Creative Education
2012. Vol.3, No.7, 1269-1280
Published Online November 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1269
Exploring Tutor and Student Experiences in Online Synchronous
Learning Environments in the Performing Arts
Susi Peacock1, Sue Murray1, John Dean2, Douglas Brown3, Simon Girdler2, Bianca Mastrominico2
1Centre for Academic Practice, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, UK
2Division of Media, Communication and Performing Arts, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, UK
3Salzburg University, Salzburg, Austria
Received September 5th, 2012; revised October 2nd, 2012; accepted October 19th, 2012
High levels of student dissatisfaction and attrition persist in blended and online distance learning pro-
grammes. As students and tutors become more geographically dispersed with fewer opportunities for
face-to-face contact emergent technologies like Online Synchronous Learning Environments (OSLEs)
may provide an interactive, connected learning environment. OSLEs, such as Blackboard Collaborate and
Adobe Connect, are web-based, computer-mediated communication programs typically using video and
audio. This article reports the findings of an exploratory, nine-month study in the performing arts in
which tutors used an OSLE for dissertation supervision, pastoral support and performance feedback. Gar-
rison & Anderson’s (2003) Community of Inquiry (COI) framework was used as the basis for evaluation
of student and tutor experiences to explore in what ways learning could be supported when using the
OSLE. Our findings indicate significant benefits of OSLEs including convenience, immediacy of com-
munication and empowerment of learners, even for our rehearsal-based case study. For students, it was
important to see and talk with each other (peers and tutors), share and discuss developing ideas and check
understanding through the video and audio media. Tutors reported that OSLEs required them to re-think
the design of the learning environment, re-visit how they facilitated discourse and re-examine their com-
munication skills especially with regard to feedback on student performance. Technical limitations such
as poor quality audio and video, lack of system robustness, and the need for turn-taking did impact on
learning; however, it was accepted that OSLE-technology was improving, and rapidly so. Despite the
limitations of the study, the evaluation using the COI framework demonstrated that learning had been
supported and that use of an OSLE could support all three elements of the framework: social, cognitive
and tutor presence. Also, it was apparent that the tutors and most of the students were extremely commit-
ted to using the OSLE believing it offered a lively, personal and dynamic learning space.
Keywords: Online Synchronous Learning Environment; Community of Inquiry; Virtual Classroom;
Performing Arts
Drivers for encouraging use of an online web-based environ-
ment for synchronous communication such as Blackboard Col-
laborate, Adobe Connect and Skype within higher education are
social, political, economic, and environmental (Laubach &
Little, 2009; Cornelius & Gash, 2012). The higher education
student population in many countries, including the United
Kingdom, consists of a diverse demographic at any time in-
cluding school leavers, distance learners, part-time learners and
mature learners, as well as international students. All learners
have competing demands on their time, such as work, family
and/or caring commitments, which they need to manage along-
side their studies. In addition, many learners are required to
undertake a work-practice placement as part of their higher
education experience frequently involving being physically
located at a distance from their institution. Tutors within higher
education are also facing lifestyle changes, with many now
job-sharing or balancing professional and academic responsi-
bilities, as well as supporting students based outwith their in-
stitution (full or part-time). These factors increase the challenge
of maintaining learning support and communities of learners
when either the students and/or the tutors are away from the
institution. Appropriate and flexible methods of providing ac-
cess to learning environments for this ever-changing, highly
mobile student profile are thus essential. Traditional methods
such as face-to-face lectures and seminars are, in many cases,
no longer appropriate (Laubach & Little, 2009).
More sophisticated, flexible, robust and accessible learning
technologies such as managed learning systems, ePortfolios,
wikis, blogs, e-assessment and e-submission systems are now
widely embedded within the curriculum in the tertiary sector
(Browne, Hewitt, Jenkins, Voce, Walker, & Yip, 2010). Predo-
minately used for supporting information delivery and asyn-
chronous communication in blended and distance learning en-
vironments, the advantages of these learning technologies have
included: convenience and flexibility; enabling students to fit
learning around work and external commitments; and affording
learners more time to reflect when participating in online dis-
cussions about complex issues (JISCinfoNet, 2012). Sometimes
student engagement and interaction may increase with online
learning (Rogoza, 2007; Falloon, 2011). However, notable chal-
lenges persist. As demonstrated by the numerous case studies
conducted in this field, use of online and blended learning en-
vironments can lead to: higher levels of student attrition; lower
levels of engagement; limited motivation; student frustration
and feelings of isolation (Porto, 2006; Butler & Sullivan, 2007).
This has resulted in many students avoiding heavily blended or
completely online distance learning programmes and taking
them only when there is no practical alternative (Porto, 2006;
Rogoza, 2007; Butler & Sullivan, 2007; McBrien & Jones,
2009). Use of video conferencing has had some success in ad-
dressing such issues but sophisticated, expensive equipment is
required as well as training and on-going support (Laubach &
Little, 2009; Abbass et al., 2011). Synchronous learning may
offer a viable alternative especially with its focus on interaction
and emphasis on promoting student engagement in the learning
process (Skylar, 2009; Falloon, 2011). It may be particularly
useful for those subject areas where communication through
speech and body language are required as in rehearsal-based
areas like performance arts.
This paper explores whether, and in what ways, OSLEs sup-
port learning in the performing arts in blended learning pro-
grammes. It also seeks to provide a snapshot of student and
staff experiences of OSLEs. The evaluative tool used to frame
the findings and discussions is the Community of Inquiry fra-
mework. The paper will be of interest to a wide ranging audi-
ence within the field of higher education in general such as, tu-
tors, placement supervisors, subject mentors, educational tech-
nologists, staff developers, learning technologists, support staff,
researchers, and also students. It is particularly relevant as
OSLE-adoption moves from initial enthusiasts to institution-
wide implementation (Falloon, 2011).
Studies are emerging which report on the use of synchronous
learning in higher education for both online distance and blen-
ded learning (Falloon, 2011). Much of this work has focused on
using chat-type tools within or outwith an institution’s virtual
learning environment. However, as technologies have advanced,
more case studies and exemplars of using synchronous com-
munication are appearing. Such technologies can provide an
online learning environment with audio and video functionality,
as well as communication tools such as hand raising and voting,
and opportunities for group break-outs, creating an online class-
room where communities of learners could thrive. This study
focussed on embedding an online synchronous learning envi-
ronment (OSLE) within blended learning programmes in the
subject area of performing arts.
