Electronic courseware in higher education
First Monday

Electronic courseware in higher education by Maureen C. Minielli and S. Pixy Ferris


The rising costs of education often lead to the call for a change from the traditional, space–and–time bound institutions to ones that offer increasingly cost–effective, technologically enhanced programs. As institutions of higher education turn to technology, primarily Internet–based, to address these challenges, the use of electronic courseware is dramatically increasing. In order to effectively utilize electronic courseware in the classroom, educators not only need to be aware of terminology, functions, and uses of the most popular types of electronic courseware, but also (and perhaps more importantly) educators need to develop and critique pedagogically based research that can, at the broader level, help educators at various levels of technological expertise learn and adapt their teaching styles to maximize student learning.

In this paper we consider electronic course management systems from a pedagogical perspective, with the goal of aiding educators to effectively utilize electronic courseware in the classroom. By discussing the basics (such as terminology, functions, and uses of the most popular types of electronic courseware) and examining pedagogically based research we hope, at the broader level, to help educators at various levels of technological expertise learn and adapt their teaching styles to maximize student learning.


The growth of electronic courseware
Electronic courseware defined
Electronic courseware and pedagogy





Higher education is facing a number of challenges today. Social, political and economic pressures are mandating changes, among which are changes away from traditional, space–and–time bound learning toward distance learning. In the move towards e–learning or virtual learning, educators have largely focused on the technology rather than a rethinking the structures of the institutions and the roles of the educators. This is certainly appropriate, to an extent, and this would seem to be an opportune moment for such an examination as educational technologies, particularly online technologies, are currently in a state of high interpretive flexibility (Brent, 2005). However, while a focus on the technology is both important and unavoidable, educators need to think about issues of pedagogy in order to effectively utilize technology to promote effective teaching and learning.

In this paper we consider electronic course management systems from a pedagogical perspective, with the goal of aiding educators in effectively utilizing electronic courseware in teaching and learning. We discuss the basics of electronic courseware (such as terminology, functions, and uses of the most popular types of electronic courseware). We also examine pedagogically based research on course management systems and offer some lessons for educators in their use. It is our goal, at the broader level, to help educators at various levels of technological expertise learn and adapt their teaching styles to maximize student learning.



The growth of electronic courseware

Since their development eight years ago, the use of electronic courseware has dramatically increased (Angelo, 2004) to the point that it has become an essential feature of instructional technology at institutions of higher education (Warger, 2003). Today 94 percent of American colleges and universities use at least one type of electronic courseware for distance education and/or as a supplement to the traditional classroom (Market Data Retrieval, 2003). And two–thirds of faculty members who initially use a CMS continue to do so for future courses (Morgan, 2003).

While electronic courseware is used as much for traditional classroom courses as distance courses (Warger, 2003), it is undeniable that the expansion of e-learning has paralleled the growth of electronic courseware (as electronic courseware is the platform for distance education). Today distance education or e–learning is an integral part of the landscape of higher education. Recent data shows that over 1.9 million students in the U. S. were studying online in the Fall of 2003, and 97.6 percent of all public higher education institutions in the U.S. offered online learning degree programs and courses (either in online or hybrid/blended formats). Equally significant, a projected growth in online enrolment of 20 percent a year is expected — a growth rate exceeding the overall expected growth for the entire higher education student population (Sloan Consortium, 2004). Globally, the figures are equally astounding. Worldwide there are more than 200,000 online courses offered today. In 2003, 11 percent of the world was able to go online, as compared to 4.5 percent in 1999 (Hesseldahl, 2005).



Electronic courseware defined

Currently, electronic courseware, or online course software programs, is referred to by several different names in higher education, including "learning content management systems," "learning management systems," and "virtual learning environments." While these software programs share many features, differences in usage by nation and industry warrant a consideration of terminology.

Here we will focus on three of the most common (global) iterations of electronic courseware: Learning Content Management Systems, Learning Management Systems and Course Management Systems.

Learning Content Management Systems and Learning Management Systems
Learning Content Management Systems (or LCM) are software systems for the creation, storage, and management and usage of learning content (Transform, 2003). LCM can track individual learning results throughout the course and provide learner–centered detail. Darby (2004), representing the British perspective on LCM, feels that LCM are superior to LMS (discussed below) in their facility for building and maintaining all the elements from which a course is built and their provision of a course structure or hierarchy.

