Technology and Revolution in Education: Ending the Cycle of Failure

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Stephen C. Ehrmann, Ph.D.

This is the penultimate draft of an article that was published as:

Ehrmann, Stephen C.,  (2000) "Technology and Revolution in Education: Ending the Cycle of Failure," Liberal Education, Fall, pp. 40-49.

 

Trite statements often become trite because they are true. For example, "digital technology can enable a revolution in education."  True.  Every five or ten years, when a major new computer chip, visual medium or telecommunications channel comes along, the trumpet is sounded: The revolution is about to happen. 

But the revolution doesn't happen.  By the time another major new technology appears a few years later the earlier predictions have been forgotten or shrugged off.  If anyone wonders what went wrong, they are told that the old technology was obviously too slow or primitive.  This cycle of failure has been repeated many times: mainframe computers, personal computers, videodiscs, graphical user interfaces, HyperCard, E-mail, CD-ROMs, Gopher, the Web.\

As a funder of innovation, author, and evaluator, I've watched the rise and fall of many generations of educational technology since mainframe days.  I've finally realized that the revolutions have each failed because each time we have been fooled by the technology itself into making the same mistakes. To understand and end this cycle of failure, we need to revisit technology's greatest strength which is also, for educational reform, technology's greatest weakness: Moore's Law.

 

Double Double Toil and Trouble: Moore's Law

Whether you are in1968, 1988, or 2008, only twelve to eighteen months ago computer chips were only half as powerful.  Twelve to eighteen months from now, they will be twice as powerful.  That's Moore's Law.

Each predictable doubling of chip power enables the development of surprising new tools for thinking, analyzing, studying, creating, and communicating in the world. Products and professions erupt, altering the content of some discipline, creating new fields, and compelling new forms of interdisciplinary collaboration in the wider world. The level of education required for many jobs is increasing as well.  So technological change in the wider world both increases the number of people who need an education and changes what it is they need to learn as well.

Moore's Law also has created waves of improvement in the processes on which education most relies: how people can get and use information and how they can communicate with one another.  Thus, even in disciplines whose content is not dependent on the use of computers, the question is asked anew every few years: "How are we going to modernize teaching and learning?" 

No matter what a department has been doing with computing, every few years the status quo (again) can begin to look inadequate.  That, in a nutshell, is why people have, for thirty years or more, been expecting a revolution in education.

Six Barriers to Revolution

But in at least six different ways Moore's law has also helped assure thirty years of failure:

  1. a small window of opportunity following the introduction of each new technology,

  2. pedagogical zigzag,

  3. Moore's Babel,

  4. the courseware mirage,

  5. Moore's Amnesia, and

  6. Rapture of the Technology.

After describing these six barriers, I'll suggest seven strategies for escaping the cycle of failure.

a) A Small Window of Opportunity. Chip-based technologies come and go quickly, thanks to Moore's Law.  Today's new technology usually doesn't stick around for long: maybe three years, maybe five years, occasionally ten years.  Let's be charitable and say "ten years."  But how long does it take the curriculum to change? How long, for example, does it take to change our collective sense of a "normal" political science course of study? A "normal" general education? A "normal" college graduate's skill to search, sift, and use information? Ten years to make such a fundamental change on a national scale? Longer? If that revolution in goals is going to happen, it needs to start fast or, long before the pedagogical revolution matures, the technology it depends upon may already have disappeared.  That sounds bad. The reality can be worse.

b. Zigzag. A curious kind of dance step characterizes the educational capabilities of each new generation of technology: A small step backward precedes each large step forward.  Each backward zig has several components.

1. At first, not many people have the new technology.  Ironically, most truly revolutionary technologies will eventually become more widely used and useful than their predecessors. However, for a year or two at the beginning of the cycle, the old technology remains more widely available than the new one.

2. At first, the new technology is not as good for instruction as the old technology still is.

      The old technology had been around long enough to develop the capability to handle, for example, mathematical expressions, non-Western alphabets, and even writing from right to left or from top to bottom. For a few years, the new technology won't be able to do those things.

      Specialized hardware and software were developed to extend the teaching capabilities of the older technology.  For example, probes were probably developed that could enable the computers of the day to collect data from science experiments.  Bar code readers were developed that could link teachers to get random access to images.  Of course those handy devices don't work with the new computers.  New devices of a similar sort need to be developed to do those things and they won't be ready for another year or two.

