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Category Archives: Web 2.0 Tools

Why Online Teaching is so Taxing!

Teachers who have been doing remote teaching over the last month or so report complete exhaustion. Not just because they needed to take time to re-design their curricula for remote platforms. Not just because they needed to record videos or re-purpose learning resources for an online platform. Not just because online assessment is a nightmare. But chiefly because of the exhaustion involved in conducting online lessons. And all this at a time when many teachers have to look after their own children and families, when they themselves are experiencing all the stress that we are all going through at this time.

So, why is online teaching itself so taxing? In the classroom you see your class for a set period of time, and you do what you can during the time you have with the class. Your energy goes into being present for your students, either in how you present content, or how you guide and shape their understanding of that content. You have to read the faces in front of you, notice who is beginning to goof off, who wants to ask a question, but needs encouragement, who has a puzzled look on their face, or who is clearly engaged in something else and needs re-directing. From the nods of understanding, or the expressions of sudden realization, you know when you can go on, or whether you need to try explaining something in a different way. You can judge whether or how long to wait after asking a question, or whether to rephrase it better. Face to face interactions require a great deal of work, and it can be exhausting in itself. Teachers suffer a great deal of cognitive overload. You have to keep not only the content you are teaching in mind, but also all the questions around how best to teach it. It is exhausting! But bells ring, and the day has an end. As exhausting as ordinary teaching may be, the week ends, and eventually the term ends. I have always thought that the length of a term is designed precisely to wring the most work out of students and teachers without completely destroying them in the process.

But online work demands a different level of presence. To be digitally present is to be available long beyond any scheduled lesson, worrying about those who never showed up to any online check-in, or who have missed a submission deadline. Teachers online don’t receive absence notes from parents explaining that a student is down with something, or will be away for a few days, but will catch up the work. Often all we have online is a silence that begins to prey on the mind. As emails expressing concern over a student missing in action go unanswered and days become weeks, the mind begins to invent all sorts of explanations, fears of all sorts and grieving for lost time and contact. Teachers are concerned about reaching all their students. But during a lock-down, if emails go unanswered, this concern can become all consuming!

Furthermore, students check-in at all hours of the day and night, with queries and concerns. I had one student ask a question at 2 am in the morning. There is far less of a switch-off point. If you are expecting students to work asynchronously, you more or less have to expect to maintain an asynchronous digital presence yourself. You may have announced that you will be keeping office hours, but if students have been missing in action, when they do pop up at an ungodly hour, it is hard not to respond immediately.

When you are teaching synchronously, reading the room is not easy, either. All the usual cues are largely missing. Facial expression and body language are harder to read, and a great deal more effort needs to go into understanding who wants, or needs to speak. Even managing conversations is more difficult with the false starts and technical glitches that bedevil meetings on Zoom, or whatever platform you are using. As someone who finds it difficult enough to read social cues under normal circumstances, learning how to do it all over again online is a nightmare!

All of these things make teaching remotely particularly taxing intellectually and emotionally. The cognitive load is much higher than in face to face teaching. It seems to me that the only way to cope with this added stress is firstly to recognise it, and secondly to begin to re-align our expectations and curriculum planning to accommodate this new reality. Most syllabi stress a relentless loading of content, breadth not depth has always been the name of the game. School administrators, districts and examination boards need to reassure teachers that the same coverage of content will not be expected during this period. Educational aims can still be met, but expectations around curriculum content needs revision. Is there really a need to study 18 set poems, perhaps covering 12 meets the same aims!? Perhaps one major piece of writing can be assessed rather than three? Perhaps some units of study can be left out, and more time spent on the remaining units?

We all need to go easier on ourselves, or teachers will be facing major burnout by the end of the school year!

 

 

The Importance of Teaching Media Creation Skills

There is an abiding myth that kids today are born digital natives. Anyone who has ever taught ICTs in any form will know that this is simply not the case. Digital skills very much have to be taught! Kay and Goldberg have described computers as a metamedium, a medium, in other words used in the creation of other media. As such it would seem axiomatic that computing should be taught to everyone. And yet this is far from the case. All over the world computing has to fight for a space in the curriculum. No doubt much of this contention stems from the expense of acquiring computing resources, and from securing adequately trained teachers. The great onlining of education has shown us the importance of computers as a medium of communication, but as a medium of creativity it can scarcely be less important. I have taught PhotoShop, Flash and Dreamweaver for many years, often in the context of web design, or game creation. I find that it is an excellent way to segue into coding for middle school students. Computers can be used to create all manner of digital content, but games are particularly alluring for students.