Learning Management Systems (or LMS) have a similar range of functions to LCMs (Darby’s opinion nonwithstanding). LMS include "authoring, classroom management, competency management, knowledge management, certification or compliance training, personalization, mentoring, chat and discussion boards" (Transform, 2003). Darby (2004), however, considers that LMS are exclusively concerned with the delivery of learning programs and the management of students.

To the educator in the U.S., there are obvious similarities between the LCM and LMS, but they differ in conception and use. For example, LMS are considered more learner and organization focused whereas LCM are considered content–focused (Oakes, 2002). Jacobsen (2002) summarized the difference between LMS and LCMS when he wrote that "The main purpose of an LMS is to manage students and learning events and to collate data on learner progress. The LMS manages the events leading up to the actual learning and then collates the results of what happened in the course. Conversely, an LCM manages what happens inside the course."

A notable difference between LMS and LCM is their use in industry and education. In industry, LMS are used to handle administrative functions such as to schedule and catalog online and offline courses, offer course materials for purchase, offer Internet courses, track and report those courses, offer assessment and test scores of the courses, measure learner mastery of material and suggest additional curriculum items. In contrast, Jacobsen (2002) points out that LCM "handle(s) what happens inside the classroom — course preparation, course delivery, and tracking and itemizing user details. In addition to managing granular details, such as the number of times a user accesses a particular section of content and the amount of time spent studying a particular unit ... ." Instructors in LCM are responsible to author and reuse course content, maintain course development, store objects in a repository and use the Web to locate those objects, create customized courseware that adheres to different industry standards, and tracks learner results.

In the United States LCM and LMS are usually found in business/industry, while in the United Kingdom LCM and LMS are used in both industry and in education. In industry, LCM and LMS are growing rapidly, with a projected growth of 11 percent each year between 2004 and 2007. According to the IDC "nearly 80 percent of all companies and nearly 90 percent of organizations with 10,000 or more employees are either currently creating e–learning objects internally or are planning to do so" (Britt, 2004).

Although LCM and LSM are used minimally in U. S. higher education, their rapid growth in business and industry is of importance to educators. Students who are familiar with such technology through their experiences with course management systems in higher education should be able to make a smooth transition to LCM and LMS.

Course Management System (CMS)
Course Management Systems currently dominate higher education in the United States. CMS are instructional technology software created for educational use — primarily as course support, or as vehicles for online courses. However, the usefulness of course management software goes beyond the virtual classroom, and CMS are increasingly being used as support for traditional (or face–to–face) teaching. In fact, according to Warger (2003) "On most campuses, CMS products supplement traditional classroom courses."

CMS offer a variety of tools, including information management and data management resources, communication and messaging tools, conferencing tools, calendars, syllabi, assessment and grading tools, and student portfolios (all discussed later). There are two predominant types of CMS in use today — commercial and open source.

Open source CMS
This type of CMS is free to users, or available after payment of a nominal (at least relatively so) membership fee. A popular international open source CMS is Moodle or "Modular Object–Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment" (Electronic Education Report, 2003). It was created by a Web master at an Australian university who was responsible for managing their WebCT system. Frustrated with problems associated with WebCT, he created a free CMS available globally. Moodle is currently used by 1,800 institutions of higher education, mostly outside the U.S. (Young, 2004). According to its Web site (http://moodle.org/), Moodle serves over 50,000 registered users speaking 60 languages in 115 countries.

Another growing open source CMS is the Sakai Project, which combines the best tools and solutions from course management systems created at four separate U.S. universities: Indiana University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Michigan, and Stanford University (Angelo, 2004). To contend with rapidly rising costs of commercial CMS, the four universities joined forces to create an open software product. As of September 2004, 46 higher educational institutions had joined the Sakai Project. Member institutions are allowed to use current source code, build new source code for new features, or revamp source code for current features (Young, 2004).

While open source CMS are free, the Sakai project is now asking that users "become partners and pay $10,000 [ U.S.] annually to use its CMS software" for up to 3 years. (Angelo, 2004). As the project does not expect many more users until Version 2.0 is released in the summer of 2005 (Distance Education Report), it remains to be seen whether Sakai will remain essentially free.

