“The origin of the MOOC goes way back to 2008 when Canadian scholars Stephen Downes and George Siemens led an online course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CCK08). When they opened it up, for free, to anyone to participate, over 2,200 students signed up. Another Canadian educator, Dave Cormier, came up with the term ‘MOOC’ to describe this new type of education event. He defines a MOOC as being a course with a start and end date and that is open with no barriers to entry, neither cost nor education criteria. The courses are also online, accessed on the Web, and are massive, requiring a significant number of students to contribute to a connected learning environment…Within a cMOOC, learners are encouraged (though not required) to contribute actively, using these digital platforms. Participants’ contributions in form of blog posts, tweets etc. are aggregated by course organizers and shared with all participants via daily email or newsletter…cMOOCs are also not typically sponsored or funded by higher education institutions but are organized by individuals with a passion for a specific content area. xMOOCs are MOOCs where one or more higher education colleges or schools are behind it.” (Morrison, 2013).
The major development and attention has been given to 3 xMOOC providers, Coursera, Udacity, and edX, . They all originated in Artificial Intelligence Labs. As stated by Daniel Shumski (2013), in his article titled, MOOCs by the numbers: How do EdX, Coursera and Udacity stack up?, “ They’re not the only players in the MOOC market, but whether because of high-profile founders, big funding or broad reach, they’re the three biggest.”
The focus of this case study is the analysis and comparison of these major xMOOCs based on New Learning and the Seven Affordances, Learner and Teacher Experiences and Accreditation. The educational challenges that will be explored are if these providers are examples of New Learning, how well do they illustrate the seven affordances of Dr. Cope and Dr. Kalantzis, are the learning and teaching teaching processes according to best-practices and standards and can the classes and programs be awarded accredited degrees as with traditional higher educational institutions.
Udacity is founded by Sebastian Thrun who also was the lead of Google’s self-driving car project. It is a for-profit organization developed by Sebastian Thrun, David Stavens, and Mike Sokolsy that offers MOOCs. (Waters, 2012) Udacity originally focused on technology and science courses that were presented in a traditional university-type structure. However, that focus has shifted to courses intended for professionals. (Extension Engine, 2015)
“Thrun announced his departure from Stanford where he’d been a research professor and the director of SAIL, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Now the director of SAIL is Andrew Ng, who along with fellow Stanford machine learning and AI professor Daphne Koller, is the founder of Coursera.” (Waters, 2012) The courses on Coursera are often adapted from existing university courses by professors and Coursera staff. Coursera MOOCs span a range of disciplines and are available through a mobile app. (Extension Engine, 2015)
“In March, Anant Agarwal announced that he was stepping down as the director of CSAIL, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Laboratory in order to become the president of MITx (now edX).“(Waters, 2012). edX is a platform for online learning that provides MOOCs. edX also analyzes data on its use to contribute to broad research efforts in mechanisms of learning and MOOC optimization. (Extension Engine, 2015)
Based on the statistics on the xMOOC providers, it appears that Coursera has the largest market share at 36%, edX at 16% and Udacity at 2.4%. (Class Central, 2014)
Coursera boasts 22,232,448 enrollments from students representing 190 countries and there are 240,000 students in our most popular class. Students voiced themselves in 590,000 discussion threads for a total of 343,014,912 minutes of learning across 571courses. A full listing of partners can be found here Coursera Partners. (Coursera, 2015)
Edx boasts 400+ courses in subjects such as humanities, math, computer science with 400+ faculty and staff teaching courses and discussing topics online and 100,000+ faculty and staff teaching courses and discussing topics online and has numerous partners. A full listing of partners can be found here edX Partners. (edX, 2015)
Udacity boasts 71 courses, 1,600,000 users, and partners with Google, Georgia Institute of Technology (GT) and San Jose State University much less than the other two. (StartClass, 2015)
The Pedagogy and Format
The format for the classes vary to a degree, but all offer the traditional components seen in most online courses. There are lectures delivered via videos and webinars, discussion forums and course materials.
As an analysis of Udacity’s predagogy, Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel (2012), in their article, Udacity and Online Pedagogy: Players, Learners, Objects, “Udacity isn’t silly precisely because they have a clear concern for pedagogy. The company has a vision, and they wear that vision on their sleeve. Udacity classes feel like a strange, unpredictable blend of one-on-one tutoring, auditorium-style learning, and small-group work. The classes work because there is space within them for learners to create learning.”
