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Lessons Learned in Online Reading Classrooms

 

Joe Lubig

            Northern Michigan University 

 

N. Suzanne Standerford

            Northern Michigan University

 

Cindy Hendricks

            Bowling Green State University

 

Introduction

 

“This is my first on-line course and I am coming into this with mixed feelings of anticipation and dread. Hopefully the dread part will be unfoundedJ” – NMU Graduate Student

 

We are all anxious about things that are new to us. The feelings this graduate student had about an online course are probably similar to those he had walking into his first course at the university or upon entering his first teaching experience. Many teacher educators when asked to develop and deliver a new course or material via a new modality may share the same feelings. From our view, it is the obligation of teacher educators to create learning experiences that relieve dread of new things and produce learning through sound pedagogical practice (Paez, 2003).

 

Public schools in the United States have long been expected to create a well-informed citizenry to participate in decisions of local, state, and national importance (Shannon, 1992). This purpose is often achieved through classroom experiences wherein students become active members of classroom cultures and school communities (Bruner, 1996). The advent and increasing use of online courses for delivering instruction requires us to redefine our purposes. Developing online classroom-learning communities requires a commitment to the norms of the community and to the development of caring relationships among its members (Noddings, 1984, 2003). These aspects of the learning community are often developed and sustained through social interactions among teachers and students. As a result, learners of all types are acculturated into communities as they observe, imitate, question, and become like those with whom they spend time; this is what Smith (1988) called “joining the club.” As courses move more to online formats, can such interactions and commitments to the learning community or club be developed and sustained?

 

In the following narrative, we reflect on anecdotal lessons learned in three online graduate reading courses. Through our experiences as teacher educators and reading methods instruction experts we explore the development of online course environments and instructional support and students’ needs for online learning in this evolving era of new communications technologies (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003). The goal of this article is to explore opportunities of online environments. In following pages, first we reflect on literature in online teaching and learning that we believe are critical in fostering authentic online learning communities. Then, each author shares specific anecdotal experiences with online courses in higher education. That is followed by a synthesis of our experiences and implications for future education practice.

A Brief Review of the Literature

 

            To develop and plan the delivery of online courses, we used a research review of online teaching as a touchstone (Tallent-Runnels, Thomas, Lan, Cooper, Ahern, Shaw, & Liu, 2006). This review provided us with rich ideas and discussion as we planned online learning experiences during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 academic years. Based on this review, key components of online course management were used to develop and reflect on our teaching and perceptions of student engagement in three online graduate courses.

 

Online Community Development

 

            Knupfer, Gram, and Larsen’s (1997) results of faculty member surveys of graduate students’ reactions to online teaching demonstrate the need to establish community. This can be done through the development of study groups, book clubs, project based learning, and instructor modeling of effective communication. The literature review made it clear that a critical component of instructor modeling was to challenge student thinking in the online environment. Ideas presented in the online environment that went unchallenged “provided little negotiated meaning or new knowledge construction” (Kanuka & Anderson as cited in Tallent-Runnels, et al, p. 96). The initial role of the instructor in an online environment is similar to that of an instructor in a traditional classroom setting. The instructor must moderate the group allowing for the formation of a community as determined through the sharing of personal and professional experiences. Questioning and support of the group is critical (Knupfer, Gram, & Larsen, 1997; Winograd, 2000).

 

            Another key factor found in the literature was the need for direct guidance from the instructor. This guidance is necessary to set the foundation for the encouragement of higher level thinking in student responses (Anderson & Karthwohl, 2001). This need was a major focus for us in the course design in the area of community building. To develop camaraderie, support, and warmth (Knupfer, Gram, & Larsen, 1997) we deemed it necessary to model or moderate initial online introductions or discussions. Winograd (2000) supports even a low level of instructor engagement in this area as a positive support of community building in the online environment.

 

Knupfer, Gram, and Larsen’s (1997) research stressed the importance of recognizing students’ emotions in the online environment. This was critical in the preparation of our courses as we worked to balance the need to clearly organize for clarity and collaboration with individual student needs and expectations. The graduate students they surveyed stressed a failure in this area when courses were developed. The literature was clear that the online exchanges facilitated in our courses should model and develop the characteristics necessary for positive discussions (Ahern & El Hindi, 2000; Davidson-Shivers, Tanner, & Muilenburg, 2000; Mikulechy, 1998) if a supportive online community was to be developed. In particular, our courses would need to foster descriptive presentations, thoughtful responses to fellow students, synthesis of new thoughts, sharing of professional experiences, and debate or questioning.

