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Maker Faire 2012: Nerdy Derby as Inspirational Pedagogy

This past weekend I had the privilege of going to the World Maker Faire with my fellow colleagues from the Creativity Labs at Indiana University. Our lab is engaged in a number of efforts to envision intersections of the DIY and Maker sub-cultures and contemporary education, thinking about how these communities that have a strong focus on hands-on problem-solving, collaboration, arts and STEM might help us move teaching and learning forward.

The New York faire, held at the Hall of Science in Queens (a place I have fond memories of visiting as a kid), is in many ways chaotic and carnival-esque – dozens of tents dot the landscape of the museum grounds displaying everything from handmade robots that play basketball to PVC pipes configured to shoot marshmallows across a room. All manner of high and low tech can be found – 3D printers, woodcutting machines, sewing and embroidery stations, even a super-sized thumb-wresting apparatus. You can see some of the fun through the photos I took and at the Maker Faire site.


Nerdy Derby
Rather than talking about the whole fair from an educational standpoint, I want to focus one great example of how we can be inspired by the Maker movement: the Nerdy Derby. The Nerdy Derby is a reboot on the classic Pinewood Derby where people (usually kids) create handmade model cars and race them on wooden tracks. You can check out a neat little video of the derby below to get a sense of the experience.

The Nerdy Derby had a lot of features that I think we should include when we create well designed learning experiences for kids. I want to briefly take you through what I saw happening there from the perspective of good education and good learning.

  1. The Derby railsA Clear Context of Application – kids working on their derby cars in one part of the tent knew exactly why they were working on what they were working on. They could see, right across the tent, the real world space of the three competition rails where their work would be applied and judged. The problem they were trying to solve was made transparent by the design of the space.
  2. Multi-generational Creation and Collaboration – adults and kids worked together to tinker, hack and refine their derby car models. When kids got stuck, parents and folks running the derby were there to help out and assist in problem solving.
  3. Multiple Avenues to Success, but Clear Standards – derby cars took many forms, and no one was there telling kids that their cars needed to look a certain way. Lots of different types of material resources were provided in the environment that let kids try out different approaches. At the same time, the kids couldn’t create just anything – the problem space they were in meant that there were standards for what would work and what wouldn’t. The design of the track, for example, made two wheeled vehicles impossible to race.
  4. Derby test railSafe Contexts for Testing – before kids moved their derby cars to the big leagues on the main rail, they were able to try out their models on test rails to see how they worked. Nobody expected that their cars would be perfect in this environment, and kids weren’t afraid to fail – after all, that’s what the test rails were for.
  5. Performance as Feedback – when derby cars were finally completed and they were ready to race one another, the context of application itself provided feedback – kids got to see how well their cars performed in relation to others. I even heard people making some hypothesis after a race about why a car performed in a certain way, information that could be used to change car designs.
  6. Opportunities for Iteration – after their cars were raced and they got that performance feedback, they could go back to the workspace to iterate on their designs, tweak them based on what they saw, and try them out again.

For me, one of the things that made this such a powerful learning environment is that all the feedback loops were tight – kids were able to see what they were going for, what counted as good participation, what resources were available. They were able to create based on this consequential information, test and refine, put their creations out there, learn from the experience and iterate all within this self-contained experience. Compare that to our current models of education – kids rarely understand why they’re working on something, their work so often has no actual application to even a fictional problem space, stakes are incredibly high and so testing and iteration are discouraged, and feedback is more often about telling kids how they did after long times scales (think tests) rather than being ongoing and on-demand while they’re involved in their work (like the test-rails in the derby).

This is only a small example of how the Make movement might inspire better pedagogy, but its clear contrast to what current classrooms look like is a testament to just how much room we have for improvement.

Thoughts on the Purpose of Education

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I recently had a great time chatting with Doug Belshaw, a colleague over in the UK, about the purpose of education. Among many other roles (including recently joining the Mozilla Learning team), Doug is the co-kickstarter of the purpos/ed project which aims to create a broader conversation around what the purpose of education is. This, in my opinion, is a fantastic project – so much of the discussion in the education world has baked in assumptions about what the purpose of education is, and too often these assumptions go unexamined. We can only do well by bringing them to the surface and engaging in robust debate around them.

