"VIRTUAL TRANSFORMATION: WEB-BASED TECHNOLOGY AND PEDAGOGICAL CHANGE"
Web-based instructional technologies are transforming teaching and learning in higher education. This important development requires sociological analysis for the purpose of understanding the significance of this change and developing effective policies to enhance the transition to effective virtual learning environments. In the context of a model of organizational change, this paper examines how the application of web-based instructional technologies is unleashing forces that are disrupting established and institutionalized pedagogical practices, reconfiguring faculty and student roles and relations, and altering faculty skills and identity. A critical aspect of this transition is the shift in the pedagogical ecology from the physical to the virtual classroom. The paper also examines the potential impact of these changes on pedagogical quality and student learning.
A spectre is haunting the academy -- it is the spectre of information technology.
Instructional technologies are transforming post-secondary teaching and learning. Sociological theories and concepts have an important role to play in analyzing and interpreting these developments. More specifically, the relationship between instructional technology and the transformation of higher education is a specific case of the more general process of organizational change. In this context, a series of critical questions emerge: What is the relationship between the technical, the social, and the pedagogical infrastructures? How has the introduction of the new instructional technologies challenged established pedagogical practices? How does the shift from a physical classroom to a virtual learning environment impact social roles and faculty identity? How might this generate organizational resistance and opposition? What social agents are encouraging these alternative teaching and learning models? And finally, what consequences will these technologies have for emerging pedagogical practices?
This paper will focus on the mode of instructional technology that is proliferating most rapidly and that has the potential for the most dramatic transformative impact on pedagogical practices. This form of instructional technology is variously known as: "the virtual classroom" (Hiltz 1994), asynchronous learning networks (ALNs), distributed learning systems, web-based or on-line courses, and online distance learning. For this instructional technology, the defining feature is the minimization or absence of synchronous same-time/same-place physical classroom meetings between an instructor and the students. The synchronous classroom is replaced by asynchronous (and developing synchronous) communication and interaction carried out in a web-based environment.
Several sociological theories and concepts will be applied to the issue of instructional technology and organizational change. First, an institutionalist perspective (Scott 1995) will be used to understand the way in which long-standing instructional venues and delivery modes have become institutionalized in higher education. Second, and closely related, are the fundamental social roles, relationships, and identities that are embedded in existing institutionalized pedagogical practices and the way these are being redefined and reconfigured. Third, the application of instructional technologies will involve both de-skilling and re-skilling. Both of these processes will impinge on faculty identity and will likely generate some resistance and opposition. Finally, pressures for change will intensify as new cohorts of cyber-age students enter higher education and internal faculty change agents demand alternative teaching and learning environments. The paper concludes with some of the pedagogical principles that are advanced in a virtual learning environment.
The Classroom As Institution
The Standard Place: Physical Classroom as Pedagogical Ecology.
There is a long-standing tradition that instruction will be delivered in a physical space known as "the classroom". The term conjures up the image of a room consisting of desks or tables directed toward a podium, chalkboard, or lecturer. When a college course is offered, it is assumed that it will be accompanied by this kind of physical space. For most instructors, it is hard to imagine teaching and learning in the absence of a physical classroom. Not only does most instruction take place in a classroom, most believe this is where it should take place. In this sense, it is an integral part of both the behavioral and the normative social structure (Scott 1987) of higher education.
The social and symbolic importance of spatial configurations is highlighted in the work on organizational ecology (Becker and Steele 1995). This refers to features of the physical workplace environment that shape both subjective feelings about work and objective patterns of behavior, interaction, and process. Sociologists have long been sensitive to the non-neutrality of social space (Bourdieu 1989; Lefebvre 1991). This mode of analysis can be extended to what we can call the pedagogical ecology.
The classroom embodies within it is a set of social roles and normative expectations that shape behavior and confer greater status and power to particular social actors. When students enter the classroom, they sit in the desks, take out a notebook and pen, and look toward the front of the classroom for further direction or information. In contrast, the instructor enters the classroom and immediately heads for the focal space where the attention of the class is directed, and usually remains standing. Faithful role performance requires that students assume a posture of "civil attention" (Karp and Yoels 1976) and passively receive while instructors will assume the role of the "sage on the stage" and actively deliver. Both the physical space and the social roles have been institutionalized in ways that create a taken-for-granted teaching and learning environment along with an associated set of assertive and deferential role behaviors. We should ask whether this dominant pedagogical ecology generates behaviors and interactions that may, in fact, inhibit student learning.
