Basic digital literacy – why’s and wherefore’s

‘Digital literacy’ is quite a broad term commonly used to describe a range of skills and experience of digital hardware and software that taken together represent a certain competency and understanding of the digital landscape.

In respect of young people the term is often used alongside the term ‘digital natives’ used to describe the fact that young people who have been brought up with and are regular users of digital technology are therefore naturally ‘digitally literate’.

This is a misnomer.

It is true that young people these days who are brought up with digital technology, know how to text, to access YouTube, Flickr, to film videos, take photographs, use a range of ‘games’ and ‘apps‘, Tweet and lead Facebook lives (interestingly often with a corresponding reluctance to make actual telephone calls, preferring to text or Tweet, or Facebook).

All of that is ‘using’ technology that is available to them. What they too often do not know about is how to ‘organise’ and present themselves digitally.

It is increasingly becoming recognised that for young people the development of a digital portfolio of them and their work are an important resource as they continue their education and move into the world of work.

It is certainly the case, also, that fast growing numbers of potential employers will demand the essentials of digital literacy as a given, before even considering any other skills that may pertain to particular jobs.

Yet, the basic digital skills needed to create digital portfolio’s, to be digitally organised and aware, to be able to operate confidently in a digital environment are too often sadly lacking.

These are skills such as file naming, directory structures, visual presentation (incl. navigation), using search terms, evaluating information, editing and presenting information, communication through emails and texts (other than with friends), the building blocks of digital literacy and the core skills that most young people will be expected to have when they enter the world of work.

Unfortunately it is alarmingly common for the development of these skills to be wholly neglected at school, not least because many teachers themselves are not confident in these matters. There are schools that are on top of this, that are embedding digital literacy into what they do, right from infant and primary, but they are, unfortunately, in the minority.

(I should just interject that I do not lay blame for this. We live in a fast moving world where digital technology is developing exponentially and keeping up is difficult. I do, though, believe that we do need to recognise the issue and take urgent steps to deal with it).

The upshot of this, apart from the obvious fact that it means that many young people are ill prepared for the 21st century world of work is that when young people go on to produce digital portfolios at secondary school or college, or when they undertake tasks that involve digital technology within apprenticeships, as they inevitably will, the result can be rather poor because of their lack of the basics of digital literacy. 

A couple of examples (of which there are many):

I very recently participated in a pilot project in a junior school working with a number of Year 6 pupils developing presentation materials within some software that museums use for their interactive displays. The pilot was to ascertain how to best work with the pupils to produce the interactive displays that could then be displayed in museums, thus creating a link between school and the world outside school.

We were fortunate that for this project the pupils had a rich source of resources to work with because they had recently run a very successful festival at the school during which very many (dozens if not hundreds) videos and photographs were taken and audio interviews undertaken.

However, when we came to work with the pupils in identifying appropriate videos, photographs, interviews to accompany the texts they had produced we discovered that none of these resources had meaningful filenames, or were organised into meaningful folders, but were simply stored in one place with numerical filenames i.e. 001, 002, 003, 004 etc..

This meant that the task of identifying appropriate resources entailed the very long winded (and tedious) process of reviewing all the videos, photographs and interviews, one by one, with all the pupils. Because of the importance of the pilot to us and to the pupils we did spend the time doing this. However, during normal school time this would be wholly impractical.

The upshot of this is a sort of misunderstanding around the implementation of digital technology in education.

On one hand the use of digital devices (including cameras. smartphones, tablet devices etc,) to produce fantastically valuable digital resources is to be applauded.

On the other hand, without properly organising these resources they become effectively inaccessible, tantalisingly sitting there, but unlikely to be utilised.

The school in question, in my view, missed a huge opportunity to work with the pupils on the back of the excitement of the Festival to catalogue the digital results so that they were properly accessible as a great resource.

A similar pilot in another school that did not have the advantage of such potentially readily available digital resources made greater use of Wikipedia as a source of information.

It quickly became clear that the pupils were employing a cut and paste methodology, simply making a few changes to the texts to make them appear as original writing. Characteristically the pupils did not fully understand the Wikipedia texts so the edits that they applied (sometimes just removing a whole paragraph or sentence) often rendered the texts meaningless.

