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NEIL SELWYN London Knowledge Lab Institute of Education – University of London, UK
paper to be published in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning (2010)
Please reference as: Selwyn, N. (2010) ‘Looking beyond learning: notes towards the critical study of educational technology’ Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 26, 1
email: firstname.lastname@example.org postal: London Knowledge Lab, 23-29 Emerald Street, London, WC1N 3QS
Looking beyond learning: notes towards the critical study of educational technology
Abstract: This paper makes a case for academic research and writing that looks beyond the learning potential of technology and, instead, seeks to develop social scientific accounts of the often compromised and constrained realities of education technology use ‘on the ground’. The paper discusses how this ‘critical’ approach differs from the ways that educational technology scholarship has tended to be pursued to date. These differences include viewing technology as being socially constructed and negotiated rather than imbued with pre-determined characteristics; developing objective and realistic accounts of technology use in situ; and producing ‘context rich’ analyses of the social conflicts and politics that underpin the use of technology in educational settings. The paper concludes by encouraging academic researchers and writers to show greater interest in the issues of democracy and social justice that surround educational technology.
Keywords: technology, education, research, theory, sociology
Looking beyond learning: notes towards the critical study of educational technology
Introduction The twenty-fifth anniversary of JCAL should be cause both for celebration and contemplation amongst the educational technology community. Everyone involved with the journal can look back at the last quarter of a century with a well-deserved sense of accomplishment and pride. Yet the occasion also provides an opportunity to reflect on how the academic study of educational technology has developed over the last three decades and, perhaps most importantly, to think creatively about how the field may progress into the next decade. In this latter sense at least, a set of issues relating to process and purpose certainly merit further consideration as digital technology becomes a standard feature of contemporary education provision and practice. As many readers may have noticed, self-reflection and self-analysis are not common features of the educational technology literature. Indeed, it could be argued that the rapid development of digital technology has ensured that educational technologists scarcely have time to keep abreast of their topic of study, yet alone cogitate on the more complex issues of definition and motivation that underpin their endeavours (although see Januszewski and Molenda 2007 as a notable exception). In fact, many people working in the field would probably refute the existence of a discrete ‘academic tribe’ of educational technologists altogether – contending that ‘education technology’ serves merely as a flag of convenience for a loose assortment of technologically-minded psychologists, pedagogy experts, maths and science educators, computer scientists, systems developers and the like. With these issues in mind, there is a clear need for those of us currently working in the area of education and technology to take stock of who we are, what it is we do, and how and why we do it. With a view to stimulating further discussion and debate the present paper now goes on to raise a number of straightforward but possibly contentious points regarding the future development of the field. In particular, it is argued that the academic study of educational technology has grown to be dominated by an (often abstracted) interest in the processes of how people can learn with digital technology. While issues relating to the design, development and implementation of ‘effective’ learning technologies will continue to be of central importance to the field, it is reasoned that greater attention now needs to be paid to how digital technologies are actually being used – for better and worse – in ‘real-world’ educational settings. In this sense, it is contended that the academic study of educational technology needs to be pursued more vigorously along social scientific lines, with researchers and writers showing a keener interest in the social, political, economic, cultural and historical contexts within which educational technology use (and non-use) is located.
