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Campus Technology Insider Podcast December 2022

Listen: Reimagining Courseware from an Equity-First Perspective

Rhea Kelly: Hello, and welcome to the Campus Technology Insider podcast. I'm Rhea Kelly, editor in chief of Campus Technology, and your host.

Earlier this year, Lumen Learning announced a partnership with Howard University to help develop equity-centered learning solutions for a new statistics course and platform. The goal: to develop more effective and culturally relevant courseware for minority and low-income students and improve outcomes in gateway courses. Howard faculty and students are providing feedback throughout the courseware development process, such as how specific courseware features might be used and best practices for supporting faculty in their courseware implementation. For this episode of the podcast, I spoke with Dr. Morris Thomas, assistant provost for digital and online learning and director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning & Assessment at Howard, and Kim Thanos, founder and CEO of Lumen Learning, about developing courseware with an equity-first perspective, giving students multiple pathways to success, building in support for faculty, and more.

Here's our chat.

Welcome to the podcast! So I think we could start kind of at the beginning, and I wanted to ask what brought Howard University and Lumen Learning together to tackle the need for equitable courseware in higher education.

Kim Thanos: We had started working together with Howard University, well, Dr. Thomas was doing work with his team around some professional development for faculty. And in that we were using our, our professional development platform, it's called Lumen Circles. And we really saw an opportunity to improve the framework that's used in that platform to create more experience for faculty members to engage around creating inclusive learning environments, creating belonging in the learning environment. And so we reached out and asked whether, whether Dr. Thomas would like to be a partner with us in enhancing that framework. And that was the first project we did together, and we just saw so much value and benefit that came from the breadth of experience that he brought from his work across the Howard faculty members. So when we had the chance to engage with a group of partners around equitable courseware, really, Howard was a logical partner to reach out to and had a lot to bring into that conversation. And I think when we started that conversation at first, and Morris, you can share about this, we said we'd love to have you involved in this project. This is this focus population for the project. And he said, we're not your right, your correct partner, like we're not the right partner for this, for this role. And so we took a look at that. But I think there was a distinction there that might be worth mentioning, Morris, if you want to talk about that a little bit.

Morris Thomas: Sure. Lumen and Howard, Lumen has been a great place for our faculty to have some professional development opportunities. And Lumen's professional development circles, which are called Lumen Circles, are centered around best, evidence best practices in teaching and learning. So Lumen is very much steeped in that. And that's very much why we were there because we are aligned with trying to make sure that the teaching and learning practices that we have are evidence based, they're grounded in research, they're grounded in things that are, to have our learners at the center. And so that is another reason why the partnership was there and why we have been engaging Lumen, Lumen Learning, with having our faculty to engage in that. And our faculty do report high satisfaction with that. But to Kim's second point about the population, initially, and Kim you may have to remind me as well, though. Initially, what the population it was mentioning students who were either first generation, low income students.

Thanos: Right.

Thomas: And so I wanted to be accurate. And anytime I think it's very important to accurately represent Howard University population. And so Howard University, while it does serve primarily African American students, I wanted to make sure that it was clear that not all African American students are first generation and/or low income and/or at risk and/or low performing. In fact, Howard University has a very high performing population of students. Howard is a very selective institution. Some of the students definitely are Pell Grant recipients. But there's a good portion of the students, more than 50%, who are not. Some of the students are first generation, but not all students are first generation. So we just wanted to make sure that it was clear, because if we were going to do this work and actually develop courseware that was going to be representative of a population, I didn't want to necessarily make sure that we were their, I wanted to make sure that it was going to be accurate reflection, and to make sure that the correct place. So I just really believe in being transparent, and so wanted to provide that. And through further discussion, we decided to continue the partnership, and found that there would be value with working with Howard University, our Teaching and Learning Center. So my team, I serve as the Director of our Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning and Assessment. And so our team has folks who work with instructional technology, which would include courseware, and they also are faculty who also work with, with students who some, like I said, would be part of this population, but not all. And so hopefully, that gave a little bit more context as well.