Check out the post over on the purpos/ed, or listen to the interview below. I’d love to hear your own thoughts on what you think the purpose of education is, or should be.

Hacker Literacies Ignite Talk @ DML2012

This past year at the annual Digital Media and Learning conference, I gave an ignite talk (15 slides, 20 seconds each) about hacker literacies, an idea I’ve been kicking around for a while that deals with approaches to technology that understand it as inherently malleable, changeable… hackable (in a good way). But I won’t go on too long – you can just watch the video!

If you’re interested in the idea, I have some good news: I have a book chapter on hacker literacies coming out in an edited volume called Critical Digital Literacies as Social Praxis: Intersections and Challenges, published by Peter Lang in their book series New Literaces & Digital EpistemologiesI also have an empirical study on hacker literacies that looks at how they played out during user responses to Facebook privacy changes in 2010 that was accepted to a journal this morning (and is also exciting since it’s my first solo authored peer-reviewed study that’s been accepted to a journal!). So, if you like the ideas in this video, watch this space. : )

“Reform” vs “Change”: Papert Reflects on the Education System, Technology and Culture

I just came across this wonderful little excerpt on The Daily Papert that I want to share. In it, constructionist learning theorist Seymour Papert reflects on his reading of the book Tinkering Towards Utopia, which describes the ways that the educational system has been amazingly resilient in the face of attempts at centralized, planned reform for over a century.

“My first reaction to Tinkering Towards Utopia was adversarial. I am convinced that education will undergo the kind of megachange that came in the wake of technological and scientific developments in areas such as medicine. Yet as Koschmann pointed out in the introduction to this section, although Tyack and Cuban present their work as analysis of the past, “the implication is plain that the prospects for any technology, … leading to radical change in our educational institutions appear quite bleak” (Koschmann & Kolodner, this issue, p. 399). One of us, it seemed at first sight, has to be wrong.

Only at first sight. Working on this review brought me the intellectual bonus of a better understanding of my own position by making explicit a simple distinction that has long lurked unformulated in the shadows of my intuitions: “Reform” and “change” are not synonymous. Tyack and Cuban clinched my belief that the prospects really are indeed bleak for deep change coming from deliberate attempts to impose a specific new form on education. However, some changes, arguably the most important ones in social cultural spheres, come about by evolution rather than by deliberate design — by what I am inspired by Dan Dennett (1994) to call “Darwinian design.” (2) For example, the concept of learning disability entered School in a manner more akin to the way that memes invade cultures than to the conduct of an education reform movement; institutionalization from above followed the cultural movement.

Examples closer to my focus here are to be found in the unintended effects on the classroom of the presence of computers in homes. The title of an article by Cuban (1992), “Computers Meet Classroom: Classroom Wins,” refers to School’s defense mechanisms against reform being brought into the classroom by computers. School exerts less influence on what children do with home computers, and as the number of these reaches significant levels, we are beginning to observe changes in the relationship between teachers and students brought about not by a reform, but by the fact that the students have acquired a new kind of sophistication — not only about computers but also about ways to learn and methods of research (Papert, 1996a).

With the evolution-reform distinction in mind, I found myself reading Tinkering Towards Utopia more sympathetically. I could now appreciate the elucidation of mechanisms by which the system systematically frustrates reform without feeling obliged to defend my own intellectual commitments. In fact, I could learn from it — the shift from a stance of reform to a stance of evolution does not exclude active intervention, but the role of the change agent becomes less like the architect or builder and more like the plant- or animal breeder whose interventions take the form of influencing processes that have their own dynamic. Tinkering Towards Utopia is a gold mine of insights into the dynamic of School’s defense mechanisms.

Nevertheless, a sense of residual discomfort lasted until I managed to formulate yet another respect in which Tinkering Towards Utopia says less than I first thought: The mechanisms described in it are concomitants rather than causes of the stability of School. Making this distinction will lead me to suggest that Tyack and Cuban are blinded to a deeper layer of explanation by a theoretical stance that looks deeply into the sociological processes at play in education while treating as a black box the actual content of what is being taught and (supposedly) learned.”

Papert, S. (1995). “Why School Reform is Impossible.” The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 6(4), pp. 417-427.