      Similar extensions of the old technology enabled people with a variety of disabilities to use the old machines.  With the new technology, the disabled are temporarily shut out again.

      Authoring tools had developed during the early years for the old technology.  Authoring tools can make it easier, quicker, and cheaper for faculty members and others to create courseware.  A generation of authors then gained invaluable experience using those tools.  Some of those authors created award-winning courseware.  At first, however, the new hardware has no such authoring tools and no group of experienced authors. In time they too will appear.

As a result of this backward step, each new generation of technology begins its life by in a relatively primitive way.  The courseware students first available usually consists not of powerful simulations, sophisticated mathematics, or extensive libraries.  Instead students are supposed to learn by turning electronic pages of text written, often hastily, only with simple alphabetical characters that read left to right.  Progress, of course, will soon erase the backward step and once again move us to new heights. Authoring tools will be developed, and the technology's power will soon again bring in those non-Western alphabets, scientific tools, and capabilities for the disabled.  But, you can hear the ticking of Moore's clock as we wait for the zag to reverse that zig.  The "new" generation of technology won't be new much longer.

c. Moore's Babel: 

Moore's Law also makes it harder for technology support staff and technology users to speak the same language.  If Moore's Law didn't exist, and technology remained the same for decades, the problem wouldn't be as serious.  With unchanging hardware and software, many faculty members would learn to help themselves (as they have with VCRs), and at least some technology support staff would develop amore sophisticated understanding of education. But thanks to Moore's Law, users are periodically find themselves beginners all over again.  Just as bad, that constant technological change helps assure that many technology support staff are new; they don't have much time to learn to look at the world through the eyes of an instructor.

d. The Interactive Courseware Mirage

Since the days of the mainframe computer, most predictions of revolution have been based squarely on hopes for a particular type of interactive curricular courseware.  This revolutionary software is self-paced, features frequent assessment of student responses, and inexpensive (at least on a per-student basis). Based on assessment results, this software guides the student through a rapid cycle of instruction, demonstration, and student action (e.g., doing a task on screen).  If the student does this task poorly, the computer offers more instruction on the topic.  If the student does the task well, the computer offers instruction on a new topic .  Different variations on this theme have been called tutorial software, teaching machines, programmed instruction, drill and practice, and computerized courses. I will just call it interactive courseware.

Research has long since demonstrated that instructional designs of this type has the power to improve and accelerate learning by about one third, compared with lectures and conventional assignments on the same topic.  (Of course, such courseware only works well in areas where computers can assess student responses, but that covers a lot of ground.)  As a strategy for a national transformation of how a particular course or skill is taught, however, interactive courseware has proved to be a mirage, always imminent, never quite here.

The problem begins with the fact that interactive courseware remains expensive to develop and update.  With each new generation of technological change we hear promises that, at last, courseware of this type will become much cheaper to create. That promise is based on the false premise that slow computers were to blame for the last generation of failures.  The real problem is the human expense, however. Designing and debugging branching educational pathways, for example, takes thousands of hours of highly trained, expensive human time. 

Nor do the expenses end there.  Thirty years ago, each screen of award-winning interactive courseware would show just a few glowing lines of text (perhaps all in capital letters).  No more. What the last generation of interactive courseware could do, even the way it looks, now appears inadequate because of general progress in computing, video and telecommunications.  Each jump in user expectations boosts the price tag of tomorrow's courseware.

It takes time to raise the money needed to create the courseware, and with each passing month the window of opportunity for this generation of technology closes a little farther.  More precious time slips by because educators and their institutions often are slow to respond to version 1.0 of courseware, no matter how striking its evaluations and no matter how many awards it wins.  It takes time for potential users to "skim" unfamiliar interactive courseware, far longer than the time needed to size up a textbook.  Once users grasp what the new technology offers, they may not instantly leap to obtain it.  In fact, the more revolutionary the courseware's implications for transforming the instructional program, the more cautious potential users become: making a change in their teaching this big could lead to unforeseen problems so why not wait until someone else has done it first.