Commercial CMS
This type of CMS consists of fee–based instructional technology packages purchased by institutions of higher education. Commercial CMS are primarily distinguished from open-source systems by their cost, which can be substantial. In addition to licensing fees [which could be as high s US$75,000 annually for a university serving 15,000 students, according to Angelo (2004)], other costs associated with CMS include installation, consulting and infrastructure costs, which can also be significant.

The installation of such complex systems generally require a school to spend an additional US$10,000 to US$20,000 on a commercial vendor’s consulting services. Then come the infrastructure costs as well as staff support, which can max out at US$100,000 annually (Angelo, 2004) [1].

The three most popular CMS in the U. S. are Blackboard ( www.blackboard.com), WebCT ( www.webct.com) and eCollege (www.ecollege.com). These three CMS offer a number of common features (comparison data obtained from Edutools, 2005) which include information management and data resources, communication/messaging tools, conferencing tools, assessment tools, and others. Information management and data resource include such options such as file exchange, editing, Web browsing, and whiteboards (with image and PowerPoint functions). Messaging tools include Chat, e–mail and threaded discussions, with posts possible in plain text, formatted text, or html, with attachments and URLs. Message management includes viewing of threaded discussions by date and by thread, and archiving. Conferencing tools include synchronous tools such as Chat and internal small groups with their own whiteboards, discussion forums, and synchronous and asynchronous communication tools. Other functions associated with teaching are also included — such as grade books, assessment tools, tools for creation and archiving of course content, Web links, etc.

Also associated with CMS, and a growing ancillary function, are customized course materials known as "course cartridges" (in Blackboard) or "e–packs" (in WebCT). These pre–packaged course materials, produced jointly between CMS vendors and textbook publishers, contain a range of ancillary material including multimedia materials, Web links, test banks and assessment materials, and other pre–developed content features such as study tools and glossaries. The use of such course material is growing and adding to the popularity of CMS in education (Distance Education Report, 2005). With the recent addition of 1,165 new course cartridges, Blackboard now has more than 3,500 Blackboard–compliant courses (PR Newswire, 2004).

The range of services and services provided by courseware vendors is wide and ever growing. CMS vendors are expanding their courseware functions as they begin to work with the textbook industry and libraries to digitize information and thus increase accessibility to it. For example, Blackboard has new collaborations with publishers like Thomson, Houghton Mifflin, and Pearson Education (Angelo, 2004).

It is the authors’ opinion that, as CMS, the differences between Blackboard, and WebCT are insignificant and that educators can be equally well, or poorly, served using either of them. We feel that pedagogy will decide the effectiveness of the CMS, an issue that is the later focus of this paper. Among institutions of higher education in the U. S. using one just CMS, Blackboard appeared to be most popular in 2003, with a 46 percent share of the CMS market followed by WebCT with 35 percent and eCollege with four percent (Educational Marketer, 2003) [2].

It is worth noting, again, that differences in national usage of CMS persist. While CMS are widely used in education in the U. S., LMS and LCM are far more common than CMS in higher education outside the U. S. Some practitioners, in fact, argue strongly argues against the use of CMS in the U. K. (Darby, 2004).

The range and selection of courseware services and tools create some important pedagogical questions for educators, which we shall now consider.



Electronic courseware and pedagogy

As the use of electronic courseware has grown, institutions of higher education have devoted time and attention to increasing their effectiveness. But they have largely focused on the technology rather than on pedagogy, as evident in the fact that CIOs in the U. S. reported the "Instructional integration of information technology" as the "single most important IT issue confronting their institutions over the next two–three years" (Campus Computing Project, 2004). This in spite of the importance of considering pedagogy over technology — an issue that was underscored by a Pew study (Twigg, 2001). To more effectively utilize electronic courseware, institutions of higher education would do well to consider the pedagogical research that highlights issues of teaching and learning with technology. Although there is still a relative dearth of research on CMS, happily, research in this area has increased in the past couple of years.

Literature review on CMS in higher education
Although research on CMS was sparse until recently, it has grown significantly of late. A review of writing and academic research on CMS published since 2003 produces a remarkable snapshot of the state of CMS in the United States and globally [3].