This is a wonderful little reflection for many of us that share Papert’s sentiments around the potentials of technology; to empower young people, to help shift towards pedagogical approaches that position young people as creators and knowledgable actors, to make learning built on tinkering and experimentation as opposed to skill and drill. Often I find myself worrying about how to best effect change in a complicated system – Papert’s words here remind me that my own hopes are buttressed by larger cultural shifts around how technology is currently being used. People, young and old, are engaging in a democratization of cultural, social and political life through media in ways that would scarcely be recognized even a couple of decades ago . In other words, culture is at our backs here. Instead of having to think of ourselves as change-makers in the form of “architects” or “builders”, as Papert says, we can contribute to  these larger cultural forces that are already unfolding, nudging them in fruitful directions. A good reminder for those of us that sometimes feel the weight of the world on our shoulders.

Confessions of an informal learner who’s learning in school

I have a confession to make. I’m learning. In school. No joke. I frame this as a confession because I’m someone who’s generally pretty hard on institutionalized education, and especially schools, and now I might have to go and revisit my stance a bit.

First, some background. I’m not one of those people that looks back on their school experiences, even those in higher ed, and feels like I was inspired, or particularly well equipped, to scale new intellectual, personal or professional heights. There are some small exceptions of course and probably some very positive aggregate effects, but looking back there are no teachers that really stand out as changing my trajectory, no courses that shook the foundations of what I thought my place was in the world. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t have any “bad” experiences in school beyond feeling like high school sucked on a social level (but hey, who didn’t have that experience?), but I when I look at the other places that I’ve really learned in my life, it doesn’t really stack up in comparison.

When I think about the kind of learning in my life that was foundational and life changing on the intellectual, personal and professional level, I look outside of school. I look to life experiences of the informal variety. As I look back on my adult life, three places in particular strike me as the ones where I’ve learned the most: my meditation practice, my time living abroad in India, and my time working at the youth development organization Global Kids. And as I reflect on these experiences, I can see why I’m in a situation here in graduate school where I’m learning – in each of these areas I can see some quality that I’m now finding in my current experience.

I starting meditating when I was about 18. For me this has been part of a spiritual journey that I won’t go deeply into here (feel free to explore some other writings if you’re curious), but one that I will say has been meaningful and important for my development as a (at least somewhat) reflective, mindful and conscientious adult. This development has been grounded in the exploration of a practice; a continual refinement and commitment to a particular technique that has stayed with me through most of my adult life, evolving with me. Directly engaging in a practice, learning from others about how they practice, paying close attention to the contours of this particular practice, and, importantly, persistently applying the practice in new contexts and integrating new insights into it has unquestionably been one of the deepest (and at ten years, most ongoing) learning experiences I’ve had in my life.

I lived in India twice over the course of about two years, the first time more related to some of the interests I just mentioned, the second more related to my professional life (again, if curious, you can read the old blog I kept while living in Bombay). Beyond the particulars of first the study abroad program and then the NGO-based fellowship that I participated in, the big learning experience for me here was about cultural immersion. One of the unique things about living abroad is that it makes visible the taken for granted mechanisms of culture by exposing you to mechanisms wholly different from your own. In immersing myself in the drastically different culture of India, I came to see more clearly the contours of my own culture back home in the US. More generally, I learned how to experience and interpret the world through the lens of culture and see the critical role it plays in the learning process – how a given culture both structures our lives but also provides the basis for our own agency.

As my first extended professional experience, my time working at Global Kids has so many things that I can say about it in terms of my own learning to be a professional (and I have, if you’re again curious), but I’ll limit myself here. What I’d really like to focus on in terms of that experience is my immersion in work and a field that I feel passionately about. I came to Global Kids coming off of my second trip to India, with a deep commitment to working on issues related to human rights, though not really knowing very much about that area as a field. And Global Kids was an interesting place in terms of that – it isn’t a classic human rights organization like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. It’s a youth development organization that does education about human rights, and works with teens to foster their own identities as global citizens. Even more than that, my place within the organization, in it’s Online Leadership Program, put me in a position where I was exploring the question of how youth can be civically engaged through the lens of new media. This led me to become deeply engaged in the emerging field of Digital Media & Learning, and over the course of my time at Global Kids I became more immersed in that space through work on collaborative projects, presentation at conferences and development of a network of colleagues whose worked I respected. In this experience I came to understand what an impact working in a field that I’m passionate about has one my own learning, motivation and development.