What Is an Online Synchronous Learning
Environment (OSLE)?
Typically an OSLE consists of hardware and software com-
ponents which support auditory, visual and textual channels of
communication through Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), as
well as providing functionality to use digital materials for the
purpose of sharing and discussing in a range of learning and
teaching settings. For example, it is anticipated that an OSLE
facilitates use of word processed documents, spread sheets,
presentations, images, web-based materials and video recor-
dings (see Figure 1). In most cases, due to technological limi-
tations, voice communication is not usually spontaneous but
speakers must wait their “turn” to participate in the dialogue:
the real-time communication is limited to one voice talking at a
time. Carbonaro, King, Taylor, Satzinger, Snart and Drummond
(2008) compared this with the Aboriginal sharing circle where
a talking stick is used. An OSLE is accessed through Internet
browsers such as Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome or Safari.
The most commonly used commercial products for education
are Blackboard Collaborate (which has recently brought to-
gether Illuminate and Wimba), Webex and Adobe Connect.
Such tools have been developed with group collaboration in
mind allowing multiple video feeds, shared workspaces (break-
out rooms) and group decision-making tools like polling.
Online synchronous learning environments have been refer-
red to as web conferencing, webinars, webcasting or virtual
classrooms amongst others. Underlying such terms is the idea
of providing a face-to-face classroom-like environment online
(Chatterton, 2010). However, de Freitas and Neumann (2009)
prefer the term “synchronous audiographic conferencing” which
they consider to be more neutral. For the purpose of this study
we use the term “OSLE” and define it to be:
a web-based, computer mediated communication (CMC)
program, which enables any combination of learners, tutors,
and subject experts to meet virtually”, in real time”, for the
purpose of natural interaction and shared communication, in
respect of a learning activity (Peacock, Murray, Girdler, Brown,
Dean, & Mastrominico, 2011).
Our emphasis is on interactive learning rather than using
these tools in a broadcast mode for presentations and transmis-
sion modes of teaching. We accept that the tools may be used in
this way and in a broader way for e-administration, marketing
(DiMaria-Ghalili, Ostrow, & Rodney, 2005), and research but
this was not the focus of our study. However, like de Freitas
and Neumann (2009), we accept that our proposed term, like
those associated with learning with technology in general, is
still very much “under discussion”.
Online Synchronous Learning Environments in
Higher Education
A wide variety of case studies investigating the use of
OSLEs have emerged over the last few years. These are at both
post and undergraduate levels and are typically in Canada
Figure 1.
Example of communication opportunities via an OSLE.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
(Abbass et al., 2011; Carbonaro, King, Taylor, Satzinger, Snart,
& Drummond, 2008) Australia (Rushle & Loch, 2008) and the
United States (Abbass et al., 2011; DiMaria-Ghalili, Ostrow, &
Rodney, 2005; Laubach & Little, 2009; McBrien & Jones, 2009;
Dammers, 2009). Such studies have focussed predominantly on
supporting distance learners in remote geographic locations
(Abbass et al., 2011; DiMaria-Ghalili, Ostrow, & Rodney, 2005)
but blended learning examples are now appearing (Carbonaro,
King, Taylor, Satzinger, Snart, & Drummond, 2008; Laubach
& Little, 2009; McBrien & Jones, 2009). There are also a few
examples in which an OSLE is used to connect learning for
face-to-face and distance students. In such cases, some students
are situated physically with the tutor whilst others online are
connected from either a different campus or from their home
(Laubach & Little, 2009). OSLE case studies are in subjects as
diverse as: psychotherapy (Abbas et al., 2011); nursing (Di-
Maria-Ghalili, Ostrow & Rodney, 2005); education (McBrien
& Jones 2009); health (Carbonaro, King, Taylor, Satzinger,
Snart, & Drummond, 2008; Valaitis, Akhtar-Danesh, Levinson,
& Skylar, 2009; Wainman, 2007); sociology (Laubach & Little,
2009); mathematics (Skylar, 2009); psychology (McBrien &
Jones, 2009); and music (Dammers, 2009). Usage is varied,
ranging from online tutorials, seminars and lectures, to sup-
porting mentoring, coaching and virtual office hours, as well as
providing access to guest speakers (Chatterton, 2010).
In the case studies mentioned previously, learners reported
finding OSLEs very convenient, improving access to study,
reducing travel time (and associated costs) and having envi-
ronmental benefits (DiMaria-Ghalili, Ostrow, & Rodney, 2005;
Chatteron, 2010; Abbass et al., 2011; McBrien & Jones, 2009;
Dammers, 2009). Critically, OSLEs were perceived to offer a
friendlier, warm, sociable learning environment helping to alle-
viate feelings of isolation commonly reported by students using
asynchronous environments. Learners particularly welcomed
the opportunities for real-time visual interactive discussions
with tutors and peers which sometimes lead to the development
of an online learning community (Porto, 2006; Chatteron, 2010;
Abbass et al., 2011; Carbonaro, King, Taylor, Satzinger, Snart,
& Drummond, 2008). Students liked the opportunities for im-
mediate clarification and feedback resulting in improved under-
standing (DiMaria-Ghalili, Ostrow, & Rodney, 2005; Ostrow &
DiMaria-Ghalili, 2005; Olaniran, 2006; Skylar, 2009). Increa-
sed learner arousal, motivation, participation, interaction and
engagement have been reported as well as improvements in
critical decision-making and reflective skills (Porto, 2006; Fal-
loon, 2011; Abbass et al., 2011). Recording of sessions was
notable in supporting reflection and review at a time and pace
convenient for learners (Carbonaro, 2008; Laubach & Little,
2009). Students also felt using the OSLE had improved tech-
nology skills (Skylar, 2009; Falloon, 2011) and confidence in
communication skills in a different media (Carbonaro, 2008).
Such skills could be readily applied in the workplace (Ostrow
& DiMaria-Ghalili, 2005).
However, many technical challenges remain with use of
OSLEs. These are cited all too often in the case studies and
include: poor access to appropriate, reliable equipment; fire-
walls limiting access to OSLEs; poor audio and video function-
ality because of time lag and poor and/or variable network con-
nectivity; lack of institutional funding for appropriate equip-
ment, software and support (Abbass et al., 2011; Laubach &
Little, 2009; Butler & Sullivan, 2007; Falloon, 2011). Conse-
quently, many tutors and students are online at least 30 minutes
prior to a session to ensure technical hitches are resolved. The
impact is that many distance learners have felt more rather than
less isolated.