To sum up, it takes a year or three to develop courseware that can transform the way a difficult topic is taught, and still more years for it to find national acceptance. In fact, it takes so many years that version 1.0 has begun to look rather old-fashioned before it ever does find wide use. 

That could be fixed by creating version 2.0 of the courseware.  But version 2.0 rarely appears.  Motivation is lacking.  Developers on a tenure track are rarely promoted for doing a second edition it isn't enough of an advance in the state of the art and foundation program officers don't get much credit for funding second editions either.  What about paying them to do this work?  Publishers are unlikely to put up the money because they almost never realize sufficient return on their investment in version 1.0.  It takes a lot of money, too.  Good second editions of courseware often cost as much as the first edition, in part because computers themselves have changed so much in the intervening years (Moore's Law again).   

So instead of triggering an educational revolution in its discipline, the award-winning version 1.0 of the courseware fades away.  Of course new interactive courseware will spring up, designed from the start for the new generation of technology.  But it's often so different from the old courseware that everyone must start over. 

Instead of producing revolution, interactive courseware has produced barely a ripple on the stagnant surface of the instructional program.  But the courseware mirage still beckons. 

e. Moore's Amnesia

If these failures keep occurring, why has no one noticed?  The first reason is "Moore's Amnesia:" each time computers become cheaper and more usable, they attract droves of new users who weren't around for the last cycle of error.  They don't realize that they're about to make the same mistakes as their predecessors.  Because of the influx of new funders, advocates and users (and the departure of those who were too badly burned the last time around), the field loses most of its memory of all the previous generations of disappointment.

f. Rapture of the technology

A second reason we seem not to notice our repeated cycle of error is rapture of the technology: We are so mesmerized by the newness of the hardware or software that we are blinded to factors important to the successful use of that technology.  It's easy to understand the rapture.  Moore's Law guarantees that we will periodically be confronted with fresh, mysterious instructional tools and media that are dramatically more powerful than their predecessors.  The vendors of the newest technology reinforce our love affair by advertising and other forms of hype.

Rapture of the technology reinforces the cycle of failure in at least three ways.

First, resources required to nurse the new technology are siphoned away from the very educational improvements that the technology is supposed to aid.  Let's imagine, for example, that a department wants to internationalize its curriculum.  Obviously, the World Wide Web can play a crucial role if enough money is spent on computers and connectivity for faculty members, the library, students and other key staff. But it's equally crucial to fund appropriate faculty development regarding ways to teach about other cultures, new curricular materials, and a network of working relationships with people and organizations in other countries.  Unfortunately, rapture of the technology often dictates that all available funds are spent to get the best computers and the fastest connectivity.  That's self-defeating because the technology by itself almost never causes the outcomes we seek. To create a revolution we need all the ingredients for the recipe; technology is "merely" an ingredient, like yeast for baking bread.

Second, enraptured advocates argue, "we can't begin to think about the next educational improvement until after we have this new technology installed." But, Moore's Law guarantees that there will always be a new technology that is not yet installed. 

Third--and most devastating--rapture of the technology leads people to congratulate this year's technology for every success and to blame it for every failure.  If the promised educational revolution didn't occur, blame the technology of the day and shift all hopes to the next technology.  If you can boast that "all our courses are on the Web," who will have the nerve to ask how the Web has helped those courses to improve? 

Rapture of the technology prevents us from seeing that the failure of the last technological revolution had little to do with the insufficiency of its chips, MIPS, screen resolution, or connectivity. The last revolution, the one before that, and the one before that, all failed because we made the same non-technological mistakes each time.  It's time to notice those repeated errors, learn from them, and escape the cycle of failure.
 

Seven Strategies for a Revolution

Progress, far from consisting of change, depends on retentiveness.  Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.  -- George Santayana

 

Moore's Law is real, and there is no way to completely escape the battering.   The world's use of technology will continue to change, and if we tried to ignore that fact, we'd be making the biggest mistake of all: allowing education to fall behind the world in which its students must live.  The key is for education itself to learn to live with the rapid pace of change.  Here are seven strategies.

  1. Create coalitions to make sure that your program has all the ingredients needed in your recipe for revolution. 

  2. Relate your efforts to the technology-based educational revolution that has actually (though just barely) begun internationally.

  3. Build today's educational revolution on yesterday's new technology. 

  4. Base the educational change mainly on hardware and software capabilities that are likely to persist beyond the next generational change in technology.  

