Did you know Thomas Edison’s notebooks ran to three and a half million pages? He wrote down ideas, plans, possibilities, drew sketches, visualised his thoughts and wrote about his colleagues’ work. He used words like if, might, would, could and try very frequently and didn’t bother to write correctly. Obviously his note-taking was productive: in 1882 alone he submitted 107 different patent applications. His notebooks have been published and there’s probably lots about them online somewhere, but I’m dialling up from an expensive hotel so no links today.

We’ve been talking about writing and conversation as tools for learning at the university pedagogy course today, and it’s so utterly relevant to blogging. Edison’s notebooks were cited as an example of “thinking writing” (perhaps there’s a different word commonly used in English? the Norwegain is tenkeskriving), which is experimental, exploratory and usually just for yourself. Here the writing process is important because that’s where you learn. Presentation writing is the kind of writing where your main goal is to communicate something you’ve already learnt to other people.

Blogs are in between. Three and a half million pages of notes doesn’t sound that much to a blogger (I printed out all my archives when I’d been blogging for a year, and the pile of paper was a lot thicker than my PhD thesis). Blogging is definitely a place for thinking, exploring, trying things out and learning, and I wouldn’t be surprised if analysis showed that bloggers, like Edison in his notebooks, use if, might, would, could and try more frequently than writers in other genres.

Olga Dysthe, the writing and learning specialist, cited dozens of interesting-sounding studies it’d be fascinating to read and relate to blogging. And she gave a lot of examples of writing exercises to use in classes. Writing is a really good way of learning, and especially writing where you write full sentences rather than just words (apparently that activates more cognitive processes or something, empirical studies show, and I think full sentences forces you to contextualise things more. I’ll have to find that study!). Now, I’ve hardly done the empirical studies, but following that it does seem likely that full on blogging, with its full sentences and linking would be a rather excellent learning tool.

Using weblogs with students I initially thought of the writing as something that they’d do at home or after class. Classroom time should be spent “learning”, I imagined, and writing would happen outside. It didn’t take long to realise that most of the students didn’t blog when we kept blogging and writing out of the classroom. Once we started blogging in the classroom, more writing happened outside of the classroom too. In retrospect it’s obvious: if you think blogging’s a good way of learning, you need to demonstrate that by trusting it enough that you spend classroom time on it. In addition, most people don’t “get” blogging instantly. They need time and experimentation to see whether and how it can be useful for them.

I need to complete this pedagogy course to get a permanent teaching position at the university, and for my final assignment, which has to be done before the third meeting, in October, I’m going to write an article about weblogs, writing and learning. I want it to be a practical sort of an article, the sort of article someone who was wondering how to use weblogs in teaching could pick up and think, ah, that doesn’t sound too hard, I’ll use that, and that, but I’d rather do that this way. I’ll start by posting blogging exercises I’ve used, and ones I think I might use, here. Not just now though, it’s dinner time!

23 thoughts on “writing and learning

  1. Christian

    Nice post Jill. I can relate to this and I do think that blogging has been very affective in my studies. An eksample: I write something on my blog and tell the readers I will figure something out or write more about something later.

    Because of that I feel obligated to do as I say. It makes me work.

  2. John G

    I’m interested in the idea that writing in full sentences is more conducive to learning than just words. Often when I take notes I just use key words, and I find that my notes are rarely useful.

    I bet that taking five minutes to write a summary after a note-taking session would help.

    (I also use the trick of mentioning something on my blog in order to get myself to do it later.)

  3. i1277

    In the information systems and pedagogics course (url below) I am currently taking, blogs are used. So I can also relate to what’s said in the post. Students must learn how to use a new tool to see it’s potential value – a “push”, and for the use of systems like this to be successful it is crucial that the teacher has an active role in motivating, teaching and facilitating the use of the tool.

    We’ve used our blogs on a voluntary basis, and there’s been little focus on the blogs throughout the term. Most students have not used the blogs actively. Some have used their blog to publish summaries of articles, others have not written a word. Some have gotten into typical blog-habits and started to follow and comment on eachothers blogs (Myself, I’ve mostly posted stuff that’s not really directly connected to the course). All in all, there is no sense of a greater “learning community” when reading the weblogs.