Other challenges relate to the demands placed on users of the
system compared with face-to-face teaching. For tutors, this has
meant more thorough planning, for example, in the organisation
and running of group tasks in OSLEs (Dammers, 2009; Falloon,
2011). It has also challenged tutors to communicate and prob-
lem solve in a wider range of subjects, including technical ones
since university technical support is often not available for
sessions which typically occur in the evening and at the week-
end (Laubach & Little, 2009). Greater flexibility is also re-
quired to adjust and cope with last minute changes due to the
technology. Consequently, many tutors have fallen back on the
familiar and comfortable broadcast approach to using OSLEs
rather than exploiting the interactive group opportunities pre-
sented by the tools (Porto, 2006; Butler & Sullivan, 2007; Chat-
teron, 2010; Falloon, 2011).
For learners too there are challenges. Many stated that even
when OSLEs did work, they missed “human interaction”—
there was still a sense of distance and disconnectedness (Mc-
Brien & Jones, 2009; Dammers, 2009; Chatterton, 2010). Lear-
ners often found it difficult to accommodate specific times for
OSLE meetings when located in different time zones (Skylar,
2009; Falloon, 2011; Abbass et al., 2011) and there was a re-
luctance to use OSLEs in a public place such as an Internet café
(Cornelius & Gash, 2012). Furthermore, learners found it more
difficult to engage in dialogue stating that they were too scared
to ask questions, lacked knowledge of the subject area or nee-
ded time to reflect. Such issues inhibited engagement (Falloon,
2011; McBrien & Jones, 2009). Many compared the dynamic
communication in face-to-face learning with that in an OSLE
and found it wanting.
The Performing Arts and Online Synchronous
“Performing arts” is an umbrella-term for subjects including
performance, drama, dance and their production and manage-
ment. By nature, interdisciplinary, the boundaries of these sub-
jects are particularly fluid because they call heavily on a range
of media, digital arts and emerging technologies (Quality As-
surance Agency for Higher Education, 2007). Consistent across
most courses are the challenges presented due to the rehearsal-
based nature of the subject and the importance of visual com-
munication. Nevertheless, like other subjects, students will
spend long periods physically located away from the institution
for placement experiences and also for dissertation completion.
There are few examples in areas related to performance. One
notable example is in music when trumpet lessons were con-
ducted through Skype (Dammers, 2009). The small study de-
monstrated that it was indeed possible to teach at a basic level
but also that there were limitations especially since the tech-
nology did not support the tutor and learner playing together in
time. However, it was accepted that:
Synchronous online instruction is likely to expand and sup-
plement music instruction but not revolutionize it. (Dammers,
2009: p. 22).
Videoconferencing, however, has been trialled in the per-
forming arts. The ANNIE (Accessing and Networking with
National and International expertise) Project utilised both syn-
chronous (videoconferencing) and asynchronous environments
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1271
in theatre studies to support research-led teaching and access to
national and international experts (Childs, 2003). Challenges
included lack of gestural cues due to restricted views, time
delays and the difficulty of working with large groups. How-
ever, in both small and large group sessions, the level of learner
and tutor concentration was elevated and tutors reported that
multi-site tutoring sessions were more focused and democratic.
Childs (2003) suggests that the lack of a tutor’s physical pres-
ence appeared to make students focus their attention more than
in traditional face-to-face sessions.
Two other examples report use of videoconferencing for
dance in rural areas. The Performance Lab (TPL) in Minnesota
used elaborate set ups of equipment including fixed and hand-
held cameras to enable students’ movements to be filmed from
a variety of angles. Students liked to “…see themselves being
corrected from three dimensions” (Janson, 2004: p. 47) and
despite sound delays and loss of visual signal were positive
about their experiences and impact on learning (Janson, 2004).
In another example, videoconferencing provided opportunities
for students to interact with national specialists without having
to travel away from the classroom or studio (Parrish, 2008).
Pedagogical Frameworks as Evaluative Tools to
Explore Tutor and Student Experiences of
Learning in OSLEs
Whilst case studies reviewing OSLE-usage in tertiary educa-
tion have regularly appeared over the last ten years, it is only
recently that pedagogical frameworks and models have been
used as tools to evaluate synchronous learning environments.
Most notable has been Moore’s (1993) theory of transactional
distance. Predominantly used in distance education, it considers
the “sense of distance” and “disconnectedness” a student feels
during the learning process (McBrien & Jones, 2009: p. 3). Al-
though extremely illuminating as the basis for evaluation of
studies, some have found this model requires re-thinking espe-
cially since technologies such as synchronous online learning
environments were not available when the model was originally
conceived (Falloon, 2011; McBrien & Jones, 2009).
de Freitas and Neumann (2009) provide an extensive over-
view of pedagogic strategies which have been or could be
broadly applied to OSLE-type technologies. They specifically
focus on the Community of Inquiry model of Garrison and
Anderson (2003) with its emphasis on interaction, discourse
and a collaborative constructivist view of learning and teaching.
This conceptual framework has been used extensively to inter-
pret findings in e-learning (Garrison, 2011). The framework
proposes three elements which harness the benefits of working
online (distance and blended) and address the issues of the iso-
lated learner.
Strongly influenced by the work of Dewey, Garrison defines
an online community of inquiry as:
a group of individuals who collaboratively engage in pur-
poseful critical discourse and reflection to construct meaning
and confirm mutual understanding. (Garrison, 2011: p. 15).
Garrison and Anderson (2003) believe learning and teaching
to be a complex, iterative interplay between individual, per-
sonal meaning making and the social environment:
While knowledge is a social artefact, in an educational con-
text, it is the individual learner who must grasp its meaning or
offer an improved understanding. (Garrison, 2001: p. 13).
At its heart, for Garrison and Anderson (2003) the educa-
tional experience consists of:
The private personal experience in which the individual is
constructing and reconstructing knowledge;
The social experience in which the individual is refining
and confirming their developing knowledge through dis-
course with a community of learners.