  5. Emphasize forms of instructional material that most faculty members find it quick and easy to create, adapt and share.

  6. Study what's really going on locally so you can see problems and opportunities in time.

  7. Organize a TLT Roundtable or take other steps to make sure that your institution is tightly coupled enough to learn, both from outside itself and inside.

 

1. Create coalitions to make sure that your program has all the ingredients needed in your recipe for revolution.  Don't let rapture of the technology obscure the most important fact: technology's role in any educational revolution is to enable fundamental changes in what educators and learners do. Those changes in their activities in turn can alter who learns, what they learn, how they learn, and what it costs.  None of those improvements is guaranteed, however, by simply making technology available.  As we pointed out earlier, technology is just one key ingredient in a larger recipe.  It is almost a certainty that other ingredients are missing.  One of the most unnatural acts in making a real technology-based revolution is for the technology lovers to make common cause with others who also care about the activity and the ultimate goal. But if they do get together, they can campaign to build support for the necessary constellation of changes in curriculum, staffing, faculty development, library resources, technology support, and assessment.

I learned this lesson years ago, when I served as a program officer with the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE). In the late 1970s, an external evaluation showed that our funding had been astoundingly successful at producing changes that lasted and that spread. One of my colleagues commented seriously that the evaluation implied we hadn't taken our jobs seriously as a risk-taking funder.  She argued that our success rate meant we were playing it too safe.  I think she was wrong. To me the evidence suggested that, on the contrary, the ideas that won their way through the exacting FIPSE review were so exciting that the ideas virtually compelled enough key people in and around those institutions sit back, think, and then pull together even if they didn't ordinarily work together.  People who might normally have opposed or ignored one another were forced to admit, "This idea is to important to be allowed to fail."  The FIPSE evaluation showed that resources flowed to such ideas from all sorts of unexpected directions. 

If technology is to enable a revolution to make education more creative, or equitable, or collaborative, or multi-cultural, everyone who cares about creativity or equity or collaboration or a multi-cultural approach will need to share what they know and pull together to make sure that the revolution gets all the ingredients of its recipe, not just the computers or the connectivity.  It takes a coalition to create a revolution

2. Relate your efforts to the technology-based educational revolution that has actually (though just barely) begun internationally.  This larger revolution has several related thrusts, including greater and more varied participation in learning; more and more varied resources in use by instructors and learners; and a greater need for active creative learning. This vision of revolution is not the fruit of any one generation of technology.  In fact these goals have been pursued before computing became available to educators thirty-some years ago and by some of the most ambitious users of technology ever since. If your push for change is linked to this one, you should be able to get and receive more help than if you are moving in some unrelated direction.

  3. Build today's educational revolution on yesterday's new technology. When a new generation of technology appears, it's time for investigations and experiments, not (yet) a large-scale push for to buy new hardware and software for everyone. Before making a large-scale investment in a totally new technological platform for an instructional program, questions we've so painfully learned from history should be addressed.

      Have the worst backward steps of the zigzag begun to reverse? 

      Has the technology become sufficiently reliable and inexpensive for mass use and mass support?

      If high quality courseware is important, has it begun to appear nationally and internationally?  Almost no program will develop all its own instructional materials; is the "import" market ripe to support your educational transformation?

      Equally important, has there yet been sufficient educational return on programmatic improvements that depend on your current technological platform --- improvements that would be disrupted by a change of platform?

  4.  Base the educational change mainly on hardware and software capabilities that are likely to persist beyond the next generational change in technology: "worldware."   Worldware is hardware or software that is used for education but that was not developed or marketed primarily for education.  A few examples include computers, the Web, productivity tools such as word processors and spreadsheets, and research tools such as computer-aided design software and online census data

Worldware usually has several features that can be crucial ingredients for the recipe of educational revolution.  Because of its comparatively large market, it often changes incrementally. And a new vendor's software can often read files created by its larger and older competitors. That's why any faculty member who began using spreadsheets as a mathematics construction kit in physics courses in 1979 could have incrementally improve her teaching for the next twenty years, taking advantage of new spreadsheet features and new ideas in physics but never being forced to abandon assignments or handouts simply because a spreadsheet vendor had gone out of business. Without missing a beat, such instructors could move their spreadsheets from MS-DOS to Macintosh, from Windows 3.1 to Windows98.  Meanwhile their colleagues who had begun to reform their courses by relying new interactive courseware might well have been marooned when computer operating systems changed, rendering their package obsolete. 