Thanos: And we got pretty excited once we talked about that. We got pretty excited about the idea of, you know, the, the work that we're doing is specifically focused on increasing success rates for Black, Latino/Latina, indigenous and low income students. And, you know, what is exciting with the, with the Howard relationship is being able to unpack some of the, there's a lot of intersectionality in those elements. And so how do we unpack that and say, at a very well resourced institution that is highly selective in, in terms of the student population, there is important work that's done that is really best in class around creating very culturally, culturally relevant, engaging, empowering learning experiences. And if we can take away some of the other issues that come into play when we're dealing with low income students, underfunded institutions, some of those elements, then, you know, what are the kinds of things that we should be striving to create for all students. And so that was just a very unique perspective that we felt like Howard was able to bring to the table that we would have really struggled to find in, in a lot of other situations.

Kelly: So I'd love to hear about, you know, kind of what were the problems with traditional courseware that you were setting out to solve. Like, why, what makes traditional courseware inequitable?

Thomas: Courseware, like people, is not monolithic. So some courseware is not necessarily all problematic. But when you get into the sphere of equity, as you just mentioned, and you get into addressing students of color, particularly black students, which again that's the primary constituency at Howard University, we are a historically Black university, some courseware is not, does not even recognize, for instance, black and brown faces. So if you're dealing with courseware that has any kind of person recognition factors, or some of the artificial intelligence, AI components, they, some of them just had not been developed using and/or considering people of color. So even things just as being able to recognize the individuals who are actually using the courseware, if your developers and/or sample population did not include enough of a constituency of the population, that's some of the issues that could arise. So not all courseware was problematic. But in many cases, there weren't this type of a relationship with a Lumen and a Howard, that actually just specifically, really brought to the table those who would be using it. So that's where some of the traditional courseware could be problematic in that some of the traditional courseware development, it hadn't always been an inclusive process to build it. And therefore the usage also, in many instances, was not completely inclusive.

Thanos: And I would say also, a lot of the courseware, a lot of the courseware has evolved out of the textbook industry and textbook solutions. And so, you know, originally it was adding an online homework platform to an existing textbook, or using a courseware package with an existing, existing textbook. And so, you know, just a long history of the majority of that work was done with an eye toward developing solutions for, let's say, the middle of the market, which is going to be white, upper middle class students, who are going through K-12 systems that are designed to prepare them for college. And so, you know, that's just a legacy that that entire range of products brings with it. And I do want to note, you know, as, as Lumen has done work in a number of courseware platforms that we offer, we, we have definitely, you know, seen the impact that that can have. And so one of the things that, about this project that was so unique, is it really gave us a chance to kind of push all of that to the side and start over reimagining how those products might have been developed if they were developed with an equity first perspective from the get go. And so, you know, then it starts to open up the questions around, what are the possibilities of how courseware can be an equity solution, instead of us coming to a place that says, here's the courseware package we have, and what are the equity problems with this package. And those are two pretty different approaches, at least, we have definitely found in what we have learned in that exploration of the possibilities, we learned things that would not have been part of the discussion, if we had been simply looking to solve the problems. As an example, if you're looking to solve a problem of representation, then you're going to go through and count the images in courseware and textbooks and say, what's the representation of different racial populations in these images? Check. We have achieved representation because we hit these percentages. If you're starting that question saying, how can I help a student see themself in their learning materials, see themself as a future leader in this discipline, then you take that on differently. It's really not just about images, there are a lot of different ways that we're, that we have the ability to approach that. So I do think for this project, specifically, what was exciting is not just trying to retrofit against the problems, but to stop and reimagine what really could be possible and where there might be solutions needed that we hadn't even imagined before.

Kelly: Yeah, I really like that distinction between solving existing problems and just reimagining the possible from, from the ground up. So why choose Introduction to Statistics as the course to reinvent?

Thanos: It is, it is one of a list. So I'll say the, the Gates Foundation had done some work in conjunction with Titan Partners that became really important to informing this, which was looking across US higher education at the courses that have the highest number of total student failures in the course. So that's not percentage of failures, but saying, you know, really, if we look at number of students failing any course, what are the 20 courses with the most students failing. So what that screens for is both high failure rates, but also high enrollment in the courses. And so that was the starting point of the 20 courses. And then, you know, we were asked to consider Intro to Statistics by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, after they'd done quite a bit of work internally around looking at that data set, and then also looking at kind of what are the possibilities in the discipline. And statistics is, Intro to Statistics is, is a fun course to reimagine. Because you do start to think about the number of different ways that, that data are represented to students, and that students' statistical literacy makes a difference in their lives. Whether that is how students show up as citizens, whether that is how students show up as consumers, whether that is how students show up as, as leaders, being able to really understand Intro to Statistics, there are so many different applications of that, and such a broad range of ways to make that culturally relevant and engaging to a range of student populations. That gave us a lot of options and kind of some, some fun ways we could take that on.