In my view, if we are to prepare our young people for life in the 21st century we must give them the building blocks they will need to survive and thrive in a world where digital technology is prevalent.

By year 6 they should be a lot savvier around this, and at least have some basic sense of how to manage information, how to organise themselves and their work in a digital environment, and how to communicate effectively with the very powerful digital tools and facilities that are available.

Then when they move to secondary education, to college, undertake apprenticeships everything they do will be properly underpinned. However, whilst steps should be taken to introduce these basics in the younger years it also should be recognised that for many pupils moving into secondary, higher education or apprenticeships these basics may be lacking.

The way to address this, in my view, is not to hold separate basic digital literacy classes in isolation from other activities but to embed elements of it within the programmes of work and study that students are already participating in. This makes the need for basic digital literacy skills ‘real’ rather than being taught in isolation (which could be mind numbingly boring).


September 5, 2013 at 4:11 pm Leave a comment

Results day

Nearly a week has gone by since the A level ‘Results day’ and now we’re on the eve of the GCSE one. For me the wholly uncalled for importance that is attached to this day, to those results, serves only to unnecessarily add to the stress of young lives, lives that should be about seeking fulfillment, not passing exams.

Here is my take on that awful day:

Amidst the smiles, the frowns,
The ups, the downs,
Excited chirpings, deep felt thoughts,
Fulfilled ambition? all for nought?
Delighted screams, quiet despair,
Hope and disappointment mixed up in there,
In the moment, from afar,
Mapped out futures at this bizarre bazaar.

Hear it for the kids, aiming for gold,
Deciding their futures, or so they are told
The throw of a dice, the scrape of a pen 
Onwards, and upwards…or failure again!

Wandering, wondering, abandoned out there
Nothing to live for, no-one to care
Around him the myriad mapped out lives
Not feeling amongst them but no surprise
To be an outsider gazing in awe
At the world around him, so certain, so sure
Not understanding his roots of despair
Firmly and cruelly holding him there

The day wears on excited and sad,
People to tell, drinks to be had,
Plans to be formed, hopes reignited,
For some, but for others futures blighted.
One disappears into his space,
While another goes quiet just to save face,
Silently nursing their worst found fears,
Waiting for home to let flow the tears.

 Let’s hear it for them, they were hoping for gold,
Deciding their futures, or so they were told
The throw of a dice, the scrape of a pen
Onwards and upwards…or failure again!

Wasted and wallowing in moribund state
No-one to blame, no-one to hate
Unseen, aimlessly wandering around
Inwardly screaming, no outward sound
The familiar mantra lived to the letter
Over and over, ‘Could do better’
He thinks that too, but doesn’t know how
No one to help and it’s too late now

 As evening draws close they gather as friends,
To mark the moment before the day ends,
Determined to party into the night,
Whether or not their futures look bright.
So much ambition, steady, on track,
So much regret, now, looking back,
So many hopes, dashed and broken,
So many fears left unspoken.

Wistful and weary the time comes to go
Away from this place, he’s nothing to show
To discover new places, new friendships to share
In the hope that life might be better out there
That somehow being in some other place
Will make everything better, a welcome embrace
Though knowing this won’t make everything right
This isn’t escape, just taking flight

Four in the morning, dawn on its way,
The party’s over, been a long day,
Bedraggled as they weary on home,
All none the wiser, futures unknown.
Do they know now the ways that their lives will unfold,
Were their efforts worthwhile in the ways they were told,
Do they know more their passions, loves and dislikes,
Are they helped on their journey, fulfilment in sight.

So many years to yet be unravelled,
So many journeys yet to be travelled,
So many battles yet to be won,
So many things yet to be done,
As year upon year they gather again,
Disturbing their lives, feeling the pain,
Of this aimless, fruitless, pointless display,
The feted but hated RESULTS DAY.




August 21, 2013 at 8:03 pm Leave a comment

Happy New Year – reasons for optimism?

So it’s a new year, 2013, and time to look back for a moment on what has happened, and to look forward to the coming year.

There is, I think, a reasonable consensus, certainly amongst my own friends and colleagues, and indeed many others I have encountered both offline and online over the past year, that the education system in the UK is in a mess, and is not serving its users well.

The coalition government, Michael Gove in particular, made a bad start amongst other things by ignoring digital technology completely, despite the pleas of hundreds, nay thousands, of teachers and educationalists that in the 21st century digital technology has, or should have a pivotal role in education.

