Archive for May, 2010

Assessment in the 21st Century: What Should It Look Like?

May 26, 2010 4 comments

If you’re reading this post, chances are you keep up with the trends in education.  You are aware that a grassroots movement is underway to turn education up side down right side up.  Impromptu discussions, professional development sessions, twitter posts, TED talks and blogs (much like this one) have all been drawing teachers together with a focus on 21st century learners.  What do these learners need?  What can we provide for them? How does education need to be changed, reformed, or revolutionized?

These questions almost inevitably lead to (or include) discussions of assessment.  There is disdain for standardized exams, and desire for individualized assessments.  Many discussions have gone to extremes, suggesting that facts are not important; that assessments should only be authentic, individualized, and assess higher order thinking.  Even the history of my own twitter posts may be interpreted to mean this.  Don’t buy into this thinking too fast.  Consider a world where knowing facts is not important.  Seems scary to me.

Sure, our education system needs to culminate to more than just facts and figures.  It’s not enough for our Chemistry students to be able to name the chemical with the formula H2SO4(aq), or for History students to know the significance of the year 1767.  But knowing these facts is valuable.  In the lab, not knowing that H2SO4 is a strong acid can lead to serious injury.  Knowing the events leading up to July 4 1767 (or July 1 1867 if you’re from Canada such as myself) gives us perspective, an appreciation for our great countries.

My point is that acquiring a large number of facts is valuable even if it isn’t the only reason to send our kids to school.  Sure, students need to synthesize and evaluate; but synthesis becomes really hard when you don’t have any pieces to assemble.  Facts are the individual parts that students use to compose, to synthesize.  So, how do we respect students needs of higher level thinking and 21st century skills, yet honour the necessity of possessing a diverse wealth information?  Maybe the solution is a dual track assessment system.

Track 1: We need to accept that facts are important, and that an efficient way of assessing a massive amounts of information is through multiple choice and short response exams (quizzes, tests, assignments, call them what you will).  This first track of assessment would happen periodically throughout a semester to assess how much raw knowledge students have gained.  We essentially have this infrastructure in place, though we may need to cut back. There is also a need to have professional development on item writing.  From what I can tell many exams, including ‘standardized exams’ have some poorly assembled questions.

Track 2: This is the track that doesn’t yet exist in most cases.  It should be more of a continuous assessment that happens along side the daily grind of learning vs the periodic assessments as described in track 1.  Assessments here should be authentic and meaningful, based off of student performance of various skill sets (including 21st century skills) as well as high levels of thinking.  Tasks should be highly engaging, and allow for student judgement and creativity.  The focus will not be on facts, but more on enduring understandings.  Here, students won’t be required to have memorized the 4 main greenhouse gases, but they may be required to take on an authentic role in the study and solution searching of global warming.

Ok, so obviously I haven’t worked out all of the details.  Maybe I am completely off beat here, I’m not certain.  I am certain that the world (including myself) isn’t ready to give up teaching facts and, simultaneously, students need to focus on so much more.


What are your views on the need for facts in our schools and our assessments?  Should we be tossing out all assessments of facts, and focused purely on performance assessments?  Maybe you think we should go the other extreme as we’ve had through most of the 20th century?  Please, share your ideas and opinions below, I’d love to chat!


It’s About Passion: In Response to @sirkenrobinson

May 26, 2010 1 comment

While watching Sir Ken Robinson’s latest Ted Talk I began reflecting upon my own teaching practice.  When I was a newer classroom teacher I spent serious time and effort developing and implementing performance tasks.  I enjoyed developing activities for students and was proud of my achievements.  After all, it’s never easy to use “projects” in Senior High Mathematics and Physics, while maintaining Academic Rigor (something I felt confident I was doing).  The activities I developed did a few things

  1. Tasks had clear directives yet didn’t hand hold students forcing them to choose their own pathway to solutions.
  2. exemplars were provided, good and bad.
  3. Rubrics were clearly matched to the directives and written in language my students could understand
  4. Projects were efficiently implemented, giving me enough time to give lectures, notes and exams in preparation of provincial testing.

As mentioned I was very proud, especially after being invited to share my experiences at provincial conferences.  But then (at about 12:50 in the video linked above) Sir Ken Robinson said

It’s about Passion, and what excites our spirit and our energy.  If you’re doing the thing that you love to do, that you’re good at, time takes a different course entirely.