 

 

 

 

Online Instructional Support

 

Berge (1999) found that the instructional design of online discussions and interactions affect the quality of a course more than any particular delivery system. Instructors in the online environment must provide clear and direct guidance to encourage the synthesis and evaluation of course material. Material for online courses should not be viewed as mere electronic versions of the text and class lectures. Instead, this material should be viewed as an opportunity by the instructor to model, initiate, and support online discussions (Im & Lee, 2003/2004) in both synchronous and asynchronous formats. Clear online directions and support identifying the specific tasks required of students in developing these discussions is integral to the social advantage an online experience may provide (Sullivan, 2002). Student reflection on course expectations through instructor-developed questioning and “real-time, back-and-forth discussion with their instructors” (Tallent-Runnels, et al, 2006, p. 97) would help to promote more refined discussions and student work.

 

Scaffolding would be necessary to support cognitive understanding (Greene & Land, 2000) of complex course expectations. When learners are distracted with understanding the tasks necessary to navigate an online environment, understanding of complex concepts is hindered (Mayer, Heiser, & Lonn, 2001). Christel (as cited in Tallent-Runnels, et al, 2006) recommends that pedagogically crucial content be delivered via video and in a separate electronic component of the course. This might mean online course designers develop rooms around specific tasks or content for their online courses so as not to overload the learner in any one area at a time. Video support was not the only means of accepted instructional support. Student access to timely announcements, lectures, supporting documents, web links, online tutorials, and chat support (Bee & Usip, 1998; Cooper, 1999) improves student achievement in the online environment. Likewise, Mayer and Chandler (2001) recommend learner interactivity when a multimedia presentation is utilized to promote deeper learning of content material.

 

            Discussions among the three of us prior to the development of this online teaching project reflected on the increase in enrollment in online courses of study at the graduate level. In fact, online enrollment in the United States is increasing at a rate of 33% per year (Pethokoukis, 2002). Discussions and surveys of graduate students in our programs noted convenience and self-pacing of course content as a possible reason for taking online courses. Schrum (1995) noted positive response from students who were afforded the opportunity to move through a given course at their own pace. Other research findings (Hantula, 1998) supported our predictions that more successful, task-oriented students displaying a higher degree of self-management would move through the courses at a faster pace than less successful students. The literature suggested our course designs might allow for some of this self-pacing to occur. 

 

We were not able to assume all of our graduate students had participated in an online course prior to this one. We believed it appropriate to review the literature on undergraduate online courses to explore the research on developing a comfort level for students who may be new to this environment. Faux and Black-Hughes (as cited in Tallent-Runnels, 2006) found that 47.1% of students were uncomfortable in their online course. Students noted the need to have more immediate instructor feedback on their work. Interestingly, they noted the absence of the instructor’s voice as a missing component in promoting their understanding of course content.

 

Kanuka and Anderson’s (1998) work suggests ways to alleviate this lack of feedback through a predictable and consistent process. They purport the use of a five-stage process to support and promote in-depth reflection and conversation on the course content. Stage 1 facilitates the sharing of information and opinions. Stage 2 is a forum for the exploration of dissonance and inconsistency in those opinions. Stage 3 provides opportunity for negotiation of meaning and the creation of new knowledge. Stage 4 develops and modifies this new knowledge as participants are tested and challenged. Stage 5 requires participants to construct in-depth responses and statements about their new knowledge. We now turn to our experiences and reflections on delivering the online courses.       

 

Initial Reactions to the Online Environment

 

Class Context – Standerford

 

In the following, the second author describes experiences of a graduate online course “Improving Reading Comprehension,” which is a required course in two reading masters degree programs. The course was taught in the winter of 2006 and included 25 students from reading teacher, reading specialist, elementary education and learning disabilities masters degree programs. WebCT, now Blackboard, was used as the course site and students interacted in an online environment through various ways throughout the semester. The course was organized on a weekly basis and provided a schedule of detailed instructions for each week of the semester, including deadlines for online postings and assignments. Students were required to log in to WebCT synchronously for one evening every other week. Additionally, the website was used for asynchronous independent postings and student-arranged small group chats during the semester.

