3 Humanizing Online Learning

Creating connection, designing for care

Mandi Singleton and Nicolas Pares

“If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed.”
― Paulo Freire

Through the pandemic, Mandi and I (Nicolas) have been having long Zoom calls discussing the challenges and issues of online learning. Frankly, we felt that none of these challenges or issues were new to us. As faculty developers and instructional designers at an online college, we felt like we had seen it all. While supporting hundreds of well-structured and routine online courses, we recognized the need to focus on what makes students succeed online more than just good design.

Our conversations moved beyond Bloom’s Taxonomy, instructional video creation, and feedback loops and into the spaces of critical instructional design and humanizing online learning. As we watched courses with perfectly developed outcomes, activity scaffolding, and assessment experience extreme differences in student satisfaction and success, we began to wonder.

Online learning and advancements in technology have created less space for human connection – dehumanizing learning. Too much focus is thrown upon the rote user interface interactions and not upon how the students will feel. When the tools are structured by design best practice, how can we design and facilitate for connection and care? This drove us to reflect deeply upon our own teaching experiences.

Both of us were instructors and teachers before we were instructional designers and faculty coaches, and still teaching today. Our lived experiences and our teaching experiences and contexts vary greatly so our conversations and stories tend to be divergent. Yet when talking about successful online learning or hybrid online learning, we began to see themes of humanizing learning rise up in our observations and personal experiences.

Mandi comes from the K-12 space with an emphasis on STEM and the sciences. Having worked as an instructional coach in urban and title one schools and now a faculty member in a Bachelor’s completion program, her experiences encompass various educational roles.

Nicolas’s teaching experiences traverse the English language teaching space from adult education and K-12 along with some mathematics teaching in secondary high school, and now applied linguistics and TESOL teacher education in higher education.

These discussions from early 2020, raised a major question for us. How can instructors and instructional designers humanize online learning through pedagogies of care and designing for connection? To answer that we thought back on our teaching experiences and looked for what humanized our experiences and what humanized our students on their path to student success and meaningful learning.

Humanizing Online Learning

Before we could get to the initial question, our discussions took us through stories across a broad spectrum of teaching contexts where our students and we as instructors felt human. As the pandemic began to separate and create a distance that isolated learners and teachers, our virtual exchanges began to become more personal and focused on connection. Our coaching and instructional design work became more frequently focused on compassion and understanding towards students and each other. This led us to discuss stories of teaching practices and applied instructional design norms that we felt could empower connection and lead to student success and achievement. Connection and care became central to our thinking and teaching.

Some of these stories of humanizing and dehumanizing online learning are below. We used these stories to explore the question, “What does the experience of humanized learning feel like for instructors and students?” From these stories themes emerged. Those themes brought learner, instructor, and learning together, and bridged the gaps of educational systems and instructional design norms focused solely on single aspects of teaching and not the holistic human condition.

Ultimately, these stories and themes highlight the need to humanize learning but to go beyond the old, “human-centered learning” or common user experience philosophies that inform the rote, redundant course designs that are now so prevalent in higher education. To humanize learning is to foster a sense of care in your students and truly center human connection in design.

While the modern tech tools used to deliver online learning provide space for interaction via discussion forums reminiscent of the AOL chat boards or Tik Tok-esque video exchanges, we can not as designers and instructors rely upon the mere functionality of exchange to develop connection or care. We must be critical instructional designers and reach for a caring, connected, and humanized online learning experience.

Pedagogy of Care

Students often have many concerns when they enter a new learning space such as an advanced degree program with learning centered online. Will I feel connected? Will I belong? Will my instructors be responsive? As instructors, we aim to foster inquiry, curiosity, agency, and growth, but we can’t lose sight of what can best support the opportunity for students to learn – care and belonging.

What Nicolas and I (Mandi) realized in our many conversations was that we needed to share our aha! moments with other instructors, and in turn learn from others. Our workshops and dialogues with colleagues helped us define the importance of care. We found additional grounding in an article that summarized the work of Nel Nodding. She says when teachers provide caring encounters, students are receptive and attentive in a special way and the relationship becomes reciprocal (Smith, 2020). In addition, an article from Carl Strikwerda claims that faculty members are essential partners of the retention of students towards graduation and academic success, which can be accomplished through fostering care (Strikwerda, 2019). The research validated exactly what we felt was missing from the online learning space.

