Say what you see: alternative text for complex images

Photo by ALAN DE LA CRUZ on Unsplash

When making digital content accessible, adding alternative text to images is key. But in a presentation on Demystifying alternative text for complex images at a recent Future Teacher session,  Matthew Deeprose from the University of Southampton showed how not all alternative text is equal, and how, in most cases, ALT text is not enough for more complex images such as graphs and flow charts.

What is alternative text?

Alternative text is the written text that appears in place of an image and conveys the same information as the original image. This is essential for people with visual impairment using a screen reader, or students who use Sussex’s Sensus access service to convert content into alternative formats, for example audio files. It’s also useful for students who are reading content using a weak internet connection, as alternative text will appear when images fail to load.

Writing alternative text for complex images

For some complex images, you may need more than just the ALT text function to add short text to your image. As when composing any alternative text, ask yourself why you included the chart or graph. Deeprose says to consider the purpose and intention of the chart or graph as follows:

  • If you’re using the image for visual interest, mark it as decorative.
  • If the chart or graph replicates text already in the document, then you should add a caption describing the essential content and context, and use the alt text feature to mark the image as decorative.
  • If the chart or graph supports or rationalises what is in the text, then we should write a brief alt text describing essentials of the image and use a caption or title.
  • If the chart or graph goes further than what is in the text, or you students to use the graph in some way, then you should write a brief alternative text describing the essentials, add a caption, and then provide a full description elsewhere in the document. Ideally you should also provide the tabular data that was used to generate the graph or chart.

Source: Deeprose, M. (2022) ‘ What is alternative text? How do I write it for images, charts, and graphs? (slide 27). Available at: (Accessed: 22 March 2022).


Writing alternative text for complex images can be time-consuming, and is best done at the time of creating the content. Deeprose describes the composition of alternative text as a creative writing process, with no perfect descriptions.

In this video they walk through some specific examples, including a line graph, Venn diagram, and flow chart (and even updates one of the examples when challenged by a member of the audience!)

Where to find out more

You can also contact our team at for support and further guidance.

Share your experience.

Have you suggestions for writing good alternative text for your discipline? Please share your experiences in the comments

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Posted in Accessibility

Online teaching spaces: Exploring the digital myths

From supporting staff with their Virtual Learning Environment module sites and related teaching tools, I have seen past experiences become barriers. I aim to explore some of the myths heard over my 14 years working in FE & HE across different institutions.

Student skills

We might assume students have the required skills for a task, but they have different learning journeys. You can support students by linking to training resources and referring to the more relevant sections. Doing this as early as possible and signposting during delivery helps students explore these in time. This can also be an opportunity for everyone to refresh their skills. You may also want to consider checking their skills, and How to assess students’ prior knowledge – Eberly Center – Carnegie Mellon University ( includes some ideas to adapt.

Who might benefit?

We shouldn’t assume that additional resources and assistive software only benefit those with additional needs. These should not create an advantage for some students, but be available to the whole group to benefit from. Some students choose not to register their additional learning requirements and others may not know they have them. The ‘support for all’ section in this article ‘We must embrace technology to make education easier, fairer and more inclusive’ | Jisc gives one example.

Including links to support materials or additional reading is not necessarily enough of an incentive for students to visit and read them, as learners have different motivations (as briefly noted in Principles Of Student Engagement In A Virtual Classroom ( Consider where and when those support materials are more relevant. When linking to additional reading, promote in a sentence or two, the resource and its benefit, for example ‘it expands on … and will be of interest to …’.

Online discussions

Setting up discussion boards is not enough of an incentive for students to use them, and this was looked at in one of the team’s posts last year, How to encourage student engagement using Canvas discussion forums. They need a good reason to use spaces that aren’t part of the taught delivery, so why not make them part of this? We might worry that some students might misuse these spaces, but we can help support them on how to manage these, to help develop further skills. This post will also give you some ideas to think about this further, Online Discussion Forums | GSI Teaching & Resource Center (

Final thoughts

Try to debunk the myths. The covid lockdown significantly impacted the learning experience for students. This could have broken habits, changed expectations, and affected the skillsets students have. Asking your students and utilising analytics tools can help get to know your student groups.