    As for schools and courses that use blogging, what’s new and needs to be understood by the students might not just be blogs and their characteristics, but also communicating digitally in general. Newsgroups and forums have been available for years, and so has personal websites. But still I have a feeling people aren’t really familiar with using the internet for expressing themselves or communication beyond e-mailing (and maybe the odd anonymous forum post). It’s interesting to see new bloggers adapt to their new environment, finding their own style but also discovering the existing conventions and becoming increasingly aware that the readers and writes on the internet are only persons, just like themselves.

    Also, I agree blogging (and commenting) would fit the inbetween-catgeory. I don’t just write things I feel sure of but also more half-baked ideas (hopefully developing some of them along the way).

  4. fivecats

    A few side comments:

    * Edison invented the light bulb, made a ton of money off of it and then hired in a bunch of people to keep the inventions coming. When he couldn’t top someone else’s idea he sued them, using his ever-increasing wealth to ruin other inventors and, eventually, securing the patents to their ideas. (See David Cook’s “A Narrative History of Film” )

    * Edison, and other pre-blog/non-blog writers, be they Stream of Consciousness writers or just diarists, have one very important difference in their writing. It’s private. Blogging, regardless of how many/few people actually read the blog, is still a very public act. As such, your writing must be different. Just as the act of recording an event changes the event, so does the public nature of the writing change what is being written.

    (My blog is generally unread but I still intentionally leave out specific details or do not write at all about certain events because of it’s public nature. The odds against someone reading “sensitive” information (say, about office politics) is slim, but it’s still a possibility. And that’s a risk I’m not willing to take.)

    When I first started blogging this idea of the Public nature of my writing was very inhibiting. It took me a while to get over my problems with that and find what my level of comfort with blogging was.

    * Learning for yourself and learning to please a teacher and earn a decent grade are, as you know, two entirely different things. I think a better determination of the usefulness of blogging in learning would be to track these students several months and years down the line to see how many (if any) are still using blogs to help with the learning/thinking process.

    * On the Many-to-Many blog Clay Shirky quotes from a Penn State research study that claims students don’t like to use email but, instead, prefer to use Instant Messaging. I can’t help wonder if the internet (which, to my forty-something year old mind is still “New”) has already reached the point where the young are rebelling against the applications of their elders in favor of something “new and different.” As such, it would be interesting to consider where blogging fits in with all of this.

    (For now my guess is that it’s a shared medium. LiveJournal, where my blog is, seems to be dominated by twenty-somethings and unders; Academics, however, are using it and, thus, giving it some legitimacy.)

    * If you want your article to be a Practical How-To guide for teachers I think you’ll need to some way to reach those “reluctant bloggers”. I don’t think it’s enough to just turn them into semester-long bloggers… (If you give a person a blog, you’ll have them blog for a day; teach them how to blog and they may blog for life.) (Or some mangled paraphrasing like that)

    To this end I think reflecting on you own experiences and those of bloggers you like to read and respect will be helpful. I think talking to as many “reluctant bloggers” will be equally as helpful.

    Good luck!

  5. Jonathan Smith

    I wonder how you could get invited to do a guest lecture at Knowledge Media Design Institute?

  6. Jill

    Wouldn’t mind a trip to Canada, Jonathan! And oh, the “reluctant bloggers” are interesting… Sally Wyatt talked in Oslo once about the NON-USERS of the internet, and in particular those who tried it but left it. Would be interesting to find out why.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure that it’s a necessary measure of success that a lot of students keep blogging – I would assume it’s a learning technique that DOESN’T work for everyone, just like most other learning techniques… But a university education should surely expose students to a variety of ways that could help them learn so they can find out more about what works for THEM?

    Blogging works for me, that’s for sure 🙂

    Henning Gjellesvik‘s going to be analysing the blogging activities in the web design and web asthetics course I taught this semester for his MA thesis – he’ll be interviewing some of the students as well as looking at their blogs. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he turns up!

  7. fivecats

    What you’re teaching is an exposure to new(er) tools for learning. Like any tool, it will work well for some and not for others. I think people drawn to writing have a better shot at taking to blogging in general.

    The friend who set me up with my blog said he thought blogs were useful for “getting things out of you.” After a while I realized, for me, he’s right. That’s a lot of what my blog is all about. It’s not quite purging things from my mind, but more of getting them out of my head so they’re not rebounding around in there endlessly. Seeing thoughts and ideas down on a screen, for me, gives them a better sense of organization and lets me think more clearly about them in the future.

