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  1. Little boxes

    February 17, 2017 by Robin Englebright

    We’re currently involved in a national JISC programme to support the wide scale implementation of Learning Analytics in UK Higher Education (Sclater and Footring, 2016). A Learning Analytics readiness review undertaken at the University of Brighton by JISC indicated that the University could improve the speed at which attendance data is gathered and processed, as timely analysis of attendance data in other institutions has been

    (Sclater, 2014).

    The eLearning team looked for opportunities to improve our attendance data gathering, and talked to Deshinder Singh Gill in the school of Computing Engineering and Maths, who has been using an RFID card reader to log student cards for a number of years.
    The device reads the userID into a spreadsheet on a standalone PC, and the data is then handled by the Course Administrators to construct an official register.
    It was envisaged that this system could use a web form to improve efficiency, however following discussions it was identified that the standalone PC is not connected to the network, and that using the networked lectern PC was impractical, as there are always a few stragglers who come in late. Wide scale adoption of any solution would also be hampered by the cost of the Unicard scanner at around £200.

    A better solution would be to have a standalone unit, like a wall mounted card swipe.

    The JISC consultants highlighted the approach taken at Aberystwyth University who had deployed a large number of Arduino based Mifare card readers as part of their attendance tracking offering, and it was the Aberystwyth approach that prompted this project, with an aim of creating some inexpensive devices which could gather attendance data for use in our Learning Analytics Pilot activities.

    I took the opportunity to meet the Aberystwyth University team at the JISC offices in Castle Park Bristol during a workshop to devise a specification for attendance recording.

    Leslie Johns from Aberystwyth University described their legacy attendance system and the shortcomings in terms of useful data generation, and their new solution which used a branded Arduino Uno running on Power over Ethernet (POE), with an rc522 RFID reader shield, and buzzer/LED breakout board at a cost of around £57 per unit. The device passes data to a central server.
    Their initial deployment of 200 access points registered 400,000 attendances in the first semester, and was expanded to 350 access points, failure rates are very low, and the system has been a success.

    At the same meeting Chris Stedham the Head of Service Planning and Governance – IT Services at Bath Spa outlined their aim to improve their student retention though the use of effective Learning Analytics. A key part of their Learning Analytics solution was to gather accurate attendance data.
    Bath Spa operate across multiple sites, with lots of grade 1 listed buildings, so can’t fit devices to walls like at Aberystwth, and settled on a card reader in a podium bolted to the floor with a metal plate, more expensive at @£250 each using power over ethernet – the Gemini 2000 desktop case.
    The devices are configured through DHCP and web services, (option 72 on DHCP set to card reader), and write to a simple database that only records: student activities that are expected, successful card reads, card reader configuration including mac address and card location.
    On power up their device reads a configuration from DHCP, which tells the reader which web server to use. The reader sends a Power Up message, checks a security key, then sends configuration of silent mode, with a “heartbeat” every 60 seconds to check in.
    Their setup provided a tutor interface that showed a photo classlist highlighting those students who had swiped in.

    The common aspects to both of the card swipe based hardware solutions seemed to be the use of wired ethernet connections, with POE to minimise wiring, and keeping the units as simple as possible, reading only cardID and performing any processing on servers.

    I undertook a period of rapid prototyping a range of hardware solutions based on these two principles. It is interesting to note that the final result did not adhere to either of these principles.
    Our Unicards are based on NXP Mifare 4k cards, which offer 4096 bytes of data storage, with the memory split into 40 sectors protected by A (read) and B(write) keys. 16 bytes of each sector are reserved for keys and access information, and the first 16 bytes contains the read only unique serial number of the card and manufacturer details. The serial number can be read directly without any keys. Initial investigations identified a USB card reader for @£10. However, the Unicard system doesn’t use this cardID, so instead we need to access the userID which is held in Sector 2 Block 8
    The previously undocumented complication here is that whilst we count the blocks from 0-3, identifying the UserID data as being stored in Sector 2 Block 0, and assigning each sector blocks 0,1,2, &3, the Mifare card library understands this as Block 2 sector 8, if you count (zero based) through the sectors, Mifare encryption is proprietary (crypto1) and uses a 48bit key, the table shows the location of the UserID U on the Mifare card. Key A = A, Key B = B, Protected bytes = P.