In this blog post I would like to walk through my thoughts about how the nature of remote teaching will have to change my curriculum and instructional design. I would like to cover the same basic concepts: namely photo-editing and game design introducing elementary programming procedures.

Starting with image manipulation in PhotoShop one can teach not only photo-editing skills, but also copyright issues. I usually teach students to use the Creative Commons Search Engine to find suitable images to use that are copyright free. There are many plarforms available for games creation. Up until last year I used Flash, despite the increasing difficulties as the platform becomes less and less supported. I have been considering using Scratch instead, but the seamless integration inside websites and the ability to run in a browser still made Flash a viable choice. My school had an Adobe licence, so justifying that expense was also a concern. I usually teach students how to create buttons in flash and use interactive behaviours. This requires starting to use ActionScript. We use existing scripts and learn how to tweak them. After a few tutorials I get the students to design their own games and then help them get it to work. The graphic shows one of the games created by students which depended upon drag and drop behaviours to work.

So, here’s my problem. I am due to start teaching this unit in May with my grade 8 class, and yet we are likely to be on lockdown, and I am wondering if it is a unit of work I can teach remotely. Certainly not with PhotoShop and Flash, as students are unlikely to have the Adobe Suite. But apart from the problem around access to the software and the necessary data or devices – most of my students use iPads if they do not have a laptop. This presents a number of problems. Firstly, I will be really sad not to have the linkage between image editing and games creation. Realizing that everything about remote teaching and learning takes longer, I will have to concentrate on the game design alone. For remote teaching an online Photo editor such as Photopea appears to work well. The crucial skill is removing a background and saving as a gif with transparency. I am not sure that I will be able to adequately support students through photo-editing online, and the games design, however. So I will have to play this aspect by ear.

In my experience getting students to the point where they can design their own games requires a good few basic tutorials teaching base skills, and then a great deal of scaffolding the process of discovery, especially where it requires coding beyond my own capacity! Tackling this online presents problems. It is difficult to help students debug their code when you can’t see their screen, or where you have to reconstruct it to test it on your own screen! It also needs to be something that can be done on an iPad if a student does not have access to a laptop or pc. It should also not involve any downloading of software or purchase of an app.

So I have decided to use Scratch on the MIT platform which works inside a browser, and apparently works fairly well on an iPad and allows students to use a free account. Students can also share their projects with others. This is crucial because I would like students to work in small groups. I usually get students to do a few tutorials online and then set the project as a group project. Working with groups might prove tricky during remote teaching and learning, but might also help overcome some of the isolation of working from home.

To test the versatility of the platform I created a quick pong game and a tamigotchi game, and it seems to me that Scratch works very well at enabling game creation. The platform also has tutorials which allow for students to work on their own, and develop capacity beyond any tutorials and tasks I create for the class. It also has an extension for the BBC micro:bit controller, which I use for robotics. I have not been able to explore this, but it seems to me that it creates some potential tie-ins, which is important. I also use the MIT platform for mobile app design with my grade 9s, so using Scratch on the MIT platform to introduce coding seems a good fit all round.

To my mind the key to instructional design in a case like this is to have a programme in mind which can be cut short, or can be extended, depending upon the time available and the capacity of the students. In this case the vagaries of remote teaching becomes a particular concern. I will write a follow up post after completing the unit.

Bibliography

A. Kay and A. Goldberg, “Personal dynamic media,” Computer, 1977, pp. 31-41.

 

Using Online Citation Creators

One of the huge bugbears for students when writing essays is the whole process of in-text citation and bibliography. There are no substitutes for good old-fashioned teaching around how, and when, to use citations in text and how to go about creating a bibliography, but the collation of bibliographical information and formatting of bibliographical entries has always been problematic, for students of all ages. Thankfully there are a number of websites available, free to use, which allow you to create bibliographies with a minimum of fuss and bother. They all work in fairly similar ways, and offer similar services, usually with premium versions offering long term storage of citations, plagiarism checking and so on. It is easy enough to find a free one such as EasyBib, which you can use to generate website, book, journal and a range of other entries. Users are asked to type in the URL or title of book or journal article. The website then searches for the information and offers a suggested bibliography item. Most services allow users to add additional information not captured. You can then copy the bibliography and paste it into your essay.