I will end with mentioning that Canvas, and other teaching tools, like Panopto and Turnitin, provide analytics for academics (explored in this blog post on How Learning Analytics can aid your teaching). These provide an insight into how students are using resources and identifying gaps and opportunities. The following figures may surprise you. These show the Panopto lecture capture content viewed just across January and February 2023 at the University of Sussex:

  • View and Downloads: 196592
  • Unique viewers: 19026
  • Minutes delivered: 3845161.3

If you would like to talk to us about seeing and reflecting on the figures in your modules, or to discuss any of the above points, please contact your Learning Technologist or email

Posted in Learning Technologies

Why we still need to talk about digital skills in 2023

If you stand near me long enough, I’ll start talking about digital skills and if I had a soapbox, I’d be standing on it. I think it’s one of the most important areas of personal and professional development, however it’s one that’s given the least amount of love, which is precisely why I think it’s one of the most important.

If you work at a higher education institution, chances are the person specification for your job role requires you to have ‘excellent IT skills’, or similar. Whilst it’s great that we’ve moved on from ‘good with Microsoft Office’, what exactly does having excellent IT skills mean in practice, and if we’re honest, can we really say that we do?

Given that the focus of Educational Enhancement is on staff development, this is the lens for this post. Specifically digital skills and how they impact student skills development and experience. Whilst digital skills development may seem innocuous and sometimes irrelevant for one’s career progression, it has fundamental and long-lasting impact on your students’ experience and consequently their development of said skills. For the purposes of this post, I use the term digital skills, but in this context, you can replace that with digital literacies, capabilities and competencies if you see fit.

Why does it matter?

Let’s look at one specific set of skills as an example, digital accessibility. Nearly any digital content you create has the capacity to be accessible to a wider audience than it would otherwise have without some basic edits or adjustments for digital accessibility, in many cases it is a legal obligation.

Just a few examples of digital accessibility are:

  • Videos having closed captions,
  • Images having alternative text,
  • Text having read aloud option,
  • Colour contrast for legible text legible.
  • And of course much more.

Without such things some of your students simply can’t access and engage with your course material. Thus, creating digitally accessible content is a critical skill for staff to have.

Student experience? Check. But what about skills development?

I’ve highlighted why one digital skill is crucial for staff and how that affects the student experience. So how does staff having these skills help develop the same skills in our students? We’ll answer that with two things we expect from students when submitting written work. One, something most text editors do for us without us even thinking about it, check for spelling and grammar. Two, require references to be submitted in a very specific format. (Note: we’re focusing on written media for the sake of word count, but the following equally applies to other media types.)

As an HE institution, we’re well versed in requiring written work to be appropriately checked for spelling and grammar, many of us use the built in tools for auto correct and final checks before submitting work. Similarly great efforts are made to make sure we reference in a specific format. However, when it comes to digital accessibility, how often do we expect students to check their submissions for alt text in images, proper use of heading styles, tables formatted and used appropriately and so on? We could probably count on one hand, across the institution.

We know that some of our staff use and rely on assistive technologies and require digitally accessible content, so the question remains, why do we not ask this of our students? Creating digitally accessible content is more than just a desirable skill, in many cases, as we’ve noted, it is a legal requirement for someone who produces digital content. So, whether one uses assistive technology, require accessible alternative media or not, this is a critical skill we want our students to develop and why we need to still talk about digital skills in 2023.

Here are just a few examples of other skills that our students – and therefore we, need to make an effort to get to grips with:

  • Working with cloud storage,
  • Online safety and security,
  • Managing file types (crucial for assignment submissions),
  • Collaboration,
  • Video conferencing,
  • Making sense of developments in technology (AI assisted content creation?).

The list is much longer and probably growing, for a good overview of the breadth of skills, see the Jisc Digital Capabilities Framework.

Don’t be put off by this, you don’t have to be the fount of all digital skills knowledge. There are many sources of support for you, Educational Enhancement, IT Services, and LinkedIn Learning to name just a few. Additionally, colleagues across Skills Hub, The Library, Careers, Employability and Entrepreneurship teams as well as your own colleagues and students are all sources of support and guidance.