The remainder of this paper therefore develops a set of related arguments on the theme of supporting what can be termed the critical study of educational technology. The paper first outlines the terms of reference for a critical approach, while also justifying the need for academic work that focuses on the social conflicts and politics of educational technology use at individual, institutional and societal levels of analysis. In this sense the paper positions itself alongside the burgeoning tradition in education scholarship for critical and democratically minded analyses of education. As Gert Biesta and others have argued, making sense of contemporary education entails focusing on a range of issues ‘beyond learning’ – not least the political and democratic dimensions of education that are often overlooked in the relentless asking of “questions about the efficiency and effectiveness of the educational process” (Biesta 2006, p. 22). Against this background, the paper then considers the implications that a critical approach has for the established ways that educational technology scholarship has been understood and pursued over the past three decades. In particular it is contended that more research is required that moves away from a ‘means-end’ way of thinking about how best to harness the presumed inherent educational potential of digital technology and, instead, focuses on the socially contested and ‘socially shaped’ nature of technology. This shift in thinking, in turn, compels academic research and writing to look beyond issues of learning, and instead develop ‘context-rich’ accounts of the often compromised and constrained social realities of technology use ‘on the ground’ in educational settings. Only by giving greater credence to these critical issues, it is reasoned, can academic writers and researchers then go on to develop meaningful proposals for changing the politics of educational technology provision and practice. The paper therefore concludes by proposing a broadening of the academic ‘technological imagination’ to include issues of democracy, social justice and empowerment. The need for a critical study of educational technology Educational technology can be a frustrating area of academic scholarship to follow. On one hand, thousands of hours and millions of dollars are directed towards the optimistic exploration of how technology is capable of supporting, assisting and even enhancing the act of learning. On the other hand, as anyone involved with the day-to-day realities of contemporary education in its different guises will attest, many of the fundamental elements of learning and teaching remain largely untouched by the potential of educational technology. As such, an obvious disparity between rhetoric and reality runs throughout much of the past twenty-five years of educational technology scholarship. As Diana Laurillard (2008, p.1) observes wryly, “education is on the brink of being transformed through learning technologies; however, it has been on that brink for some decades now”. Whilst similar tensions between rhetoric and reality can be found within many areas of applied academic study, a particularly resilient strain of cognitive dissonance appears to pervade the educational technology literature. Despite a long history of eagerly anticipated but largely unrealised technological transformation, academics continue to focus on the ‘what ifs’ and ‘best case’ examples of educational technology – often producing compelling evidence of educational potential, but only on
occasion acknowledging the individual and institutional ‘barriers’ that are presumed to be restricting the realisation of this potential in practice. As such, the academic study of educational technology could be accused of having worked itself into an analytic corner – well-able to discuss how educational technologies could and should be used, but less competent and confident in discussing how and why educational technologies are actually being used. Against this background, there is clearly scope to reassess and perhaps broaden the ways in which the academic study of educational technology is understood and approached. While not intending to wholly devalue or dismiss the work in question, it could be argued that the last twenty-five years of educational technology scholarship has produced and privileged a set of rather specific understandings of the use of technology for teaching and learning. As the remainder of this paper will go on to argue, the educational technology research and writing of the 2010s and beyond would be enhanced greatly if educational technology could be seen as more than a predominantly technical issue of aligning mind and machine. The paper will instead make a case for placing more emphasis on understanding the often uneven, contested and contradictory realities of technology use within educational settings - therefore seeing educational technology as a profoundly social, cultural and political concern. Despite some prominent exceptions (e.g. Cuban 2001, Schofield 1995), the relationship between education, technology and society has certainly not constituted a major part of the educational technology ‘worldview’ to date. Indeed, much of the academic study of educational technology that has taken place over the past twenty-five years is perhaps described most accurately as the study of ‘learning technology’ – i.e. work that focuses on the role of technology in facilitating, supporting and (it is assumed) enhancing the act of learning. In this sense, academic investigations of digital technology use in education have tended to focus either on the process of technological development and design, or else the process of learners using technology – therefore drawing predominantly on a range of theories of instruction and learning that seek to explain how and why technology-enhanced learning can take place. Indeed, the academic study of educational technology has long been dominated by theoretical and philosophical accounts from what can be termed the ‘learning sciences’ – from the early behaviourist theories of writers such as BF Skinner, to later cognitivist, constructivist, constructionist and socio-cultural descriptions inspired by the likes of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Latterly, these largely psychological concerns have been augmented by theories of human computer interaction, systems development and the science of design (e.g. Simon 1969) as academic attention has also been drawn towards the design and production processes of technology enhanced learning. As was implied earlier, these conceptual and theoretical preoccupations have resulted in rather specific understandings of the nature of technology use in education – especially with regards to the social nature of educational technology. Of course, the majority of studies that take a ‘learning science’ perspective on educational technology now pay close attention to the technical and the social processes of learning with digital technology. Indeed, socio-cultural accounts of technology-based learning tend to place