Udacity has a dashboard, classroom, materials offering interactive web, an online forum and recorded video. (StartClass, 2015)
Coursea designed their platform based on proven teaching methods verified by top researchers. There are 4 key ideas that were influential in shaping our vision: Effectiveness of online learning, Mastery learning, Peer assessments, Blended learning. (Coursera, 2015)
A key component of most MOOCs and at Coursera are lecture segments where instructors write notes and mark up slides.
As posted on their About Page, Coursera boasts a “platform based on proven teaching methods verified by top researchers…produce stronger student learning outcomes than do classes with solely face-to-face instruction…give immediate feedback on a concept a learner did not understand. In many cases, we provide randomized versions of the assignment so a learner can re-study and re-attempt until they master it….use peer assessments, where learners can evaluate and provide feedback on each other’s work….Many of our partner institutions are using our online platform to provide their on-campus students with an improved learning experience. (Coursera, 2015)
As with all the xMOOCs there are mobile apps for their classes. Below is an example of the edX Mobile classroom.
edX Mobile Classroom (edX)
edX states on their Pedagogy and Research Page, “Working with our xConsortium of university partners, edX is empowering research on pedagogy or learning about learning….The online environment provides a powerful platform to conduct experiments, exploring how students learn and how faculty can best teach using a variety of novel tools and techniques… By carefully assessing course data, from mouse clicks to time spent on tasks, to evaluating how students respond to various assessments, researchers hope to shed light on how learners access information and master materials, with the ultimate aim of improving course outcomes….We are not only expanding access to knowledge, but developing best practices to enhance the student experience and improve teaching and learning both on campus and online.” (edX, 2015)
As posted on edX’s, How It Works Page, edX “offers courses From Science to Art to Technology, edX offers simply the best classes from the best professors and universities… From our think tank to your screen—we help you learn through cool tools, videos and game-like labs, like our 3D virtual molecule builder…. Take edX courses at your pace, at home or in a cafe. Earn your Certificate of Achievement, or just audit the course. Our virtual ‘classroom’ is open 24/7 and everyone is accepted…Use the latest in peer-to-peer social learning tools and connect with smart and passionate people, just like you, from around the world.” (edX, 2015)
New Learning and the Seven Affordances
The seven affordances are Ubiquitous Learning, Active Knowledge Making, Mutlimodal Meanings, Recursive Feedback, Collaborative Intelligence, Differential Learning and Metacognition (Kalantzis & Cope). Analyzing Udacity, Coursera, and edX according to these seven affordances allows for their comprehensive expression under the framework of New Learning as defined by Dr. Cope and Dr. Kalantzis.
Ubiquitous learning allows for learning that “extends beyond the walls of the classroom and the cells of the timetable. Learning that breaks out of these spatial and temporal confinements, should be as good as, or even better than, the best traditional classroom learning. It should also produce habits of mind appropriate to our times, producing lifelong learners, able to learn and to share knowledge throughout their lives, in all contexts, and grounded in those contexts” (Kalantzis & Cope). MOOCs most definitely fulfill the definition of ubiquitous learning offering self-paced, online classes. In a review of these same providers, it is stated by Robert McGuire, (2014), in his article titled, “The Best MOOC Provider: A Review of Coursera, Udacity and Edx, “Though MOOCs have starting points, they don’t always have starting dates. Instead, some “self-paced” classes are always accessible, allowing you to start and finish when you like and to work at your own pace. Udacity classes work on this self-paced model, which means you can go there today and start any freeware class in their catalog. And you can go work on any class you may have started in the past, because it had no end date.”
Active Knowledge Making
Active Knowledge Making allows for active knowledge production. However, within these 3 providers, depending on how the class is run, there appears to be more knowledge representation than production. However, if the learner needs to submit assignments then they will be producers of knowledge artifacts. Based on the student’s enrollment at Coursera, the patterns suggest the students are more in the role of consumer then prosumer.
These three providers offer various digital media as mention above in the section on Pedagogy and Format which are used in knowledge representation via videos, webinars and course material so multimodal meanings to artifacts but the production may vary across the three providers and the classes taken.