Now, as I look towards the future, I realize that my performance tasks were missing the point.  I hoped that by providing students time to do these fancy ‘projects’ for their academic courses they would get excited (it never worked that well in the end, students still were concerned with marks and not learning).

But Ken makes it clear.  We need to adapt tasks and curriculum to our students, and build opportunities to reach their passion.  A performance task isn’t what we need to be providing our students.  Making an “advertisement’ about environmental issues (for example) isn’t going to excite science students.  What we really need to develop for our students are authentic performance tasks in the truest sense.

Unfortunately my curriculum is provincially mandated, so I can not change it.  But the conditions and environment provided for my students; those are created by me.  I have complete control over the learning experiences of my students.  I need to provide opportunities for students to do meaningful, real life tasks.  I need to create the conditions that will foster student growth, and let them flourish.  Authentic performance tasks, in my future, will mean open-ended opportunities for students to embed their own passions into their experiences, cultivating their learning and keeping them engaged and interested.

Thank you, Sir Ken Robinson, for helping me stay off ‘track’, and giving us all support to provide an organic education.

Everyday, everywhere, our children spread their dreams beneath our feet.  And we should tread softly. Sir Ken Robinson

Alberta Curriculum Encourages 21st Century Learners

May 18, 2010 1 comment

Alberta Curriculum Encourages 21st Century Classrooms

Many of the professional development sessions I have attended in the past year have been in the United States or have been delivered by a teacher from the US.  I find it interesting that so often keynote speakers discuss criteria for developing curriculum.  Coming from Alberta, this is foreign to me.  As a science teacher (General Science and Physics) in Alberta I believe I am provided (and mandated) an awesome curriculum (I’ll provide the grade 10 Science curriculum as an example).  Sure, it is not without fault, but the structure and layout is excellent.  It is written in a way that encourages a shift towards a 21st century classroom.

The curriculum is divided into four foundations.

1) Science, Technology and Society; and understanding the interactions and developments of each.  These emphasis give teachers the framework and focus for each unit of study.  This makes it easier for teachers to understand the bigger picture, or the point of learning the facts.  This brings us to the second foundation

2) Knowledge, which includes the key concepts and actual content that students must learn.  These outcomes are well written and logical.  For example, students learn about careers in chemistry.  This is very straightforward and fact based, so the outcome is written as, identify examples of chemistry-based careers in the community. The word identify tells teachers that students simply need to know the facts.  Another outcome in the curriculum states, describe how advancements in cell theory have been enhanced as a direct result of developments in microscope technology.  From the way this is written I know that students need to understand an interaction between technology and theory.  I know that the point isn’t for students to list 15 different historical microscopes and a dozen different individual discoveries.  The point is to synthesize all of those facts into a much more advanced understanding.

3) Skills, which is broad and varies from collaboration and communication to laboratory and mathematics skills.  This is pretty awesome.  Right within the curriculum you can find (or interpret) an entire set 21st century skills.  Students need to collaborate, communicate effectively, build models, display information visually, analyze and interpret.  All of a sudden all of those 21st century literacy activities fall perfectly in place in the science classroom.

4) Attitude.  It is interesting how these outcomes are written.  They are the only outcomes in the curriculum that are written as teacher actions instead of student actions.  The curriculum recognizes that it is near impossible to expect students to change their attitudes towards science, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the job of the teacher to at least try to develop positive scientific attitudes within students.  To me, this is where the curriculum makes room for digital and global citizenship lessons.  It clearly states that students will be encouraged to demonstrate sensitivity to societal and environmental needs, have mutual respect for people from different cultures, and even take part in collaborative activities.

As you can see, the Alberta Science Curriculum really does allow for all sorts of activities surrounding 21st century skills and attitudes.  It also demands that students become aware of the bigger picture of their learning, and focus less on the facts and figures that are memorized along the way.  If you are a part of a team developing curriculum for students and teachers, please, take a look at this fine example.

If you happen to be just another teacher, like myself, wondering how to fit all of these new 21st century skills into your existing curriculum, take another look.  I’m sure somewhere in your existing program of studies there is room to shift the focus from facts and figures to valuable skills, attitudes, and deeper understandings.  Just read a little closer.