The overriding organisational issue of the past of how one teacher can ‘teach’ a whole class full of pupils and give each the attention they deserve can at last be addressed by making apposite use of digital technology. This can allow each pupil to undertake their own personalised learning journeys so that it shouldn’t matter that, for example, summer born children may be sat side by side with classmates who could be almost a year older than them. It can allow each learner to learn at their own pace, and in ways most suited to them as an individual. It brings with it the promise of user directed learning that can allow each learner to achieve their potential, to shine in the things that suit them the best.

All very laudable, but wholly ignored by Michael Gove until the Eric Schmidt (he of the mighty Google) turned his attention to education in the UK with a scathing attack on the teaching of Computer Science in our schools. He was referring to the teaching of ICT which has been god damned awful. Schmidt is right and his pronouncements did act as a wake up call to Gove whose response was to pass the problem back to the educationalists themselves because he did not have the least idea of what to do with it, and then, after he had got his breath, to work with others of his choosing to the same end. As ever this is inconsistent and rather confusing but unsurprising for a man whose latest ‘good idea’ to save money is to ban the use of curves in new school buildings – honestly!

But it isn’t’ the teaching of Computer Science in schools, albeit of value, that represents the paradigm shift in education that many talk about. For me it is the promise of personalisation that is the biggy. The thought that there is a coherent way forward (and there is) towards a world that is not dominated by the false assumption that academic success is best and anything is else is, in different degrees, failure.

This idea has been a blight on education over the ages, and is a massive disservice to the many millions of young people who for whatever reason do not choose to follow an academic route and are therefore branded as second class. That is a disgrace, and it is something that we have the opportunity, now more than ever, to do something about.

It is digital technology that will act as a catalyst to this end, whether Gove and his cronies like it or not.

Already we have seen the daft spectre of a majority of schools banning mobile phones in the classroom, yet a majority of pupils completely ignoring that ban, happily whiling away their lessons texting underneath the desk which they are very adept at.

We see school and LEA policies making it as difficult as they can for schools to reasonably connect with the outside world, in the mistaken belief that they are being protective of the young people in their charge. But protecting from what? Don’t they realise that the moment their charges are outside the school gates the whole of the big bad internet is at their disposal. Shouldn’t they be teaching ‘safe surfing’ rather than banning it altogether?

In so many ways digital technology with its myriad forms of communication can enhance the learning experience, in so many ways it can motivate learning, in so many ways it can liberate our young people from the terrible constraints of an education system that serves the few and at best ignores the rest, at worst destroys innate confidence and competence.

But looking forwards there is reason for optimism in my view. Michael Gove has come, but will go. Every single teacher out there has the opportunity, whether they think so or not to change things for the better. As Sir Ken Robinson has said when a teacher closes the door on their classroom and it is them and their pupils, they are the education system. And more teachers are realising this, I think.

Digital technology itself is also becoming more accessible, more ubiquitous. With mobile devices like smartphones and tablet devices the digital divide is diminishing, although is not non existent. The concept of place is changing with the tools for learning being available anywhere, anytime. Significant change in the way we do things and the ways we learn is happening, and is happening despite, and not because of government interventions.

It is an unstoppable force, and that gives me reason for optimism.

Happy New Year to you all.

January 3, 2013 at 2:08 pm Leave a comment

Peripatetic me – amongst the washing up

Monday 30th July 2012 – Day one of my peripatetic journey.

If you don’t know what this is all about, and why would you, I shall explain as succinctly as I can.

For the last 10 years (at least) the Vivid office has overlooked the splendour of the Royal Pavilion here in Brighton. On a daily basis I have strolled from my house, by Queens Park, down Edward Street to the office on the Old Steine to attend to Vivid business around this bustling centre of the city.

Last week we, Vivid staff, moved out of that office with no new office to replace it. We moved out because the owners of the building are seeking vacant possession so that they can sell it. In some ways it suited us because in, any case, most of the people who work with us do so remotely maintaining contact through digital communications, getting face to face only periodically. This is the reality of the increasingly mobile digital world we live in, a reality that actually renders our office with it’s splendid views a luxury rather than a necessity.

