How to encourage student engagement using Canvas discussion forums

Online discussion forums can be a useful tool for asynchronous communication amongst teachers and students. The functionality allows for both focused (singular posts for short-lived interactions) and threaded discussions (multiple posts/comments for in-depth conversation). Discussions are integrated within Canvas, and they can be used as an assignment as they are linked to Gradebook, and/or assigned to existing student groups.

When managed effectively, discussions can enable student interaction and improve the quality of online learning and the sense of learner community. However, discussion forums are also notorious for becoming stagnant, with low engagement and students lacking the incentive to contribute amongst the top obstacles found in a recent study (de Lima et al., 2019).

So why should we invest often limited time and resources into managing student forums?

  • The dedicated discussion area can facilitate reflection on module content and activities, whereby students have time to think and formulate responses.
  • Some students prefer contributing their ideas and questions via a discussion board rather than during in person teaching. For those students the space can feel safer and more informal, particularly if they have anxiety or are not speaking in their first language.
  • It promotes a collaborative way of sharing perspectives and connecting students, allowing flexible engagement e.g. students can contribute in their own time and are able to use various multimedia.
  • The conversations are accessible throughout the module and can be an ideal place to develop ideas and the depth of discussion over time.
  • Forums can have designated uses. E.g., Q&A forums help answer frequently asked student questions in a more public setting which, in turn, leads to less repeated email queries.

Understanding the benefits is perhaps straightforward, yet how can we alleviate discussion burn-out and promote student engagement whilst actively managing teacher workload? Below are five key principles to designing and overseeing a successful online forum:

  1. Determine your Objective: What is the purpose of the discussion and therefore what do you want to elicit from student answers? How questions are phrased will directly frame student answers to form introductions, reflections, a critical review, or a debate. The clarity of the task is important to facilitate engagement. Create discussion questions ahead of time and ensure they are open-ended and linked to other weekly activities. See examples of tasks in ‘The Guide to Fostering Asynchronous Online Discussion in HE’.
  2. Set Expectations: Set clear expectations. Tell students when, where, and how often to contribute to the discussion and when you will be monitoring the activity. You can enable ‘available from’ and ‘until’ dates on individual forums and add the discussion activity to a specific date on a student’s Canvas to-do list. Consider your cohort size and whether an open forum or private discussion groups are better suited for your task objective. See the University of York’s ‘Five Questions’ framework for setting discussion expectations.
screenshot showing options within discussion forums
Different options within discussion forums
  1. Moderate to Promote Engagement: With expectations set, you can moderate the discussion forum by providing affirmations, encouragement, or feedback as and when are needed. If student posts start to lag, rephrase the question or introduce a new element to the discussion as a prompt. Remind students of any due dates for discussion-based activities and reference the forum in other activities such as seminars.
  2. Model Good Practice: Prompt early discussion by leading by example. Keep your posts short and showcase what type of engagement is expected. Consider walking students through the process of posting during teaching time. Summarise individual and group sentiment and draw each discussion point to a close before starting a new activity.
  3. Encourage Multimedia Use: Promoting the use of multimedia allows discussion threads to become technologically diverse and more engaging. Students currently can upload images, audio, videos, and documents using the rich content editor and use common apps to embed content such as Ted Talks, Tweets, and YouTube videos. You can also enable the ‘likes’ feature which replicates familiar social media functionality.

Summary and resources

It is important to note that even if not all students contribute to a discussion, many will still benefit from viewing other students’ contributions and the overall discussion. Discussion forums on Canvas are just one of many ways to engage a student cohort within an online learning environment. For further support with digital teaching activities, please contact TEL at 


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Accessibility tools on your device

At the end of 2021 I worked with a colleague who had recently developed a repetitive strain injury. This meant they were unable to navigate Canvas in their usual way and presented a real challenge for them when it came to accessing teaching resources and using marking tools. It got me thinking about the tools available to support students and staff with disabilities.

We have written in the past about how to design for accessibility and TEL produced a digital accessibility toolkit with simple principles to follow when creating teaching resources. However, following the guidance will not necessarily mean that a resource will be accessible to all. Students and staff will often use assistive technologies (AT) to further facilitate their access. 