Get Your Students Stripping: A Simple Review of Online Comic Creation Websites

May 18, 2010 13 comments


Created in under a minute on


About a year ago someone asked me for software suggestions to create comic strips.  At the time I had no personal experience making these digital comics other then seeing some of the comics created by students and colleagues.  Turns out there is a lot of interest in using comics in the classroom, so I started doing some research.  At this point I have put together a few PD sessions for teachers on comic creation (focused more on the pedagogy and less on the tool, mind you) and have of course created many on my own.

I really have no desire to create reviews of websites and online services, but a niche market like this has very little information and I’m sure others can benefit from my own experiences.  This article isn’t about the pedagogy or appropriateness of using comics in the classroom.  That will come at a later time. The goal of this article simply is to look at some online comic creation sites, and compare their capabilities. – Choice for Primary/Elementary: Easiest to Use!

Backgrounds: Each theme seems to have about 6 or so (on average) different backgrounds, and I think free accounts (I have a premium account that costs $) have 5 different themes to choose from.  Some of the outdoor backgrounds have a night or day option, but any further customization of the graphic backgrounds doesn’t seem possible.

Characters: Creaza lacks the ability to create your own avatar, but it makes up for this by having enough free art to keep you going for a while.  Choose from themes, scenery, objects and characters.  Most characters are provided in multiple positions (about half a dozen positions or so) and you do get the option to choose their expression (happy, sad, or normal).  All of these changes are very easy to implement.  For the most part everything is drag and drop.

Objects: In each theme there are a few different objects available for use.  Objects can be moved around and resized, and their layers are easily shifted to come forward or go backwards.

Personal Art/Media: There are a few simple drawing tools in Creaza, as well as you can upload your own images and artwork.  Everything you upload will be saved as your own media, and is available to you when needed.

User Interface: The user interface of Creaza is incredibly familiar and intuitive.  The layout reminds me of the look and feel of Microsoft Office 2007/2010.  This means that both students and teachers will need little instruction on how to use creaza tools, assuming they are familiar with MS Office suite.

As mentioned already, Creaza comic software has its strengths in its look and feel.   The intuitive and familiar user interface will make the tool become transparent, allowing students to focus on content and creativity rather then on the tool itself.  So despite some of the lack of control (compared to tools such as toondoo), I highly recommend Creaza for those who are working on simple comics, or are concerned with usability.


Pixton is another fantastic online software.  It impresses me that programmers are able to build so much control into a web based tool, and this speaks to the power of flash.  I imagine that this site is taking advantage of the bone tool offered in flash CS4, but I’m not programmer, so I’m just taking a stab at that.

Backgrounds: There are only a couple dozen different backgrounds offered by pixton, but they are customizable and zoomable.  I’m sure you will have many more options if you upgrade to Pixton+ or earn enough credits, but I didn’t bother to check.  I knew from the initial few hours working with the software that I didn’t want to pay for it, as it didn’t fit my own needs

Characters: There is so much control over characters in pixton that as far as I am concerned it is the biggest reason to include the website in this review.  You can manipulate character limbs easily, giving them pretty much any posture you can imagine.  You have fine control over foot and hand positions, head tilt and turn and even eye position.  And of course you have similar control as other software options to choose eyebrows, hair styles, shape of face, ear shape and other facial features.  The character control is amazing but it is easy to spend an hour just playing around and learning what you can do, which may become a problem during assignments when time is limited.

Objects: The objects are well organized into genres and there are quite a number of options. The graphics look good and are easy to manipulate

User Interface: The user interface isn’t anything to brag about.  Controls are simple in the sense that there are only a few, but it seems less intuitive then other sites.  Some users will find the UI unclear and therefore ineffective.

There is no doubt in my mind that pixton offers immense control over characters and objects rivaled by no other service reviewed in this article.  Unfortunately, in my experience, too much control isn’t always a good thing.  Students can become easily distracted and overwhelmed, and the rigorous academic nature of an assignment gets lost somewhere along the journey.  For advanced students or for courses where body language is an important part of student communication, pixton would be the ultimate stripping tool, but in most cases it is just too over the top.  I would only recommend in situations where students have abundant time to work on their comic.