The mechanism for developing the skills is simple, it starts with you. It starts with a willingness to engage with it, a willingness to accept it is everyone’s responsibility and, as Jo Coldwell-Neilson says in her video, Developing students’ digital skills through online learning, don’t assume someone else is doing it in their modules – find the opportunities and run with them.

Call to action

Discuss digital skills in your next developmental meeting, what do you want to know and who are you going to get to help? Try and figure out what ‘excellent IT skills’ means for you and your subject area. Not having the skills is fine, not doing anything about it is not, because it’s our students who suffer.

Useful resources

  • TPCK framework (technological, pedagogical and content knowledge).
    Helps contextualise the skills required for teaching, learning and assessment, framing technical (or digital skills) amongst pedagogy and subject knowledge.
  • SAMR model: (substitution, augmentation, modification and redefinition).
    Helps us categorise and therefore more purposefully address adoption of edtech within teaching and learning activity. As noted on the page, it’s best not seen as a hierarchy.
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Posted in Accessibility, digital skills

Use of recording software to facilitate authentic assessment

Photo by Soundtrap on Unsplash

What is Authentic Assessment?

An authentic assessment is one in which students are presented with real-world tasks to demonstrate how to apply knowledge and skills.

As well as testing their knowledge of subjects they learn in class, an authentic assessment also focuses on their creativity, problem solving skills, written and oral expression and ability to apply what they have learnt to real situations experienced by professionals in the world of work.

Benefits to Using Authentic Assessment

Acknowledged benefits of implementing authentic assessment include:

  • Authentic assessments test ’high order thinking skills’
  • Assessments are more interesting and motivating for students as tasks are based on real life situations.
  • Interdisciplinary knowledge and skills for life are usually required for effective accomplishment, and so employable skills are developed.
  • The assessments provide opportunities to practise new skills in unfamiliar situations, mirroring real life – making engagement meaningful for students.

Senior Lecturer of Law, Dr Verona Ni Drisceoil, set her students an authentic presentation assessment, to improve their employability skills, while at the same time assessing key academic material regarding the English Legal System taught during the previous semester.

The Assignment

Dr Ni Drisceoil asked her students to imagine they were a trainee solicitor at a law firm, working on a case with their supervising solicitor.  She presented them with a fictional case regarding a doctor who has been hosting online meetings with people wishing to end their lives due to terminal illness or irreversible conditions. A group called ‘Care to the End’ reported the doctor to the medical council and the local police, and he was subsequently charged with assisting suicide.

Verona asked the students to research a recent European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) case, as well as the law on assisted suicide in England and Wales, and to prepare a Legal Case Presentation Briefing of 8-10 minutes for the doctor and two Partner Solicitors. As the client was unable to attend the briefing in person, they were asked to record the presentation to add it to the client’s file.

Verona issued the students with the following guidance and instructions:

  • Ensure you wear something smart/professional.
  • At the start of the presentation recording, introduce yourself, greet the client and partners and explain your brief.
  • Share your presentation slides.
  • Introduce the background of the previous legal case and the key legal issues of the case.
  • Explain the reasoning of the ECtHR case.
  • What elements of the ECtHR case support/weaken the doctor’s case?
  • Outline your recommendations for the next steps in preparing the doctor’s case. Remember criminal law is premised on advocating on behalf of the client. The arguments made must be convincing.
  • Conclude and thank everyone for listening.

After the Legal Case Briefing, she asked them to stay online to have a reflective debrief with the supervising solicitor, where she asked them to respond to the following questions:

  • How did you find that experience?
  • What did you do well?
  • What aspects of the task did you find challenging?
  • What could you improve on for next time?

Students were also provided with the following practical information:

  • Instructions showing them how to record their presentation (which could be done using any screen recording software).
  • Instructions advising them how to upload their recording to the assignment.
  • Guidance on producing a presentation.
  • The marking criteria used to assess the submission.

Feedback from tutors and students

During the reflective element of the assignment, students reported that they found the task challenging, as they had never done anything like this before. Despite this they were able to see the benefits. Many acknowledged that they are likely to be asked to do something similar when they enter the world of work, so it was good to be pushed out of their comfort zone while in a supportive environment, so that they were able to learn from the process.