The learning environment, as a consequence, must facilitate
individual knowledge construction and meaning-making. It
must also provide a supportive social environment in which di-
vergent views, ideas and perspectives can flourish, be explored,
investigated, reviewed, reflected upon and challenged. It is to
this environment that learners must bring their emergent ideas
and knowledge and discuss with other learners in the commu-
Over the last decade, the Community of Inquiry framework
has been extended and refined (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007;
Garrison, 2011). Currently the three overlapping elements
which are the basis for the Framework are:
Cognitive presence. This addresses how the learning envi-
ronment supports the student to meet the learning outcomes
of any educational experience. At its core is critical think-
ing and reflection which allows the learner to probe existing
knowledge and build upon this to develop new knowledge
(Garrison, 2011). This recursive process moves the learner
from a state of puzzlement to potential testing of solutions
but this is not a linear process and in some cases will not
lead to resolution.
Social presence. This refers to the opportunities available
for learners to present themselves as “real” people in what-
ever medium of communication is required (Garrison &
Anderson, 2003). Indicators of social presence include: in-
terpersonal communication, open communication and cohe-
sive communication (Garrison, 2011).
Teaching presence focuses on the design and management
of the learning environment, facilitation of critical discourse
and correction of misconceptions. Usually the tutor takes
the lead in this presence but students too can support the
teaching presence.
Although originating from the analysis of text-based online
communication, there are now many examples of the CoI being
used to understand and evaluate blended learning (Garrison &
Arbaugh, 2007). We hoped the Framework would provide the
basis for an in-depth exploration of the potential of an OSLE in
the performing arts to support learning. The basis of the
Framework—the interplay between individual meaning-making
and the social environment—is highly suitable for our case
studies in the performing arts.
The Study
The aim of the study was to investigate whether, and in what
ways, tutors and learners engage with online synchronous
learning environments (OSLEs), to further our understanding of
the role of OSLEs in learning and to develop practical guide-
lines. An in-depth, comparative study of tutor and learner ex-
periences of using an OSLE was conducted in order to explore
if OSLEs could enhance the learning environment for heavily
blended learning courses where tutors and learners were fre-
quently off-campus.
The study was conducted at Queen Margaret University
(QMU), Edinburgh, Scotland, over a period of nine months.
QMU is a small institution which gained University title and
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1273
MP3 or MP4 files. Figure 2 provides an example of the Wimba
interface with a video screen in use. For all three of the case
studies, students and tutors were introduced to the OSLE early
in the academic calendar.
moved to a new campus in 2007. Most undergraduate pro-
grammes offered at QMU involve four years of study and stu-
dents typically start such courses from the age of 17 years on-
wards; each year of study in a programme is referred to as a
level. Many of the students participating in this study were
located at a distance from the institution at some stage of their
programme. Similarly the tutors involved in the study were at
times travelling and based away from the institution. So, al-
though QMU was the physical setting for the study, in reality
the OSLE itself was the virtual setting where much of the re-
search data were collected.
Context of Use
Our OSLE was trialled within three programme areas for
three very different purposes, as illustrated in Table 1.
This was a qualitative study and followed a mixed method
approach to data collection. A collective case study design
(Stake, 2000) was employed which enabled a holistic examina-
tion of three very different learning and teaching contexts
which were making use of an OSLE within the subject area of
performing arts. Qualitative research is recognised as having
the strength of generating rich data (Glazier, 1992) and it was
anticipated that studying these cases in-depth would enable
generalisations from our findings to be applied to a wider
population (Stake, 2000; Bryman, 2001), for example, across
other performing arts subject areas. Each case was selected
purposefully on the basis of relevance to the focus of our re-
search (Gomm, Hammersley, & Foster, 2000). To assist in de-
termining relevance, tutors from five programme areas were
invited to complete an online questionnaire at the preliminary
stage of the project in order to gather background information
about each potential case and cohort, as well as expectations
regarding use of the OSLE. Three cases were selected purpose-
fully on the basis of these data. Two were discounted as either
The System
The OSLE used during this study was Wimba Classroom
version 5 and was hosted on a server provided by Wimba in the
United States of America. Wimba Classroom allows learners
and tutors to log into a secure, online classroom, where audio
and digital materials, such as PowerPoints, images, WORD and
EXCEL documents, websites, and video clips can be shared
and discussed in large plenary groups or in smaller breakout
groups. Tutors and students can talk to each other in real time
through the OSLE interface and can supplement this using a
text chat tool. Students can indicate when they wish to ask a
question, when they understand an explanation, or when they
are confused, by selecting an appropriate symbol, for example,
a “thumbs-up” or a “thumbs-down”. A video of the speaker is
shown, but it is not possible in this particular OSLE system for
videos of other participants logged into the session to be shown
at the same time. Sessions can be recorded and archived for
later use, and either accessed through a URL or downloaded as
Figure 2.
Example of Wimba interface with video screen in use.
the tutors did not wish to engage with an OSLE after further
discussions and/or felt that the use of OSLE was inappropriate
with most students being campus-based.
Ethical approval was gained from the institution. Three
methods of data collection were employed in order to access a
wide range of perspectives regarding use of the OSLE and these
were: self-completion questionnaires, the recording of video
diaries by participants, and semi-structured interviews. Pre-
liminary, background data were gathered from students and
tutors via web-based self-completion questionnaires. For the
tutors this related to their anticipated use of the OSLE within
their programme area, perceptions regarding the benefits and
limitations of using an OSLE tool, and also details of any prior
experiences they may have had in using synchronous environ-
ments. The student questionnaire data provided an indication of
their levels of computer skills and experience of synchronous
environments generally and also provided an insight into the
students’ perceptions regarding the introduction and use of the
Tutors and students were invited to create video diaries within
the OSLE about their experiences of using the OSLE. Partici-
pants were requested to archive their diaries and to notify the
researcher when a diary was available. It was hoped that using
the OSLE to record diary accounts would be a convenient way
for tutors and students to reflect on their experiences and that
using the same OSLE would enable diaries to be created as
soon after actual episodes of use as possible, prompting recall
of particular features or issues worthy of discussion. The re-
searchers anticipated that gathering audio and visual responses
together in a diary form would assist them in gaining a deeper
understanding of the phenomenon under investigation, as well
as aiding engagement with data.