great emphasis on the socially collaborative nature of learning where the construction of knowledge by learners is seen to be nurtured and supported by wider communities of learners, teachers, technologies and other objects. In this sense, the majority of current educational technology research and writing would concur with the notion of learners and digital technologies being ‘blended’ with a wide range of other human and non-human elements that together form the ‘learning environment’. Yet while going some way to explaining how technology-based learning can take place, such approaches go little way to explaining why technology-based learning actually takes place (or not) in ‘real-life’ contexts. At best the learning science approach tends to frame ‘ineffective’ use of technologies for learning in terms of various assets and deficiencies within the learning environment – not least the perceived technological and psychological strengths and shortcomings of individual learners, their tutors and educational institutions. All told, the emerging received wisdom amongst many educational technologists regarding the apparent ‘failure’ of educational technology in practice is that educational institutions and those within them often lack what it takes “to go with the technological flow” (Dale et al. 2004). In this sense, while much of the contemporary educational technology literature takes great care to emphasise the immediate social processes surrounding an individual learner’s use of technology, there is far less concern with developing an understanding of how this technology use ‘fits’ (or not) within the wider social contexts that make up education and society – what sociologists often refer to as the social ‘milieu’ of technology use. In educational terms these milieu can include institutions such as schools, colleges and universities, as well as settings such as museums, libraries and training centres. Similarly, learning often takes place within the context of the household, the workplace and wider community settings. Moreover, these contexts are themselves set within a range of even wider social milieu (not least commercial marketplaces, nationstates and global economies). Whilst perhaps not immediately apparent to the observer of a classroom setting, it would be foolhardy to attempt to explain any aspect of education and digital technology in the twenty-first century without some recourse to these wider influences. It therefore seems sensible to contend that academic researchers and writers should give greater acknowledgement to the influences on educational technology above and beyond the context of the individual learner and their immediate learning environment. Put bluntly, as technology-based education and ‘e-learning’ continue to grow in societal significance then it follows that the use of technology in education needs to be understood in societal terms. For instance, this includes acknowledging the clear linkages between educational technology use and ‘macro’ elements of the social structure of society such as global economics, labour markets and political and cultural institutions. Similarly, at the ‘micro’ level of the individual, the act of technology-based learning also needs to be understood as being entwined with many other dimensions of social life. The study of educational technology should therefore be seen in profoundly social scientific terms – moving beyond making sense of the ‘science’ of learning, and pursuing what can be termed the critical study of technology-based social action and social life within the social world of education.
Steps towards the critical study of educational technology Adopting a ‘critical’ approach towards educational technology does not entail a dogmatic adherence to any particular theoretical stance, school-of-thought or ‘-ism’. Rather the critical perspective is rooted in a broader recognition of technology and education as a set of profoundly political processes and practices that are best described in terms of issues of power, control, conflict and resistance. As such, much of the underlying impetus for a critical approach towards educational technology stems from a desire to foster and support issues of empowerment, equality, social justice and participatory democracy (see Gunter 2009). These ambitions are perhaps best summarised by Amin and Thrift’s (2005, p.221) four-point agenda for critical scholarship, i.e.: “First, a powerful sense of engagement with politics and the political. Second, and following on, a consistent belief that there must be better ways of doing things than are currently found in the world. Third, a necessary orientation to a critique of power and exploitation that both blight people’s current lives and stop better ways of doing things from coming into existence. Fourth, a constant and unremitting critical reflexivity towards our own practices: no one is allowed to claim that they have the one and only answer or the one and only privileged vantage point. Indeed, to make such a claim is to become a part of the problem”. As this brief manifesto suggests, a critical approach involves asking a number of questions about education and technology that are distinctly different from the questions usually found in the educational technology literature. Perhaps more importantly, these questions are asked for a distinctly different set of reasons than is usually the case in the academic study of educational technology. As such the shifts in perspective associated with the critical study of education and technology imply a number of alterations to the ways that educational technology scholarship is understood and pursued. Some of these issues are now discussed in further detail: i) Moving beyond a ‘means-end’ way of thinking First and foremost, the critical study of technology and education is underpinned by a rejection of any ‘common-sense’ understandings of the imperatives and potentials of educational technology. As Boody (2001, p.7) points out, many of the arguments about the benefits of digital technology in education take the form of ‘means-end thinking’ – i.e. thinking that starts from a given end and then strives to find the means of accomplishment. While producing neat analyses and models of technology use, such thinking tends to fail to consider fully the nature and value of the end, the by-products or unintended consequences of its implementation or the connections between this given end and other important ends.