While some of them commented that they found it strange speaking with no one else there, and some encountered technical issues, many acknowledged that they are likely to experience similar issues when working, so this developed their employable experience. Other feedback from the students and markers included that they found the task a refreshing change.

Markers also reported the process was more interesting, and so less taxing than marking a written submission. One marker noted ’It is a great idea to have these kinds of assignments. The students I have seen so far have appreciated the challenge and the relevance of this assignment to their future working lives.’

Lessons learnt

To improve the success of this assessment in future, we will act on the following observations:

  • Students were unfamiliar with the technology used to produce the recording, as well as a new way to submit their assignment, and a few technical issues arose at the time of submission.
  • For future assignments of this type, we agree that it is sensible to explore using a smaller, formative assessment beforehand, and possibly include participation in that assessment as part of the marking criteria for the summative assessment.
  • We produced a list of FAQs, addressing troubleshooting and contingency issues, which can be given out at the start of the assignment, so students are aware of potential pitfalls and how to navigate them.
  • It is useful to alert someone from the IT team beforehand, that there may be more technical calls on the day of submission, so that someone familiar with the issues is able to provide advice and reassurance to students when they are trying to record and submit their assignments.
  • The use of a rubric to reflect the marking criteria made the marking of this assignment a much more objective and straightforward process.

If you would like help to explore or set up an assessment like this, please contact the Educational Enhancement team on

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Posted in Case Study

Presentation tips: accessible slides and free-to-use images

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Some topics are of perennial interest and given that technologies are constantly changing there is usually something new to say. Two of the most popular posts on this blog have been on using Creative Commons images (2014) and making presentations accessible (2018). As presentations remain a staple of Higher Education for staff and students alike, it is worth looking at this topic again in 2023.


Making sure all presentations are accessible to all students should now be part of everyday practice. If you are new to creating presentations please have a look at the Educational Enhancement guidance on Digital Accessibility which looks at student needs, some available tools and how you can create and check your teaching materials.

Some of the newer presentation tools, such as Prezi, do not always have the accessibility features that are needed. Although PowerPoint has been around for a long time it has been updated to have some excellent accessibility features. The University of Sussex has an accessible PowerPoint template that you can download and use. If you are not using the template then be sure to choose an accessible theme and the pre-defined layouts which will help you to make your presentation accessible. Microsoft provide additional guidance on how to make your PowerPoint presentations accessible including using the Office accessibility checker.

One thing that it is easy to overlook is the reading order of elements in a slide. As you look at your slide it may seem obvious which order things should be read in, but screen readers are likely to read them in the order you added them. You can use the Arrange tool in PowerPoint to set the reading order.

Your presentation is likely to include images and it is vital that these have alternative text (alt-text) that will be read by screen-readers and anyone unable to view the image directly. You can do this easily in PowerPoint but it is important to make the descriptions as useful as possible. Keep the alt-text short (generally up to 125 characters) and avoid unnecessary text such as ‘a photo of…’. The key is to convey in words the meaning the image is intended to give. Any purely decorative images should not have alt-text, but you will want to limit use of non-essential images.

For the step-by-step instructions on how to add or edit alt text, go to Add alternative text to a shape, picture, chart, SmartArt graphic, or other object and Video: Improve image accessibility in PowerPoint.

Choosing images

A well-chosen image can add layers of meaning to a presentation but not all images are available to be used. Too many people use an internet search to find an image and think that if it’s on the internet it’s okay to use – it’s not. Most images you will find using internet image searches are copyrighted.

You may want to use images that have a Creative Commons (CC) licence. These all require attribution and any that are not CC-BY or CC0 (public domain) will have further restrictions on their use. You can use Advanced Search or Advanced Image Search in Google to find images that are licensed for reuse and Creative Commons Search lets you search across a range of CC licensed resources (images and media) provided by various organisations.

Alternatively, there are sites that provide collections of images that are free to use, either using their own licences or CC0 (Creative Commons No Rights Reserved). Usually these images will be mixed with some paid-for images to tempt you, but you can search just for the free images. We often use Unsplash for education or Pixabay and Pexels (now both owned by Canva, the graphic design platform).