Caring is relational. In teaching, it is a practice where teachers develop a relationship with students and develop concern for a student’s overall well-being and performance. This concern creates a sense of belonging for students in the online learning space and can be created through verbal and nonverbal expressions of care, knowing student’s names, making an effort to get to know more about the student, being knowledgeable about student support resources, and addressing student concerns.

Creating a space focused on the pedagogy of care requires focused effort by the instructor to use class time or design experiences to develop relationships and care. When utilized, the learning space can be a safe one focused on empathy and collaboration. The design and the instruction will focus on building relationships, activities and assessments will be designed with meaning, and there will be a connection of the content to student’s lives. This sense of belonging for students based in the pedagogy of care will lead to more successful academic outcomes.

Centering Connection in Design

Another major theme that arose was the need to go beyond simple exchanges or interactions and design for human connection. At the heart of any interaction is the learners or individuals. Humans are unique in every way and bring their own unique emotions, experiences, personalities, and understandings to the connection.

While Moore’s law of interaction types does guide us to build in space and tasks for learner interactions (Moore, 1989), the intention of interacting alone does not capture the specific interaction experience that develops connection and honors the individual. Simply positing the conditions for interaction will not foster meaningful interactions or connection. For the learner to feel connected to the learning, peers, and instructor, those interactions must be designed intentionally to connect by honoring the individual’s uniqueness and providing flexibility for learners.

Peer-to-peer learning is a powerful learning experience and tool for instructors to use in the online learning classroom, but without the consideration or designing for affective learner aspects or social-emotional learning (SEL), then we aren’t truly designing a holistic interaction or exchange between learners. What student achievement that we are left with is driven solely by intrinsic or extrinsic motivations brought by the learner. We can see poorly designed peer-to-peer learning play out in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) where attrition rates are not ideal and success is driven by motivated learners and not by deep and lasting connection with others.

The following stories that we share highlight these themes and contextualize them across the many educational settings that we have worked. Each story will provide a description of the educational setting, student experience, instructor experience, observations of humanizing online learning, pedagogy of care examples, and applications of centering connection in design work. These narrative stories highlight some design practices and strategies and at the same time challenge many modern instructional design practices.

Being Seen, Heard, and Valued

Part of my (Mandi) K-12 teaching career was spent teaching science through problem-based learning in a middle school classroom at a STEM school. The school housed kindergarten through eighth grade, and the demographics were fairly diverse. It was a neighborhood school serving a population that was 72% Latinx, with a 79% free and reduced lunch rate, but it also included about 10% white affluent students from other areas of the district who had opted into the school for the programming.

Problem-based learning is rooted in cooperative learning groups, and as we all know, middle school is that awkward time where peer relationships can be sensitive and difficult. These cooperative learning groups were tasked with designing solutions to current world problems, organizing their thoughts into a presentation, and then delivering their solution presentation to experts in the field. The thought of middle school students of varying backgrounds being organized into groups and delivering a coherent presentation to a panel of experts was anxiety-inducing for both the students and me, their teacher.

After a few attempts at groups that fell apart and presentations that crashed and burned, I realized I needed a new approach and started on some research. The students in my classroom were from many different backgrounds with many different life experiences. They didn’t understand each other. In order for student groups to work together to come up with successful solutions to a problem, the group needed to work cooperatively. Before a group could work cooperatively, students needed to feel a sense of trust and belonging within their group. Before students could feel a part of a group, they needed a lot of preparation with social-emotional learning.

At first, students were apprehensive about an initial strategy I used from restorative practices, called connection circles. We used it as a weekly check-in and check-out. It was a way for every individual student in my class to be seen, heard, and valued as we all stood in a circle. I would give students a prompt and each student was given space and time to respond. The only person who could be speaking in the circle was the one holding the talking piece. The talking piece was a highly prized possession of the facilitator of the circle and not just a random object from the classroom. The point of the object being a personal prized possession is so the facilitator could model the vulnerability in sharing something personal with the students. After I described why the talking piece was so sacred, I gave students a prompt. We started out with silly but telling prompts such as naming a superpower that students would love to have. Spoiler alert, it was invisibility, because middle schoolers. Students did have an option to pass when it came to their turn, but it was not an exemption from the activity. Once we had gone around the circle, we would come back to those who had passed for their time to share.

