As easy as pi?

The new Digital Technologies Curriculum in Australia means that schools around the country at every year level from year 10 right down to teeny tiny preppies (I swear, they get teenier and tinier every year) have to shoehorn technology into their already crowded and frantically busy class time.

This is pretty challenging for teachers with no training in teaching tech. So for those of us with tech skills, and more importantly, those of us with educational tech skills, it’s really important that we are as supportive as we can be of those who haven’t got the skills but are genuinely committed to giving this whole tech thing a jolly good go.

And it worries me – it worries me a lot – that there is a loud and, to me, inexplicable, message out there that hardware is a nice, easy, friendly way in to the tech space.

Grab some Arduinos. Tada! Tech just happens.

Grab some Lego robots. Tada! Tech just happens.

Grab some raspberry pi boards. More magic tech materialises out of nowhere.

This is both a triumph and a desperate failure of marketing.

These things, despite their marketing, are not easy to use.

They require significant tech skills to master – or a huge amount of time, and trial and error.

Sure, they are fabulous for the kids who are heavily into this sort of thing and prepared to spend forever bashing their heads against a keyboard and a soldering iron in order to make things happen.

But for the kids who aren’t really into this stuff and need to be persuaded, they can be massively off-putting. For the teachers who have to support the kids who aren’t really into this stuff, they can be even worse.

I am co-supervising an honours student at the moment by the name of Jarred Benham who is looking into the usability of these kits. He has surveyed teachers who use them (If you are a teacher, you can fill out the survey here), and I won’t gazump his results except to say that teachers tend to buy these kits with great optimism, and then find them confrontingly difficult to use in the classroom.

This doesn’t surprise me. The first time I sat down to use the Lego Mindstorms software with an NXT2 robot I was shocked to find how bizarrely difficult it was to use. Lego has a justifiably great reputation for its block kits and its instruction books, but when it comes to Mindstorms it has failed to live up to that reputation in a fairly spectacular way.

I give you, as exhibit A, the action blocks from the Mindstorms software:

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 4.27.48 pm

I haven’t the faintest idea what they mean. This image was taken from a page headed: “Learn to Program! It’s easy!” and I suspect the only message a beginner is likely to take away from this is “not for me“.

Let’s look at Arduinos for a moment.

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 1.16.05 pm

Heavily marketed and widely touted as being easy to use, Arduinos actually require significant tech skills to setup and get working. The website says “The Arduino software is easy-to-use for beginners.”

Allow me to show you the first, and possibly simplest, bit of sample code, direct from the Arduino website:

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 1.18.49 pm

Simple, right? Sure, if you’ve programmed in C before. And if you understand the meaning of the words Analog and Serial. Also if you know what a potentiometer is and how to find 5V and ground. And what the heck a Serial Monitor is.

Well… I mean… who doesn’t? Ahem.

But the marketing is so powerful that when I went to the website in order to research this article, and read all the stuff about how easy to use it is, I figured it must have changed since I last tried to program an Arduino – just last year. But no. It’s the same, high entry level, learning cliff. And yet the message “arduinos are easy to use and a great intro to tech” is extraordinarily pervasive.

Interestingly, when I googled “is Arduino easy to use?” I got a large number of hits that all used the exact same words as the official Arduino website. “Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software.” I’m sure their marketing department would be thrilled.

As for Raspberry pis, they are literally just small, cheap computers. There is nothing special, or particularly easy, about them as an introduction to tech. But again, they have a reputation as easy to use and great for beginners.

Now, as electronics kits go, Arduinos may well be on the easier end of the scale – I don’t know, having not conducted an exhaustive evaluation of all the kits out there – but it’s NOT an easy intro to tech for someone without tech skills. In fact, I’ve yet to see a hardware kit that is.

Even if you ignore the poor usability of the various interfaces, hardware has other drawbacks. There’s maintaining the kits, and dealing with loose connections, dead batteries, and sensors that inexplicably stop working. There’s software upgrades that leave older hardware for dead (Looking at YOU, LEGO MINDSTORMS!). And then there’s the sheer cost of buying class sets that are often not robust enough to withstand troupes of 30 eager young people at a time, giving them a hammering all day every day.

