The Coronavirus lockdown in 2020 pushed videoconference technology as a common means of synchronous communication for emergency remote teaching in Higher Education. In a short period of time, educators and students had to use cameras and stream their images over the Internet to keep on with academic interaction from home. But not all stakeholders had the same experience using this type of communication means, and their values and perceptions on what was an appropriate framing style for educational purposes yielded different types of camera compositions, not all agreeable to watch. To study videoconferencing framing among University stakeholders, a two-tier intervention was conducted to inquire about the values and perceptions of educators, and to observe the actual production decisions they made before and during a videoconference for educational purposes. In this paper, the video references and framing preferences of 6031 teachers were analysed, and a set of categories were constructed and used to conduct observations of 1111 videoconference frames. The findings were used to understand the production decisions academic stakeholders took for the spontaneous production of their home-made real-time video for virtual classes.
Keywords: Visual literacy; videoconference; virtual education; academic continuity; higher education; emergency remote teaching
Part of the Special Issue Visual literacies and visual technologies for teaching, learning and inclusion
Structure and order in academic products are highly valued in the context of Higher Education in such a way that a scientific article of relevant content can be rejected from an academic journal if it does not comply with the given formatting criteria. In a less strict fashion, but still causing impact in the audience, electronic presentations with poor visuals or with redundant multimedia elements (Mayer, 2002) may not be considered as good. In the field of websites, user friendliness makes the difference in information access, and with regards to video, visual aesthetic impression including colour, shape, motion, spatial layout and depth end up being decisive factors for the viewers to accept the media as one of fine production (Peters, 2007) and with an educational value (O'Donoghue, 2014).
Due to the Emergency Remote Teaching (Hodges, Moore, Lockee, Trust and Bond, 2020) derived from the Coronavirus lockdown, the online activity in education increased in 2020 (CEPAL, 2020), making synchronous communication a common manner of interaction among academic stakeholders either in text or in video-based fashion. However, the spontaneous production of home-made real-time video for virtual classes seemed not to be as straightforward as opening the laptop and turning the web cam on.
Planning the production, finding a good location, anticipating potential problems and even sketching the expected looks of the frame proved to be necessary for educational video production (O'Donoghue, 2014). The preparation of a videoconference in Higher Education relies on several factors. It may include: matters of instructional design (Mayer, 2002); impact evaluation of the aesthetic experience and the attractiveness of media products (Yeh, Yang, Lee, & Chen, 2013); measures of user satisfaction of peer-to-peer-based solutions for real-time video conferencing over the Internet (Chen, Huang, Huang & Lei, 2006; Chen, Chu, Yeh & Huang, 2012); or the assurance of a quality Internet service (Bouch, Kuchinsky & Bhatti, 2000).
The audio-visual language connects to emotions and ideas (Ferres, 1994), thus composition decisions of the producer may impact the students’ engagement (Dobrian, Awan, Dilip, Ganjam, Zhan, Sekar, Stoica & Zhang, 2011). A well-produced video is easy to watch. It provides the right information and portrays the expected elements. A good video inherits the square shape of television shows, and due to the screen layout of a desktop computer and the software used to access videoconferences, it is the horizontal orientation that is found to be the more acceptable to watch (Canella, 2018). Besides the shape and orientation of the frame, videoconferences may follow the style of a reader in a news programme who is portrayed sitting still behind a desk, and in a solemn fashion talks directly to the viewers. This type of broadcasting style usually locates the speaker in the centre of the frame, looking directly to the camera, with a fair amount of space above the head and the sides, with a proper background. The context of the speaker can be either a virtual backdrop, a library, an office or for the case of remote teaching a room of the house. In all cases, tidiness in the frame makes a difference.
To compare the values, preferences and actual decisions that Higher Education academic stakeholders have about video framing and composition for videoconference teaching, the opinions of six thousand scholars were analysed and one thousand camera images were then categorised to find the vast variety of framing types used during the first months of the lockdown in Mexico.
