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Trends in Online Education Technology
Copyright 2021, Faulkner Information Services. All
Publication Date: 2101
Report Type: MARKET
In the first quarter of 2020, almost all education worldwide went online
and became entirely technology-based. This transition was only possible
because of long-term trends toward making greater use of remote learning
tools, from videoconferencing to learning management software. The
pandemic, therefore, has been an accelerant more than an agent of change.
This report describes trends that began before the coronavirus, and it
considers what aspects of distance learning will continue to be used as
the pandemic recedes.
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The era of online education arrived even before the coronavirus. At every
level from kindergarten to college to corporate training, Web technology
has been in heavy use.
|Massive Open Online Courses Tutorial|
|Enterprise Uses of Gamification Tutorial|
The maturity of online video distribution and other broadband
applications has created the virtual classroom, and educational
institutions and students have rushed into the market. Institutions have
been motivated by tightened budgets and the pressure to compete for
students, while students have sought out programs that use Web
technology to replace or supplement classroom instruction. The aim is to
make academic programs more flexible and affordable.
The market for online education technology includes companies such as
Blackboard, Edmodo, and Infrastructure (maker of Canvas), which
provide education-specific tools, as well as Coursera, LinkedIn Learning
(created by the acquisition of Lynda.com), and Udacity, which provide
educational content. This market is still taking shape. It is
uncertain which pedagogical approaches will prove effective, let alone
which strategies and tactics will be favored. But the market is clearly
growing, and all stakeholders in education or training will need to
understand the technology available and the new expectations of
students, especially when in-person classes resume as the coronavirus’
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The coronavirus forced K-12 schools, universities, and corporate
training companies into being test subjects for online education, but
the technology that enabled this transition to be made fairly well has
been evolving for years.
Even before the pandemic, fully online and blended learning (combining
traditional and remote education) were being practiced widely by all
types of higher education institutions at both the graduate and
undergraduate levels.1 In some respects, this involves using
common communication and cloud services for educational purposes. But in
other ways, specialized education technology is emerging: adaptive
learning technology is making teaching more customized to students, for
Over the past few years, both the supply and the demand sides of the
market have pushed with greater force for more online education. On the
supply side, traditional universities are using Internet technology to
keep pace with the innovations of their rivals, to cut costs compared to
conventional in-person courses, and to appeal to a wider customer
base. Online education is no longer offered primarily by for-profit
institutions like Strayer University or the University of Phoenix.
Today, bachelor’s, master’s, and even some doctoral programs are being
delivered online by major institutions like Penn State, the University
of Maryland, and the University of Massachusetts. These programs
aren’t afterthoughts, either. They are fully developed and heavily
marketed. Online education once occupied a small niche, but now it
is perceived by many as being as good as in-person
interaction.3 And students of traditional college age are
increasingly taking online classes,4 suggesting that these
programs are becoming legitimate competitors to traditional courses.
Millennials typically like online education because they are comfortable
with the Internet and already do much of their work online.5
Technology is not used only by online courses. Traditional classes use
a variety of software tools to receive and comment on papers, distribute
syllabi, communicate with students, track attendance, and calculate
grades. Some of these interactions simulate in-person activities; for
example, students can ask questions electronically even if they are
sitting a few feet from the instructor. But other activities are of a
new type, enabled by the technology; for example, classes increasingly
use multimedia, which in the past was difficult to do and offered
limited features but now is simple and sophisticated.
Video-based lectures are even seeing wider use in high schools (as well
as universities) in a model called a “flipped class” in which
students watch lectures at home and then do in class what would normally
be their “homework.”6 The idea behind this model is that
students can rewatch lectures as needed at home until they understand the
concepts, and then they can get direct help from teachers while performing
On the demand side, many students, especially older adults, are seeking
educational programs that let them more easily manage work and family
commitments.7 And even university students who chose a
traditional program are likely to expect that their school will make
effective use of today’s technologies. These forces have made
online education technology a big business.