Interview data were gathered via the OSLE since it was con-
sidered to be convenient for the researcher to meet with the
tutors and students in this way for interview, particularly as
several participants were away from the institution. It was be
lieved that using the OSLE for the purpose of conducting an
interview would aid the participants in recalling their experi-
ences of using the OSLE within the learning and teaching con-
text and enable them to demonstrate ideas and opinions more
easily. Also it was hoped that using this approach would assist
the researcher in experiencing the environment under investiga-
tion and developing an understanding of its use. Further infor-
mation about using OSLEs as a research tool is available else-
where (Murray & Peacock, 2012).
Participation in the research was voluntary and as Table 1
illustrates, only a small number of students participated. Al-
though all four tutors (including the two tutors in case study 2)
wished to use the OSLE with their students, some students
preferred the telephone and email whilst others lived near to the
University and wished for a face-to-face meeting with their tu-
tors. Other students used the OSLE but did not opt to be inter-
viewed or to record a video diary (see Table 2).
Data Analysis
The data analysis was undertaken in two stages. Analysis
took place as soon as possible after data were collected to assist
subsequent stages of data collection.
First, an iterative and interpretive process of analysis was
employed, enabling the value and shortcomings of using an
OSLE to be identified from the tutor and student perspectives.
Data were reviewed by two members of the research team to
facilitate cross checking and to increase the quality and rigour
of the findings (see Figure 3).
It was only later that data were interrogated again using the
CoI framework for evaluation. In this case, one researcher re-
visited the data collected and reviewed looking for key themes
that resonated with the three elements of the CoI as undertaken
in previous studies (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007).
A full outline of the method and analysis is available else-
where (Peacock, Murray, Girdler, Brown, Dean, & Mastromi-
nico, 2011).
Findings and Discussions
In this section, we report the findings of the study and then
discuss them in relation to the Community of Inquiry frame-
work. Our study demonstrates that OSLEs can be used to sup-
port learning in three diverse case studies in performing arts. In
all three case studies, the tutors and students were positive
about using the OSLE and about the role of the OSLE in main-
taining contact between students and tutors. For example, use
of the OSLE helped maintain, to some degree, the learning
connection which had been established in the face-to-face
I always finished the session feeling that Id made a connec-
tion. There was a certain amount of intimacy there at a dis-
tance if you like and therefore it was valuable to use (Tutor;
Case study 1).
Table 1.
Context of OSLE use across the three case studies.
Case study Programme and level of studyContext of use Tutor group Student location
MA Arts and
Cultural Management
PG level 2
For conducting mainly one-to-one tutorials and occasional
group meetings between tutor and students in order to suppor
dissertation completion.
One tutor (m)
· Greece (n = 1 f)
· Bahrain (n = 1 f)
· South Korea (n = 1 f)
BA (Honours) Drama and
Theatre Arts
UG year 3
· As a vehicle for students to demonstrate performance rehears-
als with peers and tutors who were away from the institution;
· As an environment for tutors to provide feedback to students
on their performance rehearsals—both individually and i
Two tutors
(1 f; 1 m) · Edinburgh (n = 7) (5 f; 2 m)
BA (Honours) Performing
Arts Management
UG year 3
A means of providing one-to-one developmental sup
ort fo
students who were away from the institution on work place-
ment experience.
One tutor (m) · London (n = 1 m)
· Edinburgh (n = 2) (1 f; 1 m)
Note: PG = Postgraduate; UG = Undergraduate; f = Female; m = Male.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Figure 3.
Overview of the data analysis process.
Table 2.
Demonstrating participant numbers for each data collection method.
Questionnaires Video diaries Interviews
Tutors n = 4 n = 3 n = 4
Students n = 5 n = 4 n = 5
The participants liked using the OSLE, and this was evident
from the very first sessions. They found it was an easy to use,
flexible, accessible and convenient tool, providing instant visual
and audio communication between tutors and students, reflect-
ing case studies reported in the literature (Porto, 2006; Dam-
mers, 2009; Abbass et al., 2011, Falloon, 2011).
[OSLES will] give us more flexibility. At the moment I have
to fit those academic tutorials into a working day my work-
ing day can be really what I want so if a student wants to do a
[session] with me at 7 oclock in the evening, then Im happy to
do that, its part of my working day. You know, it gives me
freedom to plan my week and gives students freedom to plan
those academic tutorials Its just shifting boundaries shift-
ing, perceptions shifting. I don’t see it as making work harder,
making it more difficult. I see it as making things easier (Tutor
3; Case study 3).
Moreover, the tutors believed that OSLEs had the potential to
change significantly the educational experience for them—it
offered a new and more exciting way, of doing the business of
education in the 21st century—it was possibly a step-change.
Such findings echo case studies previously cited such as
Valaitis et al., 2007; Butler & Sullivan, 2007; McBrien & Jones,
2009; Reushle & Loch, 2008. The OSLE was considered to be
a more dynamic, interactive, personal, student-centric, and fun
learning environment, which could “free participants” from the
constraints of the current physical learning environment of the
campus in Edinburgh and help them to balance their varied
work commitments and study/life responsibilities:
Its been of enormous benefit. Not only the new skills aspect
of it which is enormously important, but for me as a human
being and the work-life spans. Its given a completely new di-
mension to my working life which is quite phenomenal really
wherever anyone is in the world to be able to communicate and
to teach students, to mentor students and to have that freedom
away from the desk which is something we were promised for
years would happen, has had a huge effect on my psyche. I feel
very free, which is an extraordinary thing to say. I dont feel
chained to my desk.. (Tutor 3; Case study 3).
All the tutors referred to the OSLE as empowering learners
and perhaps providing learners with some measure of control
and responsibility. In case study 2, for example, the tutors de-
scribed when they first entered the online room whilst they
were physically located in Italy and their students in Scotland.
The tutors realised that the students had organised their physi-
cal and online space, determined how they would run the ses-
sion and how they would work with their tutors. Using the
OSLE made the students think about how they wanted to use
the tutors to meet the educational requirements for their studies
and how they could engage in critical discourse with their tutors
to check current knowledge and develop new understanding.
This theme of empowerment, noted in other studies such as
Olaniran (2006), was noticeable in the two other case studies
where the tutors believed that the OSLE gave their learners “a
sense of responsibility,” deciding when they wanted to contact
their tutors and most importantly, what they wanted to discuss.