Circling back – here I am in graduate school, and looking around me, I see practices, I see culture, and I see a field that I’m passionate about. And I see how these three components are intertwined in a way that supports my learning. I’m developing a set of distinct practices related to the investigation of questions of learning – they involve the application of theory, utilization of research methodologies, and development of analytic and argumentation techniques all used to produce new knowledge about the world. I’m surrounded by a productive culture that’s supportive of my development – one that’s inquisitive, innovative, experimental and rigorous in the ways that it engages with the questions it cares about. And I’m able to work on the things that I’m passionate about through the work I do in my courses, through the work I do in my lab, and through the interactions I have with the community around me.

I share all of this because I’m surprised. I’m surprised at the ways that I’m developing and learning in a formal education context and how different it feels from all of my other encounters with the formal educational system. I’m sharing my own experience as a learning scientist who’s researching informal learning spaces and technologies because he believes in their potential to help inspire new educational innovations, but finding, suddenly and surprisingly, that it’s wholly possible to have a robust learning experience in formal learning context that contains all the markers of the most effective informal learning I’ve experienced. The irony is not lost on me here.

In one sense the implications of this realization feel daunting – how can I look to my own positive experience with school and integrate that into my work as someone looking to transform education? Is it even possible to have a learning experience like this in an educational space that currently looks so drastically different, with classrooms that are increasingly under pressure from standardized tests, schools that look increasingly like prisons, and students who haven’t been encouraged to pursue their passions? In another sense, this insight it feels validating and empowering – it is possible to have a schooling experience that’s personally meaningful and robust in terms of learning. And I’ll just have to do the work to figure out what it means for my work as someone dedicated to good learning for all youth.

Wait, why should classrooms care about participatory culture again?

Because participatory cultures are more authentic! Because they’re more democratic! Because kids love the internetz! No. No. No.

In fact, I’m going to go all out and say that classrooms may not have all that many reasons to care about participatory culture and the current form it takes in so many online spaces like fanfiction communities, massively multiplayer games and our favorite online, collaboratively edited encyclopedia. Henry Jenkins, who reminds us that they predated the internet (omg!), defines participatory cultures as spaces with low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing creations with others, informal mentorship, social connection and personally meaningful participation (see Jenkins et al. 2006 for more on this). Sound like great places, right? Like we should want classrooms to look more like them, right? And you might be saying to yourself right now “But Rafi, you’ve been talking for months about the importance of interest driven affinity spaces (a variant on participatory cultures via Jim Gee) for weeks when you’ve talked about your model for technology and learning!” Guilty as charged. I did, and will continue to, talk about these spaces as important. For learning though, not necessarily for the classroom. At least not yet.

I make two big points (among others) about the importance of participatory cultures in my model. One is that we should be figuring out ways to configure the many and varied places that youth learn in ways that get more youth get involved in participatory cultures. My reasons for this are many and varied, not least of which being that research shows that deep participation in these spaces can serve as gateways into increased civic engagement, but I’ll save these for another post since it’s a much bigger topic. But the other point I make, the one I want to take up and interrogate/revise a bit here, is that formal learning institutions such as K12 schools and Higher Education should look to participatory cultures for inspiration in terms of creating better models for learning. I should have chosen my words more carefully, and reading for class this week reminded me why. It’s because many of the tools and practices associated with participatory culture run into some interesting walls when we try to bring them into the classroom.

In an insightful, if somewhat dense, article titled “Web 2.0: Inherent tensions and evident challenges for education“, researcher Nina Dohn outlines just some of the many tensions involved in bring Web 2.0 practices into the classroom. Web 2.0, of course, is closely related to participatory culture, though as Jenkins notes, Web 2.0 is a business model more than anything else, and participatory culture focuses much more on the unique and valued practices that are mediated by these models and technological designs. Dohn makes sure to focus on practices rather than tools, which is for our purposes close enough. But I digress.

