The asymmetry of relations between schools and the providers of solutions they use.

During last year a third-party software solution vendor decided to change its pricing model, which in turn resulted in a significant cost increase to the school.   It is only now however that I have had time to write and share my thoughts on this.   Now, I can understand their reasoning for the increase, given their model made them significantly cheaper than the competition when we originally looked to source a solution, and therefore despite providing a similar service, they would have had lower income.   That said, it still felt unfair.

So, what are the factors here?

Communication

In this case the communication wasn’t great, as it wasn’t until our renewal that they communicated the cost increase with us, where clearly, they must have planned the change including modelling its impact on both the company and its users.    I would have hoped that they would have clearly communicated their plan for a price increase in advance, outlining to customers the reasoning for the change and how the new funds would be invested and used to the betterment of the product and therefore its loyal customers.   A little bit better communication, and more information may have made me at least a little more understanding as to the change.   Sadly, in this case all we got was a quote with a price significantly higher than the cost from the previous year.

Training and sunk costs

Following this unfair treatment, it might seem logical to simply change vendors, especially now where this vendor is now comparable in terms of price with other solutions.   The challenge here is that we can’t purely look at the bit of software and its cost, we need to consider the number of users, type of users, training and support, the complexity of the system, etc, if we are truly to identify its impact or the impact of trying to change systems.   This is where it gets difficult as it will always be easier to stay with the solution you have, than to change to a new solution, especially where the solution you have has been in use for several years.    You have already paid the cost of setting the solution up, adjusting processes and training users.   With any change in solution these costs will still need to be paid.   At this point you need a robust motivation to change, where in my case, the minor feeling of unfairness is unlikely to be enough.

So, what to do?

I decided that as the total cost of moving to a new solution was higher and represented more uncertainty, despite the feeling being unfairly treated, I decided to stay with the vendor in question.   I did however make sure our unhappiness as to this incident was made clear.   Maybe there will be some potential for negotiation on cost following this however at the time of writing this is unknown.   I know this decision seems imperfect, but we live in an imperfect world.

Wider implications

The above incident however highlights the wider implication where we invest in solutions for use in our schools whether they be learning platforms, productivity suites, management information systems or other solutions.   As we invest, and use and eventually embed each system, we need to consider what our exit strategy might be.    Although we hope each third party may have us, the customer, in mind it is likely their key focus is on their continued commercial operation and on growth where possible.   As such the customer isnt us as an individual school or MAT, but schools, the collective group of schools they currently or in future may wish to sell to.

We are investing in their platform to provide something to our schools which we can’t provide for ourselves.    They however are less invested in us as we are but one school in a sea of schools to which they sell their product.   The relationship is decidedly asymmetric.

Conclusion

I wish I had a solution for this issue but sadly I do not.   The relationship between a school and the third-party solutions it uses isnt balanced and as such even if the vendors direction is currently aligned with yours, it is unlikely to remain so.

The only recommendation I can therefore offer is to be aware of the asymmetry of the relationship and have an eye on possible alternatives should the push become significant enough to offset any training or other costs.    Also, where unhappy, be sure to make vendors aware as it is likely you won’t be the only person, and if a vendors collective user base all complain the vendor may be forced to reconsider any proposed changes.

The big vendors we are all using, such as Google and Microsoft, may represent the above issue taken to an even large scale.  If their solutions ceased to align with school needs, how easy would it be to move solution, where all your data, your training, etc is so heavily invested in these solutions continuing to remain in alignment with individual school needs.   This may be an even more significant risk, however hopefully one which we will never need to realise.   As such it may therefore be ok to have at least considered the risk.

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What is the role of the IT Network Lead to enhance Teaching and Learning?

The below post is based on my recent presentation at the EdTech Summit in Birmingham, my first face to face conference in over 1 ½ years where I was asked to present on my role, which is effectively leading IT Services and how it fits into supporting and encouraging the use of technology in teaching and learning.

I think it is important to tackle this question by breaking it down a little;   The first thing I believe that is worth looking at is who should lead on the use of tech in relation to teaching and learning.    For me the answer to this is simply that it is unlikely that any single person will possess all the relevant skills and experience in relation to school strategy, technology, pedagogy, curriculum content, classroom management and a variety of other factors.    Leading technology in a school requires a team of people working together with the network lead, director of IT or whatever title is in your school, being one of these people.    So that maybe answer the overall question, that the IT network leads role is to work in partnership and collaboration with other tech leaders in a school to support, empower and encourage others in the use of technology within teaching and learning.