    This idea doesn’t always work, however. I set my wife up with a blog for her to write out some of the thoughts she was having about the war in iraq. She blogged once and then decided it wasn’t for her. Some of it was based on her own comfort level with writing for (potential) public consumption, part of it had to do with her impressions of blogging in general after reading a number of various blogs from various sites. (These were personal sites that she felt were filled with aimless ramblings from lonely, depressed people. She didn’t want to feel that she was in those ranks.)

    A lot of it depends on how you learn, as well. Seeing, Hearing, Reading all are different methodologies; blogging will work for some of those and not for others. Stigmas for/against blogging will play into the equation as will the student’s “comfort level” with public writing (and public writing with potential response comments!).

    Clearly blogging is for some of us. Have fun spreading the word!

  8. Henning

    i1277 is mentioning the lack of a ìlearning communityî among the bloggers in the INFO352 course he is following this semester. This has given me some headache the last months.
    Why is it that students doing a master in information tec are not willing to give blogging a chance (most of them have not even tried
    blogging as much as a sentence during the semester).I usually have a lot of good things to say about social-oriented theories on learning, but we must not underestimate good old forceful methods.
    If blogging is obligatory in a course, the students will of course in the beginning feel forced to write (as in JillĂ­s
    course).Fivecats writes ìLearning for yourself and learning to please a teacher and earn a decent grade are, as you know, two entirely different thingsî. This is a common way to se the learning issue, but when it comes to students I think the picture is more grey than black or white. They have put themselves in a situation where they must follow the curriculum. They are sometimes in a situation of self-inflicted ìpainî, so they might try to justify what they are doing and start to like it. It is an interesting thought to follow when looking at all the good bloggs that has been written on Jillís hum inf cours.

    The norwegian
    kvalitetsreformen stats that students shall have grades reflecting their overall work during a semester. Maybe blogs can used as a part of the documentation of their work. They can post their essays, comment each others work, get feedback from their supervisor, form learning communities, write down what there are doing from day to day and so on..
    This implies that blogging is obligatory for all students. But what is wrong with that? We already have a lot of things students must do to get their grades.

  9. fivecats

    Henning thinks otherwise and says ìthe picture is more grey than black or white. They have put themselves in a situation where they must follow the curriculum. They are sometimes in a situation of self-inflicted ìpainî, so they might try to justify what they are doing and start to like it.î

    Perhaps, but I think this takes a particular type of student ñ someone who is mature enough to realize that real Learning has to do with the Process and not any specific End Result. Iíve gone through two Masterís programs and taught a wide variety of ages. Regardless of the program or the age, some get this and others donít.

    American culture is very Business oriented and, as such, End Result oriented. Processes are meant to obtain an end goal, not to be a goal within themselves. Self-discovery, on the other hand, is seen more as leisure-time activity, not having much to do with Business or profits.

    Blogging is, for the most part, very Process Oriented. I blog to work out ideas, to process (literally) thoughts and see how they come together out of my head and in a written form. Trying to get someone who is End Result oriented to blog is likely to be an exercise in frustration for both the teacher and the student.

    Henning suggests ìMaybe blogs can used as a part of the documentation of their work. They can post their essays, comment each others work, get feedback from their supervisor, form learning communities, write down what there are doing from day to day and so on.î

    Again, this is Process oriented and very difficult for some students to understand and accept. If you want them to be successful at this, provide more structure. Offer them the opportunity to do the things you state, but also grade them on it. If you obligate them to simply ìcomment on each others workî you may get a minimal ìYeah. Great job. Interesting paper.î If, however, you grade them on (a) the work/papers they post to their blogs and (b) their critical comments on each otherís papers, I think you may be more likely to have the blogging forum be more open to the kind of results youíre hoping for. Process-oriented people will get into it because of the process itself; End Result oriented people will know they must perform to a certain level to obtain their desired grade.

    Henning also asks ìThis implies that blogging is obligatory for all students. But what is wrong with that? We already have a lot of things students must do to get their grades.î

    Potentially nothing; potentially everything.

    Why are you obligating them to blog in the first place? If you truly believe itĂ­s a valuable tool in the field in which they are training in, thatĂ­s one thing. If itĂ­s simply because you like blogging and want everyone to blog, I have problems with that.