Functionally the office had become a means of getting me out of the house, a place where others could occasionally work when we needed them, a mailing address, an anchor. But latterly none of this has been essential to the work we undertake. Indeed our recent award winning (winner of the British Council ELTon award for innovation in learning resources) development of the Sounds app for Macmillan Publishers was undertaken virtually (ha,ha) wholly remotely by the complete team.

So we have complete confidence in our ability to maintain the very highest of standards of the work we undertake whilst operating remotely, and indeed save a bit of cash by ridding ourselves of the permanent physical office overhead.

But there is another important reason for the decision to become mobile. I spend a significant amount of my time describing my vision of the education ‘system’ of the future, a vision that has personalisation, in which each individual can undertake their own unique lifelong learning journey which feeds their individual talents and aspirations, at its core. This is made possible because of digital technology with mobile technology an important component of this.

In essence digital technology rids us of the necessity for a single teacher to teach 30 pupils the same thing, in the same place, at the same time. Now 30 people can be learning 30 different things at any one time. This means that ‘place’ takes on a different aspect. The school building was designed to coral pupils into one place for the purpose of being taught. Now there is a growing recognition that the role of teacher is changing from one of teaching to one of enabling learning, and that learning takes place in a variety of ways, individually and collaboratively.

With mobile technology people can be undertaking learning activities, digitally, individually or collaboratively anytime, anywhere. This doesn’t mean that physical presence, getting together, is not important, or indeed essential, but that such events do not have to be undertaken in the one place called school, between the hours of 9.00am and 3.00pm, during term time.

Thus education itself becomes peripatetic, weaved into our lives, as part of our lives, a combination of individual and collective effort, on-line and off-line, digital and physical, here and there.

In this 21st century, with ‘always with, always on’ technology in most of our hands, the boundaries between learning, working and playing are diminishing. The way that place defines our lives is shifting, the need to delineate the places to learn, to work, and to play is becoming redundant. Whilst my vision for education is of a more dispersed environment, so my vision for the workplace is the same, indeed they are inter related.

Our decision to explore the reality of this, by going mobile is us ‘putting our money where our mouths are’, saying that the future we foresee is happening now. For me it is living my life within the philosphies I profess to.

This ‘diary’ is a device to track progress, to document the highs and lows of this journey, to establish what works and what doesn’t.

My first act is to sit amongst the washing up in my kitchen at home and write this. More later….

August 1, 2012 at 7:51 am Leave a comment

Let’s hear it for the yoof!!

When I woke up on the first day of 2012, woozy from the past few days of excess, turning on the news I noted that the New Year message from our religious leaders, notably the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Benedict, laid some emphasis on youth. The Archbishop observed rightly that ‘society is letting down young people’ something I wholly agree with, although it is nothing new.

Ironically, I doubt that youth would have got this attention had it not been for the riots in the summer. Instead they would simply have been sidelined as usual, despite the disgrace of youth unemployment standing at over 1 million, the withdrawal of much needed financial support for young people to continue their studies, the daunting prospect of having to build up massive debts to continue onto university (despite it being rammed down all our throats that apparently the economy is in such dire straits because we have been living on too much debt in the first place!), and in the face of ‘good advice’ to take any job that is offered whether it is something they want to do or not.

Yes, despite the awful place young people, through absolutely no fault of their own, find themselves in we only take a little bit of notice of their plight when things get sufficiently serious that riots occur, and then castigate them for it.

Pope Benedict in his New Year message extolled the virtues of young people who ‘could become builders of peace if they were given the correct guidance‘. Quite so, although it is not so much guidance as good example that in my view is of the greatest value to them. They are all capable of living good lives, of living peaceably together, of realising their talents, of fulfilling their potential, of making the world a better place, given the opportunity.

But when they look around them what do they see.

Bickering politicians who promise one thing today and do the opposite tomorrow if it suits them best, greedy bankers doing very nicely thank you off the fruits of their failures, collapsing financial systems throughout the world, growing unemployment. This is, as Malcolm Maclaren before his untimely death observed, a karaoke society that lacks authenticity. No wonder the future looks bleak when viewed through the vital and discerning eyes of our young people.

I am not religious myself, agnosticism being as far as I wander in that direction, but I applaud the religious leaders for highlighting the plight of our youth and I implore governments to take note, and more importantly take positive action, although I fear this falls upon deaf ears.