Over time, the prompts transitioned to more personal items such as hopes, fears, and goals. I noticed students started approaching each other more about what had been said in the circle and started conversations about things they had heard. They started connecting with each other more on their own. It wasn’t long before students began to ask me when we were doing another connection circle because they had something to share or wanted to hear what others would say. I used other strategies as well, such as using children’s books and other team-building activities to teach empathy and growth mindset, but they all centered around building relationships and teams.

The environment became a safe space, a place to take risks, and to share new ideas without fear of humiliation because they had learned to listen and to have empathy towards each other. I taught them sentence starters to use with team members such as “I respectfully disagree because…” to help walk them through how to have appropriate disagreements. We changed the classroom environment to have care in mind first, so that the learning could happen. At this point, no matter what group I assigned students to, there was always some connection they could make to another student. The groups functioned in a much healthier way. Creative brainstorming sessions for solutions were much more creative and productive because most students no longer feared sharing a crazy new idea. Design thinking activities produced many more iterations because students had developed a growth mindset about the process. Because students had developed positive relationships with each other, they were more willing to give and accept critiques of their work. It was okay for the work to not be perfect the first time presented. Presentations were delivered in a more confident tone because they had the practice of presenting in front of their peers in the connection circle. Utilizing these social emotional learning practices led to a deeper academic experience for students.

The process of building social emotional capacity in middle school students was a huge paradigm shift for me and it became a very big part of my classroom. It was also a huge paradigm shift for me in how I approached my teaching practices and planning in general. Students craved connections with me and each other in the classroom. For the majority of students I saw the impact it made with their engagement in learning, their confidence, collaboration, and their social skills. I became very intentional about planning for the connection between students first in all my lessons and the content followed.

The extra time spent developing the social emotional aspect of middle school students was incredibly humanizing for them. It created a safe space for them to be vulnerable enough to take risks, share ideas, and work with others who were very different from themselves. Doing the work with social emotional learning first led to greater engagement with the material and learning of the content. It was almost as if I could get them to learn more of the content by focusing on it less.

Creating care and a sense of belonging in the classroom is necessary for students to be successful in the academic environment. They need to know that the classroom space is safe to take risks and develop a growth mindset. My STEM teaching experience taught me that it is necessary to explicitly plan with student connections in mind both in the design of the curriculum and the delivery of the material. If we create spaces for students to develop empathy to be good collaborators, they will grow up to be adults who have empathy and are good collaborators.

Bridging Success with Care NOT Grit

During my first graduate certificate program, I (Nicolas) taught in a dropout recovery high school serving a large metro region. Within this school resided 3 unique secondary high school models logistically designed to serve more students. I taught Career and Technical Education (CTE), mathematics, and science to 9th-12th graders in the hybrid model. The hybrid academy combined online learning classes that were self-paced with a half-day in-person portion that was required for most students.

These programs by description and design were to provide flexibility while still fostering persistence and “grit.” A major emphasis was on the completion of coursework and consistent effort on the student’s behalf. At the same point in time, the wave of “grit” and “persistence” was making its way through teaching conferences and teaching professional development. In this context these were the toughest kids I had met and it seemed redundant or frankly rude to attempt to frame their continued effort in the development of grit.

What worked better was developing relationships, connecting, and caring. This looked like consistent communication and strong relationships with parental figures in the students’ lives. Being authentic and true to oneself drew out the student’s personality and quickly built trust which led to better in-person attendance and my ability to keep students on task in the virtual setting. Trust fostered through care and authentic connection, drove student success so my task was to design for opportunities to develop trust and connection.

The classroom was a mixed grade-level experience with students taking short courses and gaining help with their online self-paced courses during the same span of time in the morning. This innovative model permitted students with limited transportation or access to successfully complete high school and earn a high school diploma.

For students, they could come to class and have connections with peers and teachers or borrow laptops and generally engage with each other. They were also required to attend a certain number of days a week to remain in the class which was often the most difficult aspect of the program. Many students had life situations that made this difficult or were not generally interested in school any longer.