To my mind the thought that students need to put into citations should be on the in-text part, rather than the formatting a bibliography part of it. Having a handy online tool liberates teacher and student to concentrate on this aspect. Most online services offer an opportunity to copy the in-text citation as well as the bibliographical entry, but I prefer to get students to do this themselves. How hard is it to extract author and date information? You also need to make sure that students are able to check what information is being generated for accuracy and update missing data where necessary. Getting students to work in pairs to do this is a good idea.

If students are using different websites, get them to rate the accuracy they achieve and make recommendations to each other.

 

Fake News & Conspiracy Theories – Teaching Fact Checking!

The Cambridge Analytica story has foregrounded the imperative that we teach students to distinguish between fact and fiction online. All too often, however, the responsibility for this is left to librarians, who often lack sufficient contact time with students in which to do any meaningful work, or, even worse, left to no-one at all. Subject teachers have full syllabi in which detailed work on how to evaluate truth is hard to shoe-horn in. There needs to be some discussion over how this is taught explicitly and how it can then be used across the curriculum.

The standard approach to teaching students how to evaluate websites is to use fake websites which have been created for pedagogical purposes. Here are some examples:

Students are then asked to evaluate these websites, often in conjunction with legitimate websites, to detect which are hoaxes. Common evaluation techniques are usually based around a checklist of concerns: the CRAP Detection method, for example. CRAP stands for Currency, Reliability, Authority and Purpose (or Point of View). Students are asked to evaluate any website against these criteria and then give an evaluation. As an IT teacher, I have included this kind of thing in my curriculum for many years. At my school the headmistress felt I should not use a word like CRAP, so I had to invert the acronym, as in the poster shown here.

  • Currency: Is the information reasonably up to date? Does it matter in this case?
  • Authority: Can the author be trusted? Are they an expert in their field? Do they have a reputation? Authority can mean an individual writer or the website or publisher as a whole.
  • Reliability: Is the information factual or is it just an opinion? Does the author give sources so you can check up on what they are claiming?
  • Purpose: Can you detect any bias? Is the site trying to sell you something? Are they trying to persuade you about something?

There are some problems with this approach, however. Students find it very difficult to move from a checklist to an overall evaluation. Students tend to get bogged down in the detail and lose sight of the big picture. For example, a student may correctly identify the author as being suspect, but then rate the website as reliable because it is up to date. Or they may discount a website simply because it is anonymous. Because context means everything, and truth depends on a wide range of concerns, it is hard enough for adults to pick through the minefield of detecting fake news online, for a teenager it is doubly difficult. No single factor should usually be taken as definitive.

So much rests on possessing a robust general knowledge. I would argue that while checklists are useful, they need to be combined with a process-oriented approach which is better able to balance all the factors involved.

The use of fake websites (usually created entirely for the purpose of teaching website evaluation) is also somewhat problematic. More suitable for younger students, with older teenagers it is better to evaluate real world examples. Conspiracy Theory websites present a much more nuanced content base for honing evaluation skills. The problem, though, is that conspiracies are not necessarily fake, and even highly intelligent and critical thinkers can disagree over which should be taken seriously and which not. As recent court papers attest, drug companies do tell deliberate falsehoods and historians have exposed false flag operations such as the Gulf of Tonkin incident. And yet students need to be inoculated against undue trust in conspiracy theories. If you Google Climate Change on YouTube, most of the videos apparently question the reliability of scientific evidence. If you Google Vaccinations and Autism you might well be mislead into believing it is a real debate.

The only way to untangle fact from fiction is to have a world view which is based on a really good understanding of the Sciences and Humanities. Truth can be evaluated both on the basis of Coherence, that what is being claimed makes logical sense, and Correspondence with the real world, with data and evidence. Real facts can be totally misinterpreted, and logical claims can be based on shaky evidence. No checklist approach can really help untangle this, and yet evaluation needs to be based on a range of factors.

With this in mind I have, over the years, developed a model for teaching website evaluation which takes note of the factors, and tries to define an overarching process for evaluating coherence and correspondence. The poster gives some idea of the process, but I usually design worksheets customized for the particular task at hand with a space for answering the questions.

