City, district to cooperate on fiber optic project

A partnership between the city of Farmington, Minn., and the Farmington School District should make communications at public buildings more reliable, reports the Farmington Independent. The Farmington School Board approved an agreement Jan. 26 in which the two government entities will essentially swap fiber-optic lines. The deal will give both the city and school district multiple connections to all or most of their buildings. That should allow telephone and internet service to continue even if one line is cut. "If we don’t have the fiber, we don’t have the phones. We don’t have 911," said Rosalyn Pautzke, the district’s administrative services director. The city approached the district about a year ago with a proposal for the swap.  There won’t be any new fiber-optic lines installed, beyond connections from existing lines to the buildings they’ll serve…

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House OKs record $142 billion for education

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a historically huge $819 billion stimulus bill on Jan. 28 that includes some $142 billion for education as part of the Obama administration’s plan to revive a badly ailing economy. The vote was 244-188, with Republicans unanimous in opposition despite the president’s frequent pleas for bipartisan support.

Some $20 billion for school modernization and $1 billion for educational technology are included in the bill, which also sets aside money for schools and colleges to shield them from the effects of state cutbacks in services, as well as tax credits designed to make college more affordable.

"This recovery plan will save or create more than three million new jobs over the next few years," President Obama said in a written statement released moments after the House voted. Still later, he welcomed congressional leaders of both parties to the White House for drinks as he continued to lobby for the legislation.

The vote sent the bill to the Senate, where debate could begin as early as Feb. 2 on a more bipartisan, and costlier, companion measure already taking shape. Democratic leaders have pledged to have legislation ready for Obama’s signature by mid-February.

That could prove difficult, however, because there are differences between the House and Senate versions that must be ironed out.

The day before the House vote, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the Senate version of the bill over Republican protests that it contained too much spending. Siding with Democrats on the committee in approving the measure were Republican Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Christopher Bond of Missouri, and Susan Collins of Maine.

Despite Republican protests, the Senate version includes a higher percentage of tax cuts than the House bill. It calls for $366 billion in stimulus spending within a total package that could approach or exceed $900 billion.

The House bill includes an estimated $544 billion in federal spending and $275 billion in tax cuts for individuals and businesses. These totals remained in flux nearly until the final vote, owing to official re-estimates and a last-minute addition of $3 billion for mass transit.

Both the Senate and House versions of the stimulus package would supply about $20 billion for school infrastructure improvements, though the funding would be apportioned differently: K-12 schools would get $14 billion and colleges $6 billion in the House version, while the Senate version allocates $16 billion for K-12 schools and $3.5 billion for colleges. The House version also sets aside another $1 billion for educational technology, while the Senate version includes ed-tech funding as part of the infrastructure line item.

There are also differences in Pell Grant funding ($15.6 billion in the House version, $13.9 billion in the Senate version) and support for broadband deployment ($6 billion in the House bill, $9 billion in the Senate bill) to be worked out, among other discrepancies.

Both measures include $79 billion in state fiscal relief to prevent cutbacks to key educational services, including $39 billion to local school districts and public colleges and universities using existing formulas, $15 billion to states as bonus grants for meeting key performance measures, and $25 billion to states for other high-priority needs, such as preventing the layoffs of public safety employees and teachers.

Both versions also propose to temporarily enhance the Hope tax credit to help more people afford college–a measure that would cost more than $12 billion over 10 years. The tax credit would increase from $1,800 to $2,500, would allow students to claim the credit for four years instead of two, and–for the first time–would qualify students whose families do not make enough money to pay income taxes. The credit would not be available to individuals who earn $80,000 per year, or couples making $160,000.

Efforts to make higher education more affordable were lauded in a comprehensive analysis released Jan. 22 by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The center’s analysis said opening avenues to higher education would be critical as the country looks for a way out of its economic slide.

"When the labor market is weak and many individuals are unable to find work, one of the best long-term investments the nation can make is in upgrading the skills of its workforce," the report said. "The more people who go to college during the downturn and improve their skills, the better positioned the nation will be when the economy rebounds."

The report notes that almost 40 percent of American households–and half of families who have children–earn incomes "too low to owe federal income tax." While some of these families find ways to benefit from the Hope tax credit, "most are not able to benefit at all."