    My first attempt version 0.1 used an Arduino nano linked to a RC522 RFID 13.56MHz card reader.
    The device read the cardID which is accessible without the need for encryption keys, and passed it to the serial monitor.

    version 0.1 of the card reader

    Version 0.2 replicated the Aberystwyth approach, using an Arduino Uno, and RC522 card reader and a HanRun Ethernet shield (not POE as provision of POE access points was uncertain. The device worked, but I wasn’t happy with security as it couldn’t run https as the Uno doesn’t have sufficient processing power. The more advanced Arduino Yun mates an Arduino to a coprocessor running a minimal Linux install and would allow a more secure connection, but at a much higher cost, the boards costing around £60 compared to £3 for an Arduino clone.
    To avoid the network access issues, I tried a wholly software approach, presenting the tutor with a list of student data and photos which they could tap to record presence. The initial iteration of the software was tested and met some needs, but the card swipe approach was requested for larger cohorts, so Iteration 0.3 used an Arduino Leonardo which has the ability to act as a Human Interface Device(HID) on a USB connection, and thus act as a plugin USB Keyboard card scanner. A smaller ABS case was tested in v0.4.

    The device design changed in version 0.5 to improve robustness when carried in a bag, using a smaller ABS case, a lower profile activation button, and moving the “active” LED and “read” LED to the side, also making them easier to see. The buzzer fitted to the initial device was removed as it was a distraction, and the whole thing was filled with hot glue.

    version 0.3 (right) and version 0.4 (left)


    internals of version 0. 4 showing RC522 card with soldered leads to Arduino Leonardo clone


    Version 0.5 with lower profile switch, and side mounted LEDs

    I provided access control through a Blackboard secondary role which allows the user to add a custom HTML “course” widget to a module page. The widget passes the username and module code to a php script that looks up the students registered on that module and displays their photos and details, writing the register to a MySQL database. It would have probably been easier to do all this within a Building Block, but my .jsp is rustier than an old plough.

    To provide a little more security the scripts require windows 401 authentication challenge and perform a referrer check.
    As with the hardware the software went through a number of iterations, with adaptations based on user feedback.

    There are four major components in the software, the compiled C code running on the Arduino, the html widget running on the studentcentral platform, the php scripts providing the attendance registers, and the MySQL database storing the data.

    Instructors with special secondary roles can add the widget to a course dashboard

    The Arduino code consists of a short setup routine that imports the required libraries and initialises a number of pins on the Arduino to talk to the RC522, pin 9 is connected to the RESET, pin 10 to SDA the data line. Pin 16 to Master Out Slave In, and pin 14 to Master In Slave Out, with the clock running on pin 15.
    Additional connections are made to pin 2 which is set as a pull-up, activated by the switch (This doesn’t turn the device off, but merely prevents it from acting a s a keyboard) pin 3 to a green LED through a 220Ohm resistor which will be triggered to indicate a swipe, and a Red LED to indicate the device is active on pin 5.
    The script creates an instance of the A read key for the UserID, and then in a main loop looks for cards presented to the tag reader. When a card is presented a brief bounce check happens to prevent multiple writes, and the ASCII is written to the keyboard followed by a carriage return, and a flash from the LED.

    The standalone card swipe register gives autofocus to the form field. When the card reader is used it writes the UserID into the field, and sends a carriage return. The form writes to the database and returns a list of the last ten card swipes as a confirmation that a particular card has been read.


    Whilst the hardware and software to record attendance are relatively simple to build and implement, the infrastructure within which they exist is complex.
    The chief lesson learnt was that one solution does not meet all needs. A large lecture cohort could use the Unicard swipes, but had too many folks to make the use of photo classlist practical.
    Similarly, the use of swipe boxes in smaller cohorts could take up too much time, and a simple photo classlist that could be checked by the tutor at the start or end of a session was far more useful.
    The devices and software are being piloted throughout Semester 2 by the Business school, and useful feedback continues to be gathered, and iterations developed.