Recursive Feedback can be found in the “new generation of assessment systems: Including continuous machine-mediated human assessment from multiple perspectives (peers, self, teacher, parents, invited experts etc.), and machine feedback (selected and supply response assessments, natural language processing).” (Kalantzis & Cole) many of which are being researched and employed by these three providers. edX does “give immediate feedback on a concept a learner did not understand. In many cases, we provide randomized versions of the assignment so a learner can re-study and re-attempt until they master it….use peer assessments, where learners can evaluate and provide feedback on each other’s work.” (edX, 2015) But at this time due to the massiveness of the student population, personalized feedback is challenging, but, with automation, the possibilities can be expanded.
In the journal article by María del Mar Sánchez-Vera1 and María Paz Prendes-Espinosa MOOCs: Game Changer or Passing Fad? Beyond objective testing and peer assessment: alternative ways of assessment in MOOCs “assessment in xMOOCs is usually limited to multiple choice tests and sometimes delivering tasks.” The common assessments in xMOOCs are depicted in the table below.
With automation of these assessments at the very least recursive feedback can be offered and with it the benefits that recursive feedback brings. del Mar Sánchez-Vera & Prendes-Espinosa further go on and recommend that the following strategies be used to improve the assessment process in xMOOCs – Peer assessment, Network-Based Grading, Portfolio, The Mantle Of The Expert, Semantic Web and Learning Analytics. Collaborative Intelligence. (del Mar Sánchez-Vera & Prendes-Espinosa, 2015)
The mere nature of the MOOC in its massiveness and the role students play in the learning process, the opportunity to build “skills of collaboration and negotiation necessary for complex, diverse world. It focuses on learning as social activity rather than learning as individual memory.” (Kalntzis & Cope) is dependent on the student’s participation and the role they play. All three do offer discussion forums. Udacity does offer group work. (Udacity, 2105) As stated by Robert McGuire (2014) in, “The Best MOOC Provider: A Review of Coursera, Udacity and Edx” Udacity classes may have a massive number of students over time, but they don’t have a massive cohort of students working at once.” Coursera does offer peer assessments (Coursera, 2015). edX offers, “the latest in peer-to-peer social learning tools and connect with smart and passionate people, just like you, from around the world. (edX, 2015) Here is a snap shot on an edX’s student’s contributions to the learning community.
These providers may lack in the complexity of the interaction and thought provoking experience of a learner needed to promote metacognition based on the student’s patterns of enrollment and the ubiquitous nature of the offerings. It is an affordance that is driven by the student’s own drive and direction.
Differentiated Learning allows for various forms of learning based on various factors and learning styles. This affordance is represented in a limited degree due to the mere nature that they are typical online educational systems and offer discussion forums, videos and course materials, but enhancements may be needed for academic rigor and quality.
Many learners have documented their experiences with these xMOOCs. In an article by Ethan A. Solomon (2013), titled, “MOOCs: A review: Are edX and Coursera the future of university education?” he states, “But this is a revolution we’re talking about, here — there’s no room for error. The only way to really be sure that this stuff is great teaching is to actually take some courses. So I did… I chose one from each to be examples of the experience: edX’s 6.00x (Introduction to Computer Science and Programming), via MITx, and Coursera’s Machine Learning, via Stanford.” Solomon further evaluated the courses by their components. These components and offerings are typical for these three providers.
“Lectures: The backbone of almost all MOOCs on edX/Coursera is the lecture, just like regular college courses. But instead of one to two hour sessions in a giant hall, MOOC lectures are organized in “sequences” of 5–15 minute videos, usually featuring a professor scribbling on PowerPoint slides and marking up graphs and diagrams. On average, MOOC students can expect two to four hours of lecture time per week, but they’re free to play videos at 1.25x or 1.5x speed to cut that down.
• Finger Exercises: Lecture sequences are often sprinkled with short and simple comprehension questions — edX calls them “finger exercises,” since they usually don’t take much work. If you’ve been paying attention to the video, these questions are not challenging and will count for a small portion of your grade, if any at all. Some might ask for the numerical answer to a computation, and others are multiple-choice.