Kelly: It is one of the courses that I struggled with most in college. So it's kind of fun to think of it, you know, that wasn't just me, it's true of, I guess a lot of college students.

Thanos: I did as well. And what I find as I look at the different ways that it's delivered is, my statistics course was very computational, which really doubled down on, on students who felt confident and capable in math. Versus being more conceptual, conceptual in looking at how we can apply statistics concepts in a much more imaginative and creative ways. So I do think that's an evolution in the field that's really exciting to see.

Kelly: So I also wanted to ask, you know, you're talking about equitable courseware, or a course platform. I kind of want to get a picture of what that means, like, what exactly is it? What are the components of it? And like, what are you developing?

Thanos: Well, we definitely started out saying this is going to be a complete package that will replace the materials that are being used in the course, what you typically think of as, as the textbook and an online homework platform. So those two pieces we knew we wanted to replace. In the work that that we had done together previously, we also know that faculty professional development, in the context of the instruction in the courses that they're doing, becomes really important. So a lot of the work that we had done together was in defining how can how can faculty members most easily engage in evidence based practices that really make a difference with their students. And so that was maybe the other unique lens that we were bringing to this, is we really wanted to blur the lines between faculty members going kind of off to a workshop, and then being, coming back and asked to apply something, and instead giving them a set of tools that they can use in their instructional environment that brings those evidence based practices, those best practices and an opportunity to connect with their peers into that environment. So that was definitely where we started. From there we did a lot of exploration with faculty members, the Howard faculty members were a part of this, as well as some other partners, in really understanding the faculty perspective about what was working really well for them and their instructional environments. And when they needed additional help, where did they go for that help? What did that look like? What are the obstacles to help? So getting that from a faculty perspective. We were also able to have an opportunity to work with students from this target, target population in a co design process, we had more than 150 students involved in that process. And we were able to just sit down with students and say, Okay, let's like walk through a design experience where this is some courseware you're working in in your class, and you've hit a point where you need help. What do you want to do next? And really able to explore really what that looked like. And that did have us then creating what I would say overall is a broader footprint than what you would expect to see in a typical courseware package. So when I say the broader footprint, it's, you know, one of the examples is, we have created an opportunity for students to get, engage in a peer to peer exchange around the learning environment. I was just in a focus group with some students last week at Tallahassee Community College, and the way they explained it to me, they said, Oh, so basically, you're gonna give us Reddit for our course. So if you think about something like that, where I can ask questions, I can see what questions my peers have asked, and you know, there, I can vote those up and down, there's a moderator to help answer particularly tricky questions. That's something that's a little bit broader than what you would expect to see in a courseware package. But we were trying to solve for two things as we, as we worked through that solution. One of them was, students need answers to questions and student needs help, students need help during several hours of the day when faculty members are absolutely not online and available for help. So all of those late night study sessions, we were trying to solve for that. But the other thing that became important in that design and listening to students and faculty members is the frequency with which students say, I think it's me. I'm the only student with this question. I don't want to ask the dumb question. I don't want people to think I'm behind or that I'm not paying attention. And so just it's very empowering for students to come into a peer to peer environment and say, Oh, my goodness, many of my peers have the same dumb questions I have, maybe it's not just me. And so that gives an opportunity also to have that kind of sense of belonging, a sense of connection to the, to the peers, a greater sense of confidence in the course. And so those are the kinds of, of solutions that we've really been looking to have kind of an expanded set, where you think about the range of options for help and support. The range of options for growth and connection can be stronger in this, in this platform, in this environment than what we've historically seen in courseware.