    So what’s next? The Teaching Space Modernisation Programme are looking providing an integration with the timetabling solution, which would add a swipe in facility to teaching space doors, much like the Bath Spa solution.
    There is also the potential to use inexpensive mobile devices, as many android devices have an RFID, reader. Unfortunately, iOS doesn’t allow programmatic access to the inbuilt RFID API.
    I am trying some small scale tests using a first generation Nexus 7 tablet. Unfortunately, only phones that have NXP brand of NFC hardware are fully compatible with Mifare Classic Tags, which seems fairly arbitrary, as the original Nexus 7 had support, the next generation Nexus 7 doesn’t.

    To sum it all up, I’d say security concerns can dictate the route the solution takes, but gathering attendance data requires an understanding of the variety of teaching sessions that may be recorded, and it is vital that any decisions are tested to gather the range of situations that will be encountered.
    The value of the actual attendance data gathered in terms of learning analytics is yet to be determined, although initial returns from early business school pilots shows a definite correlation between attendance and grade, and absence and grade.
    Bailey, P. (2016) Effective learning Analytics [Online], Available:

    Martin, T. and Downes, A. (2012) Programmable e-learning and experience tracking [Online], Available:

    Sclater, N. (2014) Learning analytics the current state of play in UK higher and further education/licenses/by/3.0, [Online]. Available:

    Sclater, N. and Footring, S. (2016) Effective learning analytics [Online], Available:

  2. Streaming video from a GoPro camera

    March 16, 2016 by Robin Englebright

    Short clip showing how to stream video from a GoPro camera

  3. Screen Sharing using Reflector2

    March 16, 2016 by Robin Englebright

    Short clip showing a macbook connecting to a pretend classroom monitor, and then sharing an iPad screen using AirPlay.

  4. Screen sharing using an AppleTV demo

    March 16, 2016 by Robin Englebright

    I recorded a short clip showing the setup, and connection using airplay to give an idea of how easy it might be to use in a classroom situation.

  5. Sharing your screen

    March 7, 2016 by Robin Englebright

    At the HEA arts and humanities conference  on the 3rd March 2016, Vikki Haffenden presented her research into improving the student experience in workshop sessions.

    When teaching Vikki demonstrates really intricate settings on knitting machines and close up work, to University of Brighton Textiles students,  and it can be hard for the students to see. After much experimentation she settled on using the camera on an old iphone4S in a chest harness to stream video to an appleTV and then onto a 32″ TV screen, so students can see even if their view is obstructed, and in fact can see in more detail as the image gets magnified.

    To test the decisions Vikki made the session then moved to a hands on workshop, comparing a range of screen sharing technologies and drawing out the pros and cons of each.
    We started with a quick Poll using PollEverywhere to gather thoughts from the delegates on potential uses for the technologies.


    PollEverwhere performs the function of the older style voting buttons, but using mobiles to access the poll either through the website: or by Texting BRIGHTONHEA to 020 3322 5822.

    For our demo the question was “How do you think you might use screen sharing for in your teaching?””

    We then spilt into two teams, to see how easy it is to set up the kit, as this was one of the areas Vikki identified as important, if it’s too tricky to set up, or unreliable it leads to a bad experience.
    Team one (team Vikki) used Vikki’s iPhone in a chest harness streaming to an apple TV and screen combination.

    Team two used a Go Pro with a head harness (because a head harness is way funnier) streaming to the Go Pro app, connected to a projector by an adaptor cable.

    GoPro app

    Both teams had the kit up and running with minimal support, and both setups seemed to offer similar functionality. The GoPro has more settings and a removable sdcard which could be a benefit, as video recording takes up loads of memory.
    There are some interesting points with both devices  that need consideration however.

    When using the appleTV setup both devices must be on the same wireless network. This means a personal appleTV setup carried to a teaching space is ok, but slightly trickier is one leaves the device setup in a room, as it will require it’s own eduroam account, which may not be popular with IT depts. In order to setup an eduroam account one needs to connect the apple TV to a modern mac, and run the configurator app, which is a bit of bother.