This worries me, because those teachers I talked about who want to give this tech thing a red hot go? They’re going to get burned on the deal if they believe that hardware is an easy and fun intro. It’s going to be a lot of pain and trauma getting it going, an even larger amount of pain and trauma keeping it going, and very quickly the kits will become obsolete or too broken to keep using.

When I went around talking to the primary school kids at Young ICT Explorers on the weekend I asked them what it was like learning to build their projects. The ones who used hardware all said “Oh it was really hard.” Is that the message we want to send about tech? That it’s really hard? How many kids (and teachers) are we scaring away with our insistence that these kits are easy to use when they are manifestly not? One of the things that happens when you are told something is easy to use and it’s not is that you assume it’s your fault. That you’re no good at this stuff. That it’s too hard for you. It’s incredibly destructive.

Part of Jarred’s project is to create a website that will help teachers choose the best kits for their purposes based on what other teachers have found. I can’t wait until this website is ready to go public, because I think it’s going to be an incredible resource. But in the meantime I think we should be asking whether using hardware in the classroom actually stacks up in a cost-benefit calculation. Is it worth the pain?

I don’t think it is. But if teachers choose it, at least we can help them choose it with their eyes open.

 

 

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Why reach for the stars?

It feels a little strange to introduce myself now:  “Dr Linda McIver, Head of Learning – Digital Technologies@JMSS, and 2017 Superstar of STEM”.

Really, who goes around calling themselves a superstar? I’m not one for self-aggrandisement. I just want to get stuff done. I want to make change.

But for some of the things that I want to change, I really need a megaphone. There’s a message I need to get out there. So I need better messaging skills, and a platform from which to use them.

I work at a Science School that has outreach as a key part of its mission. It is an essential part of our job to raise engagement with STEM for students around Victoria, not just the students at this school. A key part of that is raising technical skills everywhere in the education system. From kindergarten onwards.

I’ve been working as a High School teacher for nearly 7 years, and I am starting to understand something fundamental: while the key role of Technology in Science is obvious to me, it’s not necessarily obvious to everyone else.

In fact, even at my school, with its intense science focus, we get a startling percentage of kids who think that technology isn’t relevant to them.

And that’s not really a surprise because, although science is fundamentally interwoven with technology in practice, it is still largely disconnected in education. The education system largely teaches science as a world of test tubes, petri dishes, and microscopes, when real scientists are using technology as a massive proportion of their day to day work.

For most of my career, from Academic to Secondary Teacher, I’ve been working on the assumption that the importance of technology was obvious. I have come to realise that I could hardly be more wrong.

As long as we have kids saying that they can’t do tech, and it’s not relevant to their lives…

As long as we have teachers saying that tech is great, but it’s not that relevant to their subject…

As long as we have technologists loudly declaring that not everyone can learn to program

As long as anyone believes that tech is not a girl thing

We have a problem.

Because tech impacts us in every field of life now. Tech is in shopping. In Art. In Traffic. Tech mediates our relationships (whether we want it to or not), even down to texting our partners. Tech is fundamental to the modern practice of science – we simulate, we analyse, we visualise, and all of these things are tech based. Tech is everywhere in medicine. Tech is already integral to our lives, but it can also solve problems in ways we haven’t even thought of yet.

Whether we go on to be tech professionals or not – many, of course, won’t – we all need a fundamental understanding of technology, and a level of comfort with it that means we embrace its possibilities, know what it can do, and how we can use it to solve our problems.

I am constantly astounded at how many occupations don’t make full use of technology. Imagine if your GP’s software kept a list of symptoms you report, and each session the GP checks whether you still have those symptoms. She ticks off the ones you don’t have, and keeps the ones you do. The software then automatically throws up a list of possible health conditions to investigate. In a 10 minute consultation, the GP can’t go back through all of your visits. At most she might trawl the last one or two, so serious diseases, like MS, Diabetes, even cancer, can get missed.

This is technologically trivial to solve. The reasons we don’t yet have technology like this are actually sociopolitical, not technological. Maybe GPs don’t know it’s possible. Maybe they are resistant to it. But I suspect solutions like this would happen fast if all of our GPs were technologically savvy.