And what does effective use of tech in teaching and learning look like?    This is a really important question.   It is sometimes easy to consider tech use to be high impact, flashy, high tech, etc, but the reality of it is that good tech use should largely be transparent to the teacher and learners, being simply the natural way they do things.   So, it is important to acknowledge this and therefore accept that good technology use may be subtle and nuanced much in the same way as good teaching is, rather than something obvious that jumps out and hits you in the face.

And then there is the word “enhance”.    So, technology can bring more to the teaching and learning experience, making it better?    Am not sure how comfortable I feel with this and the possible implication than teaching without tech might be a lesser experience;  I believe great teaching can occur even without the use of tech.   Tech is simply a tool but a tool which brings with it a variety of options and a flexibility which may not have been as possible or easy to achieve without tech.    Borrowing from the SAMR model, tech could augment, an alternative word to enhance, modify or even allow the redefinition of learning.   The potential is beyond simply enhancement.   It is also worth acknowledging that we increasingly live in a technology enabled world, and therefore technology is likely to be the norm in the world beyond schools our current students will eventually be faced with.

In terms of the wider IT teams and their involvement, here I have a worry that IT teams are often the staff behind the curtain, invisible in their day-to-day efforts, until things go wrong.  This isn’t right in my view as IT teams work hard day in day out to make things work, to set things up, to manage and administrate and to ensure that technology simple appears to work.  The reality is that lots of work goes in on a day-to-day basis, even when things are working well and the technology has become almost transparent in its use in the classroom.   There needs to be greater acknowledgement of this and of IT staff’s role as partners in teaching and learning.    And this from someone who has been a teacher, a teacher and IT admin and an IT Director.

Conclusion

IT Network Lead, IT Manager, IT Director, or whatever you want to call them should be actively part of discussions regarding technology strategy.  They should be seen as partners in the process of teaching and learning using technology;   They may not necessarily bring the pedagogical knowledge or curriculum content knowledge, but they bring the technology knowledge.   And above all leading tech in a school is a team effort!

Developing User Self Sufficiency

I have previously written in relation to the large number of support calls received by IT departments in schools especially towards the start of the new academic year.   A significant portion of these calls relate to users forgetting how to do something using technology, with a number of these relating to what I would consider simple issues.    Using Windows+P for example is a common solution to the common problem of computer displays not showing on classroom projectors, instead showing only on the desktop monitor.  But should IT teams still need to deal with such simplistic issues in a world where Google can quickly serve up the answers?

Self Sufficiency vs. ease

I suspect one of the challenges here is simply ease.   With a good IT support team, a simple issue can be quickly solved with an email or a phone call, with little effort on the part of the user.   This ease of solutions, with every occurrence, reinforces that this approach is the easiest, most convenient and therefore the correct and preferable approach (for the user at least!).

A preferable solution viewed either from the long-term point of view or from that of busy IT support teams, is that users be able to fend for themselves, that they are willing and able to make use of Google to find solutions to their own problems.   Again, if this was to become the common approach, it would eventually reinforce itself as the best approach.   In doing so users would become more self-sufficient and resilient to issues, while IT support teams would be freed up to deal with the issues which are more technical in nature or cannot be solved through a simple Google search.   This always reminds me of the teaching approach used in primary schools of “C3B4ME” or see 3 before me, which encourages students to ask friends, search the internet, read books, and generally consult 3 sources before approaching the teacher in relation to a problem or challenge.

Part of the challenge in the above may relate to the cognitively demanding nature of teaching.   A teacher is considering content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, the individual traits, and behaviours of each of their students, assessment (formative and summative), timekeeping and many more things in a lesson, so if the cognitive load can be reduced a little by fielding IT issues to IT support, I can see why this may occur.