The story of the relationship between video and education is not new. Its roots are in the second half of the twentieth century, when several governments around the world saw educational broadcasting as a means of inclusion. After the second World War the governments in Europe developed audio-visual policies and methodologies for an educational broadcasting system (Flores, 2008). In USA, the first non-commercial educational television (ETV) station was established in May 1953 and like other ETVs that appeared in the following years, they aired mainly to local areas, schools, colleges and universities (Federal Communications Commission, 1968). In Latin America, it was Venezuela in 1952 the first country to adopt educational broadcasting. 15 years later Telesecundaria, a broadcasting television programme for grades 7th, 8th and 9th, started in Mexico, and in 1980 reached grades 10th, 11th and 12th as Telebachillerato (Dorantes, 2015). Since their creation, both programmes have aimed to reach young people in rural towns with less than 2500 inhabitants (Palmero & Longares, 2002).
Besides educational broadcasting, videotaped education has also played an important role in teaching and learning with media (Casillas & Ramirez, 2015). Language teaching, for instance, used videotapes to bring to the classroom situations and audio in the target language that were otherwise difficult to present to the students (Borromeo, Fernandez & Ramirez, 2018). Continuing education and corporate in-house programmes also used videotapes to share teaching materials (Maneshian, 1981), and with the advent of computers, analogue video went digital first, and with the massive connection to Internet, the general use of video, included in the educational context, exploded (Ramirez, 2010).
In the mid 1990’s, the learning ecosystem of non-conventional teaching in Higher Education, added to the real-time communication options the multipoint video conference (Garcia & Calderon, 2009). Its employment was not widespread across the campus, and to use it, academic stakeholders needed to schedule an appointment and let the staff set up the connection, arrange the camera and achieve a frame typically similar to that of a news reader in Television.
Around the year 2000 the academic community got closer to videoconferencing by means of broadband internet and desktop services. The connectivity and setup of this type of videoconference depended on the software and on the specifications of the personal computer that the scholars had, and in more independent fashions, they could use the technology to connect with other peers. Finholt and colleagues (1999) reported their use of NetMeeting for academic conversations across sites in the framework of a geographically distributed research project; and the teams of Swamy (2002) and Feisel (2005) showed the software to be useful for accessing and enabling communication for Internet-based Labs.
Video calling software refined in two decades. Internet became more accessible and stable, and desktop solutions for group video calls such as CU-SeeMe, QuickCam for Mac, Cisco Webex, Skype, FaceTime, Google Meet, GoToMeeting, Jitsi.org, Microsoft Teams, Zoom or even Twitch, became part of an emerging digital culture.
We are Social and HootSuite indicated in their reports that video-based services such as TikTok and Instagram reached 800 million users a month in the first term of the year 2020 (Kemp, 2020), and Forbes pointed TikTok as the most downloaded app of the trimester (Brown & Chmielewski, 2020). In the field of productivity software, the trend for videoconferencing systems is similar. Zoom is an example of this behaviour. In December 2019 the video conferencing platform had 10 million users and in April 2020 it reached 300 million (Manzoor, 2020).
Static and dynamic images in the digital age have become not only more frequent but more diverse either in purpose or in format (Cassany, 2006). Price reduction, streaming technologies, the social presence of camera, a more stable and accessible Internet and a set of cultural dispositions and trends helped asynchronous digital video gain popularity for entertainment, social and educational purposes (Yan, 2015). Synchronous video did experience a nuanced faith at first but with the Coronavirus lockdown in 2020 its use spread for real-time communication purposes in the social, working and educational contexts (CEPAL, 2020).
In a few days, teachers and students from all academic levels had to incorporate software using patterns, techniques and strategies for participating in videoconferences. For Mexican Higher Education Institutions, Zoom, Google Meet, Jitsi.meet, Microsoft Teams and Webex became common tools for the continuity of education (IISUE, 2020).
This change in instruction challenged teachers and students as well. Access, use and appropriation differences were first expected (Crovi, 2009) and then analysed (Chambi-Mescco, 2020; Garcia, Abella, Corell, & Grande, 2020; Lestiyanawati, 2020, Orhan, & Beyhan, 2020). These studies pointed out that beyond the technical complications and the differences in the digital knowledge set that Higher Education stakeholders may have (Casillas & Ramirez, 2021), it was visual literacy that needed further investigation.