Thomas: Can I add to some, something that Kim has, a few things that Kim has mentioned? You asked about equity. When you hear Kim talk about solutions, and the various routes and, and opportunities that the course, the courseware, the course experience would have, that is not what you would traditionally see in other courses. You will moreso see at matters of equality, where everything will be the same for everyone. There's kind of like one route, it's kind of dualistic, it's those who are doing well, those who are not doing well. Whereas in this type of process, it's more equitable. So it deals more with, with fairness or justice, and justice deals with restorative. You think about something being restorative, it gives you many, many different routes, many different pathways to be successful, many different pathways to accomplishing the learning objectives, outcomes and goals. And so that's, it's, it's very important and essential. But really, when you think about it, it's more simplified. It's just giving more opportunities, more routes, more through these different various mechanisms and solutions that Kim alluded to and mentioned, for the students. And you find these out through that, that partnership is how I found these different ways that these evidence based practice can be leveraged and implemented and applied.

Kelly: I'd love to dive into kind of the logistics of, of your partnership and how Howard University is providing feedback along the way of the courseware development process. I mean, so does this look like, like a pilot project? Or, and Dr. Thomas did you need to recruit faculty to participate? Just kind of how, how does it all work?

Thomas: So being that we were going to deal with statistics, so there's several different disciplines that deal with statistics. So we reached out, so it was more so not recruitment in the sense of one come one come all, so it was a little bit propulsive as far as the sampling method of looking at the faculty who would have the subject matter expertise, within that, and seeing who was interested in serving as a subject matter expert to help develop this courseware. They were very clear on what they were doing, there weren't, it wasn't like a hidden thing, they knew what they would be assisting with. And the faculty were very willing and very interested, those who have that specific subject matter expertise and being a part of this, so that they could serve. And we looked at it, as far as the way it was framed, as it was a community of scholars that will be working and partnering with Lumen. And then I'll hand it over to Kim to talk about more of the specifics as far as in the other aspects of the logistics.

Thanos: Yeah, so we really viewed this as an applied research project. So rather than it being something that we felt like we came in with all of the answers, we were coming in with a set of questions. And it wasn't simply to do the research and understand them more deeply, but to then convert that into designs that would be implemented in a software, software platform. So very much an applied research, research project. And so it created a lot of opportunities for us to do a lot of interviews and discussions with faculty members and with students. So a lot of our investment upfront in getting the right set of partners at the table, were to have this kind of diversity of perspectives. When we talked at the beginning of this about the difference in the student population, and the institutional resources and support that are available at Howard. That meant that those faculty members brought a different perspective into those discussions and into those design sessions than what we were seeing from others. And that was a really important perspective. But we were looking for that diversity of perspective amongst faculty members and among students, to engage in really what has been to date in the partnership a co design session. And so we're working to, one of the equity centered design principles that we've really strived to implement through this is a mindset that says we want to develop the solution with our users instead of for our users. So that we have the target population, faculty members who are experts in this population, guiding the work throughout, but not just in a kind of arm's length way, very much as co designers and co creators in the process for the students and the faculty both. So that has been a blast. And it's been an amazing group of people, and I think has really brought a lot of, for our team, incredible kind of growth in our learning and understanding of what we might be able to do. But I want to note also that one of the things that came out of that very clearly, is that, you know, faculty members are working very hard to connect to their students. They're working very hard to help their students, to make their students successful. And it is challenging. So what are the tools that we can provide to faculty members that help them do their best work, but also that make it easier for them to reach out to students, to connect to students. You know, I want to know who's struggling and be able to reach out immediately. I don't want to have to spend hours trying to figure out who's struggling, so that, you know, figure out where my students are struggling. And so a lot of that work was important too to say, how can we create a solution that is very student centered and very empowering to students, and equally faculty centered, and equally empowering for faculty members, so that faculty members can really free themselves to be expert instructors, guides, mentors, to their students in the teaching process, and to try to really reduce some of the administrative overhead of that. So that was an important piece of this as well.

Kelly:  Could you maybe share like a specific design feature that kind of came about through the co design, process, something based on student or faculty feedback?