In particular, a critical approach seeks to move beyond the deterministic assumption that technologies possess inherent qualities and are therefore capable of having particular ‘impacts’ or ‘effects’ on learners, teachers and educational institutions if used in a correct manner. The critical approach is also distanced from the associated understanding that individuals and institutions are placed in a position of having to respond to technological change and make best use of technologies that they are presented with. This commonplace logic - evident in much thinking about educational technology - is illustrated in Clay Shirky’s (2008, p.307) recent observation that … “… our control over [digital] tools is much more like steering a kayak. We are being pushed rapidly down a route largely determined by the technological environment. We have a small degree of control over the spread of these tools, but that control does not extend to being able to reverse, or even radically alter, the direction we’re moving in”. The technologically determinist perspective that “social progress is driven by technological innovation, which in turn follows an ‘inevitable’ course” (Smith 1994, p.38) has a long lineage in popular and academic understandings of the ‘effects’ of technology and society. For example, a determinist way of thinking underpins the range of popular claims that video games cause violent behaviour, or that internet use leads to asocial behaviour. Whilst appealing to those who wish to construct bounded ‘scientific’ explanations and models, the dangers of this way of thinking about the use of technology in educational settings lie primarily in the simplistic conclusions that they logically lead towards. In particular, this way of thinking usually reaches conclusions that recommend the overcoming of any constraining influences or impediments within the immediate educational context, so that the inherent beneficial effects of technology may be more fully felt. Indeed, current discussion and debate about the use of digital technology in educational settings often follows this decidedly externalist logic – “treating new technologies as autonomous forces that compel society to change” (Nye 2007, p.27). The pretext of much academic work in the field is that technology is set inevitably to change educational contexts for the better. Thinking along these lines, it follows that the main task of educational technology analysts is to identify the impediments and deficiencies that are delaying and opposing the march of technological progress. In contrast, the critical study of educational technology starts from the premise that “devices and machines are not things ‘out there’ that invade life” (Nye 2007, p. ix). More emphasis is placed on understanding the development and implementation of technological innovations as set within specific social and economic contexts, instead of new technologies somehow having inevitable internal logics of development regardless of circumstance (see Williams 1974). Following this line of argument, for example, it is accepted that there can be no pre-determined outcomes to the development and implementation of educational technologies. Instead any technological artefact is seen as being subjected continually to a series of complex interactions and negotiations with the
social, economic, political and cultural contexts that it emerges into. Understanding technology as being ‘socially shaped’ therefore allows for analyses that ‘open up the black box of technology’ (Bijker et al. 1987) and consider the organisational, political, economic and cultural factors which pattern the design, development, production, marketing, implementation and ‘end use’ of a technological artefact (see Selwyn 2008). Gaining a full sense of how and why educational technologies are being used in the ways that they are is therefore underpinned by understandings of how these technologies are socially constructed, shaped and negotiated by a range of actors and interests. ii) Asking ‘state-of-the-actual’ questions Making sense of the socially constructed nature of technology has clear implications for how the study of educational technology is pursued. In particular the critical approach is based upon understanding the ‘here-and-now’ realities rather than future possibilities and potentials of educational technology. As implied at the beginning of this paper, the academic study of educational technology is often drawn inexorably towards a forwardlooking, ‘leading-edge’ perspective. As such, many educational technology commentators, writers and researchers tend to show most interest in what could be termed ‘state-of-the-art’ issues – addressing questions of what could happen, and what should happen once the latest technologies and digital media are placed into educational settings. Yet the practical significance of an avowedly ‘state-of-the-art’ perspective on technology and education is often limited – tending to underplay social influences and relations, and offering little useful and insight into how present arrangements may be improved or ameliorated. As David Nye (2007, p.35) reflects, “all technological predictions and forecasts are in essence little narratives about the future. They are not full-scale narratives of utopia, but they are usually presented as stories about a better world to come”. In contrast, the critical study of educational technology retains a firm “commitment to the here and now, the empirical and the demonstratable” (Cavanagh 2007, p.7), thus producing academic accounts of digital technology that concentrate on developing ‘thick’ descriptions of the present uses of technologies in situ rather than speculative predictions and forecasts of the near future. As Beer and Burrows (2007, para 1.1) contend: “At a time of rapid socio-cultural change a renewed emphasis on good – critical, distinctive and thick – sociological descriptions of emergent digital phenomena, ahead of any headlong rush into analytics, seems to us to be a sensible idea. We need to understand some of the basic parameters of our new digital objects of sociological study before we can satisfactorily locate them within any broader frames of theoretical reference”. In this manner, the critical study of educational technology seeks to address the use of digital technology in terms of ‘state-of-the-actual’ as opposed to ‘state-of-the-art’ questions – i.e. questions concerning what is actually taking place when a digital