Between 2020 and 2027, the worldwide market for educational technology
is forecast to grow at an 18.1-percent annual compound rate, from $89
billion to $285 billion.8 Even companies outside of the
market are developing educational technology. Google and Microsoft,
the leaders in online search, offer academic versions of their search
services. Microsoft also offers the productivity tools in its 365 suite
to educational institutions at no cost, and it acquired Lynda.com, a
leading provider of online educational content. The US government is
supporting online education, too. It created the non-profit Digital
Promise organization to research educational technology and promote its
effective use. In addition, the US Department of Education maintains the
Office of Educational Technology, which, in its words, “develops
national educational technology policy and establishes the vision for
how technology can be used to support learning.”
But while the market is already large and appears poised to grow
significantly, early reactions to the use of technology in the classroom
have been “mixed.”9 The attitudes of educators about
technology will have a major influence on how widely, and in what ways,
online services will be used. There is a diversity of opinion about such
technology, and even many of the more enthusiastic supporters are still
working out how to use these new tools most effectively.
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Online education uses the full range of computer technology available
today. Some of the technologies used in online education are general
purpose, like e-mail. Others are specific to education, such as software
that checks documents for plagiarism.
A sampling of common uses of technology in online education includes
- Course material is presented in live or recorded video.
- Lectures are archived as podcasts.
- Class members cooperate on discussion boards and in chat rooms.
- Lessons are shared with the public via YouTube.
- Students access information and communicate via wireless networks as
a means of in-class participation.
- Textbooks are delivered as eBooks.
- Professors use in-class, touch screen systems to show educational
Educational technology can be divided into two broad categories: tools
that help manage classes and services that provide content.
Until mid-2019, Blackboard was the most popular learning
management system. But over the past few years, its use has decreased
continuously while the use of rival Canvas has grown quickly. Canvas now
leads the field by a significant margin, with Blackboard in second
place.10 Other learning platforms, such as
as Desire2Learn, Moodle, and Sakai, are used less commonly.11
These tools, which are also used by corporations, the government,
and the military, let instructors post materials in different
formats, create discussion boards, send announcements, and receive student
papers and automatically check them for plagiarism. They offer optional
features such as calendars, grading, podcasting, voice message boards, and
live video presentations. Instructors can customize the look,
organization, and content of each course they create.
Blackboard and Canvas also offer virtual conference applications that
compete with some features of Cisco Webex and Zoom. But many colleges
use one of these commercial services, demonstrating how the business and
educational technology markets often overlap. Many features of
educational tools simulate a conventional in-person classroom: For
example, there is a button that represents a raised hand and there are
emoticons to signal approval or disapproval, even applause or laughter.
Other feedback would be awkward in a conventional classroom, such as
buttons to ask for a faster or slower pace. Students can also
participate by using computer-based microphones or calling-in over the
phone. Other features take advantage of today’s software and of the
Web. For instance, there is a window with video and another for
PowerPoint. The control of voice broadcasting and PowerPoint displays
can even be handed over to students.
Another popular Web-based education platform is Edmodo, which is,
in essence, a social networking platform for the education community. It
enables instructors and students to communicate and share content such
as papers. The interaction is not limited to linking members of a single
class; instead, Edmodo also helps instructors communicate with each
other. Furthermore, it offers functionality such as electronic grade
In conjunction with these platforms, many educators use lecture-capture
tools that record and broadcast classroom activities. Modern versions of
lecture capture systems use software, hardware, and cloud-based services
and often provide features, like student interactivity, that go beyond
simply showing a video of an instructor. The lecture capture market,
which includes Cisco Systems and specialty companies such as Panopto and
Sonic Foundry, is forecast to grow at a rate of 33.54-percent
until 2025, when it will reach $23.77 billion.12
Content services function as supplements to — or even substitutes for
— textbooks and other traditional course material. Many are offered for
free, but others can be purchased with a site license that lets
educational institutions make the content available to all students.
Table 1 provides an overview of some of the market’s most popular online
education services. (This list is based in part on EdSurge research.13)
|Coursera|| Coursera offers online versions of
classes taught at traditional universities like Stanford,
Princeton, the University of Toronto, Johns Hopkins, Brown, and
the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The courses
only offer certificates of completion and run for a few weeks,
not a full semester. Classes are often large — with a few
thousand people each — so Coursera has experimented with
practices such as peer grading. Courses use video lectures and
discussion boards with, in some cases, textbooks that students
purchase on their own.
|edX||edX offers courses from a variety of universities,
including Harvard, MIT, and the University of Texas System.
|Harvard Extension School|| Harvard offers hundreds of its
classes online through the Harvard Extension School. Some use
broadcasted video, and others use interactive Web conferences.