As Edward de Bono said recently ‘politicians (and indeed economists) are good at commenting on things, but not good at designing things’. This doesn’t auger well for a world faced with the predicament of how to veer away from its current path towards self destruction. Sitting by and ‘commenting’, tinkering around the edges simply doesn’t cut it.

So where should we look for our salvation. I say to our youth. After all it is they who will inherit the mess that we have created, it is they who in the end will have to make sense of it all, the phoenix that rises out of the ashes.

So this is my New Year message. Rather than castigate our youth let’s set a better example and support them, trust them, work with them to allow them the opportunities to fulfil their potential, to set them on a path of fulfilment. Then, through them, the world will become a better place.

So, come on, join me and let’s hear it for the yoof!!

January 3, 2012 at 2:40 pm Leave a comment

Cross platform app development – no substitute for experience

In July last year, at Vivid Interactive, we ran a webinar about our app development strategy over the coming months, both for the range of apps we are producing for our own digital publishing activities, as well as cross platform strategies for the development of smartphone apps for our publisher clients. Several months on we have been putting these strategies into practice and now have app development firmly within our portfolio of services.

This is a natural progression for us but highlights the absolute importance of good solid experience of the implementation of robust, pedagogically sound digital technology solutions to education issues. It is unfortunate that some of the ‘education’ apps I come across, often developed by people who know their stuff ‘technically’, lack the pedagogical attributes that are so important.

Having been involved in digital media development for over 25 years I know full well the complexities of developing across different operating systems and browser types, memory options, computer speeds and versions, and this just across PC and Macintosh platforms. Regardless of this, though, it is possible to identify those issues that are common, regardless of the technical differences of particular delivery platforms. For example there are a range of usability principles that were as relevant for early BBC Micro Computer Based Training programmes, as they are now to leading edge smartphone apps.

An important thing to remember is that the user experience is critical, and the principle that any application or programme should transparently ‘do what it says on the tin’ absolutely key. The fact that we have new opportunities for apps that make best use of the multi functional facilities and ‘always with, always on’ mobility of smartphones and tablet devices should not cloud our usability judgements and tempt us to be over complex.

Neither should we be daunted by the apparent complexities of developing across platforms in the smartphone arena. Anyone who has experienced in detail the complexities digital technology over the last 25 years should not be daunted by the spectre of cross platform development of apps across iOS (Apple), Android, (Google), Blackberry (RIM), Windows phone 7 (Microsoft and more recently also Nokia), and a few others. There is a process, involving constant problem solving, that if appositely applied allows a smooth development path.

There are, of course, various techniques, like, say, agile development methodologies, that can help the process. But in the end, the key, the absolute critical factor that makes the difference between a development that is fraught with difficulties, a development that doesn’t deliver to objectives, is good solid experience of developing within the particular environment of digital technology for education publishing.

We can easily find the technical expertise required for app development, but there is no substitute for experience.

April 7, 2011 at 4:14 pm Leave a comment

A Rich Mix – The toff Toby Young belittles vocational subjects

Last Thursday, 3rd March, at the appropriately named ‘Rich Mix’ venue in East London was the double header book launch of Katherine’s Birbalsingh’s book ‘To miss with love’ and debate about ‘What should our children be taught’ in relation to the recently announced National Curriculum Review.

The event was slightly bizarre mixing as it did a sense of glitziness around the book launch, with a large cohort of Birbalsingh’s invited guests there to offer support to her views in the debate as much as anything to do with the book, and a spectrum of speakers including Toby Young, champion of Latin and all things classical (made compulsory for every pupil in the land), Shakespeare fan and technology luddite Dr Ralph Townsend, head of Winchester School,  inspirational primary teacher Dawn Hallybone, disruptive ex Ofsted inspector Tristram Shepard, e-learning entrepreneur and defender of all things not Latin Donald Clark, and of course the book launcher herself, Katherine Birbalsingh.

We knew this was going to be a controversial evening, Clark and Birbalsingh having already previously crossed swords after her presentation at the Learning Without Frontiers conference in January in which she extolled the virtues of Latin, which at the time he furiously repudiated.

And controversial it was, but centred more around comments made by Toby Young extolling the virtues of all things classical, but worse, much worse, totally belittling the whole of vocational education (and by implication the kids who undertake it), singling out hospitality and hairdressing studies for his venomous, hateful comments.