Dohn does a great job of articulating well intentioned desires of educators (herself included)  to foster Web 2.0 practices, specifically through wikis, in higher ed classrooms, but were confounded by the existing norms, expectations and structural pressures of these spaces. I’ll share an example. In a participatory culture, posting a summary of a public presentation to the internet is good practice; information about the presentation is now available to more than just the people present when it was being given, there’s a persistent and searchable record, etc. In a classroom aiming to utilize web 2.0 practices though, doing this when the public presentation was made in class by peers who did all the work to structure the knowledge and the summary post to a wiki was done for a participation requirement, well, it’s not exactly the same thing, is it? Likewise, when making edits to other people’s wiki entries becomes part of your grade, students can (and did!) come up with schemes to leave small spelling errors in their posts so that their peers have low hanging fruit to work with, and they can then reciprocate.

What Dohn really points to well is that bringing the tools, and maybe some of the practices, of Web 2.0 into classrooms doesn’t mean that you’re bringing in a participatory culture. Larger institutional requirements around individually oriented assessment, challenges to making participation personally meaningful and intrinsically motivated, and perhaps most of all, student expectations about what it means to participate well in classroom contexts serve to easily complicate and derail efforts to create participatory cultures in classrooms. In my opinion, culture is something that has to emerge organically in some ways, and also needs a bigger pasture than a semester long course. One class swimming upstream within a larger institutional river made of molasses is not surprisingly going to encounter some resistance. To me, this is why the grain size for the initial recommendation I made about participatory culture inspiring better models for formal education perhaps should have been specified as ‘larger than the classroom’. Not that the classroom isn’t relevant, it of course is, but creating a larger institutional context that supports a paradigm shift in how we value participation and think about learning becomes critical to letting participatory classrooms succeed, and in enabling other, yet-to-be-created, forms of learning groups and structures to emerge within formal education.

Really, the same could be said about the model of technology and learning that I’ve been envisioning in general. The shift in focus that stems from the challenges in just intervening on the classroom level to consider the broader school culture to me is much like my decision to not focus my model specifically on any one of the spaces where youth learn, whether it be in schools, in online communities, in afterschool spaces or libraries or even from TV. Rather, I argue that all of these contexts need to be taken out of isolation from one another in order that they can be re-conceptualized as nodes within a broader youth learning ecology. To me, all of these areas need to support and participate in a cultural shift in terms of what their relationships with youth people are, and how they envision they role in creating a culture of lifelong and lifewide learning for all.

**Disclaimer** I want to make absolutely clear my support for the many amazing, inspirational, tireless teachers out there in their canoes, some swimming upstream in seas of institutional molasses, others in free flowing rivers that they helped to make more fluid by creating cultural change from within. I don’t want this post in any way to diminish the work that you’re doing. I’m more articulating what I believe will be necessary in order for a broader cultural shift to occur that will make it so you guys don’t need to row quite as hard.

Avoiding the “Creepy Treehouse” When Using Technology to Connect Learning Ecologies

Photo by AlmostJaded, licensed under Creative Commons by-nc-nd

In going through a series of readings this week on the topic of games and learning, I found myself looking at the model for technology and learning that I’ve been working on in a new way, and asking a new question, namely: if we create technologies that connect the various nodes in a young person’s learning ecology (online communities, libraries, school, pop culture, etc.), how do we avoid the phenomenon of the “creepy treehouse”, whereby youth avoid participating in a given space or using a given technology because of its affiliation with institutional structures and adult cultures?

I’ll say more soon about this “creepy treehouse” phenomenon and how I’m thinking about it in terms of my model, but first it’s important to acknowledge the ways that I’m seeing various technologies already doing work to connect youth learning ecologies. For those that haven’t gone through some of my past posts on the subject, one of the things that I’m very interested in is a system that personalizes youth learning via creating automated and social recommendations (like Amazon and Yelp, respectively) that allow youth to follow their interests and connect the various places in their life that they learn (more on that here, if you’re interested). While reading about Quest Atlantis this week, a educational game that I’ve known about for quite a while as it was developed and housed in the very Learning Sciences department that I study in, I remembered that there are many existing projects already out there that do work to connect these nodes in youth learning lives, though not necessarily in the way that the particular project I’ve been thinking about does.