Although this model brought flexibility and also a choice for how to attend class for students, some students needed time and space to engage while others just needed constant direction and support. Different student learning needs began to break this model down. This lab-based, in-person class time coupled with online, self-paced courses separated the learning from the human connection which caused student frustration and disinterest. It was often a struggle to make online learning and course modules relevant and not just webpages to be clicked through.

Outside of the 4-week short courses, the curriculum and course materials were provided on learning management systems. These courses were approved by the district and aligned to common core standards. This meant that when we were not direct-instructing or guiding our short courses then we were coaching, elaborating, and supporting our learners through their online courses.

In the support and relationship-building role, we spent time connecting with students and getting to know their life scenarios and goals. This often included finding out what they did for fun and why they were expelled from their original high school. These student motivations and moments helped to build a connection and a sense of care.

For the short courses, we developed very rich and engaging, peer-to-peer lesson plans and collaborations across Google docs and old school chalkboards. Students experienced problem-based learning labs related to topics like climate change and architecture and worked on them together. Journaling about their experiences and self-evaluating afterward helped them to connect the materials and experience even more.

By design, this model humanized the educational experience and provided flexibility through a hybrid model with lots of opportunities for engagement between instructor and peers. This needs-based approach takes out the structured and limited schedule of normal K-12 and provides an opportunity for a more meaningful experience.

When students trusted us enough to answer their cell phones or come to class FOR CLASS, that was success, that was perseverance. To build a relationship we had to build a culture of caring. This showed up in consistency of communication, check-ins, partnerships with their families where we highlighted wins just as much as issues, and making the learning relevant to their interests and needs.

With the application of pre-fabricated and pre-designed online courses covering common core curriculum, designing for connection showed up in two ways; the in-person time, and the connection of coursework to life and the workforce.

The in-person time was the space where we developed relationships and a culture of care as students worked together or studied together and built community in the classroom. Balancing a lab-like class with a breakout short course occurring in the same space was not always easy but it provided so much opportunity for connection. The students that would show up to study would see the fun and engaging activities of the short course and then sign up to join in on the short courses offered next block. The care and connection of the in-person portion humanized the learning and with that came lots of student achievement and high school diplomas.

Face-2-Face with the Pandemic

The Spring 2020 semester started like all of the past semesters with in-person classes and new students. My (Nicolas) course served as an introduction to the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) program so lots of new information for some and a rehashing of old for others. The student’s backgrounds differed significantly with some paraeducators, 18-20 year old community college students, k-12 online tutors, and in-service teachers spanning k-12. Students enroll in this program because of our in-person courses although the program had been planning to adopt a hyflex course delivery model prior to the pandemic to expand enrollment opportunities to distance learners.

Since this course focused on the science of language and its intersection with teaching, I had designed a flipped course experience using a learning management system to deliver the readings, lecture videos, and low-stakes assessment prior to the in-class/in-person. The in-class time was spent on group work, discussion, think-pair-share, teach outs, and connecting the students to each other, the course topics, and instructor.

All that to say, a major value proposition of the program and student experience was the practice and engagement that would simulate and prepare students to teach. Many students would drive up to 100 miles to attend our classes on Saturdays. The program scheduled our classes on Saturdays to accommodate teacher schedules and provide a one-day school week for those driving to class.

The first eight weeks of Spring semester went as planned but during the second week of March, the global climate and public health orders were shifting. In week 9, the course went fully online and an extended spring break was given to accommodate for the in-person to online shift — remote learning had finally begun.

Suddenly students were required to have internet access and a computer throughout the week. This was a stark shift and not a requirement prior to the pandemic. Student relationships, communication, and collaborations also shifted into the online course discussion boards, IM, and emails. The collaboration and relationships that they had forged in the classroom were suddenly changed and changed in a fashion that was never desired.

When the decision came down to switch everyone online, I wasn’t honestly too stressed or concerned from the design perspective. I had many things going for me. I am an instructional designer and faculty developer and my course was already flipped, so my LMS course was already developed in a consistent structure.