This would provide a springboard for the tutors to facilitate a
critical discussion which would allow the learner to refine and
confirm their developing knowledge through discourse with
themselves and in some cases, other learners. However, for
some learners, the tutor noted, this sense of responsibility
would take longer to develop than others.
In some cases, as reported earlier in the literature review, the
technology did impact on the learning and there was frustration
at its lack of robustness and limited functionality. However, the
tutors enthusiasm and commitment to using OSLEs remained
throughout the study and most worked around the technology,
similar to the examples reported in the study by Abbass et al.
(2011), and there was an acceptance that the technology was
improving significantly and quickly:
as the technology improves the work will reap the benefits of
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1275
what weve been discussing, but its a slow start because that
kind of quality holds us back at the moment (Tutor 2a; Case
study 2).
Although tutors and students were very positive about using
OSLEs, it is important for us, as educators, to know how and in
what ways using an OSLE facilitates individual knowledge
construction and meaning-making. What, if any, impact did the
OSLE have on the students’ learning? In the next section we
use the three elements of the Community of Inquiry framework
as the basis for our evaluation of learning in our three case
Cognitive Presence
Not only did the instant audio and visual communication in
the OSLE ensure that the strong learning connection made on
campus could be maintained but this technology also facilitated
dialogue for inquiry and debate which tutors felt supported the
students in acquiring high-order knowledge. In two of our case
studies, the tutors used the OSLE as a learning space where
students could discuss with them and their peers their emergent
understanding and engage in debate and sharing:
Sharing in a way thats what our conversations are about,
I’m sharing my thoughts on their work and they were sharing
their thoughts with me, but you can share work, you can share
images, pictures and desktops. Its a place for sharing quite
easily and I think for drama teachers thats probably quite a
nice word to hear (Tutor 1; Case study 1).
For the future, as with the video-conferencing case studies
cited earlier (Parrish, 2008), it was also anticipated that use of
an OSLE would improve access to, and dialogues with, experts
which would allow students to interrogate and extend their
existing knowledge:
And I suspect this is why the project has been so fascinating,
because the doors it opens the choices, being able to have
students speaking to practitioners all over the world is phe-
nomenal and I suspect that thats I mean obviously it will be
the same in business and any other aspect health sciences as
well, being able to speak to practitioners from all over the
world without having to fly them in. Having that access, in-
stantaneous access is pretty amazing (Tutor 3; Case study 3).
The OSLE was also used asynchronously as a reflective tool.
Synchronous online learning is often praised for its immediacy
of response and faster pace but criticised for reducing the op-
portunities for reflection, unlike text-based asynchronous
communication. In case study 2, working with the archive tool
in the OSLE, individual learners could revisit their recordings
of performances, reflect upon these, create online reflective
video diaries in which they articulated their developing under-
standing and then use these as a springboard to prepare for
discussions with tutors and peers. This helped the learners in
the performing arts to see their work as work in progress which
they would then move forward with after receiving feedback
and reflection:
They have to develop their work in solitude. Theyre in a
sort of loneliness which provides the chance for them to grow
independently, so we need to look at that material maybe af-
terwards (Tutor 2b; Case study 2).
The OSLE was supporting both private reflection and public
discourse (Garrison, 2011) particularly through the use of the
archive tool as explained by Tutor 2a:
the possibility of archiving, revisiting work, storing it, going
back and being able to examine in detail, in our own time, in
our own place thats been extraordinarily valuable and has
set off a train of thoughts about the potential for the future
(Tutor 2a; Case study 2).
In some cases, the OSLE impacted negatively on cognitive
presence especially through the requirement for turn-taking
when speaking. Participants compared the OSLE with Skype,
where turn-taking is not required and where more spontaneous
communication is supported:
When I recently used Skype I found I didnt have to push a
buttonthey could already hear me and it was a lot more re-
laxedit was like you are just in a room chatting instead of
having to push the button down that way I guess I could
make notes as well, instead of having to reach over and press a
buttonit would be a bit more relaxed (Student 5; Case study
Tutors disliked the turn-taking and felt that they needed the
same functionality in Skype where they “…could have those
kinds of overlapping conversations that make human conversa-
tion human.” (Tutor 2a; Case study 2)
Precious time for peer and tutor interaction was also wasted
due to the time required to prepare and log into the system:
I know weve had many sessions which took us a good 15 or
20 minutes just to set up things ready to use it in the
room, …(Tutor 2a; Case study 2).
Also, some students and tutors found that the system was not
intuitive and the interface was often described as “overwhelm-
ing” resulting in less frequent use of the system. Here the stu-
dent describes trying to archive:
it took me a long time to figure out how to record because
it wasn’t clear and as I said the tutorials didnt help because
they are like half an hour longeach one of them and you
dont know where the information youre looking for is because
there are loads of different tutorials and it could take days until
I find the information I was looking for. (Student 1; Case study
Such technical issues limited the quality of the discourse (in-
ternal and external) and impacted on learning.
In case study 2, where the OSLE was used for performance
practice and group sessions, specific challenges emerged;
however, for each issue, the tutors found benefits by addressing
the challenges:
Physicality constraints.
It was not possible for tutors to make physical corrections of
students’ poses, such as moving an arm into an alternative posi-
tion. The tutors initially found this restrictive as stated in the
early video-conference examples (Parrish, 2008; Janson, 2004).
However, after a few sessions, the tutors altered their commu-
nication style and found they could demonstrate the moves
through the OSLE.
Constrained performance space due to the camera and what
the camera could show.
Tutor 2 recalls that the learners had to remember to organise
their performance space for the camera. This meant that ulti-
mately the students limited which aspect of their performance
was recorded for feedback through an OSLE. The tutors re-
minded the students that this was useful experience as they
might frequently in the future be working with cameras and not
performing for a live audience.
Equality of communication with large groups.
As stated by Tutor 2a: this needed to be considered in the
planning process:
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
If somebody isnt sitting next to the computer, say if you have
a group of seven, only one or two people can have their hands
on the talk button. If its a discussion with us it makes life po-
tentially difficult if you wish to interject or how do you put your
hand up? Do you physically put your hand up? but again if
your colleagues are sitting in a place where they cant see
you there are difficulties (Tutor 2a; Case study 2).