The big players in tech have made huge strides in recent years to build AT into the digital devices we all use every day in teaching and learning. PCs and Macs, iPhones and Android devices, all share similar features which enable users with visual, auditory and physical access needs, and cognitive differences. In this post I’ll highlight three of these. It should be said that there are other free and paid applications which mirror or improve on the functionality of these technologies but here I will focus specifically on those which are bundled with your device.

1. Voice Control

In the case I mentioned above my colleague wanted to use voice commands to avoid the need for using the keyboard and mouse. Voice control functionality is built into most devices and allows you to navigate, interact with and type on your device and the web using only your voice. To use this, you must first enable the functionality, then there is a set of specific voice commands which your device will listen for. These links will give you more information on voice recognition on the device(s) you use:

2. Screen Readers

Screen readers help non-sighted users to navigate and access content on their devices. They read out what is displayed on screen and verbally orientate you and describe actions you can take. These links will give you more information on screen readers on the device(s) you use:

Using a screen reader keenly illustrates the importance of the accessible design principles. Correctly structuring pages and resources makes them far easier to navigate and interpret using a screen reader. The addition of alternative text for visual elements makes resources accessible that would otherwise not be.

3. Colour filters

For people with dyslexia, contrast between text and the background can be a real issue. To meet required standards the digital resources we create must use a minimum level of contrast. This is particularly important as it allows students and staff to apply these colour filters to enhance rather than reduce readability. These links will give you more information on colour filters on the device(s) you use:

Getting support

I’ll leave you with a few links which can help you to find and use other assistive technologies:

  • A list of assistive technologies. The Sussex Regional Access Centre, based at the University of Sussex provide a handy list of assistive technologies.
  • My Computer My Way. The charity Ability.Net provides this excellent resource which helps you to identify and use many of the accessibility features available on your devices.
  • Staff disability and equality pages. For staff, the University provides a range of resources for disability and equality on the website.
  • Student disability support guidance on StudentHub. Students who register a disability receive an assessment by the Student Support Unit and receive further guidance and support from them.  There is guidance on how students can access disability support on the StudentHub. 
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Panopto capture – New Year, New tool!

Panopto has now been used at the University of Sussex for a few years and hopefully you’re familiar with the basic Panopto application which you download and run in order to record. 

Panopto Capture (referred to as Capture from this point on) is a new web-based version of the Panopto application. This means you can easily record audio, video, and entire screens or application windows from within your browser, no downloading or running of applications required. Once a recording has been created using Capture it can be edited, modified and managed in the same way as a recording created using the Panopto application.


Capture has slightly reduced functionality compared to the Panopto application. One of the biggest differences is that on Capture you cannot directly load up Powerpoint slides to be captured as their own stream, rather you have to select the PowerPoint application screen or window to ensure they are recorded on Capture. You also cannot pause a recording using Capture, instead being limited to starting and stopping a recording (although you can edit out parts of a recording later using the Panopto edit functionality). For a full list and comparison of the features of Capture compared to the Panopto application please see Panopto Learn about Panopto Recorders 

There are some requirements that you will need to meet in order to use Capture. It requires the latest version of Chrome, Firefox, or Edge browsers on Windows 10, MacOS 10.15 or higher, or the latest ChromeOS. There is currently no support for the Safari Browser.

When should you use Panopto Capture?

There are a number of reasons why you may wish to consider using Capture over the standard Panopto application. One reason is the ease of use, it takes far less clicks to get Capture running and recording and it has less features then the Panopto application to worry about, so if you just want to quickly record then it can be a faster and easier option. It may also be useful if you find yourself needing to record on a device on which you can’t install the full Panopto application, as Capture only runs within a browser window this makes it more accessible on a greater number of devices. You probably wouldn’t want to use Capture if you were recording a lecture with slides as it lacks the ability to create a separate stream for PowerPoint slides.

If you are asking your students to record using Panopto then the ease of use of Capture may mean it works better as a solution. It will likely take a shorter time to teach students how to record using Capture then it will using the full Panopto application and it means students do not need to download and install an application. 

How do you use Panopto Capture? 