Support and further guidance

The Library has a Copyright Guide which will give you more information on copyright in teaching materials.

If you would like to discuss the accessibility of the materials used in your Sussex teaching please contact Educational Enhancement on

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Posted in Accessibility, Learning Technologies

Considering the user experience of VLEs: reviewing our Canvas templates.

Person using laptop and mobile phone
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

I first learnt about Virtual Learning Environments almost twenty years ago. As a high school teacher I attended a training session on a ‘platform’ designed to record students’ homework tasks which would one day remove the need for planners (the spiral-bound diaries all students were issued) and liberate the five minutes of lesson time used for setting the task and getting each and every child to note down the instructions and due date. Opinions in that session were varied and broad but what we could agree on was that this was a game-changer; we were witnessing a new dawn in education.

VLEs evolved and spread across the sector. Tech companies launched their own and Becta (or the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) proclaimed that all schools would have to have one by 2010. Becta has long been disbanded and it wasn’t until something happened in March 2020 that many turned their attention back to their digital provision. Time had moved on, and what we needed these tools to do had changed.

At Sussex we use Canvas as our VLE, and have done since 2018. Strictly speaking a LMS (Learning Management System), Canvas offers much of the interactivity we expect from a VLE. There are many routes to generating this interactivity and engagement and for the past few weeks I have been paying particular attention to the user experience of our Canvas sites. Here’s a quick overview of what I’ve been doing and why.

Background and Brief

Recently, feedback reached the Educational Enhancement (EE) team that some students were finding their Canvas sites difficult to navigate, especially when using handheld devices such as phones and small tablets. Canvas has a mobile app but ultimately intends its product to be accessed on desktops and laptops. However, we felt that as our students had taken the time to share their preference for mobiles (one that is rather global), we needed to bring the mountain to them.

Dashboard and Landing Pages

The Student app for Canvas opens to the user’s dashboard, with module buttons which they can choose between organising  as a list or as tiles. So far pretty simple. As we currently have our template set up, once the module is opened the user is presented with an image related to their topic and a long list of formatted links, which on a desktop is the menu to the left of the screen. A click away is the actual homepage which hosts another long list of formatted links, including to key information and then course content week by week. The page is tidy and legible but does call for a dreaded scroll, which we know is hardly desirable in mobile design.

We will be reviewing the amount of content on the module homepages so it fits on one screen.


Canvas makes good use of ‘previous’ and ‘next’ buttons to direct students through the weekly content (set up as ‘units’) and on a larger screen it is quite easy for most users to move around the site. On mobile devices though, it can be tricky to locate particular pages. We know that students like to double-check things like assignment details as and when the idea comes to them so we really need it to be more straightforward to do this on the move.

We will be reviewing how many separate pages we need for each week and what key links should appear throughout any module.


All of the HTML formatting we have currently built into our module pages makes for a tidy and well-organised interface. Realistically though it is all-too-easy for the code to become corrupted as content is edited as part of anyone’s reflective practice. 

While we’d be sorry to see some of the more eye-catching graphics go, usability is paramount so we will be stripping out some of the HTML in favour of a more robust template.

It’s important to share that the work on this project is not finished and no decisions are being taken without consultation. Our goal, as always, is to find the solution that works for as many people as possible and disenfranchises no one.

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Posted in Canvas

Call for Participation now open for the first Sussex University Education Festival

Four people in a classroom, with a projection screen on the left. The two standing people are presenting their work to the two colleagues sitting down.
Sussex staff and students at a recent education event

Call for Participation now open for the first Sussex University Education Festival

Do you have an example of good practice, innovation or research in teaching and learning that you would like to share with your colleagues?

  • Propose a session now

We are pleased to announce the very first Education Festival at Sussex. The Festival, open to all University of Sussex staff, will take place at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (ACCA) on the afternoon of May 4th, ahead of the Education Awards that evening. The afternoon will be a relaxed space to share good practice, innovation, and research in teaching and learning (lightsabres and blasters optional).

What could you propose?