Khan Academy offers free educational content in categories
|LinkedIn Learning|| LinkedIn Learning (formerly
Lynda.com) provides fee-based online video lessons focused on
using software applications. It targets education, government,
and corporate customers.
|MITx|| MITx combines content drawn from the
university’s courses with features of an online educational tool
whose functionality includes collaboration, video streaming, and
the ability to create “interactive labs.” The course content has
been available for a while, but the platform is newer and is
intended in the future to be widely distributed.
|Stanford Online|| Stanford offers courses that are
delivered live as well those that are self-paced or that use a
self-study approach. Some courses are offered only to the
university’s students, but many others are open.
|TED-Ed|| TED-Ed is a counterpart to the
popular online TED Talks. Its videos are lessons that use
animation and focus on subjects designed to be integrated into
|Udacity|| Udacity focuses on technical subjects
and aims to teach through interactive exercises instead of
lectures. At the moment, it has a smaller course catalog than
most of its rivals. Students who complete a course earn a
|Udemy|| Udemy is among the most popular
online education sites, focusing heavily on consumer- and
business-oriented content but also offering a small selection of
academic topics such as calculus and languages.
|XuetangX||XuetangX is China’s largest MOOC, and it now
offers about 200 courses in English (including courses created
in English and those with added subtitles).14
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The potential of the Internet has interested educators for a long time,
but technological advances over the last several years have only
recently made long-discussed ideas feasible. Media streaming is now fast
and reliable, and a great many students around the world have access to
computers and connections that can effectively handle high-bandwidth
applications. The popularity of cloud and mobile technology has made
online services familiar to the general public and made the anytime,
anywhere availability of data an expectation of today’s students.
Because of these market factors, online education has blossomed.
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have grown tremendously. In
2020, 180 million people enrolled in a MOOC (a number perhaps
driven in part by people staying at home during the pandemic), compared
with 110 million people in 2019 and 101 million in 2018.15
(The rise in popularity of MOOC providers like FutureLearn, MiriadaX,
and XuetangX is also significant because they are outside of the US and,
in the latter two cases, cater in part to a non-English-speaking
While institutions make increasing use of online technology and providers
rush to meet the demand, educators themselves are trying to catch up and
determine how best to use the new tools and services available to them.
Educators are in an experimental mode, and the approaches they are trying
vary significantly. A talk by Stanford professor Peter Norvig about
his experience teaching online depicts the conflict between the
revolutionary nature of Internet education and the way that traditional
classroom goals continue to prove important. The talk’s title is “The
100,00 Student Classroom,” which suggests radical change. But Norvig says
that students valued ways in which the course felt like individual
tutoring. He explains that “[i]t’s a little bit ironic that we set about
to disrupt traditional education and in doing so we ended up making our
online class much more like a traditional college class than other online
classes.”16 The course balanced traditional elements, like firm
due dates for assignments and keeping all students on the same pace, with
adjustments made to suit the online format, such as limiting lectures to
just a few minutes. Some of these concepts are echoed in a talk by
Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera.17 While Coursera uses
innovations such as peer grading, it also works to emulate traditional
education in some ways. For instance, to encourage interactivity, video
lectures are occasionally interrupted with self-assessment questions.