Thanos: Some of these get so nuanced and specific, but let me, let me just share one that we thought was, was kind of a fun process to go through. We, no surprise, but as we started to explore which different topics and applications, which datasets were engaging and relevant to the student population, it's not surprising to hear there's, there's no one application or dataset. What it is is a variety of things that have differing levels of interest to students. And so we tried something new, which was, you know, just a simple example of this, one of the places we implemented it is you need to solve for standard deviation. So here are three different datasets that you could use to solve for standard deviation and choose the one that's of interest to you. And so we presented three different datasets. One of the student, one for the students was, which of the equality messages on NBA jerseys, like which ones are used and how frequently, so there was that dataset. There was a dataset of incarceration rates in Louisiana prisons by race. And there was a third dataset that was Spotify downloads of top songs. And students can use any one of those datasets to solve for standard deviation. And for any one, any reason I might, I might be drawn to one or really not want to engage with one of those datasets. And so throughout, throughout the course, that's really helped us implement many more of these, Morris made the point early on of the importance of having lots of different opportunities for students to engage differently based on their lived experience, and what they bring into the course. And so the variation in the datasets was one of the ways we were able to do that, with a lot of feedback from students. There were definitely some clear winners. When we tested out those three datasets, the overwhelming majority of students wanted to engage around the Spotify downloads. And you know, and even the jerseys, when we asked them, Why not the NBA jerseys, you know, we would get answers like, Well, I don't know very much about basketball, so I'm not sure that I can use that dataset. And so, you know, it's really interesting, some of the things you might think might be really relevant to students, students didn't, didn't want to engage with. And so I think there, you know, that is one of the areas where the student input around some of the ways we might solve for this question around engagement and relevance was different than where we'd started out in our thinking.

Kelly: What is needed to support faculty in adopting new courseware, and you know, how much do they need to change their teaching practices to embrace this kind of new way of, of teaching?

Thomas: So, working with faculty often and working in my capacity as Director of our Center for Teaching and Learning, there's a number of things that … One major resource is time. So, you know, many faculty are interested in doing, I will say expanding, I'm won't say it always is new, because they're doing, they're already teaching. But it's more so about enhancing the experience and expanding the experience. And that does take time to incorporate that in. And so opportunities like this with faculty, where faculty were, are involved, and were involved, allows for them to, even before everything becomes official and we're out of beta into actually having this available, it allows for them to start thinking about some of these things. And I'm sure that the faculty who are a part of this, I can almost guarantee, they're already implementing and thinking about certain things for their courses that's going to inform their instructional practices and their facilitation of learning. So time is a major component. I will be very honest, incentives for faculty to then make some of the changes to current practices. And then on a more practical note, not having the idea that everything must change, or that everything that is currently being done is incorrect. Because if that is kind of the mindset, it becomes too much of a daunting task and too much to expect, and not being realistic, realistic. But when you can look at it as being something that can be added on, kind of infuse into what's already happening, and kind of implement it in kind of a chunking, chunking aspect where it's kind of bite sized and pieces that that are happening over time, then faculty are more likely to engage and be able to apply, implement some of these new practices and new courseware.

Thanos: I agree with that so strongly. And I think, you know, when we first, we acquired the Lumen Circles platform, rather than that being something that we had developed from scratch, we acquired it from a company called Faculty Guild, and I was a bit of a skeptic. You know, I kept hearing these rave reviews of this, of this faculty professional development experience from faculty members and facilitators, and I was a little bit of a skeptic. And then as we got closer to it, and I understood it more, one of the reasons I believe that that experience in particular is really rewarding for faculty is because like, like Morris said, it's a very strengths based process. Faculty members are doing some things really well now. And if we can help them understand the evidence behind those effective practices they're using today, and use that as a jumping off point to explore a couple of additional things. And some of which may work for them, and some of them which may not, you know, not the same practices are perfect for every discipline, or every faculty member, every group of students. But just giving them that space to really acknowledge, good things are happening, we need, we want to build on the good that's happening. And do that with a basis of research, so that we can, can really bring the best, the best of the practice that exists. So that's really been a key to a lot of the work we've done. I will say that most of the institutions that Lumen works with have a very large number of adjunct faculty members or part time faculty members, many of whom don't have a lot of time to prepare their course, or have time for funded professional development, and are often teaching many sections, sometimes across multiple institutions, just because of the economics of how the adjunct population works. And so given that, we really have tried to have the easiest entry point into a faculty member using the courseware. Use some new practices, but use that in a way that is so easy and supported, that it's not a big change for the faculty member. And then from there, there's so much more possibility, you know, with the resources and the time and the support for faculty members to do more to explore new practices. That's absolutely the case. But we're certainly starting from a point of saying, if we take it as an assumption that you may not know you're teaching this course until 48 hours before classes start, and you're going through the, the materials and the teaching experience only maybe a few days or a week ahead of your students coming through that learning experience, how do we make that as successful as possible? And then provide lots of guidance for faculty members about how they could explore something more or different if they're looking to take on a new practice. So that balance, I think that balance is important just to have realistic supports for faculty members, for the broadest number of students.