A great deal of the literature deals with applications of different types of CMS. For example, interested readers can learn more about lesser known CMS like Angel (Hatfield and Brahmi, 2004), and more common CMS like Blackboard (Cubbage, 2003; Larson, 2002; Weatherly, et al., 2002–2003) and WebCT (Lu, et al., 2003; Yip, 2004).

More importantly, CMS have been studied in the context of teaching and learning. The research for example, has examined the use of CMS in teaching (Collis and De Boer, 2004; Linck, 2004; Oliver and Sautter, 2005; Samarawickrema and Benson, 2004) learning (Hoskins, and van Hooff, 2005; Simpson and Du, 2004) and distance education (Chou, 2004; Koszalka and Ganesan, 2004).

CMS have also been studied in specific academic disciplines, including business, science, medicine, library science, and others such as social work and communication. Research on CMS in business has looked at business in general, (Martins and Kellermanns, 2004) accounting (Basile and D’Aquila, 2002; De Lange, et al., 2003; Dunbar, 2004) and business communication (Sauers and Walker, 2004). Articles on CMS in the sciences have covered biotechnology (Good, 2004) and chemistry (Charlesworth and Vician, 2003), while essays on CMS and medicine include general medicine (Cook, et al., 2003), pediatric medicine (Johnson, et al., 2004), dentistry (Henly, 2003), and gerontology (Taylor, 2004). Other subjects run the gamut from journalism (Gerdes and Kuhr, 2005) to library instruction and information science (Buehler, 2004; Costello, et al., 2004; Farmer, 2004; Iyer, 2003; Kraemer, 2003; Lillard and Dinwiddie, 2005; Roberts, 2003; Rubenstein, 2003), education (Jetton, 2003–2004) and social work (Roberts–DeGennaro, et al., 2005).

CMSs have also been studied from an international perspective covering a wide range of countries including Australia (a study of nursing students by Kenny, 2005), Brazil (a mathematics class studied by Cerri and Barufi, 2003), Finland (a study of collaborative graduate education, by LeBaron, et al., 2000), Hong Kong (studies of learning communities by Auyeung, 2004, and of mathematics and psychology by Yip, 2003), Ireland, England and United States (a collaborative computer science class studied by Jefferies, et al., 2003), and Russia (the Global Classroom Project, linking American, Russian and NIS Universities together, by Georgia Institute of Technology, n.d.).

While this research on CMS cannot yet be considered as a cohesive body of research, taken as a whole it does have lessons to offer about the pedagogy and the use of electronic courseware.

Pedagogical lessons
Courseware vendors, as could be expected, sing the pedagogical benefits of their software. For instance, the CEO of WebCT Carol Vallone, says of WebCT courseware (that it has led to) "improved learning, higher retention and graduation rates, more efficient use of classroom capacity, and increased revenue through new instructional programs for an expanded enrollment of students can be achieved with course management systems" (Warger, 2003). While such can be discounted from those who stand to gain financially, some academics do echo the support of CMS. Katz (2003), for example, lauds CMS as an "an essential step in the evolution of the academy" and states that the development and use of CMS "over time, will promote both access to post–secondary instruction and learning itself."

Such praise may fall into the error of putting the technology before issues of teaching and learning. We feel strongly that educators using electronic courseware must remember first that pedagogy should drive technology, and second, when using electronic courseware we need to work towards changes in traditional methods teaching and learning. To that end, we offer seven pedagogical lessons for users of electronic courseware, whether as supplemental to the traditional classroom or used in, the hybrid/blended or online classroom.

• Lesson #1: New avenues for teaching and learning
While it may appear a truism today, the ability of electronic technologies to span space and time is the first lesson for educators in the opening of new avenues for teaching and learning. The ability of electronic courseware to transcend the barriers of time and space allows students access to learning systems from home, work or school, and enables learning to occur anywhere and anytime. Not only is flexibility in access to information systems (libraries, databases and tutorials) possible for students, but so also is contact with educators, experts, and peers, locally and across vast geographical distances.

From the perspective of teaching, the educator can create alternative learning environments, which, by escaping the rule–bound nature of the traditional classroom, can stimulate student engagement and involvement.