I began to plan discussions and assignments to simulate the types of practical assignments and creative opportunities that my active learning, flipped class normally provided. I began adding discussion forums with the fairly common interactional structure of, first post by Wednesday and replies by Sunday. My focus was on making the initial prompts as rigorous and appropriate as possible and made the assumption that the required replies would facilitate a community of learning and connection — I was wrong. To help facilitate a smooth transition, I shared the following course expectations with my students:

Hello Class,

Today begins the final 5 weeks of the course and as you all are hopefully aware no more in-person class sessions. To make this switch from a hybrid course to a fully online course, I have redesigned the final 5 weeks to be consistent and very similar in structure. This will help you succeed!

Course Tasks and Expectations

For the remainder of the course, each week will consist of:

    • 1 discussion where you will be required to reply by Wednesday at midnight and then respond to two of your classmates by Sunday at midnight.
    • 1 assignment where you will be asked to find an ESL activity or instructional material like video that works on or is focused on the weekly topic and submit a quick analysis.
    • We have two more major projects due in week 12 & week 15 – in those weeks there will not be an assignment.

This is what will be required of you to pass the course moving forward. I have removed quizzes and any additional assignments. What is listed above and in the weekly modules moving forward will be what is expected of you.

To help you plan your weeks to succeed with this new online schedule, below is a helpful schedule to keep you on task. I would suggest adopting it!

Key to succeeding in this course for the last 5 weeks

    • OVER-Communicate with me! Like way too much. We can’t communicate enough!
    • Complete the 5 weeks of content and submit any assignments that you may have missed form the first 10 weeks.
    • Contact me with any questions or concerns


5 weeks later, after countless IM and emails to students and discussions with colleagues on topics of “how much communication is too much?” I realized that through the shift, I had lost some of my students and my class community had mostly disappeared. Many colleagues in higher education were feeling this loss of engagement and experience with students and turned to blaming concepts like remote learning vs. online learning, but for me it was a loss of connection. The cold digital version of “community” that this LMS supplied did not support a rich and engaging space of interaction that made individuals feel human and connected innately. I was unable to transition a sense of care and connect with my students.

Fostering care in an online learning environment requires some significant focused work and facilitation. We can not create a sense of care or actual connections when leveraging talking head videos or using first names in our discussions alone. We must design for care and center efforts to connect with each and every student.

Prior to the shift to online learning, students would enthusiastically attend class on Saturday knowing that they would be presenting, sharing, collaborating, cooperating, and teaching. They felt connected across Moore’s interaction types and they felt heard and cared for through my actions and follow up as the guide in the class.

When we moved to online learning, the design norms, functionality, and connection of discussion boards and the all too common, “post your initial response by X-day and respond X times by X-day,” failed to produce a sense of connection. My major takeaway was to never look at online student-student interaction the same way and to design group activities with meaning and connection centered. When designing student-student interaction we can’t count on technology to bridge the connection, we must do that in design and in facilitation.

Through this experience, I learned that sound instructional design focused on outcomes and deliverables of student performance can not replicate conditions for learning alone. We must design for care and connection and ultimately humanize the digital learning space. We need to create opportunities for individual expression, sharing, and choice whether the course be online, face2face, asynchronous, or hyflex.

My design work to humanize the digital learning space took on new technologies and included modifying existing practices. My students needed opportunities to demonstrate their understanding but do it their way. The simplest modifications were shifting discussions to video discussions via Flipgrid and Padlet, where students could bring their personalities and interests to the digital space. In addition, I applied principles of differentiated learning to my assessments. My students needed choice in their ways of demonstrating learning outcomes and making the learning relevant and real. This looked like rubrics that provided choices for videos, PowerPoints, essays, research papers, recorded presentations, or live presentations. These design changes brought the student into the digital classroom much further than my previous practices.

Relationships First, Content Second

In addition to my role as a faculty developer and instructional designer on our university campus, I (Mandi) am also an instructor in a Bachelor of Arts Completion Program; a program designed for students to finish a previously started four year degree. The students in the program have a wide variety of backgrounds and varying success in an academic settings. When I agreed to teach for the program, I recalled my own experience of completing a certificate program beyond my masters degree in an online environment. I felt entirely disconnected from the school and most of my classmates even though we spent 3 semesters together in class. I was determined to provide my students with a different experience.