    The GoPro bypasses the problems of requiring an eduroam account by acting as it’s own streaming server, and in order to connect the app one has to first connect to its wifi network. The downside of the GoPro is that it streams to a mobile device, which is slightly harder to then connect to a screen, we used an adaptor cable, and to be honest were quite surprised when it worked. There is a way of accessing the GoPro stream via a PC web browser, but it seems quite a faff.
    Our next Demo failed, probably due to the conference centre wifi, but I’m not totally sure.
    I tried it again as soon as I got back to the office and it worked fine.
    Reflector2  works in a similar way to the appleTV, screen sharing requires both devices to be on the same wifi network, and the person sharing their screen has to swipe up to reveal their “Airplay” settings, and then pick the device to stream to, The upside of reflector is it only costs around £10 and runs on your laptop, so if you already take a laptop to your lectures/demos, it doesn’t require much other work. It also (in theory) allows android (and windows phone) users to share their screens, although I’ve had no luck with my Nexus 4 or Nexus 7.
    A big difference is that it allows multiple screens to be shared simultaneously, we’ve tested it with 9 devices before it all went wrong.


    As an added bonus individual shared screens can be recorded on the laptop, I’ve no idea what would happen if you tried to record 9 simultaneously, but it would probably be ugly. Whilst you could have multiple mobile devices streaming from their cameras, Reflector seems to lend itself to sharing sketches, or photographs to compare and contrast.
    After spending most of the session looking at sharing detailed work, we moved to sharing at a grander scale.
    The SWIVL device is a small motorised base unit that can hold an iPhone, or iPad, and will track the movements of a presenter who wears a small wireless lanyard.
    This lends itself to more expansive demos, maybe where those watching are viewing remotely, so we paired it up with an iPhone running Periscope, which streams to the web.
    It is worth noting that whilst I’ve found the cheaper basic appleTVs work better in conference mode setting  the new devices have a periscope app, which could make connecting easier…

    We closed the demo using Nearpod which allows the presenter to control the screens of the delegates whether they are in the room or not, and push slides, links questions and activities out to them, and then share the responses back.


    For University of Brighton Folk on Monday 14th March 12-1 in G4 I’ll be running a Lunch hour app swap, where we’ll revisit the hands on part of the session, and I’ll bring along:
    A visualiser, an AppleTV and GoPro, Reflector2, SWIVL, Periscope and Nearpod.
    …and of course there’ll be a chance to share your ideas and favourite apps.

    See you there.

  6. Functional requirements of social media

    November 12, 2014 by Robin Englebright

    When I met with Fiona Handley to discuss plans for the “Social Media in Learning” session that ran today, the focus was very much on pedagogy behind using social media in teaching, the strengths and weaknesses of various social media for engaging students in learning.
    Equally as important is some form of sustainable infrastructure to support these uses. With many social media platforms it is not clear where their revenue comes from… and thus their longevity and sustainability are called into question. These issues may not be a concern in personal use, as you can switch from using say Google Buzz to using Google Wave etc..

    XKCD on social media

    XKCD on social media

    I thought it worth looking at the functional requirements for a social learning platform, which aren’t that different from any other learning technology, including those I worked on back in the Becta days: Functional Requirements for ICT Infrastructure.

    From this source, I cobbled together a set of objective considerations for the comparison of social media platforms. It should be noted that non-functional requirements such as platform popularity may ultimately be the key influencer in choice.

    There are two general approaches to the use of social media:
    One is to use existing services which will benefit from large user base, with a dynamic developer ecosystem (eg twitter clients for phones, tablets, desktop web)

    The other is to provide a social media toolset in-house, which may be more secure.

    Using social media services to support learners, educators, managers and administrators requires a level of inbuilt flexibility so that users have a range of ways and locations in which they can interact.

    Social media services need to be efficient resources which take care of managing data on behalf of the user, and which are supportive yet unobtrusive.

    The user needs to have confidence in the social media platform to deliver a fast and reliable service.

    Reliability: the social media platform and services must be reliable. An unreliable infrastructure is likely to detract from the learning experience and obstruct the educator. It will become a frustration to learners, educators, managers and administrators alike if devices, applications and services cannot be relied upon.

    Coherence: With the variety of competing platfoms, it is important that an institution ensures coherence by implementing platforms that work together and fit with the overall ICT strategy. eg Yammer integrates with students O365 offering.

    Accessibility: on-screen text cannot be seen by those with serious visual impairment; it may be hard to interpret for those with dyslexia, learning or language difficulties; and users with physical or neurological problems may be unable to use a keyboard or mouse or touch screen.
    This lack of equality can be mitigated by the use of ‘assistive technology’ eg
    Users who are unable to use a keyboard can be supported by voice-activated software, so they control it by speech,
    and a screen-reader can read text aloud for users who cannot see it IF the social media client provides access to assistive technology.
    The Equality Act outlines duties on educational institutions with respect to the provision they offer to learners with special educational needs and/or disabilities. This requires ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure that these learners are not put at a substantial disadvantage in using any facilities or resources.