That’s just one example. There are so many more. So many inadequate technical solutions. So many problems we could solve so easily if we could make the tech usable and reliable. So much more we could achieve if everyone was technologically savvy by default.

So this is my mission. This is why I need a bigger megaphone. And this is why I applied to become a 2017 Superstar of STEM. Until I can persuade

  • Everyone that tech is a girl thing as much as a boy thing.
  • Students that tech IS for them. All of them.
  • Teachers that tech is a fundamental part of science. All science.
  • Policy makers that tech is important and crucial to all of us – and worth investing in.

I will keep using my megaphone.

Stand back, please. There may be some shouting. 🙂

 

 

 

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Everyone can program

Everyone can program. Maybe not right at this instant. But everyone has the ability to learn to program. It’s really true. Some people disagree – mostly people who believe that they can’t program, it’s too hard.

But everyone really can program. Bear with me for a moment. I think I can convince you.

See this door?

IMG_2397.jpg

It’s the door to the female toilet in a cafe in Parkville. I spent some time hanging out at this cafe once, when my kids were at a thing at the Zoo. They went in at 8:30 and I had to hang out until the zoo opened at 9:30, so naturally I sought out the nearest coffee. When I tried to go to the loo, I found this door.

How do you get in? The silver plate on the right suggests that you push, so I pushed. Nothing happened. I thought maybe somebody was in there, so I waited a bit, feeling a little foolish. No noises happened behind the door, so I tried pushing again. It didn’t give. I tried sliding the door. Nothing. I waited some more, smiling sheepishly at people walking by. Feeling increasingly foolish. The door was stuck just a teensy bit open, so I pushed at it harder. Really quite hard. Nothing.

Eventually I gave up, went back into the cafe, and asked them how the heck you get in. Turns out that little panel on the left is for a proximity sensor. There’s a key. Armed with the key, I waved it at the magic panel, and the door opened easily. I didn’t even know there was a key – there was no sign or any other indication – so I just felt stupid for not being able to operate a simple door.

Why am I telling you stories about toilet doors? (My students will tell you it’s something I do surprisingly often – it may just be that I have an unhealthy fascination with them…)

Because programming is the same. Without the key, it’s really hard to know how to open the door. But once you know the tricks, it’s suddenly simple.

Tell me, can you direct someone to your house? “Turn left here, turn right there, go straight until you reach that.”

That’s programming.

It’s simply giving a clear set of instructions in terms your target audience can understand. The precise language of the instructions is important. You wouldn’t tell most people to head North North West in suburban streets. You’d tell them to go left or right. With someone who doesn’t know left and right, you might use “my side” and “your side”. Anyone can program. It’s simply a matter of having the keys. Of knowing the right instructions.

If you want to test the theory, check out the courses on code.org. Or check out Grok Learning, where you can learn to program as part of one of their competitions, or just by working through their beginner courses. They have tutors who can answer your questions online, to help you when you get stuck. Because everyone gets stuck sometimes, even experienced programmers. It’s important to be brave enough to ask for help.

Feel like you can’t program? You’re just like me, standing and staring at the toilet door, not knowing there’s a key. Once you know about the key, the rest is easy. So trust me. There are keys.

 

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The geek gene is dead. Long live the geek gene.

“No-one I know seriously believes in a geek gene,” is a line I hear a lot.

Perhaps this means that he (it’s usually a he) thinks that no-one truly attributes programming ability to genetics. But when we talk about a geek gene, we’re talking about the pervasive and horribly persistent belief that some people just can’t be taught to program. More than that, the belief that we’re wasting our time even trying.

There are so many problems with this theory that I hardly know where to start. One way or another I’ve been teaching people to program since 1993. In that time I’ve never dealt with anyone who was incapable of learning to program. Note that I’m not claiming that every one of them was destined to be a software engineer. I’m not saying every one of them could write 10,000 lines of bug free code (mind you I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered 10,000 lines of bug free code, but that’s another blog).

But anyone who can think logically can learn the basics of programming. Ok, we’ve probably just ruled out One Nation senators, and Donald Trump. But other than that, I am perfectly serious: Anyone who can tell someone how to do something – give directions to their house, or explain a recipe, for example – can learn to program. Because programming is simply telling the computer how to do something, in terms it can understand.