Toondoo Overall Favorite Choice

Toondoo is a fantastic product that has been created with what seems to be a vision to easily create fabulous comics from a simple one slide cartoon to a 3 slide strip.  Mutlipe slides and strips can then be placed together in the book maker to put short comics together into a longer story.

Backgrounds: Toondoo has dozens of free backgrounds to choose from, and they are logically arranged in categories.  The backgrounds can be zoomed in and out as well as changed to grey-scale to give you that extra little bit of creative control.  The included backgrounds are diverse enough to allow you to tell pretty much any story you can think of without having to go to a third party art or graphic provider.

Characters: Characters, just as the backgrounds are organized into categories such as men, women, kids, animals, etc.  Once within the categories you will be pleased with the number of choices.  Each character is provided with different stances, and further posture customization is available on the toolbar provided.  Users can also change the expression (happy, sad, angry, etc) and the color of the characters using the same toolbar.  You will not be bored with the characters provided, but if you want to have more control you can use the TraitR tool to create your own characters easily and quickly.  The characters you create are saved to your profile and can be used across your projects.

Objects: Just as with the other features, props or objects are abundant and are organized into genres.  Again, you have control over size, color and orientation.

Personal Art/Media: There is a tool called DoodleR built into toondoo.  THis allows users to draw their art witha  reasonable amount of control over the tools.    Users can also import images and graphics from the web or upload them from your hard drive for use across your projects.  These features will not dissappoint.

User Interface: Considering the amount of control that toondoo provides, it is surprisingly easy to use.  Even less-then-tech-saavy teachers will be able to navigate through the tools and find what is required.  Though less familiar then creaza, users will quickly become comfortable with the heirachy of the tools, buttons, and controls.

If it isn’t obvious already, I will be explicit. is an amazing tool.  Even though many of the other sites offer great (and sometimes unique) features and layouts, toondoo is just so powerful yet easy to use, it stands out from the crowd.  Not only does it allow for free registration (for now), it also offers toondoo spaces which is a pay for service feature that provides a safe environment for your students to work in.  For this reason it allows teachers with no budget to use it, as well as those with some extra funding to create a safer more private space for their students.  For these reason I highly recommend this tool for classrooms from middle school through and including high school.


These are somewhere between comic strips and the cartoons created in xtranormal.  Characters and objects are animated.  There are many animations, gestures, and expressions that characters can have.  This is a simple tool to use.  You can also build your own characters, or use ones that exist.  one problem is that it is built off of a points system so users do not have full access to the software capabilities from the get-go.

Backgrounds: Dozens of backgrounds, and unlike other websites, they sometimes have layerd properties, allowing you to hide a character behind a tree or other background objects.  This will allow you to create much more sophisticated stories compared to what can be done on many other tools

Characters: It is really easy to make your own characters.  Additionally, there are many great existing characters as well.  Some pre-created characters require GoBucks, but if you search characters by genre, there are lots of great options.  Political Science or History classes can take advantage of many important figures that are characterized.

Objects: There is a vast array of objects available, with many genres to choose from.

Personal Art/Media: Upload backgrounds, characters, objects, music.  Upload from the web, your own computer, or from social networks such as flikr or facebook.

User Interface: Simple and predictable, very natural to use.  Gives you a timeline of each of the slides from your comic

Animation: GoAnimate, as the name indicates, allows you to easily animate your comics.  Choose from lists of animations to create entertaining comics.  Animations include different expressions, movements and gestures that can include walking, dancing, motions of excitement, talking and dozens of other options.  You have to see it to appreciate the capabilities of this tool

This is really a good tool, and as they attempt to create new versions or spaces for classroom use teachers will find this to be a valuable resource.  Infact I just received information today from a colleague of mine (@dannymaas on twitter) about some trials that are taking place in my school district that so far have been very successful.  There is much fun to be had when creating your cartoon in GoAnimate, and it really isn’t too time consuming compared to something such as toondoo.  A quick 15 minute lesson or some tutorial videos will get your students animating in no time.


The cartoons created here are very simple black and white pencil drawings.  They are simple, and cartoons are only a few slides long, taking away the opportunity to create full stories if necessary.  This tool is easy to use but lacks control.  A number of characters to choose from, each drawn with their own expressions.  Does have a print function, so easy to print in B&W.  Doesn’t have the extensive artwork that other programs have, doesn’t have the props and backgrounds, so much less visually appealing.  Much more focused on the text involved.