There is a growing literature pointing to the relationship between the environment and the learning process (Strange and Banning 2000; Brown, Collins, and Duquid, 1989). Strange and Banning have linked the physical design and space of college campuses with student learning and development. They argue that effective environments possess physical structures and configurations that promote safety and inclusion, involvement, and community. The broad campus ecology - physical, human, organizational, and constructed - communicate subjective sentiments that can either enhance or detract from intellectual development. Strange and Banning include, in their inventory of community-building ecological forces, computer-mediated and virtual communication.
Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989) take a more micro, or social-psychological, approach in their concept of "situated cognition". This refers to the way in which the learning process is contingent on the physical and social context in which materials are presented and applied. Effective learning is most likely to take place in an environment that allows active practice in authentic discipline-based tasks. Instructional technologies - such as course management systems - are regarded as "situated potentials" that offer a richer and more authentic environment for active application and supportive interaction (Barab et al 1998).
In these latter examples, the ecological context creates opportunities for knowledge development and authentic learning. In examining the demise of the physical and rise of the virtual classroom we must consider how this changing pedagogical ecology transforms the teaching and learning process.
The Standard Practice: Teacher-centered Pedagogical Isomorphism
The institutionalized social space -- the pedagogical ecology -- is accompanied by a set of institutionalized social practices. We can call this the pedagogical isomorphism. DeMaggio and Powell (1983) used the term "institutional isomorphism" to describe the tendency for organizations carrying out similar tasks and functions to resemble one another and take a single shape. Similarly, pedagogical practices in higher education also tend to resemble one another and take a dominant shape that is the teacher-centered lecture mode. The reasons for isomorphism, according to the institutionalist perspective, have less to do with the proven effectiveness of the particular practice than the desire to appear legitimate or conform to normative expectations. While there are many cracks appearing in the teacher-centered lecture mode -- one might even describe an emerging polymorphism -- many of the pedagogical alternatives remain devalued as lacking the rigor and authority of the teacher-centered lecture approach.
It is important to note that, in the physical classroom, the ecological place and the isomorphic practice are mutually reinforcing. Teacher-centered lecture-based pedagogy is both encouraged and enabled by the physical configuration of the classroom. Desks and tables are designed for a one-to-many transmission of information. When students and instructors enter the space, they comfortably assume the traditional roles. For this reason, those who favor a more collaborative student-centered pedagogy often insist on "rearranging the furniture". Equally telling is the requirement that the desks, at the conclusion of the class session, be returned to their "proper" position in rows facing the front of the classroom.
Such institutionalized patterns of place and practice are a fundamental fact in all organizations. To a large extent, organization would be impossible if there were not these normative, expected, taken-for-granted social practices. According to Selznick (1957;1996) institutionalization involves organizational practices that are "infused with value beyond the technical requirements of the task at hand". He went on to note that "the test is expendibility, that is, the readiness with which the organization practice is given up or changed in response to new circumstance or demands" (1996:271). Institutions of higher education have a reputation for their delayed response to environmental demands, and much of this is due to the power of long-standing traditions and prescribed practices that have taken on widespread value regardless of functional efficacy. They are not easily abandoned. Teacher-centered classroom-based instruction is such a structure. These institutionalized practices have also been labeled "rationalized myths" (Meyer and Rowan 1977) - "rational" in the sense that they are viewed as the best means to achieve particular ends; "myths" because they are based less on empirically demonstrated effectiveness than on conformity with tradition and blind faith. Web-based instructional technologies will likely disrupt, and ultimately transform, these institutionalized systems of pedagogical practice.
Virtually Transforming Place and Practice
When the teaching and learning process is relocated from the physical to the virtual classroom, the bureaucratic and hierarchical desk-podium configuration is abolished. The social space that encourages and enables the social roles, relations, and practices of the teacher-centered pedagogy is eliminated. The virtual space allows for the reconstruction of roles, relations and practices that can deviate radically from the institutionalized classroom model. In this sense the web-based instructional technologies are socially transformative.