In a paper on Quest Atlantis (Barab et al. 2005), the designers reference this idea of connecting different learning nodes, if not explicitly. One way that the game is framed is as a space where education, entertainment and social commitment are intertwined to create a compelling learning experience. In terms of the learning ecology that I visualize in my model, this is doing work to connect formal school (the “learning” part of the triad where Quest Atlantis is mostly used,) to online affinity spaces and popular culture (“entertainment”) and civic and community action (“social commitment”). They reference some of the issues I talk about in my model in terms of popular culture’s success in engaging young people but failure to effectively leverage this success for learning purposes (p. 90). They also claim that the game’s connections to real world issues “are frequently as motivating to children as are the entertainment aspects of the project” (p. 98). Clearly, a lot of thought went into considering the various places that youth learn and engage in terms of the design of this project.

One other project that aims to do some linking of learning nodes that I’ll mention briefly is called RemixWorld, which comes out of a Chicago project called Digital Youth Network (DYN). DYN is a youth development program that trains youth in various forms of new media production via both in and out of school programs. An innovative project in and of itself, DYN does good work to integrate media production into the core content of schools, leveraging skills developed in afterschool hours within the classroom to create richer learning experiences. RemixWorld, though, does unique work to link the out of school lives with time spent in school and afterschool DYN related programs. A private social network where youth post their media creations, the space serves as a bridge between many of the interests that youth have outside of school, such as anime, video games and hip hop, to a program that recognizes and validates these practices in more intentional learning contexts.

Acknowledging that there are numerous projects that aim to weave together the learning lives of young people, we come back to the question of how to avoid the “creepy treehouse” effect. First, a couple of words on what I’m talking about here. One definition of “creepy treehouse” (among many variations) is:

Any institutionally-created, operated, or controlled environment in which participants are lured in either by mimicking pre-existing open or naturally formed environments, or by force, through a system of punishments or rewards.

It can also refer to practices of educators requiring students to friend them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter, resulting in an institutional encroachment on friendship driven spaces. More often though, the educational technologists using the term are referring to created online environments that are meant to be reminiscent of things that “digital natives” love, such as “the social media”. Online learning management systems with personal profiles, “friend feeds” and a variety of other features often find themselves guilty of evoking the “creepy treehouse” effect. Students know that these spaces still represent the often conservative priorities of the educational institutions that house them, and many use them as minimally as possible. This often has both to do with who’s controlling the technology as well as the fact that the spaces it aims to create are inauthentic.

So what to do? Not all technologies that promote learning fit the profile of the usual suspects accused of being “creepy treehouse” (Blackboard tends to get a lot of flack in this regard, and I have to say they’re not going to get any sympathy from me), but ones that aim to connect to places where youth learn outside of school certainly might be at greater risk since they are interested in many parts of youth lives often considered off-limits to adults, such as hobbies, pop culture, and other interest driven activities.

In terms the technology driven personalization/recommendation system (which needs a much snappier name), I’m thinking about a couple of things. For one, something like this can’t be affiliated with an existing formal learning institution, period. To begin with, most of these institutions have their own internal logic and agendas that would likely corrupt such a system, but moreover being actively affiliated with institutional educational is a great way to lose credibility with a young audience. More importantly, the system would be an example of technology that’s both for youth as well as by youth, with youth actively involved in it’s design and development. I’ve seen in earlier work that when youth are actually involved in creating a space or technology, they implicitly have greater ownership over it and don’t see it as “other”. Finally, I think that in and of itself, a technology like this naturally avoids falling into the “creepy treehouse” trap mostly because it’s not aiming to be a space where youth are meant to spend significant amounts of time – it’s meant to connect them to the spaces where they actually want to do that. Think of it this way – the time I spend on the social recommendation site Yelp itself is minimal compared to the time I spend eating at the restaurants it recommends. What I’m envisioning is less a learning destination in and of itself, but rather the connective tissue that links other legitimate learning environments, and thus would (hopefully) avoid the taint of the “creepy treehouse”.


Hi there.

Rafi in thailand, smiling

If you're reading this, then you've reached the web log of Rafi Santo. This is my little slice of the internet where I can share my passion (or whatever) with the world.

Research. Meditation. Learning theory. Spirituality. Activism. Cooking. New Media. Pedagogy. Photography. It's all fair game, and will likely coalesce into some unholy mixture thereof. But hey, that's the integral life.

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