    Affordability and sustainability: All services need to support energy conservation and wider environmental sustainability. They should be energy efficient in themselves by offering a range of devices, applications and services that incorporate energy-saving technology, management and other measures. Learners, educators and administrators should have a clear understanding of the impact the technology has on the environment, in particular carbon emissions.

    While institutions can often identify the immediate costs of a new ICT resource, the total cost of ownership (TCO) must be considered in order for the institution to be able to sustain a resource. Consideration should therefore be given not just to purchase price and running costs but also decommission and transition costs to future services.
    The cheapest solution may not always be the most cost effective when taking these into consideration.

    Ideally a social media user should be able to communicate with other staff and learners and be confident that they will be protected from access to or distribution of inappropriate content and from unsolicited contacts.
    The platform would allow sharing and exchange information in different formats and with different people – other staff, learners and colleagues.

  7. 65 tweets per hour

    November 12, 2014 by Robin Englebright

    I’ve just been helping out in a session on social media in learning…

    I was tweeting the session, which seemed appropriate, and you can read the story here:


    You can look at the Twitter hashtag archive visualisation here:
    You can view the searchable twitter hashtag archive here:
    and a try out the sentiment analysis using the NCSU tool … just search on the hashtag: #uobbl1

  8. Pragmatic Learning Analytics

    November 11, 2014 by Robin Englebright

    I was due to join a discussion on Learning Analytics with some Jisc folk last week but the internet conspired against us, so I recorded my bit and stuck it on our Relay server.

    I’ve got a lovely chesty cold, so apologise for the sound quality… I think I managed not to sniff in the video.










    The links I mention are here:

    link to Guardian article…
    SOAP dodging
    Actionable Insights

  9. Introduction to Robotics – an exercise in thinking

    November 6, 2014 by Robin Englebright

    A long time ago in a galaxy far far away I used to get paid for designing robots. I had a hand in designing Mr Psyches, Growler and Cassisus Chrome for Robotwars, worked on the look and feel of the Destructoids for the tv series “Mechanoids”, and made a comic to pitch the idea for an ITV series called Rescue Robots.

    Cassius Chrome

    With my then youthful children I was also a competitor in RW S5,6 and 7 with our Robot Killer Carrot.

    Today I got the chance to revisit the area of Robot Design when I taught a class of 17 University of Brighton D&T and Computing teacher trainees about elementary robotics.
    We aimed to cover some of the key areas in the National Curriculum for D&T and computing, and managed to hit most … with more or less success.


    KS3 Technical Knowledge -understand and use the properties of materials and the performance of structural elements to achieve functioning solutions -understand how more advanced mechanical systems used in their products enable changes in movement and force

    -understand how more advanced electrical and electronic systems can be powered and used in their products [for example, circuits with heat, light, sound and movement as inputs and outputs] -apply computing and use electronics to embed intelligence in products that respond to inputs [for example, sensors], and control outputs [for example, actuators], using programmable components [for example, microcontrollers].


    We started by discussing inputs, logic and outputs – looked at discrete components – reed switches, thermsistors, LDRs, LEDs, Is LEDs, and thought about how various systems might work by creating top trumps cards detailing:
    logic, inputs, outputs, cost, reliability, speed
    for – a garage door opener, a plant waterer,a burglar alarm, a cat feeder, a lunar lander and a mars orbiter… and discovered that whilst there may be differences in costs and reliability, the inputs and outputs and logic are pretty similar for each of these setups.
    As a group we then looked at a simple PICAXE BOT120  running a line follower program, and drew a flowchart for the processes and worked how they mapped to the actual code.

