragraphs made no sense - and Open University students were directed to the meaningless passages.

"You would expect higher education to provide you with source information and references that were not only relevant, but also not worded in such a way that gives the impression someone just put a thesaurus through a shredder and taped bits in sequence to pad out their work," reader Steven Raith commented after reading the story.

It seemed incredible that a publicly funded university devising a postgraduate-level course could, with a straight face, use such nonsense.

After Verity Stob raised concerns about the paper, the course tutor admitted he had not read the paper "in detail yet", but advised the student that "overall, the marking schemes for the easy questions are very flexible".

The tutor isn't responsible for setting the course material, the questions or the marking assessments. It's a part-time job. The real responsibility in this case, course M885, fell to Dr Lucia Rapanotti. Dr Rapanotti gave Verity the distinct impression of not being very familiar with the material either, but passed on the assurance that it had been endorsed by "a prestigious peer-reviewed journal", and advised the student to answer it anyway.

But not only was the Madanmohan and De paper gibberish, it was irrelevant to object-oriented analysis: Designing and implementing object models. It wasn't the first time students had been set a puzzling example.

In another question on the same course, students were posed a question based on a paper called Ten Commandments of Formal Methods …Ten Years Later, by Jonathan P. Bowen and Michael G. Hinchey (IEEE Computer, 2006). Formal Methods, which went out of fashion in the mid-1990s, has nothing at all do with object-oriented analysis. One may as well ask students to describe why unicycles are no longer popular.

We mailed Dr Rapanotti and the head of the department, Darrel Ince, requesting interviews.

"I don't even see it as a story," the Open University’s PR guy Louis Delafloret told us. One man's gibberish might be another man's work of genius, he suggested, "like Jane Austen".

"Sorry to disappoint you but I will not be giving you an interview," Ince replied, loftily. "You will be getting a detailed rebuttal." Eventually word was passed down from the elusive Dr Rapanotti, in the form of a 125-word statement.

She explained that, "The article was used with full confidence of authenticity expected of this global leader specialising in peer-reviewed technical articles." Yet she completely failed to address the issue of why the article was nonsense, or why it had been chosen. As an exercise in answering the question, this merited as a “fail”.

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