• Homework: Homework in 6.00x and ML are usually combinations of multiple-choice questions and programming assignments. ML would often ask students to implement a learning algorithm covered in lecture, and an online checker would test your algorithm in a few test cases and award credit for passing. Similarly, 6.00x students complete close replicas of regular 6.00 problem sets — implement a recursive function, define classes and methods to carry out a simulation, etc. — also awarding credit according to what test cases your code passes.
• Exams: Both platforms have courses which require students to take midterm and final exams, but ML was not one of them. 6.00x again reflects 6.00; there are two two-hour midterm exams and a four-hour final, which together account for the bulk of the final grade. The tests are similar to problem sets: implement a function to do this-or-that within certain design parameters.
• Forums: MOOC backers say the discussion forums are a big part of the online learning experience. This is where you go if you’re stuck on a question or don’t understand a concept. Sometimes course staff — even the professors — will reply to questions posted on the boards, but more often expect help to come from other students.
• Certification: Tell whomever cares that you took an online course — you’ll have a PDF to prove it! Many MOOCs, including most courses on edX and Coursera, currently offer certificates of completion if you finish enough of a course. The free versions of 6.00x and ML that I took offer “honor code” certificates, which means that no steps were taken to prove that the real Ethan Solomon took the course, merely that somebody who wrote their name as “Ethan Solomon” took the course, and they may or may not have cheated their way through it. More robust forms of identity verification and certification have recently been announced on both platforms, though they carry a fee.”
Overall, del Mar Sánchez-Vera & Prendes-Espinosa observed and recommended, “In general, MOOCs cannot easily replace a good online non-massive course, because the facilitator is essential for guiding and contextualising the students’ learning process. We therefore think that MOOCs are one of the many possibilities that give flexibility to the educational offering; while they can never be a substitute, they can indeed be a complement. (2015)
After Vanderbilt University partnered with Coursera, they offered a Guide for Teaching, titled, “Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)”. In this guide it is stated that, “MOOCs are characterized by their openness, enabling anyone across the world with an Internet connection to participate. As a result, most MOOCs have thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of participants. An online course with potentially tens of thousands of students is a very different teaching environment than face-to-face courses or even “traditional” online courses. Teaching strategies practiced in other teaching contexts won’t necessarily translate well to this context. Indeed, the sets of choices regarding learning objectives, content presentation, assessment, and instructor-to-student and student-to-student interaction are still being developed in this emergent teaching environment.” (Vanderbilt University, 2012)
As McGuire states, “The downside to self-paced courses is that there are typically fewer active students to interact with in the forums. Similarly, the teacher is unlikely to be actively participating.” (McGuire, 2014)
According to Ross et al (2104), in “Teacher Experiences and Academic Identity: The Missing Components of MOOC Pedagogy, “The teacher’s role within a MOOC clearly differs from most other educational contexts, where teachers can personally know and engage with students at some level, most commonly through selection, tutoring, and assessment of individual work.”
According to Kolowich (2015) in The Professors Who Make The MOOCs, offered information on “What is it like to teach 10,000 or more students at once, and does it really work? The largest-ever survey of professors who have taught MOOCs, or massive open online courses, shows that the process is time-consuming, but, according to the instructors, often successful. Nearly half of the professors felt their online courses were as rigorous academically as the versions they taught in the classroom…The survey, conducted by The Chronicle, attempted to reach every professor who has taught a MOOC. The online questionnaire was sent to 184 professors in late February, and 103 of them responded.” (Kolowich, 2015)
In Sandra L. Miller’s case study (2015), titled, “Teaching an Online Pedagogy MOOC”, “the study was designed as an exploratory study aimed at understanding the differences in quality online pedagogy between MOOCs and quality online learning as currently defined.” The recommendations were such that “MOOCs have opened up a huge number of questions for us as higher education instructors and administrators, but they have firmly established the need for open and more flexible learning. The online environment provides that medium – it’s how we, as higher education instructors and administrators, use this online environment to meet our students’ needs that remains the crux of the issue. MOOCs do provide for scaling up, but they may not provide for the type of quality education that most of us are committed to. That is the next MOOC question to ask – how can we provide a quality education with a clear demonstration of learning outcomes? We have been able to show that for the last 10 years in “traditional online education” and if we are to make the next move to MOOCs, we need to address this question in that delivery format.”