Visual literacy refers to the appropriation of values and perceptions that people have to construct or interpret static or dynamic visual elements in print or digital formats. New literacies have been studied by different authors (Scribner & Cole, 1981; Kalman, 1999; Lankshear, Gree, Knobel & Searle,1997; Barton & Hamilton, 1998, 2004; Gee, 1999; Kress, 2003; Cassany, 2006, 2011; Hernandez, 2014, 2016; Aguilar, Ramirez & Lopez, 2014; Ramirez & Casillas, 2017; Ramirez & Aguilar, 2021) who have seen them as developed capabilities employed to enable people to decode social constructed messages formed by symbols, signs and digital elements which, for the case of visual literacy, are contextualized in visually rich environments (Goodwin, Demetrius & Uhrmacher, 2019).
Reading images is not easy as some have claimed (Sartori, 1998). It requires a series of critical criteria and cultural information to either appreciate the image itself or to unravel its messages. Producing images, on the other hand, may be even more complex than decoding them. To generate either a static or dynamic image, the producer needs planning of several elements including the visual one (Gerber & Pinochet, 2012).
With the visual grammar from television and online media as reference (Cha et al, 2007) and the hardware design as restriction, the videoconference producer engages in the preparation of the streaming session which may include moving books, art pieces or plants inwards and outwards the frame; adjusting the camera level and angle and validating the look of oneself in the screen.
In the educational context, solemnity is common, as well as full respect for the common communication protocol, which in videoconference represents turn-taking and the activation and deactivation of camera and microphone. Excessive and drastic movements during the videoconference either of oneself or of the camera itself are undesirable as well as an untidy context and a poor illuminated frame (Ramirez & Aguilar, 2021).
In the new normal, Higher Education stakeholders resorted to videoconference for media-rich synchronous communication sessions, but their level of use were not homogeneous. The values, perceptions and decisions about presenting themselves in a video frame were diverse. The current intervention has two descriptive parts. The first, explores the perceptions of over six thousand academic stakeholders on videoconferences for educational purposes, and the second part revolves around the categorization of the actual frames that over one thousand academic professionals used in either web seminars, remote academic meetings or in synchronous video-rich Higher Education classes.
The information of two groups of academic stakeholders were gathered for the analyses herein presented in two different situations. The first group was registered in a Massive Online Open Course that the author of the article designed and procured in the first semester of 2020. One of the activities of the course was to produce a video. And for reflexive purposes, participants were invited to answer seven questions about composition and framing. From 20,000 participants, 6031 decided to respond to the multiple-choice instrument.
For the second part of the intervention, 1111 stills of desktop videoconference individual cameras were captured and categorized for further analysis (Ramirez & Aguilar, 2021). The images were gathered during the first three months of the lockdown in Mexico, that officially started on March 23rd, 2020. All of the images were personally collected from Higher Education events in Mexico for the sole purpose of conducting the current research.
To gather the information from the videoconferences, an analysis of the changes within the frame was conducted. A dozen videos were observed from start to finish and, unless the videos were filmed with smartphones, a series of contextual elements of the frame such as plants, curtains, art and bookcases remained constant. It was not infrequent that the person’s movement within the frame tended to be discreet. The changes of position, the flickering and the use of hands while speaking did not affect the layout of the frame. This was made evident with a polygonal halo generated with translucid figures traced over the person whenever a change of position happened, see Figure 1.
The halo from the study revealed that the motion pattern in the videoconferences was incipient, so analysing a single frame of the material was representative, see Figure 2 where motion patterns of four different videoconferences, i.e. the halo types, are shown. In the upper left corner, a) shows a person that barely moved during the session. Due to the use of the speakers’ hands, movement patterns b) and c) expanded. And finally, pattern d) portrays a wider halo due to the leaning movements of the speaker. All four cases reveal that despite the use of the hands and the leaning movements of the speaker the composition of the frame tends to be static in desktop videoconferencing.
During the streaming of academic events, generally, the video images of speakers and delegates go public as well as those of the attendees to the academic meetings; and, in a narrower way, those of online classes too. This shows an opportunity to regulate policy and rights related to the streaming and storage of the image of academic stakeholders that participate in a live video session.
Anonymity in the surveys is easy to handle but the identity of the 1111 people that appeared in the frames, also needed to be warranted. Their identity was protected all the time and by all possible means. Frames were shrunk, blurred and decoloured; and when a name appeared in the frame, it was cropped. Furthermore, to reduce the possibility of identification, dates and names of the academic events were not added to the database nor mentioned in the publications derived from the research.