To start up Capture you’ll want to go to a Panopto Folder within your Canvas site in the usual manner, then when you click the Create button to bring up the dropdown menu, rather then selecting Panopto for Windows/Mac select the Panopto Capture option  to launch Panopto Capture within a new browser tab or window.

screenshot of the Create options in Panopto
Screenshot of the Create options in Panopto

From there follow Panopto’s own guidance How to create a video using Panopto Capture. 

Also please be aware there is currently an issue that can prevent Mac (Catalina) users from successfully capturing Powerpoint when using Panopto Capture, this can be fixed by following the instructions in Why isn’t my screen being recorded on Mac when using Capture? 

Resources and further help

Here are some useful resources. For further help with Panopto Capture please contact TEL at 

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Season’s Greetings from TEL

Image with text 'Seasonal Greetings From Technology Enhanced Learning' on a red background.
Seasonal Greetings from Technology Enhanced Learning

A Year in TEL – 2021

Online Distance Learning
The university Online Distance Learning (ODL) provision has continued to grow this year, now with over 1000 enrolled students across 5 Masters programmes. Over 100 students have graduated on an ODL course. The team have just celebrated their 20th cohort on their longest-running course.

Workshops and Seminars
Technology Enhanced Learning has run 88 events across 2021. We have found our colleagues have had the most interest in the themes below:

Active Learning Network
Members of the Sussex TEL team co-founded the Active Learning Network. In April 2021 the network held a Global Festival of Active Learning with 316 signups from across world. The network also launched their project to co-author a book, with the hopes of it being published in 2022. The network received the Finalists with Distinction award in the 2021 Global Academic Development Good Practice Awards.

DARE To Transform
DARE to Transform’s Community of Practice has been running since March 2021. In that time, the Community has met six times, presented on thirteen scholarship projects, has attracted almost a hundred members of staff in total.

Screenshot of a Teams meeting showing members of the TEL team wearing pyjamas with their thumbs up.
The TEL team wearing pyjamas to work for Children in Need in November 2021

Looking forward to 2022

Our Technology Enhanced Learning workshops will be running for the rest of the semester 1 assessment period, followed by a new programme of workshops for Semester 2, which are available to book now:

Assessment workshops

Semester 2 workshops

More training resources and previous workshops are available on the TOLA (Teaching Online Anywhere) site

Technology Enhanced Learning Team wishes everyone a well-deserved happy break and see you in 2022!

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What’s new in the A-Z of Apps?

You may already have seen our A-Z of apps webpage. It is full of apps, platforms and other digital tools that you might find useful for teaching, learning or general productivity. We try to keep the list updated as platforms arrive, develop, change their pricing model or disappear and we recently updated the list. Here are a few of the new additions for collaboration and media creation.

If you are thinking of using any of these, or any other apps you have found please also have a look at our recent post ‘Can I use this app?’ which looks at things to consider when choosing a digital tool.Or if you have a concept to convey and/or an activity in mind and you are looking for ways to implement it, contact to discuss options.


Coggle is a collaborative mind-mapping or concept mapping tool. A free account allows you 3 diagrams which can be shared with collaborators by adding their emails.

Screenshot of a Coggle mind map

This could be used to develop a group presentation or to help understand the links between parts of a module. You could create a map to illustrate connections between ideas or ask students to make their own, individually or in groups, to demonstrate their understanding of a concept or how ideas interrelate.


Jamboard from Google is a digital whiteboard where users can add sticky notes, text, images, shapes or drawings.

Screenshot of a Jamboard

You can have multiple pages in a Jamboard so this could be useful for activities where each person or group has their own board but everyone in the class can see them all. This could be used for capturing discussions in breakout activities just as the whiteboard can be used in a Zoom breakout room. 


If you are looking for something a bit more sophisticated than Jamboard then Mural might be good for you. 

Screenshot of Mural

This visual collaboration tool has free options for education and users who only need a few murals. There is also an extensive range of templates to help you get started.


Images can help to convey information as long as you add alt-text (see our resources on Digital Accessibility). If you do want to grab an image of part of what’s on your screen with an arrow, a box, highlighting or some text added then Capture by Techsmith will do the job. I use this a lot when explaining to someone in an email which button to click – but it could be used in teaching to highlight or add comments to online materials.