• Lesson #2: From traditional purveyors of knowledge to facilitators of learning
An immediate effect of Lesson #1 makes itself felt in the traditional role of teacher as purveyor of knowledge. The use of electronic courseware allows for students to access information on an ongoing basis. Computer storage systems, databases, and the Internet, remove the need for the traditional focus on text–based knowledge of high quality. A comprehensive NEA survey of educators found that a majority agreed that quality of information was higher with electronic resources (National Education Association, 2000).

The technology provides quick and painless access to information through the Web. Students can access a world of knowledge, including factual information from every discipline and multimedia artifacts — from film and audio recordings to art and cultural artifacts. Not only does this radically change the structure of the traditional classroom, but it constrains educators to adapt to new roles since they no longer need function as the sole purveyors of knowledge. Another resource peculiar to the information available through the use of courseware includes the use of lecture notes — a resource not available to students in the pre–courseware classroom. Even if instructors do not post lecture notes, they provide durable access to content that supplements the textbook.

Students using CMS, then, are advantaged in several ways by the technologies’ ability to transcend the barriers of time and space.

• Lesson #3: From content to critical thinking and evaluation
The educator’s role as facilitator, rather than purveyor, of knowledge is the most obvious change imposed by electronic courseware as students can potentially obtain a much wider range of knowledge through the use of technology than the individual educator could provide. But, as many educators have lamented, the ability to acquire information does not bring with it the ability to critically evaluate or effectively utilize that information (Postman, 1992; Macdonald, et al., 2001; Radford, et al., 2002). Thus the educator’s role is extended beyond that of providing prescriptive knowledge to a larger focus on the development of critical thinking skills.

As educators, then, we must learn not only how to effectively facilitate students’ search for, and consumption of, appropriate and relevant materials, but to guide them in understanding these materials. Beyond simply guiding their understanding, we should aim for teaching critical thinking skills through the tools provided to us by CMS.

It is a benefit of the asynchronous aspects of electronic courseware that students’ critical thinking skills are supported in the increased time for reflection and evaluation of content without disruption of continuity in learning. Both synchronous and asynchronous forms of computer–mediated technologies allow for extended discussions and learning transactions outside the classroom and for increased peer–to–peer dialogue, factors that promote analysis and problem–solving, and thus critical thinking.

• Lesson #4: From traditional to new instructional design
As we learn to modify our roles as educators to facilitators rather than purveyors of knowledge, and as we learn to guide students to seek, understand and analyze information, it becomes clear that the use of electronic courseware requires educators to develop new methods of instructional design and pedagogy. As Lee and Reigeluth (1994) pointed out more than a decade ago, teachers must "develop new educational agenda...change the content of traditional curricula, reorder the curriculum based on a new array of skills...and change the style of classroom instruction." [4] Yet in the decade since Lee and Reiguleth made their plea, little has changed. A Pew study recently found the vast majority of online courses to be taught in the same manner as their traditional equivalents. They are "organized in much the same manner as are their campus counterparts: developed by individual faculty members, with some support from the IT staff, and offered within a semester or quarter framework. Most follow traditional academic practices (‘Here’s the syllabus, go off and read or do research, come back and discuss.’), and most are evaluated using traditional student–satisfaction methods" (Twigg, 2001).

Methods of innovative, yet sound, instructional design abound today. Some of these methods are clearly facilitated by the electronic courseware, such as the use of multimedia and computer-based instruction like tutorial, drills, online assessments with immediate feedback, and so on. Other innovative pedagogical methods are independent of the CMS but work well with it. Such methods include, but are not by any means limited to, collaborative learning, project–oriented teaching, collaborative learning, problem–based learning and CMC tools like simulations, blogs and wikis. The important issue here is that curricula need to be revised to include these methods that work with, and take advantage of, technology.

• Lesson #5: Rethinking communication and relationships with students
Moving away from pedagogical techniques but still keeping a focus on learning and student issues leads us to another area in which educators must learn lessons from CMS — in rethinking of "traditional" communication with students, and correspondingly, a rethinking of interpersonal relationships. The communication technologies in CMS greatly facilitate quantity and (theoretically) quality of communication, allowing for greater interactivity between students and instructors. They extend the boundaries of the classroom physically and temporally, extend and stimulate classroom discussions, and allow for the continuation of dialogue outside the classroom. In these ways electronic courseware compels instructors to communicate with students in ways that extend the traditional.