The composition of a videoconference frame for educational purposes can be studied from different standpoints. The personal perceptions and the actual production decisions are two of them. The analyses of the videoconference frames are presented, here, in two parts. In the first one, what 6031 teachers think of videoconference framing in education is studied. Then, an analysis of the categorization of 1111 frames shows the actual capabilities of academic stakeholders.
The analysis of videoconference framing layouts in this research follows three considerations: the camera angle, the shot size and the position of the speaker. The camera angle depends on the location of the camera with regards to the speaker. Three possible types of shots can be produced. If the video capturing device is located above the person, a high angle shot is generated. If it is below the person, a low angle shot is obtained, and the third type of possible shots is when the camera is level with the person’s eyes. The three types of shot sizes depend on the distance that separates the camera from the person, either too close, too far, or a shot where the person’s bust is framed with the right amount of air above the head and no cropping occurs. The third factor of analysis is the position of the speaker in relation to the frame. Besides being in the centre of the frame, the person can appear to either one of the sides, to the top or to the bottom of the square. The combination of these variables for the production of spontaneous home-made desktop video, may yield up to 256 different frames. However, due to their popularity, eight types were selected to categorise the observation. The categorization of the frames is as follows:
Frame A is achieved with a levelled angle of a camera that is far from a centred person in the horizontal axis but positioned at the bottom of the frame.
Frame B portrays a centred person filmed with a levelled camera located at a good distance.
For frame C the speaker was captured at the extreme right of the square, at a good distance of a well levelled camera.
Frame D was shot with a vertically held smartphone. The person is vertically and horizontally centred in the frame, but too close to the camera.
Frame E is horizontally centred but shot from above. The person appears to be small and besides is located at the bottom of the square.
In frame F the person is too close. She appears to be big for the frame, even her head and shoulders are cut, though she is centred and well-levelled.
For frame G the speaker is at the extreme left of the square, her body is cut, though the camera is well levelled and at a good distance.
Frame H s a high angle shot achieved with a smartphone horizontally held. The speaker is centred at a good distance, but her head was cut.
A systematic characterization of the eight frames is shown in Table 1.
Position of the speaker
Centre - bottom
Centre – centre
Right – centre
Centre – centre – smartphone
High angle shot
Centre – bottom
Centre – top – cut
Left – centre – cut
Centre – centre – cut smartphone
Table 1: Frame description
The eight types of frames that were presented to the 6031 teachers were modelled with a jointed wooden drawing mannequin, see Figure 3.
In the framework of a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) an optional seven-question instrument was made available to nearly 20,000 participants, from which 6031 decided to give their answers. Three different types of situations were considered for the inquiry. In the first, the teacher was asked about the perception she has about her students’ frames. In the second situation, the questioning was oriented to the perception of a presenter, and in the third one as the teacher who needs to portray herself in the videoconference. To visualise the distribution of the answers, the frames from Figure 3 are referenced.
To answer the question about the students’ framing styles, the informants responded in a seemingly even manner, see Table 2. Although the top three frames were d) with 17%, and a) and e) with 15% each, the standard deviation of the eight frames is 3.1% which suggests that the camera layouts that students used were diverse and evenly accepted. Layouts b) h), f) and c) had 14%, 12%, 10% and 9% of the votes respectively.
Table 2: Students’ framing layouts
The most agreeable frame to watch, for a speaker, is frame b) with 45% of the responses, followed by frames e) and a) with 21% of the answers. Frames f), g) and h) were the least frequent of the group with less than 1% of the responses which is coherent with the answers of the second question that directly inquiries about the least preferred frames of the informants. 37% of the responses pointed at frame g) as the worst framing option, followed by frames e) and f) with 20% and 15% respectively. 11% of the people said that frames type b), a) and e) were also bad decisions which shows hesitation on the matter. Table 3 and Figure 4 show data distribution of the two questions about the presenter’s framing.
Most preferred frames:
b) a) e)
Least preferred frames:
Table 3: Most and least preferred frames for a presenter
As a home-made spontaneous real-time video producer, one needs to make a decision on how to orient the layout of the videoconference frame. Some design aspects can be barely manipulated, such as the height of the web cam when it is integrated into a laptop. However, the presenter can make slight corrections to the frame when she sees herself on the screen. When asked about the type of frame they want to have for a videoconference, from the eight options they picked frames b) with 33%, a) with 25% and e) with 17% as their most preferred framing styles. The least common frames with less than 1% were f) and g), see Table 4.