Screenshot of Capture

There is also a video option using Screencast which is useful for showing the steps of an online process, though you can also use Panopto to make short screencasts..

This is a transcription tool which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to turn the spoken word into text. can transcribe recordings in real time, or create transcripts for uploaded video or audio files. 

Screenshot of an Note

Zoom has a live transcript feature and Panopto has speech recognition captions, but this app might be useful for podcasts or meetings. The resulting ‘Smart notes’ are synchronised to the audio, tag speakers and can be searched. Find out more about Otter in our blog post ‘ transcribing recordings with artificial intelligence’.

Discuss apps with TEL

If you are thinking of using one of these apps, or any of the alternatives in the A-Z of Apps, in your teaching at Sussex and would like to discuss suitability and options the learning technologists in the Technology Enhanced Learning team will be happy to help. Drop us an email at

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Active Reading: Five ways to engage students in their reading

There is a lot of talk about Active Learning and the importance of learning by doing, but isn’t reading a kind of doing? In my mind it is, but I am reminded too that research by Bartholomae, Petrosky & Waite (2017) suggests that real learning happens, ‘only when the authors are silent and you begin to speak in their place’ (page 272). So, as educators we have two key responsibilities related to reading, one is in setting the reading lists, and the other is to provide spaces for students to use the meaning of the text in their own contexts i.e. speak in the place of the texts. This might be where Active Reading comes in.

Active reading is a strategy of reading to understand and evaluate a text. It has been found to increase the joy people experience in reading, even amongst those who have found it a chore in the past (Tovoli, 2014). Here are five strategies for encouraging students to take an active approach to their reading.

Active reading strategies

There are a number of different active reading strategies we can use with our students, helping them engage with their readings. If applied correctly they may help address some of the concerns brought up in the decolonising the curriculum agenda, by making reading relevant to personal contexts. The following is a non-exhaustive list of the kind of engagement we might ask our student to have with the reading:

  1. Reflecting on texts. Texts usually say different things to different people. One way to open up dialogue between students, who might otherwise be worried that they have misunderstood it, is to ask them to reflect on a text and to speak about it in the context of their own personal histories and experiences.
  1. Making connections between texts. Texts often support or contradict other texts. Asking students to compare and build connections between texts can help them to be more critical.
  1. Reading texts with purpose. Texts infer meaning. Asking students to read the text whilst considering what it means in other contexts can help students see how what they learnt from the text can be used in other scenarios and spaces.
  1. Creating visualisations of texts. Sometimes you can build pictures in your mind’s eye as you read a text. Asking students to share those pictures can increase their ability to recall the messages within it.
  1. Evaluating texts. Part of understanding a text is coming to understand their origins and credibility. Researchers have devised the CRAAP test in order to understand the value of a text. The acronym, apart from misspelling a rude, but relevant word, encourages the students to consider:
    • Its currency: when the piece was written and why it was important then
    • its relevance: its pertinence to the questions you have now
    • its authority: the author’s qualifications to write on the topic
    • its accuracy: the evidence that supports the text; 
    • and its purpose: the motive behind writing the piece.

Apps for Active Reading

Once we have decided the active reading strategy we want our students to use, there are a number of digital apps available to support them. 

Apps for digital annotations

Many students have been actively annotating texts long before it was recognised as “a thing” and we see the evidence in old library books with underlined paragraphs and reflective notes scrawled in the margins. Nevertheless, we should not assume all students have this innate capability and opportunities to practice these skills in a formal way reduces barriers to learning and the gap between those who know how and those who don’t.

Digital texts provide new opportunities for text annotation. There are many digital annotation tools, which can be useful. Tools that also allow students to annotate PDFs and share them with peers include:

(use of these depends on the texts being free from copyright and able to be legally uploaded to these platforms)

Apps for annotated bibliographies

Whilst exercises that require students to annotate text have become almost synonymous with active reading recently, they certainly aren’t the only way to encourage students to actively read. One exercise we can set for our students is the creation of annotated bibliographies. These are descriptions of the readings that the students create, keep and can refer to when needed. 