Social Presence
The ability to see and talk with the tutor or students instan-
taneously was crucial for all: they could see each other as ‘real’
people with whom they could discuss their work, their ideas
and their developing understanding:
We felt good about the sessionit was certainly good to
connect and see each other and speak to each other. In a way it
was like a phone call, but was a wee bit more personal if you
like (Tutor 1; Case study 1).
The immediacy of the communication link allowed the tutor
to check directly if their message had been understood and to
probe further or progress the discourse as appropriate, mirror-
ing findings reported in the Annie project (Childs, 2003) and
Abbass et al.’s case study (2011). It seemed that the sessions
had enhanced the working relationship, maybe through helping
the tutors gain a better insight into the learners’ environment
and getting “a sense of their students as people” (Tutor 1; Case
study 1). Tutor 1 discusses the impact of talking to his students
when they were celebrating New Year in South Korea, or ex-
periencing the riots in Athens; it provided him with a sense of
where his students were and what they were experiencing.
These discussions were also relevant to their area of study.
The facility to hear and see instantaneously also differenti-
ated the OSLE from other forms of communication, such as
telephone or email: “it helps to use your visual senses as well
as just listening” (Tutor 1; Case study 1). In most cases the
immediacy and visual/audio communication channels helped
build and maintain social presence:
I can use email to ask his ideas, but when Im using Wimba
he can explain his ideas why should I go ... how could I
Its different, he can use paper and he can use the letter, but
when he speak to me and we seeing faces, with the smile, then
it’s more were close and its helpful using Wimba with the
movie (Student 3; Case study 1).
Using the OSLE also helped to remind the students of work-
ing and studying in an educational environment. It removed the
disconnectedness often referred to in distance learning pro-
grammes, reinforcing what was expected of them as students
studying at a university and their responsibilities to other learn-
ers. However, the technology could become a barrier to learn-
ing and disrupt the development of social presence. In all three
cases, technical challenges were experienced, most notable of
which was poor video and audio quality:
The quality issues theyre off-putting. You dont want to
be looking at blurry images or not be able to make out half the
words, to struggle to hear what your colleagues or lecturers or
the performers in the space are saying or doing, makes the
whole exercise somewhat redundant (Tutor 2a; Case study 2).
The quality was very poor and her video appeared for one
second only. The sound quality was also very poor (Tutor 3;
Case study 3).
Although Abbass et al. (2011) state that there is little re-
search evidence that using web-conference technology causes
learner anxiety, some of our learners did not relish the idea of
seeing themselves on a video. Furthermore, after discussions
with students, tutors became very aware that they could be
talking with students in their bedrooms since this was where
students’ computers were often located. For some this could be
a barrier to using OSLEs:
You are coming into someones space and youre aware of,
you know, that you might have a bedroom or sitting room that’s
piled high with things. You know, you wouldnt necessarily
invite someone into that youd have a good old tidy its
pretty much going into someone’s personal space. (Tutor 3;
Case study 3).
Tutor Presence
Throughout the interviews and in the diaries, the four tutors
continuously reflected on how use of the OSLE impacted on the
way they worked with their learners and how they organised the
learning environment. They were considering if, and in what
ways, the OSLE affected “teaching presence” and more pre-
cisely how it changed their role from lecturer to facilitator. As
Cornelius and Gash state:
Teachers taking on the challenge of virtual classrooms
should be prepared to be unsettled by the experience; they need
to be ready to question and reflect on their practice… (Corne-
lius & Gash, 2012, p. 4).
We have summarised our tutors’ reflections into three sec-
tions, mirroring the three indicators used by Garrison and
Anderson (2003) to describe tutor presence.
1) The design and organisation of the learning environment
Tutors particularly reflected on how the OSLE impacted on:
Preparation. In Falloon’s study (2011), tutors were not
sufficiently prepared for the online environment and so read
from notes and did not plan for interactive sessions. In
comparison, our tutors to support student learning prepared
and organized highly interactive sessions and tasks, often
mirroring the “practical inquiry” model suggested by Gar-
rison (2011). Students were expected to ask, answer, chal-
lenge, respond and debate as in their face-to-face sessions.
In case study 1, the tutor would send comments on drafts of
the dissertations and then plan how he would probe the stu-
dents' understanding. In case study 2, the tutors explained
what they wanted the sessions to achieve but the students
determined how they wanted to use the OSLE for this. Also,
because the students already knew each other and their tu-
tors, there was less time required for the ‘participatory
moves’ so common in asynchronous communication where
by posts are made to establish a learner’s presence (Paulus
& Phipps, 2008). However, in the first few sessions, tutors
were unprepared for the technical issues that they needed to
handle and troubleshoot (as noted in previous case studies),
for example, explaining to students how to activate their
Pacing. Tutors became increasingly aware that working in
the online environment was very demanding: it was more
intense and required more concentration mirroring other
studies such as the Annie project (Childs, 2003). Therefore,
tutors would ensure that the length of sessions was carefully
organized with, if necessary, breaks and break-out sessions.
2) The facilitation of discourse
Reflecting their approaches to learning and teaching, in all
three case studies it could be seen that the tutors had planned
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1277
that the OSLE sessions should support various types of dia-
logue enabling the development of social and cognitive pres-
ences (Garrison, 2011). Often sessions would start with general
conversations, for example about the weather, but this would
rapidly progress to focussed discourse about their studies. In
essence the discussions would move through and between the
four types of dialogue outlined by Burbules (1993): casual con-
versation; inquiry; debate and instruction, even in case study 3.
All of the tutors had assumed that the OSLE technology
would be an easy medium to facilitate sustained discourse with
their students and one in which the learners would be happy to
use for discussion. They were, however, surprised and unpre-
pared when the students were initially uncomfortable at using
the technology for learning. The learners were looking to the
tutors to “… lead them into the OSLE and make them feel com-
fortable (Tutor 1; Case study 1). Thus, in their interviews, the
tutors started to reflect upon their communication skills which
had been developed and honed in the more traditional face-to-
face learning environment and considered how they needed to
refine these for the online synchronous learning environment:
its different than a classroom and it can throw up some dif-
ferent useful pointers to your own communication and lecturing
skills (Tutor 1; Case study 1).