Usability

I also think it’s important to acknowledge how system and app usability has changed over the years.   When I first started using IT most products, including productivity software and even games, came with detailed instruction manuals.   Now I will admit to not reading these and instead jumping straight it, which is how I suspect most people would have operated, but when you hit issues you had something to refer to as this was therefore you first port of call.    These days more consideration has been given to usability making the learning curve for many apps shallower than it may have been in the past.  Detailed instruction manuals are no longer provided as solutions are more “usable”.  This seems like a good thing, so why do IT support teams still get so many calls?

The general perception of usability is correct in general terms, but when looking at specific solutions in schools it may not hold.   So, a user might have been able to work out TikTok and Facebook on their own with no help but when they hit the schools management information systems (MIS) they struggle.   The MIS is then saw as highly specialised, which to an extent it is, so this merits a call to IT support rather than a look at the help tools or a Google search.

What are IT Services for?

The other question I have in relation to this issue is, if users do become more self sufficient and solve more of their own problems, what does this mean IT Services teams will be doing?   As I mentioned earlier, I believe they would simply be freed up to focus on more technical issues which can’t be easily solved through the support of Google.   I also think the extra time available would also allow them to spend more time looking at how to better use technology, rather than simply repeating the same solutions to repeatedly occurring simple issues.

Conclusion

The challenge for IT teams of encouraging user self sufficiency while still being helpful and user focussed is an ongoing and long-term challenge.   Human habit, ease and user confidence are all wrapped up in this, making the challenge very much a human rather than technological challenge.   This is an important consideration and to me highlights the need to focus on a longer-term plan and the little day to day actions, including the potential to “nudge” behaviours towards the intended outcome of improving users technological self-sufficiency.  

Ultimately IT teams in schools want to see technology used to maximum impact.   I think developing user self-sufficiency in relation to technology, and likely user confidence as associated with self-sufficiency, will help us better achieve this.

The Wi-fi’s not working? Or is it Facebook?

The other days outage of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram highlighted to me the complexity of internet services, and how they rely on various technologies, hardware, software, and companies to make things work.  This is the reality, yet the perception is that it is simply “Facebook” or “WhatsApp” a single simple service.

The same is true in schools in particular in relation to Wi-Fi.   How many times have I heard about issues with Wi-Fi?    I would suggest, too many, yet “the Wi-Fi isnt working” implies simplicity where it doesn’t exist.  The need to “fix” the Wi-Fi suggests a single point of failure, a single issue or technology to look at, where in reality the service relies on a number of different technologies and different companies to make work.

Some possible issues

Starting with the user device might be a useful place to start.   This can impact on Wi-Fi.   Recently my team came across a device where the DNS (Domain Name System) server was set to that of Google on the device rather than getting the DNS from the schools’ network.  For safeguarding reasons, we want to see the DNS requests so prevent the use of DNS servers other than our own so this student instantly had issues accessing internet services due to this.  I suspect they may have changed the DNS server for the purposes of bypassing home filtering such as that provided by the likes of Sky broadband.    Next there are students who may be using VPNs to bypass filtering.   Again, depending on the VPN used, this might impact their internet connection or the speed of their internet connection.    Updates which havent been installed on devices may also have an impact or possibly updates to the apps on device rather than the device itself.        

Moving beyond the device, the Wireless Access points may cause issues in terms of signal strength or in terms of their capacity to handle requests for different connected devices at the same time.   I will admit they also may occasionally fall over of their own accord.   It may also be that a “noisy” device is saturating the APs with requests leading to an impact on the service.   Or the issue could be to do with network switching or even the internet bandwidth available to serve all users.    Again a noisy device on the network could be impacting overall network performance.   Your DNS servers or DHCP servers, which provide devices the IP address they require, could also be at fault if they are not operating as they should.   And this is just scratching the surface of the potential causal or contributory factors.

And it doesn’t stop there; The issue might not even be within the school and could relate to issues with the service or site the students are trying to access.   It may be a reputable service which is simply having issues at a given moment in time, a bit like the recent Facebook issue, or it could be a less reputable site which simply isn’t trustworthy or reliable.  It could be that the site uses authentication from a third party, such as Facebook, and this is what is causing the issue, or that the site uses an Infrastructure as a Service (IAAS) vendor and it is they who are having problems.    It could even be a largescale internet routing issue.