 

The course was organized around two different literacy approaches: a literature focus unit on one young adult novel and a variety of book clubs on non-fiction professional books and literacy instruction. During the literature focus unit, students used both asynchronous discussion postings and synchronous chats. Assignments included written responses and visual creations such as quilt squares and book box items. Students also used web resources such as author websites and a MediaSite Live lecture by the professor. Book clubs developed presentations of new strategies for developing reading comprehension and demonstrated those strategies interactively. These were shared and discussed using the asynchronous discussion posting board.

 

Nature of Conversations between Instructor and Students – Standerford

 

The second author found that conversations with students were usually either content related or involved requests for logistical clarifications. Most conversations occurred individually between the instructor and one student. Although many of these conversations were posted for the entire class, few students ever responded to my comments unless the comments were directed to them.

 

The content related conversations were intended to expand student thinking and to correct misconceptions. At times a student might seem to have constructed a simplistic view of a concept and the instructor used discussion postings to try and help the student go further in their thinking.  Additionally, at times the instructor posted whole class responses to issues that surfaced with a few students to help the entire class think further on these issues.

 

Logistical conversations were usually clarifications of directions for assignments. One student struggled to understand course requirements and it took five pages of written conversations to help her successfully complete the course. Logistical conversations were time-consuming and made it clear that providing extremely clear directions is an area for improvement in my online teaching.

 

Occasionally, students would send “out-of-class” comments to the instructor via email. One interesting strand of conversations occurred with a student who was more familiar with online teaching and learning than the instructor was. This student acted as a cheerleader and mentor via email side conversations to support the instructor’s learning and to encourage her to try new ideas. This was a rich part of the instructor’s learning.

 

Class Context – Lubig

 

            In this section the first author describes his online use of a required reading masters program course, “Teaching of Reading for Secondary Teachers.” The course was taught in the fall of 2006 with seven students enrolled. WebCT (Blackboard) was used for the course delivery. Students were required to use asynchronous discussions to contribute to the class and to meet the course requirements. At no time were synchronous discussions required for the course. The course was labeled as a Directed Study due to the low enrollment. Student interpretation has traditionally defined Directed Study as a course made up of independent work, which was a concern.

 

The course was organized into three distinct components or assignment groupings. Each grouping was built around a 30-day deadline. Assignment Grouping One was utilized for online introductions and to develop and engage in discussions on the philosophy of teaching reading. Online responses in this group of assignments were optional but encouraged as a vital part of getting to know one another as course participants. Assignment Grouping Two required online interaction in response to developed lesson plans and resulting student work in reading instruction. Additionally, each student was required to post a book review for class critique. The professional book chosen had to relate to course objectives. Assignment Grouping Three was used to reflect as individuals and as a class as to what constitutes effective reading instruction at the secondary level. This final grouping also challenged students to provide evidence from their practice and from the course about how the course objectives were met.

 

Nature of Conversations between Instructor and Students – Lubig

 

The quality of assignments from all seven students enrolled in the course was impressive. All deadlines were met and the content of the work was excellent. However, the quality of the student work did not relate to the instructor’s satisfaction of the course overall. The level of discussion among students in online discussion boards was lacking and elementary at best.

 

Nonetheless, the email conversations and phone calls supporting student learning between instructor and individual students were rich. The dialogue on specific aspects of the book review and lesson planning were especially engaging as the instructor was able to link the student to specific studies and examples online. Subsequently, two students challenged the review and lessons the instructor modeled. They did this via email and not on discussion boards. The posting of these critiques of the instructor’s work was encouraged. The students chose not to do this, perhaps because they felt the dialogue was finished or they were simply uncomfortable doing so.

 

The instructor made several assumptions with the timelines for the assignment groupings that probably contributed to the low level of student engagement. The deadline for the posting of the assignment coincided with the deadline to respond. This left no time for quality responses. Further, as deadlines approached much time was spent responding to logistical questions about requirements for posting responses. The posting of the instructor before deadlines did not remedy the lack of student response. For example, in an introductory session, the instructor posted a public response to every student introduction and received two student comments in return. Student comments of the course reflected their concern over lack of peer engagement.