The first step is to complete an evaluation matrix. This can be calibrated in different ways, but produces an evaluation diamond which gives a graphic representation of the different factors. This allows the student to look into the Currency, Authority, Reliability and Purpose of the website, but to keep this information in the background. It does not immediately lead to an evaluation. The matrix, though, forms a visual reminder. The tighter the diamond the more likely the website is to be fake.

The student then answers four questions which are designed to get them to think about how the information presented corresponds with the real world and is coherent. It is only with the fourth question that students are asked to give an overall evaluation based on their gut feel. This is done to try and discourage making an evaluation until all other factors have been considered.

  1. Does the information fit with everything else you know about the world?
  2. Is the information confirmed in other sources?
  3. Does it make sense?
  4. What does your gut tell you? Give a rating from 1 (Fake) to 10 (Reliable)

Students seem to enjoy filling in the CARP diamond, and comparing the shapes they produce with others’ responses. Having a visual summary of the evaluation checklist really helps stimulate discussion. The four questions allow students to use a search engine to fact check the content and the author in greater detail. I would recommend that you scaffold this in any worksheet you provide. I always find it useful to get students to work in groups to evaluate a few websites, and then have a report back to the whole class where the group delivers its findings. You can use an online platform like flipgrid to facilitate feedback. By working in groups students are encouraged to voice their responses to the website and defend their points of view.

I believe it is also vital to correct poor findings – and yes, I have had groups make presentations that the tree octopus is real, or that dihydrogen monoxide (water) is a dangerous substance.

 

 

The Power Of Voice – Reflective Collaboration

I recently came across a site called Flipgrid, which allows teachers to set up a grid which can be shared with the students in your class, or with other classes inside the school or globally. It offers a great opportunity to give students the capability of recording themselves and sharing ideas with other students. The free account allows a teacher to set up one grid. You can delete this to set up a second. Each grid does allow for multiple topics, however. This means that you can set a topic for discussion or for feedback after a project and students can record themselves (90 seconds on a free account) and post it to the topic grid. Other students with a link to the grid can then view that contribution. You end up with a grid of speaking heads which anyone with access to the grid can view.

Students can create their video using a QR Code and mobile phone, or from a PC or laptop using a web camera. They can listen to their recording and re-record multiple times before publishing to the grid. The interface is simple to use and clean. This makes it a perfect platform on which teachers can create different kinds of projects.

I used it for a mini Poetry Slam. My students wrote a short poem and then recorded themselves performing the poem, publishing it to the grid. By sharing the access with other classes you can achieve an inter-school poetry slam with absolute ease. It was highly motivating for students to be able to publish their performance in this way, and to view others. It also allowed me to easily set up a panel of judges to award certificates in different categories!

This platform also allows teachers to easily flip the feedback. Many classroom tasks and assignments end with a report back, feedback session of some kind. But there is often not enough time in class to do justice to this. If students are able to record their feedback report, it can be viewed by the class before the next session and used as the basis for further work, or viewed in class to form the basis for in-class discussion. If it is being used between schools, perhaps in different time zones, many of the difficulties associated with downloading or formatting video files disappears! As a teacher you can record a brief synopsis of what is required as the first recording in the grid.

The 90 second limitation should be seen as an asset! Brevity is usually a good thing, and enough substance can certainly be condensed into 90 seconds! Students are not limited to the number of contributions they can make either! They could use a mobile device to record a group report back, or record individual contributions to a group effort as they see fit.

Because students are able to view others, and listen to what they have said before they record their own and delete and restart their own recordings if necessary, the video contains some of the immediacy of a quick response with some ability to reflect on what others have said. This offers a very valuable space for both reflection and collaboration. The platform has been set up to encourage discussion and debate, to spark controversy, but it can easily be used for more traditional pedagogical aims such as exploring different points of view in History or Literature, or reflecting on a Science experiment, or for a quick research summary.

Some teachers may feel that the simplicity of the interface restricts possibilities. You cannot upload files or assignments alongside the video, for example, but I believe the simplicity makes the platform more accessible and flexible.