For the instructor schooled in the traditional teacher-centered pedagogy, the virtual classroom poses a major dilemma. Most notably, there is no longer any opportunity to deliver the lecture. The "sage-on-stage" is no longer an option. There is often the impulse to digitize all lecture notes, or send out streaming video of one's talking head. However, on further reflection, it usually becomes apparent that such lecture-based broadcasts - textual, audio, or video - will be insufficient in the new learning environment.
For many instructors, there is the realization that students entering a virtual classroom should do something more that find and read text; that it makes more sense to involve the student in some activity - an assignment, an exercise, a discussion - than have them receive content. Ironically, what seems least sensible in the virtual classroom - filling a student with content - is what occupies the majority of time in the traditional physical classroom.
One online instructor has described this realization as an "instructional epiphany" (Alley 1996). Alley tells of a personal transformation marked by two "milestones". First, he had to totally redesign his course to fit and leverage the new learning environment. Second, he had to rethink what he calls his "basic approach" -- "As long as I held on to the traditional 'sage-on-stage' style of teaching, I would keep reinventing ways for students to be a passive audience" (1996:51)
It might also be added that there are "structural constraints" built into the virtual classroom ecology that would make it difficult, if not impossible, to replicate the "passive audience" model. Just as the physical classroom architecture encourages and discourages particular pedagogical practices, so too does the virtual classroom. John Seely Brown (2000) has described the environment of the world-wide-web as a "learning ecology" that is a self-organized evolving collection of cross-pollinating overlapping communities of interest. Web-based courses possess many of the same ecological features. All members of the class can receive and broadcast information at any time. Instructors can mediate and guide, but not entirely control, the flow of communication. The greater opportunities for participation contribute to a greater diversity of opinion and perspective. It is hard work to establish these dynamics in a physical classroom constrained by four walls, a running clock, and trained inhibitions. In online environments participatory and collaborative dynamics emerge more naturally. Further, instructor and student roles and relations are less hierarchical and more overlapping and interactive. In short, elimination of the physical classroom, and all the social institutional baggage that it carries, can serve to liberate instructors and students, allowing them to play very different, and potentially more effective, teaching and learning roles.
Instructional Technology, Deskilling, Re-skilling, and Identity
When faculty elect, or are asked, to offer a course electronically, rather than in the traditional classroom, there may also be some significant deskilling and re-skilling. While much of the work on this subject has centered on whether the introduction of technology enhances or degrades labor skills (Braverman 1974; Clawson 1980; Form 1987; Spenner 1988), workplace technologies will undoubtedly influence the skill mix of a labor process. This is no less the case when a virtual replaces a physical classroom. Some faculty instructional skills will no longer be valued or needed; new skills will have to be learned and deployed.
One of the more sophisticated and even-handed treatments of the technology-skill question is found in Shoshana Zuboff's classic work In The Age of the Smart Machine (1984). Zuboff is best known for the important distinction between "automating" and "informating" technologies. Automating technologies replace the physical motions and actions of human labor with an automated process subject to greater predictability and control. Informating technologies go a step further by generating and collecting information and data on the work process.
Zuboff directed attention to the manner in which workplace technology will mediate the relationship between the human laborer and the object of their labor. In many cases, information technologies will substitute a sensory or expressive relationship to an object or person with a digital or virtual interface. In this case, the sensory- or expressive-based skill is diminished and one must develop new skills that allow the effective management of the digital interface.
In Zuboff's study of production workers, for example, information technologies dramatically reduced the "acting-on" skills that involved touching, feeling, and physically manipulating raw materials. In their place, workers had to develop the capacity to operate, monitor, and interpret the data collected by the automating and informating technology. Similarly, for white-collar clerical workers, Zuboff observed a decline in the "acting-with" skills that involved interpersonal human interaction. These are replaced by methods of data collection, communication, and management that are less interpersonal and more computer-mediated.
As it pertains to the work of college faculty, classroom teaching involves the exercise of "acting-with" interpersonal expressive skills. This is accompanied by the sensory dimension entailing the visual observation of students in a classroom to which faculty respond and adjust. When instructors operate in the virtual classroom, the sensory and expressive acts of verbal presentation and exchange constitute a form of tacit knowledge. In the virtual setting, this process is replaced, to a large extent, by what Zuboff labeled "intellective skill". This requires faculty training and the application of explicit knowledge and procedures for computer-mediated communication and instruction. Thus there is both re- and de-skilling.