    My focus on teaching has always been to work to ensure the opportunities for success for each of my students. To that end I am aware that some are Process oriented, some are End Result oriented. Some are writers, some are graphic artists, and some express themselves best in other ways.

    If you force someone to write who is not a writer, who has problems communicating through the written word and gets frustrated easily when it comes to writing or takes much longer to get a job done through the written word than other means, I donít think youíre doing them any favors by obligating them to blog. Just because you ìalready have a lot of things students must do to get their gradesî to me just amplifies the problem. It doesnít do anything towards a solution.

    Sure creating other means by which students can re-present their research and comment on the research of others may mean more work. But, are the students there for you or are you there for the students?

  10. Henning

    I once heard a professor say ìthis university would have been a great place to work if it had not been for all the studentsî.

    What he meant was that he spent so much time teaching and helping students that he did not get enough time for his own reach. The reason I am mention this is not to criticise this man for his bad attitude, but to focus on the fact that teaching takes time. Good teaching, a lot of time. It is also a question of resources

    We are all different, we learn in different ways, some are introvert some extrovert, some like to write some to speak, some are theoretical some practical, and so on.

    In a perfect world we would give each student the learning environment that was most suited for him, and test him in a perfect way. If the student preferred to write he would write, talk he would talk, did he like multiple choice tests he would get those, or maybe he would like to write an essay. This is one of my dreams; that we can all learn, be tested and graded in the perfect way.

    Welcome to reality, the world is not a perfect place. We can always try to make it better place (wops wasnĂ­t that a peace song), by giving the student the ability to chose between different learning techniques. Students chose different universities and professions according to their skills (and of cause a lot of other reasons), but we still usually need to follow a common system to give a grope of students their grads. That is one of the reasons way students often have obligatory things they most do(the same curriculum and exam, workshops they most attend), so that we can judge the students as faire as we mange to do. For some professions it is also crucial that we can ensure that the students have learned a particular topic or skill.

    I am not sure to what extend American universityĂ­s apply obligatory curriculum and workshops, but I guess it is more or less as in Norway. I think it is usual that during a university degree the students come across things they has to do to get their grades and degrees that they do not enjoy doing. That is why I in the last post wrote something about motivation. My experience is that when you put down a lot of effort and work on a subject your interest grows/increas, and you might actually start to enjoy something you earlier did not like. Why? Maybe because your knowledge about the domain just was not good enough, or you might just try to justify to yourself what you are doing. Anyway, we then might find that the motivation in coming more and more from inside a persons mind and not only from outside goals like good grades. We have had a shift in motivation.

    This is one of my theories on what happened when the students had to blog in JillĂ­s web course. She told me that the students did not understand why they should blog, and that she spent a lot of time explaining it to them.

    In my master thesis I am also looking at a group of master students that was given the chance to blog during a course, this was not obligatory like in JillĂ­s course.

    Not surprisingly it was a lot more activity on the student blogs in JillĂ­s course, but the interesting thing though is that it so fare looks like that the attitude towards blogging was also much more positive among JillĂ­s students after the course was finished. I can not say this for sure since I do not yet have any statistics to show. But it will come.

    I mentioned in the last post that blogging might be a tool to document the students progress during a course. What I had in mind was that a blog site could easily become the medium in witch a student and his teacher/supervisor could meet. It could work as a virtual meeting point, a place with a personal atmosphere and where students could organise and collect their online resources. Like a personal student portal perhaps.

    I came to think about blogs in this setting because there is going to bee a university reform in Norway which is starting this autumn. We are among many things shifting to a more international ìlookî, chancing to letter grades(A,BÖ) and getting new names on the degrees(bachelorÖ). It also says that each student shall get better guidance during a degree and be graded on the work done during a course. Today many students get there grades from one single test at the end of a course .

    A friend of me is doing a PhD and supervising 15-20 students on their master thesis. He is living most of the time in another city than the students, so he set up an e-learning system where the students, among other things, could post their questions to him. In the beginning it was almost no activity, and he was kind of frustrated. I tipped him to make private virtual rooms for each student, a place where only he and a student could meet (chat) and read each otherĂ­s postings. The activity exploded. He almost drowned in postings. He barley survived, he he.