 

 

Ngram Viewer: Computational Thinking in English

I recently completed a Google online course on Computational Thinking and would like to look at one feature of CT, which I think has particular relevance for English teachers. In brief, as I understand it, CT refers to the thought processes involved in formulating problems in such a way that they can be processed using computational devices. They can be used to think about problems without any form of computation, of course, but it seems to me that one way of mixing things up, to enliven a class, is to introduce some computation into the English Class.

ngramOne tool that might be useful is Google’s Ngram Viewer, which allows you to type in keywords and see them displayed in a graph reflecting their usage over the years (from Google Books). You can enter multiple keyword searches, separating them by a comma. In itself this can show you the rise and fall in the popularity of certain words, and can be used in an English class to identify difficult vocabulary from a poem. You can look at synonyms, antonyms or explore connotation and denotation with a class using Ngram Viewer, asking students to draw conclusions from the graphs generated.

I think the most useful application of this, though is where it is combined with student writing to help students think about their word choices. In itself Ngram Viewer does not really add to a piece of writing, but if you ask students to use it to help them make decisions about which word to choose, it does help focus on the act of making a decision. By forcing students to type in a list of synonyms alone, they will probably do more than they usually do in thinking about alternatives.

 

In Search Of The Holy Grail – How do ICTs foster Critical Thinking?

DSC00161The Holy Grail of ICT integration in the classroom is that almost mythical quest for the application of ICTs to foster critical thinking. The assumption that the introduction of ICTs would somehow magically transform teaching practice, leading to more learner-centred, problem-based, cognitively rich classrooms has not borne fruit. I am not saying that ICTs have not had an impact, or that they have not been used properly. There are many excellent examples of good practice, and yet the effective use of ICTs to uniquely engender critical thinking is far rarer. Critical thinking is extremely hard to define, and happens far less frequently than we would like to think in any case. Kahneman’s notion of fast and slow thinking: system 1 thinking which is based on intuition and emotion rather than system 2 thinking which is more deliberate and logical, illuminates the problem. Most of our thinking is rooted in fast, quick reliance on assumptions and pre-digested opinions rather than consciously working through an argument and examining evidence.

In the classroom much of what passes for critical thinking is actually firmly rooted in the rehearsal of handed-down opinions and prejudices. I would contend that the prime characteristic of critical thinking is that student’s assumptions are questioned, the reasons for believing something are examined, and that arguments are unpacked and critiqued. I’m not convinced that this happens as often as we would wish, and sometimes it is not happening even when we think it is.

Actually this is very rare in life as well. Most of us live inside a universe of comfortably held views which are seldom questioned, and outside of which we seldom step. The problem is not really that ICTs have been ineffective. The problem is that we just don’t think enough! We never have.

Can ICTs be used within a classroom to change any of this?

I would argue that just as the Holy Grail is chimerical, so is the search for any single tool or application that will uniquely foster critical thinking. Just as a piece of paper and a pencil can be used to write meaningless doggerel or a thought-provoking essay, the tools themselves are not guarantees of any result. You can use Skype, for example to talk to your granny or to Stephen Hawking, and the likelihood of any serious critical thinking emerging is based more on the content than the tool. And yet tools do have affordances, properties which enable certain types of interactions. Because Skype enables communication, it can certainly enable critical thinking. Because Google docs enables synchronous collaborative writing, the likelihood of greater reflection in the writing process is increased. Tools may not guarantee any result, but they are not neutral, as is often claimed. ICTs do have a role to play in transforming our classrooms into thinking spaces.And yet no single tool can be claimed as the holy grail of critical thinking!

The greatest exemplar of critical thinking that we have is probably the Socratic method, a pedagogical methodology in which the teacher challenges a student through dialogue, to question their own thought and develop more rigorous and robust arguments. The teacher will help the student expose weaknesses and contradictions in their thought, highlight contrary evidence and scaffold the process by probing and questioning, as well as modelling thinking. The key feature of the Socratic method is dialogue, that the student develops their ideas under the mentorship of a teacher who teases out the student’s thought, and offers input from a more experienced standpoint. Dialogue is essentially the bringing together of interactivity, of communication, with collaboration, the joint development of an argument or idea.