 

Class Context – Hendricks

 

The online graduate course created and evaluated by the third author was “Literacy: Theories and Foundations.” Like the other two classes mentioned earlier in this article, this is a required course in the Master of Education in Reading program.  It is the first course that students typically take for the advanced degree or for the Ohio Reading Endorsement. The course was taught summer semester 2006 and included 25 students. Blackboard was used as the course site. The course was developed using weekly modules. For example, week 1 addressed the history of reading instruction and week 2 focused on theoretical aspects of reading instruction. Within each module were four folders: knowledge, discussion, application, and assessment. The knowledge folder contained readings and PowerPoint presentations.  The discussion folder contained the topic for the asynchronous weekly discussion.  The application folder contained an assignment related to the topic under investigation and the assessment folder contained a brief quiz that highlighted the basic points from the readings. Students were required to participate in asynchronous discussion groups by posting at least two responses per week.

 

Each student would begin the week with the readings and reviewing the PowerPoint.  Once that was completed, students would move to the next folder, which required them to respond to the discussion topic. Once they had completed their response, they were required to respond to at least one other classmate’s posting. The next activity was to complete the assignment. The assignments included: (a) completing a study guide, (b) creating a home-school connection brochure, (c) implementing vocabulary instruction, (d) evaluating textbooks, and (e) writing a philosophy of the teaching of reading. Students completed the assignments and submitted them via the Blackboard.  After assignments were completed, students took the brief quiz to demonstrate their understanding of the major topics for the week. 

 

 

 

 

Nature of Conversations between Instructor and Students – Hendricks

 

The initial contact by the instructor to the students was through an email welcoming the students to the online classroom and providing basic information about the website. The instructor also used the announcements feature of the Blackboard to provide students with an in-depth introduction to the website and the online navigation buttons. Each button was explained and students were told where the buttons would take them. Once the initial orientation was completed, conversations between students and instructor were limited to assignment clarification, discussion board responses, and logistical issues via telephone and email.

 

Of all the conversations between the instructor and the students in the class, the majority involved course assignments and assessments. Students also had questions about technological issues and about the course in general. Interestingly, students took time to reflect on assignments and the values they thought the assignments held for them.  For example, one student wrote, “This assignment really opened my eyes to what I believe is necessary to be a good teacher.” Another student proclaimed, “I enjoyed the assignment - it was helpful to recall how I learned, and to see how my children and others learn. Thanks.”  Finally, a third student commented, “Nice exercise to explore and compare and contrast the approaches. I wasn't sure how to approach this at first but once I got moving it wasn't that bad.”  Additional comments related to assignments focused on grades, information contained in the Power Points, and late work.

 

The other category of interaction between students and the instructor that was noted frequently included questions related to the assessments for the class. While most students asked questions about what was on the quiz, several students challenged the questions and provided explanations as to why their responses were appropriate and should be considered correct.  A number of students wrote to ask for clarification on a particular quiz item so that they could “learn from their mistakes.”

 

The contacts between students were particularly noticeable in the online discussions.  Students would chat with one another about the topic and how the topic related to their classrooms and teaching. Many of the class members provided suggestions, ideas, resources, telephone numbers, and other forms of support.  This was a highlight of the course because students were actually talking “reading” with each other and sharing experiences. Initially, the instructor tried to stay out of the conversation (similar to what would be done in a face to face class); however, opportunities presented themselves for probing students to think beyond their own classroom experiences, which allowed the discussion to move to another level.

 

Lessons Learned

 

            Reflecting back to the quote at the beginning of this article it is easy to see what a student might want and need in an online environment. We believe the needs are similar to those of students in a face-to-face class: to lessen anxiety and to set expectations through negotiated meaning within the context of the course and those involved.

 

 

 

Community Building

 

In one of the graduate courses the instructor required the posting of introductory information similar to the format used in traditional classroom settings; name, interests, reasons for taking the course, and what should be gained from the course. The instructor only required the posting of the responses from the students. The assumption was that a whole class conversation would evolve much as they do in a face-to-face setting with participants sharing similar experiences, commiserating, and supporting one another. The instructor modeled the response to the posting and commented on each student posting and encouraged others to do the same. Students did not look beyond their own posting and instructor responses despite clear modeling. The interactions remained strictly between instructor and student for this exercise. In this instance, the instructor did not clearly develop and communicate the purpose of the introductions from a learner point of view. Even though a high level of presence and action was employed by the instructor (Blignaut & Trollip, 2003) students did not take the opportunity to communicate with others in the classroom.