Why do I care? Why does it matter? People who are interested in coding will learn to code, and surely those are the people we want to go into technical fields anyway? The people who are interested?

The problem with that is that the world is full of talented people who have no idea what programming is. Who have no interest in technical fields because they have no real idea what goes on in there. It’s a closed book.

Yet we have a world full of problems – serious, threatening problems. Climate change. Disease. Poverty. And more. Solving them will be crucial to our survival, and technology is going to be integral to those solutions. So we undoubtedly need talented people to go into technology – as many of them as possible.

We need to open that book.

The other problem with that (or one of the other problems, for there are many!) is that a shallow understanding of technology is becoming increasingly debilitating. If we fail to equip our students with decent technological skills, we are increasingly failing to equip them for life.

Because while many of the kids we teach to code will not go on to become programmers, they will have a better understanding of the way computers work – and their limitations. They’ll be much more able to understand and manipulate the technology that runs our lives, and they’ll be much less afraid of it. Anyone who says technology is a closed book to them is going to find that a lot of doors are closed too.

The world is not divided into people who are capable of programming and people who aren’t. It’s divided into people who have access to programming education that works for them, and people who don’t.

We can fix that! And we must.

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Demystifying the Dig Tech Curriculum – Part 3

It has taken me rather a while to get around to the final part of my Demystifying the Digital Technologies Curriculum posts, but yesterday I received an email from someone who is actually using the posts in her work, eagerly hoping to see part 3. So thanks for the prompt, Kris! Here it is. 🙂

It is definitely best to read Part 1 and Part 2 first.