Worldware can help us get past the most troubling feature of Moore's Law: the threat that when the technological platform changes, the curricular software and the curriculum it supported must all be tossed out, too. 

Worldware has other educational advantages, also, such its familiarity to faculty (they use it in their research), motivation for students to master its use (they know they'll need to learn to use it for future jobs), and a market base that is large enough to help provide good support materials and outside training.  In these ways, worldware can reduce stress on the exhausted, understaffed technology support units at your institution.

Worldware may lack of some of the short-term value of interactive courseware but it more than makes up for it in long-term viability and ease of support.

5. Emphasize forms of instructional material that most faculty members find it quick and easy to create, adapt and share.  Interactive courseware can be extraordinarily powerful but, as pointed out above, such courseware rarely has enough users to keep it alive.  Highly interactive courseware has another problem, too.  The bigger and more complex the courseware, the rigid it is: a challenge for instructors who want to adapt it to today's students, today's events, or their own ideas about how a skill or topic might best be learned. 

That's not good because some educational research suggests that excellence in education stems in part from the instructor's ability to read a class and react.  The best instructors believe that all their students can learn. They continually experiment, seeking ways to set each of their students on fire.

Such instructors need course materials that they can easily, quickly, and inexpensively modify.  For example, a word-processed syllabus is easier, quicker and cheaper to modify than a typed one; a Web syllabus can be even better for those purposes because all students can see the changes at once. This need for quick and easy change is even more pronounced in courses whose content is somehow tied to Moore's Law; because the course of study may be different from last term, in week 4 faculty members may notice unexpected opportunities or problems.

To sum up: in courses where the need for adaptability is high, technology-based instructional materials ought to be easy, quick, and inexpensive to create, use and adapt, even for instructors with only modest training and experience.  Software that is malleable but primitive may be better in the long run than software that is educationally powerful but inflexible.

6. Study what's actually going on locally so opportunities can be seized and problems avoided.  Continued turbulent change almost guarantees that we will miss important opportunities and, worse, will be ambushed by problems we failed to see in time.

Imagine, for example, that you are teaching a course that uses the Web. You've redesigned the course in ways that depend upon students using the Web to collaborate on homework projects.  You've never asked students to do much work together on homework before.  It's now week two of the term.  It's hard to know for sure but you fear that students are not collaborating on line as much or as well as you'd hoped.  The course's schedule and success might be in jeopardy.  Or maybe everything is OK. Is there really a problem? If so, why? 

      Perhaps some students lack adequate hardware and software?

      Do some students believe that collaborative learning is a waste of time?

      Do some students fear that if they work together they will be labeled as cheaters?

      Are your assignments so easy for a student to do alone that it's not worth his or her effort to collaborate? 

      Did some students not take the training in how to use e-mail and computer conferencing?

These and literally dozens of barriers could hinder collaboration online.  But which of these barriers are actually hindering your students?  Unless you can find out quickly, you may soon be in trouble you can't escape without real trouble

Our intuition often doesn't do us much good in such situations because that our insights were shaped by stable times. "Muddling through" isn't good enough anymore. The clock is likely to strike midnight before we have time to learn what is hitting us, within a course or as an institution. 

Fortunately, help is available.  The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the American Association for Higher Education have become centers for promoting the scholarship of teaching: inquiry by educators that informs individual teaching while enriching the wisdom of the community.  The Teaching, Learning, and Technology Group's Flashlight Program, which I direct, helps institutions, faculty members, and staff learn to do studies whose findings can uncover some of those hidden perils and opportunities. Flashlight provides tools, training, and consulting for large-scale studies as well as for course evaluations.  The heart of the Flashlight approach: if you want technology investments to pay off for learning, study why people do or don't use technology to make educationally important changes in what they do; don't just monitor satisfaction with the hardware and software.