Backgrounds: Backgrounds?  You don’ t need no stinkin’ backgrounds!  Well at least I hope not.  If so, move along.

Characters: 20 Character options are provided, and you can choose their emotion, which means they have a different expression, stance, and sometimes clothing.  There really aren’t a lot of options here.

Objects: Objects?  You dont’ need no sti…. Ok, you get the point.  Move along.

User Interface: I found the UI to be less intuitive compared to other websites, yet also offering you less control over characters.  It is bizarre, I know.

Ok, so based off of the amount I have written here, you can tell that there isn’t much too MakeBeliefsComix.  It creates very simple comics with very few options.  Sure, you could make some great insightful stories with this tool, but why not use something that takes it to the next level, and does an impressive job at the same time.  With so many other good options out there I would just skip right over this tool.

Strip Generator

Strip Generator is a fun tool that allows you to create simple black and white (mostly) comics.  You can choose from one row, two row, or full page comic layouts giving you the option to create stories of many lenghts.  Users have the additional option of creating custom frame layouts, which is unique to Strip Generator.

Backgrounds: With strip generator, there are no backgrounds, you just use the white background of the sheet.

Characters: There are a lot of characters, both people and ‘beings’.  It is fun to see the dozens and dozens of options.  The downside is that each character is often only offered in one form, with no ability to change their posture or facial expressions.

Objects: There are a few dozen objects and shapes available.  Customizing is simple, allowing you to change their size, rotation, opacity and blur (unique to Strip Generator in this review).

User Interface: The UI is predictable, allowing users to easily make any possible changes and requiring little instruction on how to use the website.

Strip Generator is a pretty interesting site.  The user interface of Strip Generator is seemless, and amongst my favorite of all the sites I have used.  Strip Generator also offers some unique options (blurred objects and custom frame layouts).  This uniqueness and beautiful UI make it an interesting tool but when combined with the lack of backgrounds, missing controls over character creation, and the inability to add your own media, Strip Generator just doesn’t stack up against the competition.


From what I can tell Xtranormal is a unique tool (I haven’t spent much time searching, but if you know of something similar please comment below, I’d love to see it).  It allows you to use 3D digital backgrounds and characters.  The product is more of a digital film then a comic strip.  Users choose characters, assign gestures, camera angles, choose a voice, and type in text.  The xtranormal servers then go render your movie and the product actually has your characters speak the text.  Very fascinating.  One concern with this site (a bit more so then others) is that I have come across many cartoons that would be inappropriate for even secondary students to be watching in school.

Backgrounds: In Xtranormal you choose from a variety of pre-made themes.  Once the them is chosen you then have your options of backgrounds and characters to choose from.  The backgrounds look good, and there are enough options to satisfy your creative juices for quite some time.

Characters: The character options are different depending on the theme you have chosen, but generally you get many options (a few dozen) for characters both male and female.  Choosing the characters voice, expressions and gestures make this much more entertaining and engaging for the user.

Sounds: Not only do the characters speak through computer generated voices, you can also embed various types of sounds.  Simply choose from the dozens provided and you can enrich your animation.  Additionally, you can upload up to two simultaneous sound tracks for ambient sound and music.

User Interface: This is another well though out tool that is very intuitive.  With a good plan and a thorough introduction to Xtranormal, users can create a rich, entertaining animation in a single class.

Animations, sounds generated voices, camera angles…all these add up to to what is truely a one of a kind experience.  This is a fantastic tool but unfortunately (at the time that I reviewed the site) there is no pay-for-service option that would provide a safe place for students and teachers to work.  Hopefully in the near future Xtranormal will create some sort of safer educational version that we can use with our students.  I do know of some teachers though that have happily used Xtranormal with their High school students.  Some teachers, with the right class, may feel confident that students will be mature enough to deal with and ignore the innapproriate content on Xtranormal and stay engaged in the assignment.


This is really designed for young artists, where students can draw their own art.  Students can also upload art from their computer or from the web.  The layout and tools are simple but if the point of an assignments isn’t to be a proficient artist then this tool may not be appropriate.  I am not a digital any kind of  artist so I will not speak to the usefulness of the artistic tools.

Bitstrips – Secondary Winner

Bitstrips is very similar to toondoo with regards to the style of control it provides.  It is also incredibly easy to use and offers a good amount of art.