 

             Conversely, in another online graduate course students were sent an initial contact for the course through snail mail. The letter engaged students with the format of the course, how to access the course online, and provided phone or on-site support for students who may be apprehensive about using the online format. In this course, students were required to post a photo, a short narrative, and symbols to represent who they are as people and professionals to an online discussion board. The use of these varied responses allowed for the course participants to read and view the responses of the other students. The initial assignment had a requirement for students to synthesize and respond to the introductions through asynchronous discussions by creating a visual that linked members of the class in various ways. These postings were supported by feedback from the instructor as well in the same format. Rich visual representations posted by students provide evidence of these positive characteristics.

 

            The use of asynchronous discussion combined with the varied forms of text required for students to tell about themselves may have provided positive results as students had more time to craft more thoughtful responses. In addition, the individual teaching style of the instructor may have aided in the facilitation of this positive first experience for this particular online course. The instructor for this particular course benefited from the initial snail mail contact made prior to any online engagement. This may have allowed the students to view the online environment as a significant supplement to traditional learning. Street (2003) writes that literacy focus is “not so much on the acquisition of skills, as in dominant approaches, but rather on what it means to think of literacy as a social practice” (p. 77). The instructor moved from a familiar form of social practice, the introductory paper letter, to an electronic version. Utilizing a medium familiar and safe to students and transferring it to this electronic environment demonstrated a respect for all members of this online community. The learners in this environment were supported in changing the meaning of how a quilt square could be defined as a literary tool (Leu, Kinzer, Coiro, & Cammack, 2004). This was accomplished by applying the tool to personally relevant text that all students had to read.

 

 

            The instructor in the third online course described in this article noted the positive comments from students as evidence of a positive sense of community. Comments such as, “Course format provided interaction between the students and among students,” and “Communication with other students enhanced the class” are evidence of this. It is interesting to note other words used by the students in this course from the evaluation. Words like “exchange,” “incorporate,” and “interaction,” language that demonstrates a commitment to the development and use of caring relationships (Noddings, 1984, 2003).

 

            The use of the asynchronous discussions facilitated in all three online environments support in-depth communication. As our narrative illustrates, the in-depth communication was not always student-to-student. Clearer directions to support student expectations in this area must be communicated. The asynchronous discussions were similar in scope and depth to those in a traditional setting. These findings are consistent with the review of research that guided our project (Tallent-Runnels, Thomas, Lan, Cooper, Ahern, Shaw, & Liu, 2006).

 

Online Support

 

With intentional planning by the instructor, students share information and opinions at the initial stage of discovery and move along a continuum to phrase explicit arguments and to apply new knowledge. Feedback from students in the area of instructional design were positive, such as (a) “Format was user friendly,” (b) “Assignments were helpful in understanding the course,” (c) “Instructor explained and followed grading policy,” and (d) “I am not much of a surfing fiend, but I really enjoyed investigating all of the different reading strategy sites.” These comments are consistent with the instructor’s perception that the instructional design, which “Encouraged students to think critically, to engage in reflection, and to apply knowledge.”

 

            We discussed how critical an orientation to the online classroom would be to successful student engagement with course material. Managing how students engage with course material is critical to success. These factors should not change in the online environment and they were viewed as opportunities to teach or develop new teaching techniques for the graduate students in our courses. We believe it is important to develop the courses in a way that move beyond mere chapter reading and answer sessions.

 

Using the asynchronous model for the design of discussion board conversations allowed for the learner to control the pace of the conversation and of the lesson which in turn increased student levels of satisfaction and engagement (Roblyer, 1999). One instructor noted a substantial improvement in the quality of assignments and discussions from a grouping of assignments that allowed for this individual pacing. A student from one of the three courses commented that they saw “Working at own pace during the week” as a positive experience.