    The point is, of cause, that we do not want to let all our thoughtĂ­s fly into the waste internet universe. This limits the way we can use blogs as a medium between a student and a teacher.

    To answer fivecats question: ìare the students there for you or are you there for the students?î

    The students are here for me, and I am going to stuff a blog down their trough!
    —Stupid question, stupid answer. What more can I say.

    In two days I am going to BlogTalk in Vienna. It looks like it is going to be interesting. I hope I can organise my self to blog a couple of times a day. I should have a palm, so that I could blog direct from a lecture hum hum. Gotta by one, and perhaps a digital camera so that I can post pictures.

    Ps. I had problems making links in this text. DonĂ­t understand why.


  11. i1277

    I guess fivecats asks ìare the students there for you or are you there for the students?Ă® in a rhetoric rather than an agressive sense. Hence the self-evident answer. Teachers and also designers of educational software won’t take harm from asking themselves that question every once in a while though. Apparently, not all of them are as convinced as the participants in this thread.

  12. fivecats

    11277 wrote:
    [I guess fivecats asks ìare the students there for you or are you there for the students?î in a rhetoric rather than an agressive sense]

    To an extent, yes. The question is rhetorical in the sense that the answer should be self-evident.

    However, it was posed in all seriousness (not as a stupid question). Henning’s final statement (above) reads:

    [This implies that blogging is obligatory for all students. But what is wrong with that? We already have a lot of things students must do to get their grades.]

    To me this implies the needs of the students are secondary to the whims of the teacher in a given semester. To that extent, I thought the question needed to be posed.

    Please remember that this is a public forum. As such (and here I am assuming Jill promotes her blog as a place for students to see the possibilities blogging can offer and, therefore, it is read by students) it is being read by the very people you are discussing imposing a structure upon. If they believe you are doing so without any regard to their betterment and are doing so simply because, as their instructor, you can, then you are opening yourself (and other teachers) up for problems.

    The best teaching is a give and take process. Both student and teacher should be learning and growing in the process. Certainly there is a lopsided power balance to the equation, but to state it so cavalierly is to flaunt power over those beneath you. This usually only leads to problems.

    Henning wrote: [I once heard a professor say ìthis university would have been a great place to work if it had not been for all the studentsĂ®.] I have heard this, too. The teachers I’ve heard this from have, typically, been those who were burned out and needed a break. Their best recourse was to either find another profession or change their teaching location. Something had to give to “recharge” their interest in teaching.

    Henning wrote: [I once heard a professor say ìthis university would have been a great place to work if it had not been for all the studentsî.] I understand and agree. However, after a while it starts to sound like an excuse for mediocre teaching. As soon as a teacher starts forming a list of reasons why s/he cannot excel at teaching they begin, IMHO, they need to look for another profession. Sure there are limitations to what they would LIKE to do, but there are creative work-arounds for most everything.

    Henning wrote: [Welcome to reality, the world is not a perfect place. We can always try to make it better place (wops wasnĂ­t that a peace song), by giving the student the ability to chose between different learning techniques] Of course the world is not a perfect place, but, again, if we are truly trying to reach students we need to make adjustments. If a deaf student was in your classroom would you not make accomodations for him/her in how you address the class? Would you refuse an interpreter? (Yes, that’s rhetorical) If a blind student came in would you hand him/her the same printed paper test you would hand out to the rest of the class? (Again, rhetorical) Of course not. So what’s the difference between the student who doesn’t communicate well on paper? Is there inability to communicate or their specific needs less important because they lack an obvious social disability? (Again, rhetorical)

    A librarian I once knew worked in a library for 20+ years. She also worked with teachers who had taught in that school for the same amount of time and longer. They developed their lesson plans their first year and never changed them. They asked for the exact same library books for their students year after year. When a fire hit the library a good part of the collection was lost. While going through the the undamaged books she found some of these books that had been used by the same teachers for 20+ years. Those books “mysteriously disappeared.” That was the only way those teachers updated their curriculum.

    Obviously if you’re teaching technology-related subjects you can’t have much of a problem with updating your curriculum. However, I still think there’s a tendency in some teachers to do what comes easiest for them and not what’s best for the students.