   F-2 3-4 5-6
Evaluating Explore how people safely use common information systems to meet information, communication and recreation needs (ACTDIP005) Explain how student solutions and existing information systems meet common personal, school or community needs (ACTDIP012) Explain how student solutions and existing information systems are sustainable and meet current and future local community needs (ACTDIP021)
F-2: Explore how people safely use common information systems to meet information, communication and recreation needs (ACTDIP005)
This one gives you carte blanche to talk about the impact of computer systems in our lives – from communicating with friends and relatives far away, to playing games, learning, and finding out practical information like when the next train to the city leaves. It also covers cyber safety – again, something you’re almost certainly already covering in class. Things like not giving out your home address or phone number online, or telling people which school you go to. It also covers ergonomic issues like sitting sensibly while using computers, and taking regular breaks to avoid eye strain and RSI type issues. The kind of messages that kids pay so much attention to. 🙂
This section also includes talking about accessibility features – like text-to-speech – and how they impact on people with vision problems. You can explore all kinds of ways computers can increase the independence and quality of life of people with disabilities, and consider how computers and the internet have changed over the last 20 years.
3-4: Explain how student solutions and existing information systems meet common personal, school or community needs (ACTDIP012)
This is an opportunity to consider how information systems meet the needs of people in different demographics – for example how much is online bill paying used by people over 70? You could have students design an online survey, using google forms or survey monkey, to ask the school community about who pays bills online. This can lead to a class discussion about whether the people who are likely to fill out a form might be a biased sample – ie those not using online bill paying might also be unlikely to fill out an online form.
You can talk about how people’s needs are met – for example being able to find out which branch of the local library has the book you want to borrow – and how they are not, for example local council websites that have a lot of text-based information might be harder for people with dyslexia to access.
This is also a place to imagine bigger possibilities – for example asking your class what they would like to see online that they can’t see in person. They might come up with the surface or Mars or the Moon, or distant galaxies, or maybe their friend who moved to China last year, and what her house in Beijing looks like. You could prompt them to think about the opportunities in relation to STEM – like being able to explore the inside of the heart through a recording of a heart operation, or being able to plan trips to Mars using simulations of the conditions there.
You can talk about the different ways particular people use computer systems to support their everyday life – like using google maps to find a cafe nearby, or using google translate to help you understand the school newsletter if English isn’t your first language.
In discussing these things it’s important to look at the ways they could improve, as well as the ways they are great now. For example, if you have any kids who speak another language fluently, ask them if they can find any phrases or words that google translate gets a little bit wrong.
In this context, students can also review each other’s sketched designs and provide feedback on whether the design is easy to understand, and whether the different interface elements (like buttons and menus) are well placed.
5-6: Explain how student solutions and existing information systems are sustainable and meet current and future local community needs (ACTDIP021)
I have to admit I am struggling with this one. Student solutions are incredibly unlikely to have a sustainability aspect. I can’t think of a credible example.
Acara’s description says “for example personal data are secured (social) and the solution can only be viewed on screen to avoid printing (environmental).”
Now, students don’t have the skills to secure personal data – it’s difficult even for skilled programmers to create a secure system. Grade 5-6s just aren’t even going to be using systems that give them the option, except in very rare cases. It makes no sense at this level.
However, it’s perfectly possible to talk about the sustainability of the systems they use – for example whether the computers they use are set to go to sleep after a certain amount of time, and whether computers that are asleep overnight rather than off use significant amounts of energy. (The answer to that one is worth researching, as it is changing all the time. The first google hit I got when I searched for “laptop sleep energy use” was written in 2010 and is almost certainly now wildly out of date, so there are some interesting conversations to be had there.)
You can also talk about sustainability in terms of printing rather than emailing resources, and even in the context of whether the information in a system will still be accurate in a couple of years’ time. For example, as I write this, Mem Fox’s wikipedia page is missing her latest book, because no-one has got around to updating it. So you can’t simply put up a list of all of a living author’s books without needing to update it from time to time.
There’s also scope here to talk about different types of interaction and how they work for different sections of the community – for example touch interfaces in the form of tablets, ipads, and smartphones, and icons vs text labels on buttons.
Who uses which systems, and why are icons considered easier for people to understand than text? (and is that always true?!)
The key point in this section is about meeting user and community needs, so it’s great to look at how different systems, like WhatsApp groups, or Facebook communities, can grow communities and help them communicate, and also to talk about how that might evolve in the future.
Although the ACARA notes mention Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in terms of how information technology meets their needs, it doesn’t give any hints as to how you might explore that, and to be honest I have very little idea myself. I know more examples of ICT use in remote parts of Africa than I do for Indigenous Australian communities, which I suspect is an indictment of me, but also of our cultural focus.
Given the emphasis here on sustainability, I’d take the opportunity to talk about the rapid churn of mobile phones and laptops – most adults expect to get a new phone every two years – and the subsequent impact on the environment of both the resulting ewaste and the mining of the necessary precious metals. You can look into the recycling of ewaste and explore the percentage of people who take advantage of recycling opportunities (at my council waste transfer station you can drop off ewaste for recycling for free) – perhaps another opportunity for students to survey the population and raise awareness of the issue.
   F-2 3-4 5-6
Collaborating and managing Create and organise ideas and information using information systems independently and with others, and share these with known people in safe online environments (ACTDIP006) Plan, create and communicate ideas and information independently and with others, applying agreed ethical and social protocols (ACTDIP013) Plan, create and communicate ideas and information, including collaboratively online, applying agreed ethical, social and technical protocols (ACTDIP022)

Ok. Finally we’re onto the last row. This section has been much wordier than the others, despite being fewer dot points, because it is largely based around complex social, environmental, and ethical considerations, rather than the relatively straightforward teaching of algorithmic thinking and coding.

F-2: Create and organise ideas and information using information systems independently and with others, and share these with known people in safe online environments (ACTDIP006)

Ironically the ACARA materials for this section repeatedly use examples of creating ICT artifacts “to share online”. Only the last line discusses privacy and cyber safety around sharing information online. When they say “share online” at this level, it’s safe to assume they mean on an intranet, or via email to individuals, but a lot of schools don’t have or use an intranet, or don’t have clear ideas around what is shared publicly and what is private.

So this is a great opportunity to talk about the safety of sharing things online, and who can see what, depending on where you share it. One of the key issues in cyber-safety is that once you have emailed someone a photo, or document, you have no control over what they do with it (whether deliberately or accidentally), so it’s crucial to talk about only putting things online that you don’t mind going public. I would argue that there really isn’t any such thing as a safe online environment. Even emailing pictures to your grandparents can lead to them being made available publicly online, if your grandparents don’t clearly understand the sharing settings on systems like Google Drive or Dropbox.