We hope the Education Festival will appeal to colleagues who would like to share teaching and learning practice and research at any stage. To reflect that aim, we’re asking for contributions in a variety of formats, from five-minute speed presentations to thirty-minute interactive sessions.

The speed presentations are a chance to present work-in-progress, short reflections on current practice, or present an idea for a pedagogic development you would like to make.

The 30-minute interactive sessions can be run in any way you’d like; they could be used to demonstrate a new tool or teaching technique, to workshop an idea or challenge, or to access the hivemind of fellow colleagues interested in teaching and learning.

We will also be facilitating a Solution Room dedicated to assessment and feedback here at Sussex. We’re inviting participants to propose a short provocation or challenge they would like to explore. For example:

  • Why do students rate feedback poorly?
  • What are the challenges facing staff wanting to assess their students differently?

These provocations will inspire several breakout spaces for colleagues to share experiences and
thoughts around those challenges. Send us provocations you would like to pose to colleagues. The
solutions generated by the session will be collated together into a suitable resource and shared

We’re excited to celebrate and reflect on all the amazing work that goes in to teaching at learning
here at Sussex. Further information and the form to propose a presentation can be found on the Staff Hub.

Posted in Events

LGBT+ History Month: focus on inclusive teaching, learning and assessment

Nonbinary Person Working At Table With Macramé On The Wall by Noun Project from

This year’s theme for LGBT+ History Month is ‘Behind the Lens’ and seeks to focus attention on the makers of images. However, everyone is a creator of representations and technology has made a huge contribution by providing the means for individuals who identify as LGBT+ to represent themselves. As a team devoted to the enhancement of students’ educational experiences at the University of Sussex, we wanted to take this opportunity to highlight some of the ways in which staff and students can be inclusive in teaching practice and reflect a wide range of lived experience. 

Behind my lens 

Reflecting on my history of when I came out in my mid 20’s, the 2004 lesbian TV show (L Word), played a significant role throughout my journey of coming out. It helped me learn about my identity and was a means of support during a time when I was confused and had many questions. The influence of the show, plus the increase of other LGBT+ shows and films over time, illustrates the importance of inclusivity and representation of those who identify as LGBT+, including relatable characters and experiences, able to reach many others on their unique journey. 

The progressivity of LGBT+ art in its many forms, invokes courage, raw expression, and empowers, whilst truly enhancing the world through highlighting the beauty of various identities, individuality, acceptance, creativity and talent.  

The Education Enhancement Team and I proudly raise awareness and celebrate the ‘Behind the Lens’ theme for LGBT+ History Month. 

Keira Thomas (Education Enhancement Coordinator)

Building inclusive learning communities 

In order to get ‘behind the lens’ of media representations it’s important for students to be able to share their lived experience. The Academic Developers in the Educational Enhancement (EE) team have put together some key principles and guidelines for academics on building inclusive learning communities as a first step to creating an environment where this can happen. 

As online interactions supplement in-person encounters we want to ensure that staff and students can use the learning technologies available to reflect on their personal histories and represent their identities as they want to.  

There are a couple of ways that Canvas, the university’s online study platform, allows users to personalise their virtual presence. Staff and students can edit their account settings to show their preferred pronouns. The Canvas guide ‘How do I select personal pronouns in my user account’ shows you how to do that. You can also add a profile image that will appear across Canvas such as in Discussions and Groups. The Canvas guide ‘How do I add a profile picture in my user account’ shows the steps to adding or editing an image.  

Inclusive teaching, learning and assessment 

When creating teaching and learning materials it is important to be inclusive and there are some great LGBT+ images and icons available from the Noun Project which carry a Creative Commons licence. 

Assessment design can also be an important tool in making students’ learning experience a creative one. The EE resources on Flexible assessment suggest ‘a transition from “This is how I want you to show me you’ve achieved the learning objectives” to “How do you want to show me you’ve achieved the learning objectives” which could help to give all students greater agency. 

Support and guidance from EE 

University of Sussex staff who would like to discuss ways in which they can make teaching, learning and assessment more inclusive – with or without technology – can contact us at 

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Posted in Inclusive teaching, Uncategorized

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We are the Educational Enhancement team at the University of Sussex. We publish posts each week on using technology to support teaching and learning. Read more about us.

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