There are a number tools that can allow you to create annotated bibliography and some of these allow students to build the bibliographies collaboratively. These include:

Apps for reading portfolios

Another exercise we can ask of students is to keep a portfolio of reflective notes on their reading engagement. Tools such as OneNote, Mahara and even text based tools such as Word, GoogleDocs and OneDrive can support this. Asking students to share their portfolio contributions with their peers via Canvas Discussions, Google Jamboards, Miro or Padlet can improve their engagement with the reading, while also removing the burden on us as teachers to provide feedback to each student. If you’re a student or a indeed a member of staff and want to start a portfolio, this online resource might help you.

Active Reading Projects

There are a number of active reading projects across the Higher Education sector. 

Whatever the tool, It is usually important that annotation is set as a task with a particular goal, such as those mentioned above, in order for the students to actually do it. If you would like students to get involved with Active Reading, contact the TEL team at

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Using captions in Zoom and Panopto to improve accessibility

When creating learning resources it’s important to make sure that they are accessible. Not only does this provide students with the support that they need, it is a legal requirement. One way of doing this is to provide text alternatives to video and audio resources, which can be done relatively easily through the provision of captions and transcripts. This addition to your learning resources can provide benefits to many learners, for example D/deaf and hard of hearing students, students for whom English is a second language, and students with a learning difference. Captions can also be useful when a student is watching a video in a noisy environment or somewhere they are unable to play audio. 

At Sussex we have two main platforms, Zoom and Panopto, that are used for creating video and audio resources and which are able to automatically generate captions.


Whenever you record a teaching session using Panopto, or create an additional resource using the tool, Panopto takes your audio and creates Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) Captions which are available once your video is published. Although no speech recognition software is error-free, Panopto creates captions which can be easily edited once published to improve them. 

Once your captions are created they also become searchable within Panopto. This can help students to locate specific topics or information they want to revisit, allowing them to rewatch sections of your resource. The Panopto player is also able to be customised by individual students meaning that they can switch the captions off should they find them distracting and can select the size, position and colour of captions. 

screenshot of video playback showing captions below


When running live online or hybrid teaching sessions you may be using Zoom. As well as producing captions after the fact, Zoom also creates automatic live captions which students can view on their screen while a teaching session is taking place. You can find this option in the Zoom toolbar under the option ‘Live Transcript’. To enable live transcription at the beginning of your class select ‘Live Transcript’ and then select ‘Enable Auto-Transcription’. 

screenshot of Zoom control panel showing the Live Transcript button

As with Panopto captions, students can choose to switch these off should they need to. Unfortunately, live transcription isn’t yet available in Zoom breakout rooms. Once your Zoom recording has finished a copy is automatically created in Panopto using the live transcript to create your captions. Students can then rewatch the recording with the benefit of the searchable added captions. 

As mentioned earlier, captioning services aren’t accurate one hundred percent of the time, so here are some tips for creating the best quality captions:

  • Check your audio – make sure that your audio is turned on. Check both that the audio is selected correctly in Panopto or Zoom and that your microphone is not turned off or muted on the microphone itself.
  • Avoid background noise – try to make sure that there isn’t too much noise in the background of your recording. Record in a quiet space where possible and make sure that there is nothing covering your microphone.
  • Speak clearly and slowly – as much as possible, try not to speak too quickly and enunciate your words, particularly more technical or subject specific words. Try to be aware of where you are in relation to the microphone, if you move further away it will become harder to pick up your audio. 
  • Repeat questions from students – repeating any questions or comments from students will make sure they are recorded within the captions.

Resources and support from Technology Enhanced Learning

Here are some useful resources which will take you through how to use captions in both Panopto and Zoom. As always please contact if you have any questions or would like to discuss how you can create more accessible teaching resources. 

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Four Microsoft 365 tools to aid collaborative teaching and learning

Students and staff at the University of Sussex can get access to a suite of Microsoft 365 applications for their personal computers and mobile devices with 1TB of free storage. Many of these web-based tools facilitate collaborative activities and, as they are cloud-based (shared online not on your computer) they allow you and your students to work together seamlessly. You can select individual users, groups, or both and set up a dedicated space to keep track of collaborations without needing to use individual emails. This blog will walk through four Microsoft 365 apps you can use for setting up collaborative spaces.