7. Seek an unprecedented level of information sharing, coordination, and collaboration. Carrying out strategies 1-6 requires an unusual level of cooperation among faculty, staff, students, and external constituencies.  Such collaboration was once rather rare in educational institutions.  In 1976, Karl Weick, a well-known organizational theorist, labeled schools and colleges "loosely coupled systems," contrasting them with "tightly coupled systems" such as assembly lines.  In a tightly coupled system, Weick pointed out, one person's failure has immediate and drastic consequences for co-workers; thus coordination and cooperation are crucial.  In contrast, in loosely coupled systems each person's actions often have little effect on others, especially in the short term.  Thus, loosely coupled systems attract staff members who love their autonomy.   For that reason, loosely coupled systems are relatively poor at information sharing, especially "diagonally" across administrative units and across levels of authority.

These days, failure to share information, cooperate, and collaborate can have unhappy consequences for an institution. Institutions that are looking outward as well as inward notice changes in research, work and everyday life -- changes that suggest a stream of major and minor improvements in who can learn, what they need to learn, how they can learn, and what it could cost.  Colleges that can't quickly uncover such information, share it, and act on it will begin to suffer.  They will fail to take advantage of opportunities or solve problems because not enough people will learn what is going on in time. Internal services such as technology support and faculty development will be seen as uneven: overlapping in some areas,  leaving gaping holes elsewhere. 

That's one reason why the notion of "Teaching, Learning, and Technology Roundtables" has spread like wildfire since Steven W. Gilbert introduced it in the mid-1990s.

Members are selected for TLT Roundtables so that their information sharing, debates, and planning can cut across normal barriers to collaboration in an institution.  For example, many "technology advisory committees" at non-Roundtable institutions are dominated by technology staff and faculty members with long histories of early adoption of new technology. In contrast, among a TLT Roundtable's most important participants are faculty members and adjunct staff who are not yet energetic users of technology; they help the Roundtable gauge what support policies are likely to work for mainstream instructional staff.  Other TLTR members usually include academic administrators, technology support staff, librarians, faculty developers, distance learning staff members, bookstore managers (who sell hardware and software), students, student affairs staff members, financial administrators, and interested parties from off-campus. 

TLT Roundtables meet regularly to share information, to coordinate activities and, often, to create small action teams to work on problems that are not within the province of any single unit or individual in the institution. Most successful TLT Roundtables are actively supported by the chief academic officer and other leaders, to whom the TLTR makes recommendations on key budget and policy decisions. 

It's no coincidence that TLT Roundtables began to appear the same year that studies by Kenneth Green revealed the beginning of the current mainstreaming of computers for teaching.  And recently a dissertation by Daryl Nardick revealed that one gain associated with successful TLT Roundtables is an increased ability to move information quickly from outside the institution to all those inside who most need it. 

Whether an institution has a TLT Roundtable or uses other sorts of organizational structures to accomplish the same purpose, it had better become very good at looking outside for information, sharing that information rapidly and pragmatically inside, and then turning that insight into action plans.  These days, the window of opportunity closes quickly.

Closing Thoughts

Today's world relies upon on rapidly changing computer technology in almost every phase of life.  That creates a breakneck pace of change for the academy.  In this new world, the old "muddling through" approach to educational improvement doesn't work well anymore.  The window of opportunity associated with each new generation of educational technology closes too quickly.

Ironically the solution is not move faster.  We have already tried, "Ready, fire, aim!" and, time after time, that prescription has failed.  Instead, we need to take a moment, study thirty years of past failures, and, this time, we need to get it right.

 

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Further Reading

For more detail on the vision of educational revolution described in this essay, see Ehrmann, Stephen C. September 1994. Access and/or Quality: Redefining Choices in the Third Revolution. Educom Review. 24-27, 50-51.

For more background on the courseware mirage, see Paul M. Morris, Stephen C. Ehrmann, Randi B. Goldsmith, Kevin J. Howat, and M.S. Vijay Kumar, eds. 1994.   Valuable, viable software in education: Case studies and analysis. New York: McGraw-Hill.

For more information on the scholarship of teaching, click on the button "Our Work" at the Carnegie Foundation's Web site (http://www.carnegiefoundation.org).

For more information on the TLT Group, Teaching Learning and Technology Roundtables and the Flashlight Program, see http://www.tltgroup.org

Alias for this page: http://bit.ly/cycle-failure

 

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