Socrates had the luxury of a one-on-one engagement with his students, and was free from the need to pursue an imposed syllabus or common core standards, or to produce a battery of continuous assessments. He didn’t even have to coach soccer to the Lower Vs! I’m not saying that the Socratic method cannot work in a whole class situation, but it’s application is constrained, and often truncated by the annoying ringing of bells or the intervention of another student. Our schools are simply not set up for prolonged interrogation of thought. Our schools are predicated on system 1 thinking, the acquisition and memorization of second-hand ideas presented in bite-sized chunks called lessons.

Some have argued that a key affordance of ICTs is that they might enable greater personalization of learning, that students could progress on their own individually tailored learning paths. This idea, while seductive, is tantalizingly out of reach currently. The Personalisation by Pieces approach offers insight into some of the ways it might work – through skills ladders and peer mentorship, and we should be vigorously trying to find ways to make this work. But for a classroom teacher in 2015, it appears as far away as it was when the idea first came out. Students are kept so busy in any given school day that the kinds of solutions teachers can apply such as using technology to add remediation and enrichment tasks are difficult to apply in the face of a relentless syllabus. Unless the entire system swings over to a personalised approach, individual teachers’ hands are tied.

Nevertheless this does open up the question of the centrality of infrastructure and architecture. Perhaps we should look at the role of ICT infrastructure and the types of classroom interactions that can be supported through this architecture. Perhaps the unique contribution ICTs can make to thinking lies not in individual properties, but in the aggregation of their affordances. Put another way, perhaps it is the ability to bring together communication and collaborative tools which uniquely affords critical thinking in the classroom? Stevan Harnad’s notion of a fourth cognitive revolution brought about by the bringing together of the immediacy and interactivity of oracy with the reflective power of literacy in the nearly synchronous world enabled by the Internet is an idea which is pregnant with possibility. The unique enabling of communication and collaboration through a networked society is a powerful notion which has inspired many classroom interventions. But the mere addition of near simultaneous communication and collaborative tools does not guarantee critical thinking. And most classrooms are not routinely connected in this way. If it is to happen it must be through the provision of an adequate architecture.

A Learning Management System is a must for any teacher seriously engaged in integrating digital tools within their classroom. Digital tools mean digital output, and imply the need for some interface for pulling it all together. That interface is effectively your LMS. Teachers who simply ask students to email them their digital assignments and then record assessments on a spreadsheet are using Outlook and Excel as their LMS. Those who use Moodle, Edmodo or Google Classroom will have custom-built tools to achieve classroom routines such as instruction, assessment, feedback or discussion. Most LMSes are pretty good at hosting digital SCORMs, podcasts or videos to supplement instruction, and of enabling assessment of digitally submitted assignments using rubrics or online annotation. Feedback is also a common-place function, but discussion is currently a weakness in most LMSes. Chat and forum modules are usually built-in, but do not generally commonly foster genuine discussion.

Much the same could be said of classroom discussions as well.How much of it is on topic? How much of it is insightful rather than trivial? The problem is not with the tools – it’s with how we use them. The average classroom already enables communication and collaboration. Put the chairs in a circle and students can discuss and collaborate. What is lacking though is the ability to delay and reflect. Immediate synchronous discussion has huge power, but students quickly move on to the next task, and seldom revisit a discussion, and lack the means to do so because oral discussion is ephemeral. An LMS which is able to record and store discussion for future reflection would go a long way towards enabling critical thinking.

I would like to argue then, that a necessary first step in creating a situation where ICTs can meaningfully foster critical thinking, is to focus on how we can bring together communication and collaboration. A focus on individual tools and applications is fine, but it needs to go beyond that to look at infrastructural issues. None of the major LMSes truly achieves this key affordance effortlessly and fluently. I would argue that the infrastructure really requires a space which allows students to effortlessly upload recordings of face to face discussions for future reference, to discuss in writing collaboratively and to edit and update files at any time. Currently all the major LMSes view the assignment space as a single upload without any linked discussion space. Google docs offer the ability to mutually edit, to comment and to chat! But then Google Classroom does not incorporate this feature in the assignment module. And You cannot set up groups. Moodle allows groups, even peer assessment, but does not allow for mutual editing and commenting on a document. Edmodo allows for groups, but similarly misses out on any collaborative features.

It may not bring the Grail Quest any closer, but for me the sine qua non of any LMS needs to be the enabling of a space where students can work in flexible groups, able to edit, comment and chat about any kind of file or files they are working on, seamlessly and synchronously or asynchronously.

 

 

 
 
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