As anticipated Donald Clark dished out a robust and reasoned refutation of the idea promulgated by Toby Young that Latin provides the basis for learning other Romance languages, citing the work In Search of the Benefits of Latin by Haas and Stern (2003) in the Journal of Educational Psychology that in controlled studies finds no evidence whatsoever that learning Latin give s any advantage in learning other languages.

Toby Young had presented no hard evidence for his view, seemingly relying on such inane evidence as the fact that Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook, learned Latin to try and support his ‘classical education’ theorising. Actually Mark Zuckerberg also studied Psychology and Computer studies, subjects far more likely to have contributed to the invention of Facebook, but with little space in Young’s Free School.

As things wore on with the other speakers, Dr Townsend seemed to be boring himself during an over long (they were only supposed to have 5 minutes each) bumbling monologue that meandered from the reasonable comment that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for education, to describing an education strategy in his own school including compulsory Latin and Shakespeare, that clearly seems to attempt just that. Mercifully, eventually, he just sort of ran out of things to say, and that was that, although he did later admit, in response to questions, that the only Latin that some of his pupils came away with having completed their course was the phrase ‘in flagrante delecto’. Worth doing that course, then.

In stark contrast, Dawn Hallybone, proper, real working primary teacher, delighted with her usual dose of reality and inspiration, bemoaning along the way the abandonment of the findings of the Rose Review that very much broadened out the education landscape for primary pupils. Amazingly, a member of the audience, seemingly rather worse for wear by the free wine by this time, accused her of complacency. A less complacent teacher you could never hope to find, as I reassured her afterwards.

This leaves the inimitable Tristram Shepard, ex, somewhat disruptive, Ofsted inspector, who began with his amusing comparison of Goves Ebac to events in the Olympic games, with ‘the surprise announcement that henceforth only the 100 metres will be awarded a gold medal’, with other events having their place in the pecking order, right down to team sports, and football and boxing that will be adjudged to have no real value so will be awarded no medals at all.  Interestingly this is mirrored in the ticket pricing for the 2012 (peoples) games where there is an unexplained absence of £20 tickets (min ticket price £50) for the most popular athletics finals including, of course , the most popular of them all, the 100 metres, pricing rising to an extraordinary £725.

This is a man who believes, as I do, that actually we need to transform the education system so that it is appropriate for the 21st century, not tinker around the edges. More independent learning, with less sitting quietly in rows in class.

This latter, sitting quietly in rows in class is what the final speaker (who was on first and last) Katherine Birbalsingh, would have us believe is the way ahead. Or would she? Her views flit around all over the place, one minute we have to be really tight on discipline, learn Latin like they do at Eton, discipline the kids to free the teachers, and next minute she is saying she doesn’t care if kids don’t learn Latin, she likes the inspirational teaching of Dawn Hallybone, but she feels we just have to ‘pull back a little bit’ from the creeping liberalism that is ruining our education. Nothing consistent, nothing with any evidence to back it up.

Her contribution to the debate, was followed a little later with the reading of a passage from her book, and an enthusiastic, although almost hysterical, and rambling rant about how she loves her school children, who she dosesn’t currently teach, and how we would not believe the deprivation and general unruliness she has come across in the classroom.

Well I think we would, but actually as pointed out by a friend who wrote an article about her in the Guardian, and at her behest has worked the very kids she was teaching, they are really not as challenging as she would like us all to think.

Overall the event was amusing, and raised some useful debate, at the time, and since, through various blogposts, but I don’t see anything coming out of it that will really make any useful contributions to the actual National Curriculum Review. But then I don’t think that was really Graham Brown-Martins real intention in organising it, with a little help from BESA and Penguin.

The particular mix of speakers added a whiff of disruption to it, and if nothing else it showed me just what an odious person Toby Young is to the point that I now feel sufficiently comfortable not to spend any more time on his pathetic ramblings, but simply ignore him instead. Although heaven help the pupils of the free school he is helping to establish (not ‘his’ free school as he likes to call it), who may well come out of it completely unemployable, a fact that, by his own admission, is fine by him.

Potential parents, take note.

March 7, 2011 at 6:48 pm Leave a comment

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