The de-skilling and re-skilling process may also impact on one's identity. If it is true that people "become by doing" (Bowles & Gintis 1989), transforming the way faculty do their teaching will have identity shaping consequences. For the professoriate, a large slice of identity is shaped and reinforced through the expressive skills of " acting-with" students in a classroom setting. The pontificating expert is more than a caricature, it is an expressive act that gratifies ego and defines identity. Computer-mediated educational delivery will diminish the importance of the expressive verbal rhetorical skills. This may explain some of the reluctance of many faculty to embrace virtual teaching (Jaffee 1998).
De-Institutionalizing Forces: The Digital Generation and Change Agents
It is not only the introduction of a new pedagogical ecology that is transforming social roles, relationships and practices. Human agents are also instigating powerful "de-institutionalizing" pressures for organizational change (Oliver 1992).
First, there are new cohorts of students entering institutions of higher education. A great deal had been written about current and future generations of college students who, "growing up digital," "are not just a demographic bulge, but a wave of social transformation" (Tapscott 1998:22). According to Tapscott (1998:22-25), those under the age of twenty-five "embrace interaction media such as the internet, CD-Rom and video games " - which make them "exceptionally curious, self-reliant, contrarian, smart, focused, able to adapt". One result is a "change in the way children gather, accept and retain information". All of this leads Tapscott to conclude that this new generation has a preference for "interactive" rather than "broadcast" media and, more generally, interactive rather than broadcast learning. The broadcast mode conforms to the traditional isomorphism based on the teacher-centered lecture-based model. The interactive mode conforms to the active, learner-centered, practices that often emerge in the virtual classroom through discussion, debate, and collaboration.
John Seely Brown (2000) advances parallel arguments in viewing the web as a "transformative learning technology". He identifies shifts in the way cyber age kids learn and process information. First, they are developing a new form of literacy that is non-text-based and involves "information navigation" -- the ability to navigate through complex and confusing web-based resources in order to locate useful knowledge and information. Second, rather than learning on the basis of the received wisdom of authority figures (what we might call "authority-based learning"), digital learners build on experience and discovery ("discovery-based learning"). Third, linear deductive reasoning is giving way to a capacity for "bricologe" - assembling tasks and information to create something new and significant. Lastly, digital learners are much more action-oriented. If they don't know something, they are likely to "link, lurk, and try". Together these tendencies suggest an alternative learning process - "learning becomes situated in action, it becomes as much social as cognitive, it is concrete rather than abstract, and it becomes intertwined with judgment and exploration". As such "the web becomes not only an informational and social resource but a learning medium where understandings are socially constructed and shared. In that medium, learning becomes a part of action and knowledge creation" (Brown 2000:14).
Further pressures to change teaching and learning also arise from agents within higher education. One particularly potent source of institutional change comes not from the strategic planning or institutional mission statements of higher administration, but from the grassroots faculty who have experienced, contracted, and are now determined to spread, the cyber-learning gospel. Faculty change agents have been widely instrumental in bottom-up efforts to push the instructional technology envelope and challenge long-standing pedagogical practices. These "institutional entrepreneurs" (Colomy 1998) are advancing a set of alternative pedagogical arrangements and procedures, while couching their project in an acceptable "vocabulary of motives" that serves to rhetorically legitimize the delegitimation of traditional practices (see Werry 2001). Arguments for the application of instructional technologies and alternative educational delivery modes are advanced in the name of "enhancing the teaching and learning process", "meeting the needs of students", "expanding access to educational opportunities", and "broadening levels of student participation". This process contributes to an organizational dynamic akin to Polanyi's (1944) notion of the "double movement" (Colomy 1998). The movement of institutional entrepreneurs galvanizes resistance and opposition from counter-forces determined to preserve traditional pedagogical arrangements.
Given the range of forces challenging established pedagogical practices, and the impact on faculty work and identity, one should expect to find some resistance and opposition. Some of this stems from a knee-jerk reaction to any alternative to the traditional teacher-centered classroom. For this segment, the powerful rationalized myths have been internalized. Non-classroom alternatives are necessarily inferior and second-rate. For others, David Noble (1998) best known among them, it is assumed that the introduction of technology into any labor process can only serve corporate and administrative interests at the expense of faculty control and educational quality. In this perspective, there is an inevitable and predetermined outcome. This view ignores the unintended consequences of introducing technology as well as the capacities of humans to shape the direction of technological change (see Luke 2001). For most others, skepticism and reluctance may be based on some combination of attachment to traditional practice, concern about being de-skilled, and most importantly, very legitimate questions about the quality of the pedagogical product that is delivered in virtual space. The final section addresses concerns about pedagogical quality.