Conclusion

This all makes me thing of the Arthur C. Clarke quote regarding advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic.   The challenge is Facebook and internet services in general appear to be simple, in we can all easily use them.   There is no magic there, and as such there can be no magic in their inner workings.    Or at least that is the user perception.  This however is untrue.    There is magic.    There is the magic of so many different technologies, hardware, software and companies working together in unison to deliver the services we come to expect, or at least doing so most of the time.    That is until something goes wrong somewhere in the chain leading to that familiar cry:   “The Wi-fis not working!”

IT Services and Admin

Sometimes the borders of responsibility to IT systems are a little blurred.   Take for example a complex HR and payroll system.   The IT team might know the technical requirements and how to get the software up and running.   They might know what integrations with other systems exist, including integration possibly with the schools Management Information System and with Active Directory for example.    But will they know how to solve a problem with an HR workflow which has been setup within the HR system?

This is where the lines blur.   As the HR and payroll system is an IT system, sometimes it is assumed that IT support teams will know the user interface and how it works.    Sadly, this is seldom the case and given the number of systems which a school might have, is it any wonder that IT teams can’t be expected to know how each system works and the user interface for each system.

Let’s just consider some of the systems a school might have:

Management Information, Payroll, Asset Management, Safeguarding, Trip Management, Room Booking, Parent Evening Booking, School Website, Parent payment gateway, Parent Communication Platform, Human Resources solution, Visitor Management, Cloud based productivity suite (e.g. Office 365), Timetabling solution….. and that doesn’t include the IT specific platforms and several other solutions which may be used in schools.

For me the key in deciding IT involvement relates to the need, or not, for domain specific knowledge.    The payroll systems for example will likely need some accounting and payroll understanding along with understanding of school payroll related processes.    It needs knowledge from the payroll domain, knowledge IT teams won’t necessarily have.   As such administration of this system should sit within Finance or Payroll, where the required domain knowledge exists.

Personally, I do however think there is a place for IT support teams to have some skill, experience and the ability to provide training in the schools’ core productivity solution, such as Office 365, including understanding how it can be used by teachers.  Productivity suites tend to be flexible for applications in different domains, however in their use within teaching and learning, this clearly would suggest need for knowledge from within the teaching domain.    For me though, as teaching and learning is the key aim of a school, there is therefore significant value in IT teams being able to support this aim.    

I think as we use more and more IT systems, the lines between what IT support or services teams can do in relation to IT systems and what they cannot continue to blur.   Also, as the IT systems we use in every day life become more and more user friendly I also think this increases the perception that trained IT staff can troubleshoot and support all IT systems, hiding the fact that role or process specific systems continue to be specialist and required specific domain knowledge.

If I was to sum up, lets use a medical analogy:  IT Support teams are like your GP.   We keep things generally running, are good for your general queries, but when it comes to brain surgery, or the payroll system, am not sure I would want them carrying out the operation. Equally am not sure a brain surgeon, or someone for payroll, would make a GP……. or an IT Technician.

IT Services: Week 1 of the new academic year

The first week of a new academic year is probably one of the busiest periods of the year for IT teams in schools and colleges across the UK and also the world.  Here we have seen a 10% increase in calls logged, when compared with last year and that excludes countless walk-ins and telephone calls where the resolution was quick and therefore never logged.   Comparing last week with the previous year average, last week is around twice the volume.    So why is it so busy?

Returning staff and students

The first week sees all your returning staff and students once again logging on and accessing school systems.   One of the challenges though is that it may have been 2 months ago or more that they last logged in.    This means there is always several forgotten passwords or queries about how to use a particular system or find a particular report.   For some reason printers and copiers in particular make frequent appearance on IT call logs at the start of term.

The need for Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) also throws some challenges in here, where staff have bought new phones, and where their old phone was setup for MFA.    This then requires support is provided to setup MFA on their new device.

System Changes

Although teaching staff may be on holiday over summer, a lot of the IT upgrade work occurs during this period.   This means that teaching staff may come back to slightly changes in the IT setup and processes.    You can never underestimate the impact even the slightest change will have on some users.    As such, the likely system changes conducted during summer contribute to a busy first week as staff need to adjust and build new habits.

And it isnt only schools which make changes; Some EdTech vendors will also take the opportunity to upgrade or update their platforms.  Again, this will cause some users difficulties leading to a “quick” call to IT.   Occasionally this can cause big issues where changes don’t go according to a vendors plan, resulting in service disruption.    Sadly, this is largely out of IT Services control however that won’t stop users directing their frustrations and annoyance towards the IT team.