technology meets an educational setting and, from a historical perspective, how this compares to what has taken place in the recent past. These questions fall broadly into three basic forms, i.e.: What is the use of technology in educational settings actually like? Why is technology use in educational settings the way it is? What are the consequences of what happens with technologies in educational settings? As these deceptively simple questions imply, the critical analysis of technology (non)use approaches educational technology as a site of ongoing negotiation and, often, intense social conflict and struggle. Addressing these questions therefore requires a deliberate focus on the problems and the ‘messy realities’ of education technology use – showing a particular interest where technologies are not being used, or being used in ways that suppress and disadvantage. In this sense, a critical approach leads to forms of questioning that are perhaps more challenging and awkward than is usually found in the educational technology literature – developing lines of enquiry that are often less forward-looking, undoubtedly less ‘high tech’ but certainly no less important. iii) Developing context-rich analyses A critical approach therefore seeks to develop analyses of educational technology that are ‘context-rich’ rather than context-free. As such the critical study of educational technology offers a counterbalance to the often abstracted claims surrounding digital technology and education. As Charles Crook (2008) has argued, current debates over technology and education are often predicated upon presumed ‘spontaneous appropriations’ of digital technologies by individual learners, independent of other commitments to learning through formal educational provision. Many accounts of educational technology tend, for example, to privilege the immediate context of the individual learner and technological artefact at the expense of all others, or at best consider the use of digital technologies with one particular group of learners or in one particular context. As David Buckingham (2007) has observed, the educational technology literature abounds with in-depth investigations of ‘model’ education institutions and classrooms with enthusiastic tutors and well-resourced students basking in the glow of the ‘Hawthorne effect’ of the attention of researchers. In contrast, the critical approach attempts to examine the use of technology in educational settings from the perspectives of all of the various contexts that shape and define educational technology – from the concerns of government and industry, to the concerns of the classroom and the home. If the meaning of educational technology is seen to be inseparable from the conditions under which it is generated and experienced, then the use of digital technologies within educational settings is best understood as being situated within all of the social interests, relationships and restrictions that are associated with the formal and informal provision of education. In this spirit, the critical study of educational technology can be seen as involving at least three different levels of description. Of course, the micro-level of the individual tutor and learner is undeniably important and merits sustained consideration – not least in terms of the continued importance of immediate ‘local’ contexts in framing learning processes and practices. In this sense it would be erroneous to perceive technology-based learning as
somehow “detached from the spatial condition of common locality” (Thompson 1995, p.32). Yet these micro-level concerns should be set against what can be termed ‘the bigger picture’ of educational technology – i.e. the meso-level of the processes and procedures of educational institutions, and the macro-level of wider cultural, societal, political and economic values (see Zhao and Frank 2003, Selwyn 2007). Often these levels of description are not immediately tangible and obvious. Before a technological artefact is used (or not) by a learner, for example, the said technology will have been party to a complex of vested ‘other’ interests above and beyond the actions of its initial designers and producers. These other interests range from marketers and journalists to (quasi)government agencies, teacher unions and consumer interest groups – all having a significant but often subtle bearing on the shaping of educational technology, and all therefore meriting sustained scrutiny and questioning. Only by making sense of all these levels of description can academic researchers and writers hope to develop a rich and nuanced understanding of what Frank Webster (2005, p.453) calls ‘the intimate connectedness’ between ‘wider contexts and conceptualisations’ and the ‘merely particular’. iv) Developing understanding and action The final tenet of the critical approach relates to what is to be done with the results of academic studies of education and technology. As much of the previous discussion has implied, the impetus for taking a critical approach towards the study of educational technology is rooted in the high-minded but well-intentioned aim of making educational fairer as well as merely better or more ‘effective’. Critical analyses therefore seek to address the fact that the use of digital technology in educational settings is often not a wholly