    '## Adapted from the Bot120 manual by: Willem van Heerden ##
    '## bugfixes and alterations by Rob Englebright##
    '## initial sensor calibration setup white = 10 black tape = 67
    Init: 'Initiation Label
     Symbol Left_Bumper = pinC.1 'Left Bumper Input Pin
     Symbol Right_Bumper = pinC.3 'Right Bumper Input Pin
     Symbol Line_Tracker = 8 'Line Tracker Input Pin
     Symbol Mid_Level = 30 'Custom Calibrated
     Symbol Track_Value = b0 'Line Tracker reading
     If Left_Bumper=1 or Right_Bumper=1 then 'If it bumps then...
     halt A 'Stop Motor A
     halt B 'Stop Motor B
     readadc Line_Tracker, Track_Value 'Read Value
     If Track_Value > Mid_Level Then 'Evaluate Reading 
     Forward A 'Run Motor A forward
     Halt B 'Stop Motor B
     Halt A 'Stop Motor A
     Forward B 'Run Motor B forward
     End If
     End If
     Goto Main

    We then tried to run the flowchart application, and the fancy logicator and everything went horribly wrong.

    So we switched to the ever reliable LEGO NXT,  and started looking at how we could decompose a problem – in this case the rules for SUMO ROBOTS – and build functional SUMO bots.

     “Lego Sumo unlimited height, 15.0 cm width, 15.0 cm length,  1,000 g weight.

    Any method of control may be used, as long as it is fully contained within the robot and recieves no external signals or directions (human, machine, or otherwise). Autonomous robot operation must begin automatically no less than five seconds after being started by the user. Robots starting before the five second mark forfeit that Yuhkoh point.

    We had four working NXT units (mine died gracefully after demonstrating the variation on the line follower code) so the students worked in groups of about 4 to analyse the challenge, design a strategy – draw a flowchart and then write the code… or drag and drop the icons in the Mindstorms application.

    I gave the teams a starter code based on the line follower code, but switching the “dark detector” for a “light detector” to match the black Sumo ring arena and it’s white boundary line.


    Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 19.34.55

    ….and the teams went at it, looping through the code, testing and re-testing adding “hair” and labels and extending their weapons with taped on pens.

    The debugging of code was frantic, and the pressure grew as we approached the contest.
    We ran 2 heats, a final and 3 rd place heat which resulted in real excitement and shouting and cheering… a fitting end to the day.


     Learning technology isn’t just VLE’s and commercial software, sometimes it’s a cute little robot.

    If you are interested in using microelectronics in your teaching there are plenty of places that can help… At UoB contact me… elsewhere:

    STEM ambassadors – Based at UoB –
    First Lego League- International –
    (FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).)
    CodeClub (9-11-
    CoderDojo (7-17
    NodeBots- Javascipt for robots

    and don’t forget you local Hackspace… I can of course reccomend BuildBrighton … but there are others all across the UK… and indeed the world:

  10. iOS8 on the move

    November 4, 2014 by Robin Englebright

    What’s new in iOS8?

    There are a few things about new iOS that may be useful for the University employee on the move.

    Widgets are now available in the Notification Centre. Notification centre is the thing that slides down over the screen if you drag your finger from the area off the top of the screen toward the bottom.

    Notifications centre widgetsYou can find out if you have any apps installed that can show useful data by clicking on “Edit”.
    I’ve got the standard “Today Summary” widget (which is very much like the “Google Now” feature on my Nexus phone. It shows what the weather is upto and how long it’d take to get home if I left right now.)
    The Calendar widget shows today’s events, the dropbox widget shows recently amended files…
    As a quick glance overview tool it’s ok, but probably the best feature is that I can delete the useless (for me) Stocks widget.

    So what does adding these little helper services do your battery life? Well you can check to see which apps are draining your precious battery under Settings > General > Usage then Battery Usage.
    Obviously I use the iPlayer waaay too much.

    way too much player

    So your phone may not last the day on one charge, which is a bit of a pickle, but even more so if you lose it, as the “find my phone” feature can’t find a dead phone… Luckily there is now a send last location before your battery dies setting… – This can be set through Settings>iCloud>Find my Phone then Send Last Location.






    All of this is fine and dandy but probably the most useful new feature is the ability to use 3rd party keyboards.
    On my Nexus 4 I use swiftkey, which offers good predictive text, and importantly for someone who uses the bumpy train network, a feature called flow.

    flowFlow lets you draw a line between letters rather than pecking out individual letters in a word. Whe you are stuck on a packed commuter train this is a boon.
    Finally the new keyboards feature also includes a set of Emoji characters – like a grown up version of the old 🙂 smiley face.





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