New students and staff

I have already mentioned the challenge of returning users having forgotten how things work or how to do things, but then there are the new staff and students for whom the school’s setup, systems and processes are totally new.    Despite whatever training or support they have been provided, they are likely to need support; During their opening weeks they will likely need to learn so many new things, from school processes, staff names, their way around site, etc, and as such it won’t all stick, and where its an IT issue that doesn’t stick, it’s a likely call to the IT services or support team.

Last Minutes changes

We always hope things have been planned in advance, but each new academic year brings with it plans or ideas which were only agreed or decided upon recently just before the year begins, thereby requiring last minute actions.    This is often very frustrating, as despite some of these ideas and initiatives having value, the worst time from an IT point of view to make changes or try to implement new things in a hurry is the start of the new academic year when you are already under pressure. 

Conclusion

The start of the new academic year is always going to be busy.   I am not sure there is much we can do about this as most of the factors listed above are unavoidable.    I think the best we can do is to look to those areas which are avoidable and seek to do just that and avoid them.   We also need to carefully find ways to mitigate issues through providing JIT (Just-In-Time) training resources and directing users to these.   If you can empower users to solve their own issues as much as possible IT teams can then focus on the issues which need their support and where users cannot resolve themselves. Developing ways that teaching and support staff can share ideas, difficulties, etc, among themselves can be an important solution here.   We have an EdTech Mutual support team for example where staff can share questions or issues, with other staff then able to provide the solutions, workarounds, etc.   I will note this is also a good resource for IT teams as it gives insight into the issues and on occasions gives us solutions which we hadnt considered.    The need for prioritisation is also important, to focus on the jobs which have the biggest impact.  This requires users be understanding to the limited resources IT teams, no matter how big they are, will have.    

In conclusion, if I was to end with just one message it would be, be kind and considerate to your IT services and support teams at the start of the new academic year.    This is a very very busy time for them, much as it is for most school or college staff, however they may have also been busy throughout the summer.  

Well done to the IT people in schools and colleges around the world;  By the time you read this most of you will have survived the first week (and maybe the second) of yet another academic year!   Keep up the great work!

IT Support Issues

At the front line in the classroom the concerns around technology use have focused on issues such as phone addiction, privacy settings, screen time and fake news to name but a few of the issues reported in the press in recent months.     I decided during my presentation at King Edward VI earlier this week to try and get some input on what the concern areas are for those behind the scenes, from the IT support or IT Services leaders of a number of schools.

As such the question I asked was “What is the worst thing that could go wrong?”

During my 2 sessions two very evident themes seemed to come out from the responses I received.

Only one response indicated that IT and Safeguarding was an issue.   I found the fact that only one person gave this response despite a keynote presentation specifically on online safety earlier in the day, to be a surprise.    I have to admit that in creating my presentation on IT support issues I omitted safeguarding however on reflection it should most definitely have been included.   I believe the issue here is that support staff spend most of their time with the systems including software and hardware, plus the users.   As a result, they focus on these areas as areas where things will go wrong.   This is due to these areas coming easily to mind whereas safeguarding doesn’t quite come so easily to mind.

Two responses referred to loss of staff skills and knowledge following staff leaving.   Personally I think this issue could be expected to arise in any domain, aside from education, where there is a technical skill requirement.    Losing staff and their skills, experience, knowledge, etc. is of concern.

A lack of documentation was raised by one person.     I think this relates partially to the above either in terms of a staff member leaving or to a staff member being ill or otherwise absent where their activities have not been documented such that others cannot pick up their tasks.

The first of the two main themes among responses relates to a disaster event such as a fire which impacted on all or key systems, or a technical failure of key systems.    These represent quite significant disaster events in that they would most likely impact on a number of school activities including access to files for teaching and learning, lesson registration, finance and payroll and general communications.     I believe these responses related to people imaging the perfect storm of a number of minor issues joining to become a major issue or a major event such as a site fire, etc.    It is no wonder given the complexity of systems that such an incident with such a wide impact is of concern and commonly was raised by those who provided responses.