 

One instructor in particular noted the value of a synchronous sidebar conversation with a student about online teaching. The instructor noted the value this real time conversation had to help refine particular aspects of the course as well as to help frame the costs and benefits of online teaching from a pedagogical perspective. Students in this particular course noted the necessity of having the instructor accessible so she might provide individual attention to each student. This need was recognized by all of three of the authors as they provided clear support for students through face-to-face discussions and phone conversations to rehearse ideas prior to posting them in the online classroom. This use of offline support coincides with Kist’s (2005) view of the many possibilities or iterations of new literacy classrooms. The strategy of supporting the online environment with print and nonprint support has been proven successful (Alvermann, Hagood, & Williams, 2001; Alvermann, Moon, & Hagood, 1999; Luke 1998) in this project. Our reflections lead us to believe that using the familiar to move into the unfamiliar added to the level of confidence demonstrated by the students.

 

Considerations for Possibly Assuring a Positive Online Experience

 

            Hansen and Gladfelter (1996) assure us that online instruction must support an environment that is respectful and safe if it is to promote the high level of engagement and collaboration necessary for substantive learning to occur. Students in the three courses were consistently more successful when online instructors provided concrete examples of assignments and clear directions. This is similar to what we know works in a face-to-face classroom environment. It would be inconceivable for teacher educators to allow an entire course to go by in a traditional classroom setting where students did not call on each other by name. Nor would it be appropriate to create a traditional classroom setting where meaningful debate structured around open-ended questions, personal experience, and well-researched content was absent. The online classroom should be no different.

 

            Our experiences in these online graduate courses support the instructor taking a purposeful role in challenging student thought through direct guidance to encourage higher level thinking and interaction (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). Consistently, when the presenters adhered to a protocol whereby students were asked to engage with new material at their own pace, explore the opinions of others on the same information, co-construct knowledge, modify that knowledge, and then apply it, students were much more likely to have a positive experience with the material and with the course in general. One graduate student noted that she “… enjoyed investigating all of the different reading strategy sites” while another “… found the assignment challenging.” To ensure these types of responses we believe that future course design must provide clear directions, purposeful tasks/questions, and a real-world application of knowledge.

 

             A key problem facing the online structure of the courses described in this article was the tendency for students to do assignments at the last-minute. To remedy this situation we recommend the use of two sets of deadlines. One deadline would allow for the research and construction of initial knowledge. These assignments or projects would be posted as a part of the course in a public forum such as Blackboard. Next, we would recommend setting another deadline for students to engage in online discussions where they co-construct and challenge this new knowledge. This co-construction should be explored through the use of online discussion or webcams. Giving students time to reflect on the spoken and written ideas of their peers will increase ownership and depth of understanding. Providing clear examples or tutorials for the use of these two response formats will be critical to their success. By spreading this response process out in manageable chunks we will allow for individual thinking and research to occur on a particular topic. It will also allow the instructor to provide effective and moderate amounts of interaction to promote deeper learning (Mayer & Chandler, 2001). We believe instructors should also engage in the discussions to provide some level of cognitive drama and scaffolding for the students in groups or as individuals. Having the material analyzed and synthesized by each student prior to these discussions is critical if the discussions are to truly facilitate the application of new knowledge to individual students and groups in the course. Creating the online experience so students can collaborate over these shared experiences will help them refine their thinking as related to the course and their profession (Greene & Land, 2000).

 

Instructors must consciously facilitate understanding for teachers in the environments in which their students learn (Alvermann & Hagood, 2000). Learning how to design online courses to read the “body language” of student comments so this learning occurs will only happen if instructors are provided with the support necessary to do so. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the online instructor to structure the course to benefit students’ learning the same as it is in the face-to-face classroom environment. Structuring questions to students in the online classroom must reflect the need for students to have appropriate wait time before a quality response is expected.

           

Concluding Thoughts 

 

Online teaching is changing the level of engagement and opportunity in education. Many institutions are encouraging faculty to teach courses online for economic reasons. Increasing enrollment with limited outlay of capital and human resources are leading reasons for this change. However, most of us have yet to confront how online teaching and learning is changing the educational experience and outcomes for faculty and students. We believe educators must continue to provide a forum for considering how the economic and educational goals of a university may conflict. As well, we believe educators should continue to explore how to minimize conflicts by working toward better understandings of how online courses can be used effectively in whole or part to provide sound educational experiences. A challenge is to apply the same level of expectation and critique developed in face-to-face classroom experiences to online teaching and learning experiences.

 

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