Interactivity and Learning
One of the most powerful movements in the academy today is toward "learner-centered" or "active learning" pedagogical practices. The widely cited "learning paradigm" (Barr and Tagg 1995) has called for a shift from simply "delivering instruction" to "producing learning". Rather than the single-minded focus on what and how faculty teach, we need to be asking what and how students learn. Closely connected is the notion that learning requires not just the passive reception of content but also an active process of engagement, application, syntheses and authentic understanding. Active learning processes take a wide-variety of forms that are both individualized and group-based. The common denominator is that students, rather than just receiving broadcasted content, should be "interacting" with peers and real problems in constructing knowledge and understanding.
In a previous paper I outlined four highly valued pedagogical principles that could be practiced and realized in the virtual classroom setting -- interactivity, active learning, mediation and collaboration. Rather than discrete principles, they are highly interdependent and, further, may be hierarchically related. More precisely, the broadest principle that subsumes the other three, and that represent the greatest pedagogical potential for online instruction, is interactivity (Harasim, Hiltz, Teles and Turoff 1995). It has become the master concept as evidenced by the wide use of the term as a positive pedagogical objective and cyber jargon staple (Wagner 1997). Combining the terms interaction and activity implies active participation in the building of understanding and knowledge through interaction with learners, instructors and materials (Moore 1989).
The potential for, and realization of, interactivity in the virtual classroom is the most powerful and compelling response to those concerned about the quality of web-based instruction. One of the most common concerns of those who question the efficacy of online instruction is the absence of sufficient human interaction. This objection can be readily addressed. If the purpose of interaction is to ask questions, get a response, exchange information, express viewpoints and perspectives, and broaden participation, virtual learning environments can achieve these objectives as well as, if not better than, a face-to-face classroom. The elimination of the time block devoted to the class meeting allows for questions to be posed, information to be exchanged, and students to participate -- when they are able, willing, and ready. If both the questions and replies are posted publicly on a discussion board, the knowledge and insights of not just the instructor, but all students, can be drawn upon to create a more collaborative and cooperative learning space.
While it is true that the face-to-face classroom, at least in theory, permits instructors to detect physical cues that communicate either understanding or confusion, there is no guarantee that such gestures will be communicated by the student or acknowledged by the instructor. For this reason, instructors are increasingly employing strategies, like the "muddiest point" and "one-minute paper", which formalize the procedure for asking questions and assessing levels of understanding. Designing question, answer, and dialogue opportunities is also required if online courses are to realize the potential for greater interactivity.
As already noted, the absence of face-to-face interaction in the asynchronous online course eliminates the traditional roles of instructor as active lecturer and student as passive receptor. When students enter the virtual classroom they may have already digested some content through the reading of hardcopy materials. Their online classroom time can, therefore, be devoted to active learning tasks, interaction, or more broadly, interactivity. This fact compels instructors to spend more time thinking about instructional design.
In a physical classroom, instructors can easily operate without any systematic lesson plan or course design. Synchronous class time can be occupied by primarily the lecture, occasional discussion, and periodic assessment. In the virtual classroom, in contrast, students enter from anyplace and at anytime. This necessitates a pre-designed set of objectives and learning activities. Greater thought must be given to how students will learn -- a central question of the learning paradigm -- rather than what one will teach. The net result is typically the development and organization of learning activities that involve application, writing, assessment, discussion, or collaboration.