The second of the two main themes related to data loss or data breach.   This doesn’t surprise me as schools and other UK organisations prepare for the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulations in May of next year.    The conference event itself included a session on data retention and destruction including a number of references to GDPR.      There has also be a large amount in the press as of late, on data breaches again helping to make such data loss or data breaches take centre stage in the minds of the attendees who responded during my sessions.

I would say the responses received were generally as I expected especially in relation to data.   With GDPR being implemented in May and so many data breaches reported in the press it is no surprise that this area is of concern.     A wide spread disaster is also a predictable concern as it involves considering the worst that could happen and this usually would involve multiple complex issues combining or a disaster event such as a fire.       The fact that safeguarding didn’t figure so highly however is a little of a surprise and maybe something we should consider carefully.    I suspect this is due to safeguarding not coming easily to mind.     As such we must make efforts to bring it to mind more often, to consider it more often as a concern for IT support as much as it is for teachers.    How can we make students safe without suffocating them in filters and blocks?    How can we support and guide then to make the correct choices?    How can we better educate them in relation to the technical issues especially around privacy, safety and security?

Above all staff, both IT Support and also teaching staff, should work in partnership to prepare our students to thrive in this ever technological world.

IT Support vs. IT Services?

ID-100109206smallI am currently working on changing the current departmental title where I work from IT Support to IT Services as I believe IT Services more accurately fits what I and the staff within the department do.

The main reason behind this change is that I see the staff within the department and the work that we do as integral to what happens within the school.   We provide data services to ensure teachers, school leaders and parents have timely access to information.    We provide the audio visual services used within the classroom everyday in checking, maintaining and replacing classroom data projectors, audio systems and associated computer hardware.    We provide the printing facilities across the school.    We provide and support the WIFI across the school as used by the staff and students which given all students and staff have a mobile device is quite a significant undertaking.

My belief is that the term “service” is more in line with what we do as opposed to “support”.    Now I recently read a post by Anthony DePrato which you can see here.     His post presents a slightly different standpoint in that he expresses a key preference for “support” over the term “service”.    The reasoning for this is explained to be the fact that teaching and learning are critically important and therefore the focus.    The IT facilities and staff are therefore there to help and to support this critical focus as opposed to being a service.   Mr. DePrato raises the concern of the potential reliance that may develop on IT as a service.

My viewpoint differs to that of Mr. DePrato on one key point.   For me teaching and learning is always the critical and key focus of all staff within a school independent of whether they directly teach students or not.   I recently commented when a colleague mentioned HR and Payroll, that they too need to focus on teaching and learning.   If teachers don’t feel supported as employees and adequately paid then their teaching and the learning experiences they provide will most likely be adversely affected.    So for the IT staff working within the school the key thing is to provide services which assist and enhance teaching and learning.

I use “services” as I feel this better describes how “we” as a whole are all “in it together”.    If the school management system doesn’t work then this will adversely impact on Teaching and Learning.   If the display equipment doesn’t work or a teacher cant access online educational resources they wish to use then this will adversely impact on Teaching and Learning.   Teaching and Learning depends both on the teaching in the class and on the IT service available although I will happily concede that the teaching side of things is more important as learning can occur with the technology.    That said I believe the best learning happens where we have the best IT services and the best teaching operating together.   As such teaching staff and IT staff must work together.  It is not about reliance but more about a coexistence and collaboration.   For me the easiest way for this to happen is to see IT as a service in much the same way as water, electricity and heat.   Teachers should expect the service to be there and to meet their needs.    IT staff should seek to ensure that the service is in place and that it continues to meet the evolving needs of teachers plus to resolve any faults or problems promptly where they arise.    IT services involve an ongoing discussion with the users of the service to ensure the service remains current and appropriate to the needs of teachers and their students.

As Mr. DePrato said, this is not Amazon, as Amazon are external and represent a bought in service.   This is more akin to the internal relationship with have with school leaders who we expect to work with teachers and to lead the school.    This is an internal relationship with clear expectations.   Given this I think “service” is more appropriate as a term as opposed to “support”.

In concluding I would suggest that the words don’t matter as much as the culture and climate they seek to promote.   Maybe both myself and Mr. DePrato seek to establish the same culture and climate within IT however due to differing styles approach the same issue with slightly different perceptions and slightly differing styles.

 

 Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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