Backgrounds: Backgrounds are the only downfall to bitstrips.  While there are a number of options, they aren’t great, and they aren’t well organized.  I’m not sure why bitstrips has chosen to neglect this area, but from what I could tell, they have.  Every other tool in bitstrips offers organization by genre, as well the art in other categories is much nicer.  It’s not that the backgrounds are terrible, it is just that they aren’t to the same calibre as the rest of the art, nor is the organization.  This doesn’t prevent you from being able to make some fantastic comics quickly and easily.

Characters: Characters are easy to make, or you can choose from a few that already exist.  You can choose features down to details such as eye brows and lips, and you can make different versions of your character to have different expressions such as happy, surprised or sad.  Avatar creation is excellent and well thought out within

Objects: There are many, many objects to choose from, and they are very well sectioned off into usable categories.  Objects can be copied, twisted, blown up, moved around and shrunk down easily with the tools provided.  You can also choose from pretty much any color within the color palette.

User Interface: The user interface is so similar to that of toondoo it feels silly to say anything about it.  In sum, the tools within toondoo become transparent after only a few minutes within the tool.  It is easy enough that even upper elementary students could use this with little direction at all.

After using both toondoo and bitstrips it is exciting to see that there are some great options for teachers and their students.  It’s really hard to say which one is better, so I’ve given them both winner status.  Toondoo receives the slight edge due to providing marginally better graphics, organization and control.


I thought I would be able to make a clear and obvious decision on which software is ‘best’ to use, but I honestly can’t do that.  Goanimate creates beautiful comics, creaza is so simple to use and offers an ecosystem of online creative software, and bitstrips is a great pay option which provides more security.  The bottom line is that any of these sites can be great in your classroom if you have the pedagogy to back it up.

Your Input

Please comment below and tell me about your own experiences with these sites, some other great comic stripping sites, or how this review may be helpful.

How a Glog Can Build 21st Century Literacy

Literacy Gurus such as Bernajean and Angela advocate that students should be telling new stories instead of writing the same old reports.  I’ll consider a unit of study on Nazi German, and a report that may follow numerous learning experiences.  Anybody with a library card or internet access can find a vast array of existing information, so why would students care to regurgitate what is already there?  Instead of creating a report, students could be telling survivor stories of the Holocaust.  The same factual information can be presented in both formats, but with the new story readers gain perspective.  The history becomes more meaningful.

A few weeks ago I was working with some teachers to develop student learning activities using Glogster.  I was anticipating questions the teachers may have so went searching for some sample glogs, and came across two that make a powerful point.  The first poster I found was a very simple report on eating disorders.  Click through to it and you will see that the report uses proper written English and necessary vocabulary to share the information with the audience.  The background is simple (and I thought rather happy), and no images are provided.

The second poster covers the same topic, but is drastically different.  It uses powerful images and a first person narrative to tell the story of a girl who suffers from an eating disorder.  From the images one can interpret the pain felt, the thought process, the obsessive daily rituals and skewed self image.  From the text you can understand the types of interactions and relationships that may play a role in the development of such a disorder.  Its not the perfect example of a flawless assignment but the contrast between the two posters is important

The first poster is well written with accurate facts, but its existence seems pointless.  I can find the same information, and probably with detailed references, in many other places online.  The only purpose to make this poster is so the teacher can read it and mark it.  A much more authentic assignment for students is to create a poster, a form of communication, that someone else will actually want to read and will take the time to read.  The second poster offers such an experience.  I shared these two posters with teachers before they began development of their own student activities.

(prepare yourself for a cheesy movie quote here)

I am reminded of a line from the movie Good Will Hunting.  Robin Williams’ character says to his patient “I can’t learn anything from you I can’t learn from a book unless you want to talk about you”.  Don’t get me wrong, students need to learn to write reports.  Many people write reports as a part of our work.  But none of us prepare reports for clients or superiors based off of well known and easily accessible facts.  We report on something relatively unknown or unique.

If you are going to have students post on any social media site such as glogster, consider this idea of new story vs old report.  After all, Glogsters slogan is Poster Yourself, not poster something you found on wikipedia.


Please comment below, and share the types of 21st century literacy activities your students are doing in their class.  I’d love to hear how you are using glogster, or any other social media site.

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