Another trend that may grow in significance is the emerging interest
among students in having their coursework verified, so that, for
example, they can demonstrate it to employers. A large study on MOOCs by
Harvard and MIT found that “[a]cross 12 courses, participants who paid
for ‘ID-verified’ certificates (with costs ranging from $50 to $250)
earned certifications at a higher rate than other participants: 59
percent, on average, compared to 5 percent. Students opting for the
ID-verified track appear to have stronger intentions to complete
courses, and the monetary stake may add an extra form of motivation.”18
The technology to support ID-verified courses is still in its
early stages. For example, edX describes its approach in this way:
“Using a webcam, you’ll take photos of yourself and your
government-issued photo ID. Our software will evaluate your photos and
verify that you’re the person completing the course. When you pass the
course, you’ll receive a verified certificate that provides a level of
comfort to those who may want assurance about the authenticity of your
edX course work.” MOOCs may also become common as a career-training
option within professions, not just within university curricula. The
range of professional MOOCs has grown quickly and now includes courses
on everything from time management to corporate management.19
Perhaps more significantly, many universities are now offering Master’s
degree programs in educational technology. The advent of Master’s degrees
further formalizes the study of the topic, and it raises the prestige of
the field. Such programs often cover both K-12 and university education,
and they focus on technology as well as on educational theory.20
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Enthusiasm vs. Skepticism
Attitudes After the Pandemic
During the coronavirus pandemic, schools and universities have been in
an emergency mode, using what tools they had to teach remotely. But when
in-person classes resume, the future of online education could be shaped
by decisions made about which distance learning practices to continue
using. One factor is that almost all educators and students now have
experience with online classes, so some of their uncertainties about it
may have dissipated and they may have found advantages in at least some
aspects of it. But another factor, pulling in the opposite direction, is
that the shift to online learning in response to Covid-19 was hurried
and involuntary, so more problems arose than would have if the
transition had been planned and gradual. Further, online learning is now
taking place at the same time as massive social isolation, which may
continue to be linked in the public’s mind with online learning.
Attitudes Before the Pandemic
Before Covid-19, many people were zealous about the push toward online
education, but others were skeptical. Expressing a concern about why
some courses were moving online before coronavirus, Sean Michael
Morris from the University of Mary Washington observed a tendency to
think of online classes as “less than” traditional classes. “We have
long framed online learning as inclined toward rudiments, toward direct
instruction, toward autonomy, whereas campus learning is framed as
intimate, nuanced, communal. In part, this is because online students
historically have been ‘nontraditional’ — students with jobs, families
and other obligations, and students in rural or otherwise distant
locations,” he said.21 “But ‘nontraditional’ doesn’t mean
unacademic. Online students are students like on-campus students. Just
as curious, just as hopeful, just as genius, just as troubled, just as
excited and unsure. Have we built, do we sustain, an online learning
that embraces these students? Do our online courses actually accommodate
them?” And in the K-12 environment, educators still tend not to
view technology as “transformative” regarding the basic nature of
The ways that skeptics and enthusiasts negotiate their differences will
exert a heavy influence on the development of online education.
The Impact of Corporate Uses
Educators will not alone dictate the future of online instructional
technology. Market forces will play a significant role too. Just as
corporate employees of a previous generation were accustomed to
in-person, lecture-based education resembling a traditional classroom,
younger corporate employees and those of coming generations will have
used online educational technology: computer-based learning is already
popular in K-12 education, with digital platforms such as itslearning,
Learning.com, and Lexia in wide use. When people who grew up using these
services enter the work world, they will consider online technology to
be a natural component of any teaching program.
But another factor, pushing in the opposite direction, is that people
who use technology at work are likely to be aware of its limitations as
an educational tool. Describing his experience tutoring in an elite
private school, educational technology expert Kentaro Toyama of the
University of Michigan says that “All of the content I tutored is
available on math websites and in free Khan Academy videos, and every
student had round-the-clock Internet access. But even with all that
technology, and even at a school with a luxurious 9:1 student-teacher
ratio, what their parents wanted for their kids was more adult
guidance….These parents aren’t anti-technology — at work, they tend
to be exuberant digital evangelists — but they apparently don’t believe
that more machines in and of themselves contribute to education.”23
New Technologies: Consumer and Advanced
The pandemic has made Zoom videoconferencing the symbol of online
education. It is part of a family of tools being used in education today
that are also marketed to general consumers. These products are easily
available as cloud or mobile apps on a variety of platforms, and they
are free or low-cost.