inclusive, dialogic or equitable process in which all actors have equal power in participating, and where all actors can determine what educational technology is or how it is used. The critical take on educational technology is therefore often driven by a desire to redress the imbalances of power that reside within most educational uses of technology. In this sense, the act of critical research and writing strives for what Ernest House describes as ‘deliberative democratic’ outcomes, where academics “use procedures that incorporate the views of insiders and outsiders, give voice to the marginal and excluded, employ reasoned criteria in extended deliberation, and engage in dialogical interactions with significant audiences and stakeholders in the evaluation” (House 1999, p.xix). Thus, instead of indulging in what C. Wright Mills (1959) derided as ‘abstracted empiricism’, a critical approach seeks to identify, highlight and overcome the many contradictions and conflicts that surround the use of technology in educational settings. The academic study of educational technology is therefore pursued with an over-arching intention of developing culturally plausible suggestions as to how current inequalities and hegemonies may be countered, and how digital technology use in educational settings may be reshaped along fairer and more equitable lines. This suggests a tradition of educational technology scholarship that builds upon Ann Oakley’s (2000) notion of social science research that is democratic, interventionist and emancipatory. In this spirit,
the academic study of educational technology can be used to identify spaces where opportunities exist to resist, disrupt and alter the technology-based reproduction of the ‘power differential that runs through capitalist society’ (Kirkpatrick 2004, p.10). Attempts can be made, for example, to detail and test the opportunities available to educators, learners and other interested parties to take advantage of the inherently political processes of technology production and use in educational settings. As Wiebe Bijker (1995) reasons, only by exploring and exposing the social roots of technology can academics hope to make the technological amenable to democratic interpretation and intervention. In this sense, a critical approach to the study of educational technology attempts to produce analyses that highlight the practices, processes and liminal spaces in educational settings where technology use can be challenged and reconfigured along more equitable and empowering lines.
Conclusion This paper has attempted to outline briefly the advantages of applying a critical social scientific approach to the study of educational technology. On one hand, the paper has shown how a critical approach allows a number of ‘big questions’ to be asked about technology and education – not least how individual learning technologies fit into wider socio-technical systems and networks, as well as what connections and linkages exist between educational technology and macro-level concerns of globalisation, the knowledge economy and late modernity. In contrast to these grand concerns, the paper has also shown how a critical approach offers a direct ‘way in’ to unpacking the microlevel social processes that underpin the use of digital technologies in educational settings. From both these perspectives, the principal advantage of a critical approach should be seen as the ability to develop a more socially grounded understanding of the ‘messy’ realities of educational technology ‘as it happens’. In approaching education and technology as a site of intense social conflict, a critical approach therefore allows educational technologists to move beyond asking whether or not a particular technology ‘works’ in a technical or pedagogic sense. Instead, a critical approach allows researchers and writers to address questions of how digital technologies (re)produce social relations and in whose interests they serve (see Apple 2004). In extolling the virtues of a critical stance on education and technology this paper’s intention has not been to indulge in academic one-upmanship or convey an arrogant belief that one particular intellectual approach is more privileged and correct than any other. Indeed, the paper has not set out to contend that a critical approach is somehow superior to existing modes of inquiry and analysis. Rather, it should be concluded that a critical approach offers an important additional dimension to the study of educational technology – providing an often challenging but ultimately complementary perspective to the learning-centred studies that have dominated the field over the past twenty-five years or so. Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect all writers and researchers working in the academic field of educational technology to perform an immediate volte-face in their thinking. Yet showing an increased awareness of the critical aspects of technology-
based education would certainly go some way towards lessening the disparity between the ‘rhetoric’ of educational technology scholarship and the ‘reality’ of educational technology practice. In this spirit readers are urged to look beyond the established educational technology literature and seek out recent writing and research by the likes of Torin Monahan, Andrew Hope, Nicola Johnson and other young scholars who are currently at the forefront of engaging in critical studies of education, technology and society. While usually not published in journals such as JCAL, these authors provide exemplary critical accounts of education and technology that can inform and inspire the specialist study of educational technology. Taking these examples as a starting point, it would be rewarding for everyone concerned to see the increased presence of critical discussion and debate throughout JCAL’s next twenty-five years.
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