The virtual course environment also tends to encourage more authentic and open-ended assignments. Student access to hardcopy and internet materials preclude the forms of assessment that simply ask students to list or summarize the main points of a theory or article. When teaching online, one is more likely to construct authentic assessments that ask students to engage in activities more closely related to those carried out by practitioners of the discipline. These are often the kinds of skills and capacities we expect our students to develop but frequently fail to incorporate into assignments and exams. They require students to take theoretical material or subject content and organize, synthesize and apply it to a particular case or problem. There is no single pre-determined "answer", but rather a wide variety of possible student products. If students are required to post the results of their efforts on a class bulletin board, they are able to see how others have approached the question and will learn more from one another. If the products are to be graded formally, or assessed by other students, rubrics can be developed and shared. The advantages of using rubrics in this context is that they do not distinguish between "right" and "wrong" but rather identify points of mastery on a continuum from superficial to in-depth, or from novice to expert. They provide a set of criteria to evaluate one's work, as well as the work of others, and contribute to the important learning trait of meta-cognition (see Bransford, Brown and Cocking 1999).
There is also ample evidence that online courses tend to generate greater levels -- quantitatively and qualitatively -- of class participation and discussion. The physical and normative ecological conditions, that often constrain broad-based and in-depth discourse, are minimized with online discussion. Inhibitions are fewer, time constraints are absent, greater reflection is possible, everyone can "talk" at the same time, and the classroom equivalent of non-participatory lurking can be prohibited. Opportunities for participation are equalized yielding a wider range of perspectives that, in turn, stimulates further discussion and debate. Faculty cannot entirely control these discussions. The key is to construct and pose an open-ended question that prompts students to draw on their content knowledge while permitting various approaches and perspectives. Faculty can mediate with an occasional contribution -- a summary or follow-up question -- to sustain the discussion.
In short, the ecology of the virtual classroom provides a context for, and stimulates greater attention to, interactive forms of learning. This supports both the emerging learning paradigm as well as the cognitive predisposition of current and future students.
Discussion and Conclusion
As instructional technologies transform the landscape of higher education, it is imperative that sociologists, both as teachers and researchers, theorize and analyze this development. Sociologists should be participating in both the scholarship about, and the scholarship of, teaching. We are equipped with the theoretical, conceptual, and methodological tools to study and communicate the rapidly changing pedagogical places and practices.
This paper has tried to conceptualize web-based instructional technology as a qualitatively distinct structural environment capable of reshaping the role behaviors of instructors and students. As a pedagogical ecology, it draws on the sociological dictum that social behaviors are shaped and reinforced by structural factors. The most radical and meaningful forms of transformation involve not simply changes in individual attitudes and behaviors but a reconfiguration of the structural context that gives rise to that behavior. A web-based pedagogical ecology represents a potentially transformative social condition. The power of this new ecology is evidenced by the large numbers of instructors (this one included) who report an "instructional epiphany" when teaching their first web-based course and who, as a further result, permanently revise their classroom teaching and learning practices in a student-centered active-learning direction. This experience has an obvious, and also radical, implication for faculty development. That is, that all faculty should develop and design (and maybe even teach) a web-based course. The process of course redesign, coupled with the knowledge that the venue will not be a conventional physical classroom, can produce some deep reflection about teaching, learning, and the respective roles of instructor and student.
One must be careful to avoid a structural and technological determinism when analyzing the pedagogical effect of instructional technology. Placing instructors and students in a web-based pedagogical ecology will not automatically produce good things. The term "potential" has been used throughout this essay to soften the deterministic edge. It may even be overused given the contingent causal nature of all structural arrangements. However, the role of human agency has not been lost in this conceptual scheme. First are the human promoters of the instructional technologies - corporate, administrative, and faculty segments - who have their own interests and objectives. There are also the digital and cyber-laden students bringing their cognitive predisposition and learning preferences. Finally, faculty resistance, opposition, and adaptation to web-based instructional tools presages a wide-range of possible outcomes and organizational dynamics. As Luke (2001: 156) argues, technologies "have multiple potentials that are structured by the existing social relations guiding their control and application. We can construct the cyberschool's virtual spaces and classrooms so that they help actualize a truly valuable (and innovative) new type of higher education".
In order to actualize this objective, it is important to acknowledge that web-based instructional technologies are initiating a dramatic process of deinstitutionalization. Pedagogical places and practices -- deeply grounded in tradition, habits, routines, and values -- are being reconstituted in ways that will significantly impact on faculty roles, skills, and identity. Studies in higher education (e.g. Simsek and Seashore Louis 1994) verify the significance of socially constructed institutional features and the need to address the meanings and values that faculty assign to ecological structures and organizational routines. Hopefully, sociological insights will inform the policies and process of pedagogical change in the academy.
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