Table 4: Teachers’ preference for framing oneself
The two most popular frame layouts are b) and a). For watching a person, the most popular frame is b) with 45% of acceptance. Frame a) has 21%. For framing oneself, the type b) has 33% of acceptance and a) 25%, see Figure 5.
To observe the actual framing decisions that educational practitioners made in videoconferences, a set of 1111 frames of Mexican educators and students that participated either in staff meetings, online webinars or in remote synchronous classes, were captured during the first three months of the Coronavirus lockdown. A detailed analysis of the video frames and the production criteria that educational practitioners employed is discussed in a different piece of work (Ramirez & Aguilar, 2021). As a way to illustrate the work conducted, a collage with all frames is presented in Figure 6 showing the 1111 stills of participants.
To analyse the composition of the videoconferences rather than going through complete videos with constant moving patterns, a single still of the session was first captured in the database and then analysed. The dimensions, variables and indicators used in the intervention as well as the frequency of each indicator are shown in Table 5.
Direction of the eyes
to the camera
Type of meeting
conference or class
high angle shot
low angle shot
levelled to the eyes
Position of the speaker
towards one side
to the op
to the bottom
living room or dining room
books and paintings
Table 5: Operationalization of the variables
From the opinions and perceptions that educators shared about videoconference composition and framing, we learned that frames type b) and a) shown in Figure 3. are valued as the most agreeable and best compositions. Frames b) and a) can be described by means of the indicators mentioned in Table 5.
The categorisation of the good framing is as follows. From the person dimension, the attitude is to be active. Sex and type of meeting are unimportant. From the framing layout dimension, the shot is expected to be right sized, well-illuminated and levelled to the eyes of a speaker who appears in the centre of a frame. From the context dimension, the place is not relevant as far as it is tidy and with elements that add up to the context such as books, plants or paintings hanging on the wall. The use of virtual backdrops is not badly seen.
When conducting analyses of the frames separating the dimensions. It can be observed that producers considered some of the features for achieving a good frame similar to frame type b). From the personal dimension 61.6% had an active attitude and 75.3% were looking at the camera. From the frame dimension, 54.3% had a shot levelled to the eyes; 60.2% achieved a frame of the right size, 60.5% located themselves in the centre of a frame; and 58.2% procured good lightning for the videoconference. From the context dimension, 89.7% were portrayed in a tidy setting; and 32.9% left in the frame elements that add up to the context such as books, plants or paintings hanging on the wall. However, when considering the three dimensions together to analyse the frames, the number of good frames –in the form of type b) frame– reduces. Only 56 people (5% of the 1111 frames) achieved an image that complies with all the characteristics of a good frame. Figure 7 shows the 56 images of the videoconferences that achieved a frame b) type of composition.
To learn from the experience and practice of academic professionals that have participated in videoconferences, an observation of the issues and framing opportunities of educators is presented in this section. First, a brief comment on the framing situation is presented, followed by the percentage of subjects in the sample. Almost 80% of the 1111 frames presented some framing issues that are explained next by means of the positions of the jointed wooden drawing mannequins shown in Figure 3.
In 16% of the cases the person appears too close to the camera, as in frame type f). This makes the impression that the person is too big and does not fit in the frame, thus some parts, like the head or the chin are cropped. Figure 8 shows the type of frame with the outline of six actual stills that correspond to the type.
Although frame a) was considered as one of the best compositions in the survey by the 6031 academic stakeholders, it was only used in 2% of the 1111 videoconferences. In frame a) the person appears to be small in relation to the size of the square however it is not the best framing selection, see Figure 9.
Locating oneself on either side of the video square may not always be problematic, but when it is too extreme, the person’s image can be cut in undesirable manners. Frames c) and g) show the person positioned on one of the sides of the square, either the left one (10%) or the right one (2%), see Figure 10.
The location of the camera is also important. If located below the level of the eyes as in frame h) the person looks too tall for the frame. 6% of the videoconferences used this type of composition. The other problem is when the camera is located above the level of the eyes as in frame e) where the person looks too small. 16% of the squares analysed had this type of issue, see Figure 11.