OneDrive allows files and folders to be uploaded and shared, making them accessible from any PC, Mac or phone. You can collaborate on different file formats including: Word document, PowerPoint presentation and Excel spreadsheet. OneDrive is particularly useful if you wish to share larger files such as videos and PowerPoints with embedded media which could not be attached to an email.   

OneDrive is great for allowing full or temporary access to a file or folder for a selected person or group of people for collaboration. When the collaboration is completed, you can disable access to the file or folder making it private once again. Permitted users can add comments which will be saved, you can @mention specific people to draw their attention to a comment within the document and they can then write a response. Version history contains details of each time the document is opened, updated and closed whereby a new version will be created. You can also see who has updated the document in the ‘modified’ column and revert back to a previous version if necessary.

You could use OneDrive for peer feedback, group-work and lab work results. For more guidance see: Get started with OneDrive and How to Share OneDrive files and folders.


OneNote is an infinite electronic notebook tool that automatically saves and syncs your notes as you work, like a collection of digital documents. OneNote is great for collaborating and brainstorming on shared notes. Teachers can set up and share the notebook with others and either allocate sections of a notebook to each group or set up a Class Notebook to allow private collaborative spaces. This also makes it easy for you to check on the progress of small group work. Users can insert images, audio, video, documents or hyperlinks and use text or digital ink to annotate around them. This functionality can also be used to support ongoing feedback. The resultant notebook becomes a resource that students can refer to for revision, to remain organised and work in a collaborative way efficiently. Students could export their OneNote portfolio as a pdf and submit it to a Canvas assignment.

You could use OneNote for  journals, portfolios, group projects, peer feedback, digital collections or group debates. For more guidance see Microsoft’s OneNote: your one-stop resource, OneNote video training or visit the OneNote Teacher Academy.


Sway is often advertised as a ‘digital storytelling’ tool and is best suited to creating visually appealing presentations, newsletters or lectures. Sway is intended to provide a more interactive experience with less emphasis on the one-way presentation style that PowerPoint offers. Sways can be easily created and allow you to edit collaboratively, making them ideal for group presentations and projects. The Storyline is where you can type, insert media, edit and format your content. Content includes incorporation of various media such as images, audio, videos, and documents. They can be shared, either by link or by embedding them in a Canvas course.

The benefits of Sway are that you can easily present information in an eye-catching way with little prior knowledge of content design by using the pre-designed templates. Basic analytics such as view count and average read length are available. Sway presentations can be watched on mobile and tablet devices without losing any of their functionality or format.

You could use Sway for presentations, interactive reports, newsletters, or for digital storytelling. Microsoft has produced a range of guidance for Sway, including Sway for education: introduction to Sway and Getting started with Sway.


Microsoft Whiteboard is an infinite, collaborative digital canvas for engaging learning and visualisation. You can use Whiteboard to collaborate with others for brainstorming and planning and developing ideas during workshops. Contributions can be done in real time together or apart, so group members can work in a shared whiteboard space from their own device. Whiteboard allows users to individually or collaboratively draw, type, add images and sticky notes using the ‘Note Grid’ function. Using the ‘Enhance inked shapes’ option within the settings will allow hand-drawn shapes to automatically change to accurate shapes. Therefore, any hand drawn ink-stroke shapes e.g. a circle or triangle will change to the associated shape on your whiteboard. The subsequent whiteboard is automatically saved and can be easily accessed, edited or shared later. A desktop version of the app can be downloaded for Windows devices, a web version for PC and Mac users and an app for iOS devices.

You could use Whiteboard for mind maps, discussion boards, problem-solving or creative groupwork. For more guidance see Getting started with Microsoft Whiteboard. 

Padlet has similar features to WhiteBoard and also lends itself to collaborative activities, see What’s new in Padlet? for more information.

Further guidance and support from TEL

If you need guidance with using any of the above Microsoft tools for teaching or collaborative activities for your Sussex students please get in touch with Technology Enhanced Learning at

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We are the Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) 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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