When I received my first teaching assignment, I read through all the material in the course and realized that everything students needed to learn the material was right there for them in the course. If an instructor wasn’t present, could a student still learn? I began to wonder, what did an instructor add to the online learning space? When I asked an instructional designer on my team about it, they listed the ways communication from the instructor fit into the design. The conversation gave me pause because it seemed very backwards. Shouldn’t the design of an online course be centered in fostering communication and connection between the instructor, students, and content?

I immediately set out to plan for ways I could bring the humanizing aspect into the online setting. I wanted to get to know my students better, find ways for them to interact with each other in the spaces provided, and show them I cared about how they were doing in class. In my introductory discussion, I used an online tech tool called Padlet to create a self profile to share with students. It was created with pictures of me and family, links to interesting sites and hobbies, and who I am as a learner. Students also created learner profiles, complete with pictures of pets and other creative contributions. In the discussion boards, I directed students into small conversations with each other by pointing out similar thoughts between students and asking probing questions for them to answer, I used names and specific feedback in the gradebook, and I even held and recorded optional synchronous sessions on Zoom to answer questions about assignments or clarify the content. It still did not seem like enough because I did not feel the same connection to students in this environment that I had in a classroom environment.

Student evaluation feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Students commented that they were excited to be in the discussion boards because the conversation was so engaging. They felt they really learned a lot from the feedback and the material was applicable to everyday life. Students mentioned the fact that the recorded videos of the live sessions showed I cared about them and their unpredictable schedules because they could view them whenever they wanted.

Even though the majority of the feedback was positive, I still had a student mention that they didn’t feel enough of my personal attention was given to them in the class. I know we like to dismiss these students as one of “those” students, and there’s one in every class, but that is a concern to me. Our university offers hundreds of online courses each quarter, and if there is one student in every class that doesn’t feel connected, that’s thousands of students every year missing out on a sense of belonging.

The beautifully designed, but fairly rigid structure of our courses does not create enough space for human connection. We need to design more time for solution-centered conversation around humanizing the space. Students are one of the biggest stakeholders and should be brought into the process. There have to be more creative options available than to post an initial response by Wednesday and respond to two others by Sunday.

Should design be about predictability and routine which in theory reduces student strain or should the course and intention be more about how we connect to students? By way of less focus on routine and more focus on students? In a learner-centered, care-centered world, the focus should be on the student and their own individual learning process.

Creating the space for students to share themselves with me and others in the class is a way to bring humanity into the online learning space. It inspires empathy and care in a seemingly cold technological setting, and has made me an advocate for designing and delivering courses with the pedagogy of care in mind. It’s the first thing I introduce to the faculty I onboard and should be in the forefront of every course design.

Ensuring the humanization of online technological spaces means we need to design courses with opportunities for human connection in the forefront of the design. The delivery of the content also needs to be intentionally planned with opportunities for engagement between the instructor, students, and the content. The leap from K-12 into higher education has taught me that students in an academic setting, no matter their age, have the same needs from their teachers; to feel seen, heard, and valued. It begins with thoughtful design centered in care.

Connecting & Caring in Summary

As designers and learners ourselves, we are still working to answer our initial question, “What does the experience of humanized online learning feel like for instructors and students?” From our reflections and observations, we strongly believe that we must center care and connection to humanize online learning. Throughout these stories we identified a few critical anecdotes to designing online learning informed with care and connection that fostered student achievement. We hope that these anecdotes will help you to design online learning that is more caring and connected in nature.

If online design does not permit for care or connection then the design must change. We must humanize it. To humanize online learning is to teach and design with compassion. Caring is a reciprocal action which extends beyond the instructor and student and seeps into all student relationships. We believe that this approach to teaching and learning is pivotal to humanizing learning and we could say that learning guided by care is central to the cultivation of care in society.


Moore, M.G. (1989). Editorial: Three types of interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1-7.

Smith, M. K. (2004, 2020). Nel Noddings, the ethics of care and education. The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/nel-noddings-the-ethics-of-care-and-education/

Strikwerda, C. J. (2019). Faculty members are the key to solving the retention challenge. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2019/09/04/faculty-must-play-bigger-role-student-retention-and-success-opinion


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Designing for Care Copyright © 2022 by Mandi Singleton and Nicolas Pares is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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