President Obama supports free Coursera Verified Certificates to teachers for district-approved professional development. See the video here.
For these 3 providers, they offer certifications for their courses, however, their value in comparison to traditional accredited degrees is questionable.
“Coursera and edx both have a third level of certificate you can earn by completing a sequence of classes in a subject.
For example, in the edX version, if you take a sequence of 3 courses in supply chain management from MIT or a series of 4 in astrophysics from Australia National University, you can earn (and pay for) an XSeries certificate. The total cost is the sum of the fees for each of the verified SOA’s in the sequence plus an additional program fee of $50 or $75 for the XSeries certificate. So the supply chain management series certificate would total $375 and the astrophysics version would total $275.
The Coursera version, called a Specialization certificate, requires a capstone project and has other features or incentives included in some sequences, designed by each university. For example, the data science sequence of nine classes from Johns Hopkins University allows the highest performing students a chance to video conference with instructors during their capstone projects. Other sequences promise to publish or showcase the best student work. (McGuire, 2014)”
According to Michael Horn (2013, in his article titled, “The Audacity Of Udacity”, “The reason is that Udacity is in essence now its own university that is armed with a coherent business model, does not need traditional accreditation because of its relationships with and commitment from substantial employers that send a far stronger signal to students than does traditional accreditation, and a value proposition seeking to solve a real problem—helping current and would-be employees level up for employers.”
In a letter by the President’s Council Of Advisors On Science And Technology (2013), it states, “Multiple platforms for offering MOOCs have emerged, including a for-profit company, Coursera, that is developing MOOCs with 107 partner colleges and universities; 7 a nonprofit organization, edX, that is affiliated with a smaller number of university partners (including some that are also partners with Coursera); and a for-profit company, Udacity, that is developing MOOCs largely outside of formal relationships with colleges and universities “ It was recommended, “the federal government not interfere with vendors and providers experimenting with massive open online courses and other forms of distance education. That message extends further to accreditors, which are encouraged to waive some of the standards required of institutions seeking approval for traditional programs.” (Straumsheim, 2013)
The American Council on Education (ACE) has accredited the first Coursera course and has recommended others. Kolowich further explains in his article titled, American Council on Education Recommends 5 MOOCs for Credit, ACE “operates a credit-recommendation service that evaluates individual courses. If a course passes muster, ACE advises its 1,800 member colleges that they can be comfortable conferring credit on students who have passed that course….Whether colleges take the council’s advice, however, is an open question? “Ultimately, the degree-granting institution decides what credits to accept,” said Cathy A. Sandeen, the council’s vice president for education attainment and innovation…ACE has positioned itself to lead the inquiry into what MOOCs will mean to higher education. The council has gotten funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to study how the courses could be used to improve access and college completion, and it is currently reviewing courses from Udacity, another MOOC provider, for possible credit recommendations…The approval of the first Coursera MOOCs is “an important first step in ACE’s work to examine the long-term potential of MOOCs” to deal with issues such as “degree completion, increasing learning productivity, and deepening college curricula,” said Molly Corbett Broad, the council’s president, in a written statement…But the second step, in which colleges begin accepting MOOC certificates for credit as if they were Advanced Placement scores, is equally important—and there is no guarantee that colleges will do so.” (Kolowich, 2013)
According to the Council of Higher Education Associate, in “MOOCs, Quality and Accreditation: Focus on the Quality of “Direct-to-Students” Education, Judith Eaton (2012) states, “As with any effort at change in higher education, the emergence of MOOCs has quickly been accompanied by questions about their quality, a key element in their staying power. Are students learning? How do we know? Such discussions often lead to discussion of accreditation, higher education’s primary means of assuring and improving quality.
If there is a role for accreditation with MOOCs, what might this be? If accreditation is not an appropriate vehicle for quality review for MOOCs, what is?
1. Through what lens do we examine MOOCs for quality? With traditional higher education, we have a lens through which to determine baseline quality. This includes curricula, faculty and student support, for example. Does it make sense to judge MOOCs through the lens of traditional higher education? Or, do we need a different lens and what is this?