    Just because we live in imperfection doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying. Isnt’ that why we’re here? (One last rhetorical question)

  13. Katherine

    What is the point of making blogging obligatory? I can see requiring students to document their work, or even requiring them to keep some sort of idea journal. But why constrain the method they use to do that?

  14. Lisa

    What is the point…

    I think it depends on the subject of the course, but if the subject is new media or communications or the like, then it seems very reasonable to ask the students to participate in a experience that is so integral. In the case of Jill’s class, blogging was obloggatory…

    When I took a class in clowning I had to get up there and try — miserable attempt though it was — and be a clown.

  15. fivecats

    What is the point…

    It depends on whether the point has to do with the Process or the Result.

    If The Point has to do with the Process, then we want to expose students to the new technology (in this case blogging) and that exposure is more important than any specific “end project”. A knowledge of and experience with the Thing is what’s really desired. In Jill’s class that Lisa took it sounds as if this was the case.

    If The Point has to do with a specific Result, then the process should be less important. For example, if the goal is to present a paper on Given Subject (the Result), how you go about researching, organizing and presenting the paper is less important than the actual paper itself.

    When I taught very young kids basic researching skills I was more interested in Process than whatever Result they achieved. My only structure to the class was that I wanted them to cite from several different sources: encyclopedia, non-fiction book, WWW, etc. The end product (Result) could be in any form they wanted it to be.

    When I taught Chess it was the same thing. After the basics on piece movement and strategy, the rest was up to them to work out and discover for themselves.

    In a typical (US) University setting I had a stricter structure imposed upon me by the department. They were all about Result. I taught the Radio-TV-Film “lab” classes and gave weekly tests. Dull and boring, but the rules were pretty clear: study, attend classes, pass tests, get a passing grade.

    For larger classes that is the standard, at least here in the US. In smaller classes it’s easier to exercise some degree of flexibility. It’s also easier for students to Question an instructor’s motives for an assignment and suggest alternatives if you’re so inclined.

    Just a suggestion…

  16. Lisa

    Just a minor correction: I was not a student of Jill’s–just as an educator I support her decision to make blogging a requirement.

  17. fivecats

    My apologies. I made an incorrect assumption based on what you had written.

    And, FWIW, in the type of classes Jill teaches I would hope she would make blogging a requirement (as well as any other emerging technology that appears to have broad-based appeal with the public [i.e. IM] or anything else she feels is noteworthy to people entering the field).

  18. Henning

    I am back from BlogTalk, and just want to say: Vienna is a beautiful place. And cheap good beer (compared to the Norwegian prices which are criminal).

    I picked up some good points there, but the conference reflects that it has been done to little research on blogging in education. I meet a few who had used it in their teaching and their experience was that it was not so popular among the students. But it was always someone who continued to blog after the courses were over. In one of the courses blogging had been used as a tool for the students to use to discuss certain topics. I will try to remember to post the links when I find them. Does anybody know of studies concerning blogging in education?

    I actually found a girl who is doing an analysis of JillĂ­s blog. I am analysing the bloggs to JillĂ­s students. It is a small world.

  19. fivecats

    Here’s a thought:

    When I was working on my Masters in Library Science one of the classes on working with kids taught us that many younger people preferred magazines to books when in the library. The idea was that a book was too large of a committment; a magazine had short articles, lots of colorful pictures and could be picked up and read quickly for just a single article. (I saw anecdotal evidence of this in the two libraries I worked in.)

    I’m wondering if Blogging may be thought of as too much of a committment — it’s “permanent” and potentially requires more time to track the replies, etc. IM, on the other hand, is brief and can be logged onto and off of quickly.

    The analogy isn’t perfect, but I think there may be something to it.

  20. Frizzante

    Hvis en tenker mye har en kanskje ogs behov for  blogge mye? Om en lÊrer mye av  blogge

  21. [ S K A I H I G H ]

    Blogg and learning
    Jill has written a nice piece on writing and learning. I think this is interesting because this is what bloging


    Writing in different modes
    Jill has an interesting post about Thomas Edison’s use of writing/notebooks vs. blogs. I have started to work on my…

  23. Ding Ding Ding
    From Jill Did you know Thomas Edison’s notebooks ran to three and a half million pages? He wrote down ideas, plans, possibilities, drew sketches, visualised his thoughts and wrote about his colleagues’ work. He used words like if, might, would,…

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