That also leads to conversations around what you can or should ethically do with things other people send to you. When is it ok to share them, and with whom? If someone chats with you online and says things about someone else, should you pass those comments on?

The technical content in this section is all around creation of things like presentations, documents, and movies – the kinds of activities you are probably already covering in class.

3-4: Plan, create and communicate ideas and information independently and with others, applying agreed ethical and social protocols (ACTDIP013)

The Acara explanations of this point are quite long, but they boil down to behaving in a polite and civilized fashion online – for example, by not writing all in caps, and reading all emails in a thread before replying, and treating other people the way you would want to be treated yourself – and exploring different ways of collaborating online.

Some examples of online collaboration might be using online document editing like Google Docs or MS Onedrive, or simply emailing versions of a document back and forth.

This section also includes an exploration of privacy settings, which is challenging to do in real online environments as most of them have an age restriction of 13+, meaning kids in grade 3/4 should not have these accounts. Social media platforms for younger kids typically have very restricted privacy by default.

5-6: Plan, create and communicate ideas and information, including collaboratively online, applying agreed ethical, social and technical protocols (ACTDIP022)

This is so close to the 3-4 version, only including the word “technical”. For the most part it is simply a deeper exploration of the same issues – online collaboration, and how you can make it work by setting up meeting times (in some cases considering timezones) and planning out the project so that different people contribute different parts.

Many classes these days derive their own set of Classroom behaviour rules, or Classroom Norms as my daughter’s school calls them. They are pretty much “how I want to be treated and how I think others should treat me” lists, and this is a perfect context for the class to create a list of “online norms” to match their classroom ones. How do they think people should behave online? What kind of behaviour makes online collaboration work and what makes it hard? How should they talk to people online, and is it any different to the way they should talk face to face?

There’s also a section in here about using web based systems – such as WordPress, Tumblr, or Blogger – to create and share information. I’m not sure how this is supposed to work, though, because once again the minimum age on these sites is 13. I did find one blogging site specifically for kids, kidblog.org, but it’s not clear how much you can do without paying for access to the site.

So there you have it. That’s the F-6 Dig Tech curriculum in an overlarge, but hopefully comprehensible nutshell. I hope you find it useful.

Feel free to share! And don’t forget, if you are looking for experts to help your teachers come to grips with the curriculum and how to incorporate it into your classroom work, head on over to Code Breaker Education and book an after-school or planning day workshop with former John Monash Science School Computer Science students. Hand picked for their teaching skills and empathy, Code Breakers make teaching programming easy.

 

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So angry about girls in STEM right now

Yesterday I wrote about girls in STEM on my other blog. I was angry. I still am.

If you think girls are under represented in STEM…

If you think girls aren’t good at techy stuff or “hard” sciences like Physics…

If you think girls are just naturally more into biology…

GO read it!

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Introducing my Code Breakers

Teachers! Want to learn about the Digital Technologies Curriculum? Need someone to teach you all about code? Code Breaker Education is ready to teach you, and support you along the way.

I have been worried for a long time about how Victorian schools can possibly skill themselves up to deal with the new Digital Technologies Curriculum. I know the idea of code is daunting for many people, but the new curriculum means teachers need to be able to program, but also to teach programming.

The most important thing in teaching programming, especially at Primary School level is not to know everything (who does??), it’s to be enthusiastic, and willing to experiment. So the key thing is to show teachers that it can be fun, and that it’s not scary.

I would like to introduce you to Code Breaker Education – a joint enterprise between me and alumni of the John Monash Science School Computer Science Programme. I have collected a group of my former students who know all about code, but more importantly are passionate about Digital Technologies Education. They know that programming is challenging to start with. They know where you’ll get stuck and how to help you get over that learning curve.

They are educators, communicators, and programmers, and they can help get you ready, and confident, to teach the Digital Technologies Curriculum.

I’ve watched them teach and I am so proud of their teaching skills, their passion, and their professionalism. This is the Professional Development you need.

Check out Code Breakers Education on Facebook, or on our website, and give us a call today to schedule your workshop.

 

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