2. Do MOOCs call for additional rethinking of expectations of teaching and learning – beyond current conversations? MOOCs may not have faculty in the traditional sense, curricula may come from elsewhere and traditional student support may be absent. MOOCs offer:
3. Alternative delivery of instruction – noncredit offerings to a mass, potentially universal, audience.
4. Alternative approaches to instruction – a more modest faculty role, expanded reliance on students and peer-to-peer grading and auto-grading.
5. Alternative evaluation of learning – use of data analytics.
6. To what extent does current accreditation review address the key features of MOOCs? The 80 U.S. recognized accreditors review and accredit programs, colleges and universities. Accreditation review includes attention to continuing education and most accreditors address online learning and competency–based education. Regional and faith-related accreditation address degree education; the national career-related accreditors review both degree and non-degree postsecondary education. At present, accreditors are not focused on the scale of MOOCs, do not accredit elements of courses and still expect that faculty play a significant role in students’ educational experiences.
7. If accreditation is to address MOOCs, what needs to be done? Accrediting organizations were created by traditional higher education and have changed as traditional institutions have changed. If MOOCs continue to build connections with colleges and universities that result in the conversion of MOOC experiences into college credit, what tools do accreditors need? Is such scrutiny desirable or valuable? Will the review process change and, if so, how?
8. If it is not appropriate for accreditation to address quality in this context, what are alternative forms of quality review? Do alternative tools need to be created? If so, what are their characteristics? What are other approaches to determining quality that might be developed?” (Eaton, 2015).
In light of the challenges this paper sought to analyze, it appears that these xMOOC providers are examples of New Learning, but the seven affordances are illustrated in a varying degree. As stated by Nicholas Carr (2012), in “The Crisis in Higher Education” It’s hardly a coincidence that Udacity, Coursera, and edX are all led by computer scientists. To fulfill their grand promise—making college at once cheaper and better—MOOCs will need to exploit the latest breakthroughs in large-scale data processing and machine learning, which enable computers to adjust to the tasks at hand. Delivering a complex class to thousands of people simultaneously demands a high degree of automation. Many of the labor-intensive tasks traditionally performed by professors and teaching assistants—grading tests, tutoring, moderating discussions—have to be done by computers. Advanced analytical software is also required to parse the enormous amounts of information about student behavior collected during the classes. By using algorithms to spot patterns in the data, programmers hope to gain insights into learning styles and teaching strategies, which can then be used to refine the technology further. Such artificial-intelligence techniques will, the MOOC pioneers believe, bring higher education out of the industrial era and into the digital age.”(Carr, 2012) With this anticipated analysis it is also the hope that more strategies for the seven affordances of New Learning will be discovered and utilized.
According to McGuire (2014), “Coursera, edX and Udacity each have their pros and cons.”
In view of the learning possibilities by the learner and teaching strategies by the teacher, I believe the massiveness of the MOOC is what may deter against a fully realized, effective and optimal learning and teaching experience. While course development can focus on best-practices and strategies, it is a major responsibility for the learner and teacher to utilize the course to its fullest potential. Most of these challenges are the same as in the smaller online classroom as, but facilitation on the larger scale does pose greater disadvantages and challenges.
It is a marvel that they can be offered on such a large scale. Being that there are accreditation guidelines that can be followed to insure the accreditation of a class, program and ultimately, school, every effort can be made then for accreditation on a mass scale. If this can be done it will revolutionalize higher education offering it on a grander scale and at a lower cost. The technology is already being utilized and the possibility exists. It is just a matter then of changing the way we think about and approach education.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Being that these three popular xMOOCs all started out of Artificial Intelligence labs they would have a greater motivation, capacity and expertise for educational data mining, lexicon, statistical and learning analytics on a grander scale. Offering better automation and delivery of course materials, resources, platforms and feedback, are all beneficial for the learner, teacher, developer and administrator. Following the guidelines of the accreditation boards so as to offer classes that meet these guidelines allow for the obtainment of accredited degrees.
The wide spread popularity of MOOCs can be illustrated by the site that offers a MOOC tracker for upcoming course starts and listings for the top 10 MOOCs. How this will change the course of higher education will in part depend on the additions to the MOOCs so that their courses are accredited and improvements made to the courses so that their delivery, experience and outcomes offer an academically sound and robust platforms. Furthermore, there is a chance that traditional higher education institutions will be a way of the past as we move into this digital era of the 21st century taking our educational systems with us.
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