Consumer technologies are widely employed in schools. Educators have
used Facebook and text messaging, for example, and they are now even
experimenting with video-posting service TikTok, which is offering grants
for the creation of educational content.24
There is also a push by some educators and commercial vendors to use
cutting-edge technology in education, a trend that could make the market
more fluid. Virtual reality is already being used by some higher
education institutions. For example, it is being used to teach anatomy
by letting students interact with virtual bodies rather than the
traditional method of working with real cadavers.25 And
instructors are being taught new ways to employ virtual reality
technology,26 so many more applications will emerge.
Another new technology is gamification, a concept in which leaderboards
and other elements of games are used as teaching tools. But as with
other new approaches, there is uncertainty about how effective this
technique is. One academic study published in 2018 found that a
common gamification element — awarding “badges” for completing tasks —
had “less impact on motivation and performance than is commonly
assumed.”27 But another scholarly study from the same year
found “that using built-in [learning management system] tools to design
gamified learning activities can enhance students’ academic performance
and the competencies gained, as well as provide more diversified
learning methods and motivation, and offer easy modifications for
different learning needs.”28
- While analysts have for years predicted that advanced technologies
would take hold in education,29 thus far, the technology
that has become popular is more mundane and focuses on simplifying
traditional aspects of classes, like submitting assignments and
communicating with students. In planning how to use online technology,
educational institutions are likely wise to focus on these fundamental
applications of technologies, only occasionally keeping an eye on
potentially more dramatic developments.
The most likely future for higher education may be models that combine
online and traditional learning, using technology selectively rather
than relying on it entirely. To this end, some online programs have
added in-person elements to their programs. An example is online
educator 2U, which partnered with coworking company WeWork to let 2U
students take tests and host study sessions at WeWork locations.30
And some in-person programs have added online elements. For example,
Arizona State experimented with allowing freshman to take courses
online. But this program, which was run in collaboration with EdX, has
been ceased. Over 300,000 students enrolled, but only around 2-percent
earned a grade of at least a C.31 Such completion numbers are
common with MOOCs, and this could be a persistent problem with hybrid
models, especially those that rely heavily on online classes.
- 1 Quality Matters, Eduventures Research, and ACT/NRCCUA.
“Changing Landscape of Online Education 4: Navigating the Mainstream.”
Quality Matters, Eduventures Research, and ACT/NRCCUA. 2020.
- 2 Online Learning Consortium. “Digital Learning
Innovation Trends.” Online Learning Consortium. February
- 3 BestColleges.com. “2018 Online Education Trends
Report.” BestColleges.com. 2018.
- 4 Ibid.
- 5 Kaytie Zimmerman. “Three Reasons Millennials Might
Choose Online Learning Over a Traditional Degree.” Forbes.
February 18, 2018.
- 6 Robert Talbert. “What Does the Research Say About
Flipped Learning.” rtalbert.org. March 1, 2018.
- 7 Kerry Hannon. “Choosing the Best Online Program for
You.” The New York Times. August 2, 2018.
- 8 Grand View Research. “Education Technology Market Size,
Share & Trends Analysis Report….” Grand View Research.
- 9 Dian Schaffhauser. “Study of Education Technology Finds
Mixed Results.” THE Journal. September 14, 2017.
- 10 edutechnica. “Eighth Annual LMS Data Update.” edutechnica.
December 9, 2020.
- 11 Ibid.
- 12 Kenneth Research. “Lecture Capture Systems
Market Size, Growth, Opportunity and Forecast to 2025.” Kenneth
Research. November 14, 2019.
13 Dhawal Shah. “A Product at Every Price: A Review of MOOC
Stats and Trends in 2017.” EdSurge. January 22, 2018.
14 Rui Ma. “China’s Largest MOOC Platforms Go
International, Launch Courses in English.” The Report: Class
Central. May 24, 2020.
- 15 See:
- Dhawal Shah. “By the Numbers: MOOCs in 2020.” Class
Central. November 30, 2020.
- Dhawal Shah. “By the Numbers: MOOCs in 2019.” Class
Central. December 2, 2019.
- Dhawal Shah. “By the Numbers: MOOCs in 2018.” Class
Central. December 11, 2018.
- Dhawal Shah. “By the Numbers: MOOCs in 2020.” Class
- 16 Peter Norvig. “The 100,000 Student Classroom.” TED
Talks. June 18, 2012.