Characterised with type d), the vertical frame achieved with a handheld device was seen in 6% of the cameras. Although 22% of the users resorted to smartphones or tablets for their conferences, 16% stuck to the horizontal layout. The vertical composition is fine for a smartphone-to-smartphone call, but when it is the case of a desktop videoconference, the horizontal frame is more appropriate, see Figure 12.
According to the informants’ opinions and the actual production decisions, frame type b) shown in Figure 13, is one of the most agreeable frames to watch in a videoconference. It is a frame with good camera angle, distance and speaker’s position. It combines aesthetic and technical considerations and achieves a harmonic composition to watch with an acceptable layout that leaves fewer space for unnecessary criticism of body parts cutting or the arrangement of the person. Frame type b) is the target to achieve in a videoconference. It resembles the common perspective that speakers have in face-to-face conversations and that of a news programme reader.
After several months of using videoconference for remote teaching in Higher Education, the spaces in the house where it usually takes place became less emergent. And the more we have used a videoconference setting, the more likely we are to realise that our image, production decisions and framing are either correct or improvable.
As with written academic products, learning from good practices and following formatting standards for video-based communication within the educational context adds value and quality to the videoconferencing lessons in Higher Education. A good frame shows respect to the viewer, the content and the profession.
The correct framing of the speaker in a videoconference helps to keep the focus on the educational message. So, engaging in its production is not only a matter of aesthetics but of good communication as well. It was observed that good framing requires reflexion and preparation. The integration of a web camera, to most of the desktop equipment that teachers use, does not always produce the best frame. As presented before, point-and-shoot did not work in more than half of the cases. The findings of this study show that a certain level of planning and preparation for a videoconference is required.
There are several variables that need to be considered before and during a desktop videoconference. In this paper they were presented as three research dimensions: the person, the frame and the context, but further work about the relation of framing and its impact in conveying a learning message in Higher Education is still pending.
It has been seen for the first dimension that the attitude and even the direction of sight are important variables to pursue in the person that appears on the screen, especially if she is the speaker. A sensation of proximity may be generated and the viewers’ engagement may increase. For the frame dimension, it was observed that the television grammar has some influence on viewers perceptions towards the acceptance of what can be considered as a good frame, but the impact was less noticeable when teachers were producing their own video. About the context, it was observed that keeping the place tidy with the right elements in the frame ends up helping the viewer to engage.
Although 25% of the frames did not fall into any of the categories of the study and were not analysed, the eight frames proposed for the intervention were useful to engage in the observation of the layouts of videoconferences in the framework of the emergency remote teaching in Higher Education that occurred in 2020 because of the Coronavirus lockdown. This framework of analysis allowed us to see that the production decisions and perceptions of academic stakeholders with regards to videoconferences were far from good framing. This could find its rationale in a production underestimation, lack of visual awareness or in low visual literacy. If videoconference is here to stay, so is aiming to reach the good framing style.
This paper draws on research undertaken as part of the Doctoral Programme in Innovation in Higher Education Institutions in the Centre for Research and Innovation in Higher Education at Universidad Veracruzana, Mexico.
Alberto Ramírez Martinell, Centre for Research and Innovation in Higher Education, Universidad Veracruzana, Veracruz, México.
Alberto Ramirez Martinell is a Full Time Researcher at Universidad Veracruzana, Mexico. He holds a PhD in Educational Research from Lancaster University, UK; a MSc in Computer Science and Media from the University of Applied Sciences in Furtwangen, Germany; a BSc in computer engineering from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM); and a BA in Humanities from the Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana, Mexico. His research interests revolve around the incorporation of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Higher Education, the digital knowledge set, visual literacy, digital culture and virtual education. He is currently the national coordinator of the ICT and education area in the Mexican Educational Research Association (COMIE). Alberto is an Alumni Member of the Centre for Technology Enhanced Learning at Lancaster University. His twitter handle is @armartinell and his personal website at the university can be accessed in https://www.uv.mx/personal/albramirez/inicio/english/.
Email: [email protected]
Article type: Full paper, double-blind peer review.
Publication history: Received: 12 January 2021, Revised: 20 February 2021, Accepted: 16 June 2021. Online: 07 March 2022.
Cover image: Author.
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