3) Direct instruction
In the three very different case studies, the tutors wanted to
use the OSLE as a tool to correct misconceptions and misun-
derstandings. Most felt that the OSLE was much better at this
than other synchronous alternatives such as Skype, or the tele-
phone, or asynchronous options such as email. Nevertheless,
the tutors realised that the OSLE impacted on how they tutored
students; it was important that communications were more pre-
cise and less verbose:
Probably the main aspect of learning that comes up here is
about communication skills and lecturing skills. The talking
skills, the listening skills and that is because it is similar to
the classroom situation, but the pace is quite different and so
you find that you need to express yourself perhaps a bit more
clearly, or consider what you’re saying a bit more because
feedback does come back and they can ask you questions (Tutor
1; Case study 1).
Also, as mentioned earlier, tutors had to convey information
which they would normally support with non-verbal communi-
cation or physical correction, for example, tutors in case 2 had
to explain how an arm needed to be moved and to demonstrate
whereas in the face-to-face environment they would have been
able to physically move the learner’s arm.
All the tutors considered that working through the OSLE had
impacted on the way they worked in face-to-face sessions. This
is known as the “reverse impact” phenomenon (Cornelius &
Gash, 2012) whereby improving approaches to learning and
teaching online leads to enhancements in face-to-face learning
Our small collective study had limitations such as low levels
of student participation at each stage of the data collection as
well as technical issues in using the OSLE which impacted on
data collection in relation to the creation of video diaries. These
are described elsewhere (Peacock, Murray, Girdler, Brown,
Dean, & Mastrominico, 2011). Such small numbers meant that
we could not do justice to the notion of exploring a true com-
munity of inquiry as outlined by Garrison and Anderson (2011)
and thus, can only hint at the possibility of the role of an OSLE
in supporting a group of learners engaging in critical discourse
and reflection.
The CoI framework nevertheless provided us with an evalua-
tive tool that demonstrates the learning that had been supported
when using the OSLE. However, one notable exception was the
lack of consideration by the Framework to multi-modality
which perhaps reflects the development of the CoI from asyn-
chronous online discussions. However, the theory of multi-
modality would seem highly applicable to OSLEs (de Freitas &
Neumann, 2009). As reported by McBrien & Jones (2009), this
issue was raised by a tutor who stated:
one [problem] was the confusion that resulted from too many
simultaneous interactions such as audio, typed chat, and white-
board/PowerPoint or group questions that could be answered
using emoticons, Yes/No, or multiple choice responses. (Mc-
Brien & Jones, 2009: p. 29).
This is echoed in our study:
Theres a lot to look at and I felt like I was an air traffic
controller where I had to look out the window, or in this case
look at the students and looking could mean communicating
with the students as well as keep an eye on all the buttons and
gadgets (Tutor 1; Case study 1).
Future work on OSLEs will certainly need to explore this
area in more depth. It is also suggested that the 34-item Com-
munity of Inquiry framework survey instrument could be used
amongst others to interrogate data in future studies (Garrison,
Online synchronous learning environments are an emerging
and rapidly advancing technology which have potential to con-
nect our learners and tutors wherever they may be and whatever
their personal responsibilities and commitments. Our findings
concur with many other case studies that OSLEs can offer a
lively, personal and dynamic learning space. For our rehearsal-
based case study 2, the use of the OSLE echoed many of the
findings of the ANNIE project and video-conference projects
within dance but each of the challenges could be addressed and
positively so. However, use of the OSLE also had an unex-
pected benefit since it allowed students to record their rehears-
als and then watch these alone and/or with their tutors, sup-
porting both personal reflection and social discourse. Tutors
also felt that the OSLE gave the learners vital experience of
working in a different media which was essential for students in
drama reflecting the fluidity of the subject and importance of
Certainly for drama students working with media, especially
new media for our particular specialism which is in Contem-
porary Performance, looking at experimental and often hybrid
performance forms which involve multi-media work, it’s very
important indeed, so getting them to become hands-on and
empowered with technology which allows them to manipulate
media, manipulate the way they present themselves in media,
learn how that impacts on their performance work and how
they can mix and play with technology within their live work, is
very exciting indeed which is one of the things which led us to
want to be a part of this project in the first place. As a result,
the students this year have had a much more fluid relationship
with technology. (Tutor 2a; Case Study 2).
By using the CoI framework, we could explore in greater
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
depth the potential of an OSLE to support learning in the per-
forming arts. The basis of the framework—the interplay be-
tween individual meaning making and the social environment—
was highly suitable for our subjects. We found that the OSLE
provided a convenient and easy to use tool, which enabled our
tutors to reach out to their learners and develop a strong social
presence, supporting learning wherever the students and tutors
were physically located. The framework also helped us to see
some of the issues where the OSLE challenged learners and
tutors, for example, not everyone liked the video option, while
the variable quality of the audio and video meant that the OSLE
sometimes restricted social presence. The turn-taking necessary
to avoid audio “squeal” also limited spontaneous debate and
discussion where a community could probe a learner’s emer-
gent understanding. Exploring the tutor presence with regard to
the CoI was particularly useful since it provided structure to
interrogate our findings and supported the development of
guidelines for using OSLEs which are available elsewhere
(Murray & Peacock, 2011).
Research in this area is still in its infancy (Skylar, 2009). We
suggest that further studies are needed to explore additional
ways in which OSLEs can be used to support learning and
teaching, especially in other subject areas, and potentially in
conjunction, with a wider range of media, such as mobile tech-
nologies. It is also recommended that longitudinal studies are
undertaken which can chart the development of a more com-
plex understanding of OSLEs and their role in the learning and
teaching process. Furthermore, one of the most challenging areas
will be the use of OSLEs or equivalent for merging face-to-face
and online students in the virtual and physical classrooms.
The authors would like to thank all those who have contrib-
uted towards this project. In particular, we would like to thank
our funders, PALATINE, the Higher Education Academy Sub-
ject Centre for Dance, Drama and Music, as well as the students
and tutors at Queen Margaret University who have generously
given their time to participate in this study. We would also like
to thank colleagues at the Higher Education Academy (HEA),
the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), and the Re-
gional Support Centre (RSC) Scotland North and East, who
have provided valuable guidance and support. We especially
extend our thanks to all those who attended the dissemination
event ‘Crossing Virtual Boundaries—Teaching and Research
with Online Synchronous Learning Environments’ at the e-Sci-
ences Institute, Edinburgh on 10th June 2011. Finally, we would
also like to thank Dr Kate Morss and our colleagues in the Cen-
tre for Academic Practice at QMU for their continued support.
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