17 Daphne Koller. “What We’re Learning from Online
Education.” TED Talks. June 2012.
- 18 Harvard Gazette. “Massive Study on MOOCs.” Harvard
Gazette. April 1, 2015.
- 19 Christopher Pappas. “Nine Free MOOCs for Corporate
Training.” eLearning Industry. March 25, 2015.
- 20 “Best Online Master’s in Educational Technology
- 21 Sean Michael Morris. “Online Learning Shouldn’t Be
‘Less Than.'” Inside Higher Ed. April 4, 2018.
22 Education Week. “Educators Tear Through the Hype.” Education
23 Kentaro Toyama. “Why Technology Alone Won’t Fix
Schools.” The Atlantic. June 3, 2015.
- 24 Stella Power. “Digital Trends in Higher Education.” Annertech.
- 25 Erin Brereton. “Four Ways Colleges Are Embracing
Virtual Reality.” EdTech. May 9, 2018.
- 26 Ibid.
- 27 Elias Kyewski and Nicole C. Kramer. “To Gamify or Not
to Gamify? An Experimental Field Study of the Influence of Badges on
Motivation, Activity, and Performance in an Online Learning Course.” Computers
Education, Vol. 118. March 2018. Pages 25-37.
- 28 Cheng-Chia (Brian) Chen, ChingChih (Kathy) Huang,
Michele Gribbins, and Karen Swan. “Gamify Online Courses with Tools
Built into Your Learning Management System (LMS) to Enhance
Self-Determined and Active Learning.” Online Learning, Vol.
22, 2018. Pages 41-54.
- 29 See, for example:
Rhea Kelly. “Eleven Ed Tech Trends to
Watch in 2017.” Campus Technology. January 18, 2017.
Meghan Bogardus Cortez. “The Three Biggest K–12 Tech Trends for
2017.” EdTech. January 31, 2017.
- 30 Jeffrey Selingo. “The Future of College Looks Like the
Future of Retail.” The Atlantic. April 16, 2018.
- 31 Lindsay McKenzie. “Arizona State Moves On from Global
Freshman Academy.” Inside Higher Ed. September 17, 2019.
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- 2U: https://2u.com/
- Apple: http://www.apple.com/
- Blackboard: http://www.blackboard.com/
- Cisco Systems: http://www.cisco.com/
- Coursera: https://www.coursera.org/
Digital Promise: http://www.digitalpromise.org/
- Edmodo: http://www.edmodo.com/
- edX: https://www.edx.org/
- FutureLearn: https://www.futurelearn.com/
- Google: http://www.google.com/
- Google Scholar: http://scholar.google.com/
- Harvard Extension School: http://www.extension.harvard.edu/distance-education
- itslearning: www.itslearning.net
- Khan Academy: http://www.khanacademy.org/
- Learning.com: http://www.learning.com/
- Lexia: http://www.lexialearning.com/
- LinkedIn Learning: https://www.linkedin.com/learning/
- Microsoft Academic Search:
- MiriadaX: https://miriadax.net/
- Moodle: https://moodle.com/
- Office of Educational Technology: http://tech.ed.gov/
- Panopto: http://panopto.com/
- Penn State World Campus: https://www.worldcampus.psu.edu/
- Sakai: https://sakaiproject.org/
- Sonic Foundry: http://www.sonicfoundry.com/
- Stanford Online: http://online.stanford.edu/
- Ted-Ed: http://ed.ted.com/
- Udacity: http://www.udacity.com/
- Udemy: https://www.udemy.com/
- University of Maryland: https://www.umuc.edu/academic-programs/index.cfm
- University of Massachusetts Online: http://www.umassonline.net/
- WeWork: https://www.wework.com/
- XuetangX: http://www.xuetangx.com/
- Zoom: https://zoom.us/
About the Author
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Geoff Keston is the author of more than 250 articles
that help organizations find opportunities in business trends and
technology. He also works directly with clients to develop
communications strategies that improve processes and customer
relationships. Mr. Keston has worked as a project manager for a major
technology consulting and services company and is a Microsoft Certified
Systems Engineer and a Certified Novell Administrator.
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