These issues lead to dual and somewhat dichotomous outcomes. On the one hand, the educator must deal with modification of the traditional student–teacher relationship to become more accessible to students, as well as to take a consistently active role in guiding and mentoring. On the other hand, these changes in communication and interpersonal relationships encourage flexibility of roles and reduce the power differential in the classroom, at least notionally. The "distance" of the medium appears to lead to reduction of social distance and changes the dynamics of the student–teacher relationship. These are issues that educators must consider in order to effectively make use of these factors, rather than be blindsided by them.

• Lesson #6: Increased opportunities for collaboration
Thus far we have considered issues of learning and teaching. But electronic courseware is also a unique tool for the teacher. CMS excels in opportunities for collaborative teaching. Educators can network with colleagues through scholarly discussion lists, interactive chat, or asynchronous e–mail, and concomitantly develop their professional skills. The Web already provides global hypertext publication facilities, which allows educators another avenue to share information and learn from each other. Distance learning facilities also provide such opportunities [5].

Electronic technology can also link the classroom to the "real world," allowing educators to develop a project–oriented focus in their instruction. They can access a wide range of resources, from their local community to national or global communities; from colleagues and professional organizations to industry. Students can access these resources globally on the Internet, link with their peers, and write for real audiences on the Web.

• Lesson #7: Educators as learners
As is evident in Lessons one to six, the effective use of electronic courseware requires instructors to not only develop more student–oriented instructional methods in order to engage students in independent and active learning through and with the technology, but also constrains us to take a more active and interactive role in the teaching process.

As they seek a more active role in the educational process, educators are forced to "seize the initiative" [6] in becoming leaders in the use, evaluation, and research on technology in the classroom. This need is underscored by a recent comprehensive study which found that 8–18 year olds were prodigious and educated consumers of all forms of media, old and new (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005). This final lesson may be the most important one as we improve our own teaching through the processes of learning.




As we utilize electronic courseware both in the virtual classroom and as a supplement to the traditional classroom, we should remember that electronic courseware provides one more tool in the teacher’s repertoire — but it is not the only tool, nor should it become an educator’s primary focus. Our focus should be teaching and learning, and in considering teaching and learning with technology we must deal with significant issues that go beyond the use of technology to broader issues of learning. We must remember that our goals as educators include engaging students in higher order learning, facilitating the exercise of critical thinking skills, and ensuring students’ mastery of conceptual, analytical, and theoretical knowledge as well as, rather than solely, developing students’ ability and comfort with the use of technologies.

In closing we note that it is important that educators consider now the effective use of the new technologies afforded us by electronic courseware or we will find ourselves only too rapidly outpaced by the technology itself. A rethinking of traditional teaching and learning is necessary if we are to effectively utilize courseware, and make the technological revolution in education happen. End of article


About the authors

Maureen C. Minielli is Lecturer in Communication Studies at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.

S. Pixy Ferris is Professor in the Department of Communication at William Paterson University.
Address comments to ferriss [at] wpunj [dot] edu



A version of this paper was presented at the International Communication Association’s Annual Convention, in New York City in May 2005. However the paper does not appear in conference proceedings, nor has it been previously published in any form.



1. The authors would like to note that not all commercial CMS are subscription or fee–based, and free commercial CMS do exist. Some examples are ThinkWave Educator, ClassBuilder, NgBook and Class Information Manager. While free, these CMS are not open source. Since little academic data exists on their use by institutions of higher education, we restrict ourselves here to a consideration of more popular CMS.

2. Although eCollege is the least used CMS, eCollege hopes to see changes in its market share soon. Currently eCollege is (reportedly) partnering with Microsoft and HP to create a new CMS that will be based on Microsoft's .NET software and HP server technology (Angelo, 2004).

3. Our goal here is to provide a broad review of sources for the audience’s use. We focus on the incorporation and utilization of CMS in a variety of disciplines, contexts, and nations.

4. Lee and Reigeluth, 1994, p. 64.

5. No better proof of this can be seen than that one of the authors of this paper is currently in Russia, meeting with educational collaborators.

6. Beynon, 1997, p. 5.



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Editorial history

Paper received 31 May 2005; accepted 5 August 2005.
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First Monday, Volume 10, Number 9 - 5 September 2005

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