Kelly: So you've offered a lot of best practices and lessons learned. But I wonder if there's anything else that you've learned from this whole process or advice for, for others that you can share?

Thomas: I would say my advice is if you're ever doing something with a partner, I think being very open and honest with one another, being very collaborative being, very transparent. Those are some of the, the, I would say interactions that we've had with Lumen, we have a very positive relationship with Lumen. And I have worked with other partners and other opportunities, and one thing I can say the strength has been with Lumen, that Lumen is very open. Even from the very beginning to when I was mentioning, okay, well, this may or may not be the right, fit or whatever, where it wasn't, as Kim stated, there weren't, there weren't preconceived notions, there weren't conclusions already drawn, there was an open mind set, there was approaching this from an action research type mindset. I think that that is very, very much something that I would try to offer to someone else is to just be thoughtful and considerate and transparent when you're coming into these environments. If you really want to learn something, you have to basically set the pace for that by having an open mind, having, not having already draw conclusions. And sometimes that is not the case. And I think that is oftentimes in place, unfortunately, when you, when we are dealing with populations that have been historically and traditionally underserved, underrepresented, minoritized. And so that's not we, that's definitely not we want to do that. And so I think that this interaction, this partnership has really been model in that not being perpetuated, and those, those type of interactions not taking place there.

Kelly: I like how it's a research project and not piloting something that already exists, like not testing out something that's already been created for you, but rather, participating in the research and development of something.

Thanos: That does, that is the fun part. My advice would be, just from kind of the, the other side of the table, is that we set out with a deep commitment to an equity centered design process. And when we started that work, we all agreed that it was going to be challenging, and we were going to learn a lot. And I don't think I could have painted what that picture looked like. And so, you know, as we're now about a year into the work, it has been challenging and we've learned a lot. And now I have a much better view of what that means, but I think part of what it means is making missteps, moving forward in directions that actually test the commitment to the equity centered design, and having to stop and evaluate that and pull back and find a new way. And all of that is really dependent on having a level of trust and that openness in the partner group, that it can be a brave space where challenges and issues are openly discussed and where our blind spots are identified. And where corrections of inequitable practices can be made without that being personal, and without there being a power dynamic that makes that challenging. And so I would just say that, you know, the kind of, I have found the process to be just incredibly inspiring, and, but it's been a lot of learning for me, I think it's been a lot of learning for our team, in our community about how to work together through this in a way that we're willing to really address some systemic issues and some societal issues that aren't comfortable. But if we don't actually talk about them as real challenges and real problems and work to explore potential solutions together, they'll, we'll stay where we are. And so I think it's, I think that that's maybe the advice that I share, would share, is that I think the trust in the partner group is critically important. And you just go into it knowing that it's not a linear process. And it's, you know, you, you will learn through, through testing and stretching, and sometimes correcting in ways that are sometimes painful or embarrassing or not perfect, but it is forward progress. And that becomes really important.

Kelly: So my final question is, when will, what is your timeline for this courseware becoming, you know, broadly available to the higher ed community?

Thanos: So we will have the initial beta version in pilots in, in January. And we have quite a number of sections and institutions working with us in those pilots and are really excited about that. And then it'll be broadly available in fall of 2023. And so we really, we're still viewing this pilot period, there's so much that we have designed for an outcome, but we aren't certain how that really plays out in real life until we get actual students and faculty members using that in a classroom setting. And so really looking forward to all of the learning and exploration that goes on through this spring term, with an eye towards having broader use in the fall of 2023.

Kelly: All right, thank you so much for coming on.

Thanos: Thank you, Rhea. Appreciate it.

Thomas: Thank you for having me.

Kelly: Thank you for joining us. I'm Rhea Kelly, and this was the Campus Technology Insider podcast. You can find us on the major podcast platforms or visit us online at Let us know what you think of this episode and what you'd like to hear in the future. Until next time.

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