"As a result, the education tax credits do the least for the very students that need them most–the same students who are most likely not to enroll in or complete higher education because they have difficulty affording it," the center’s report said.

The report also criticized lawmakers’ funding of the Pell Grant program as not enough to meet current needs. Even with an influx of $15 billion, "the overwhelming majority of low-income college students would continue to have significant unmet financial need," according to the analysis.

With unemployment at its highest level in a quarter-century, the banking industry wobbling despite the infusion of staggering sums of bailout money, and states struggling with budget crises, House Democrats said the legislation was desperately needed.

"Another week that we delay is another 100,000 or more people unemployed. I don’t think we want that on our consciences," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and one of the leading architects of the legislation.

In voting against the measure, House Republicans said the bill was short on tax cuts, contained too much spending–much of it wasteful–and would fall far short of administration’s predictions of job creation.

The party’s leader, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, said the measure "won’t create many jobs, but it will create plenty of programs and projects through slow-moving government spending." A GOP alternative, consisting almost entirely of tax cuts, was defeated, 266-170.

On the final vote, the legislation drew the support of all but 11 Democrats, while all Republicans opposed it.

Passage of the stimulus package would more than double the Education Department’s budget, from $60 billion in fiscal year 2008 to more than $142 billion in fiscal 2010. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Jan. 27 that the bolstered budget–which would see a $6 billion jump in Title I funding, aimed at educating low-income students–would save thousands of teachers layoffs that districts could soon be forced to make.

Republican critics of the plan say it’s not a short-term boost but an immense expansion to federal education funding that will be impossible to roll back.

"It’ll never go away," said Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "You’re talking about a permanent increase at a time when we are in the worst financial shape we’ve ever been in."

"What will happen two years from now when the Democrat spending spree comes to an end?" asked California Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee.

Republicans can only imagine the pressure they will face, once education spending goes up, to keep it that way. Democrats say that is an argument for another day.

"At the moment, my interest is in rebuilding the economy," said Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House education committee.

State governments are making dramatic cuts to education as revenue from sales and property taxes plummet, said Miller, D-Calif. Class sizes are set to rise, he said, and hundreds of thousands of teachers have gotten layoff notices.

"This is two-year money," Miller said. "As their revenue base is restored, as sales taxes start to grow, if the economy recovers and home values start to stabilize, [schools] will have to transition to return to reliance on that. But it’s clearly not in the national interest to have this system collapse at this moment in time."

Editor’s note: See the "Links" section for a complete breakdown of economic stimulus money reserved for states, released by the House Committee on Education and Labor.

Links:

State-by-state breakdown of economic stimulus

U.S. House of Representatives

U.S. Senate

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Anti-evolution forces gain ground in Texas

The Texas Board of Education has sparked controversy in the world of science with a move last week that would require students to evaluate the "sufficiency or insufficiency" of ideas about natural selection and the common ancestry of different species–two key components of modern evolutionary theory.

In a development that was watched closely by science teachers nationwide, the board last week voted to eliminate language in the current curriculum that requires teachers to address "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution and other scientific theories, a phrase that scientists say has been used to undermine Darwin’s theory of evolution and instead promote the fundametalist version of creationism, or intelligent design.

Supporters of evolutionary theory, which is widely accepted within the scientific community as a critical building block of modern science, hailed the board’s initial vote as a victory for science teaching. But their victory ended abruptly when the board added what some critics view as a more specific challenge to the teaching of evolution in public schools.

The new phrasing would require students to learn the arguments both for and against universal common descent–the idea that all organisms have a common ancestor–using fossil evidence as the basis for these arguments.

"There are no good arguments in modern science against universal common descent, which has been accepted by biologists for over 130 years, so the phrase is asking for something that authors and publishers cannot honestly supply," geologist Steven Schafersman, president of the campaign group Texas Citizens for Science, told ABC News. "The board’s effort to undermine universal common descent in public schools will make the state’s science standards an object of ridicule."

Experts say the state’s actions could have significant implications for schools across the nation, because Texas is one of the country’s largest purchasers of textbooks–and publishers are often reluctant to produce different versions of the same material.

Experts and activists concerned about the way evolution will be taught in Texas schools made their case before the state’s 15-member education board last week. Dozens of people lined up to testify as the board considered new science curriculum standards that will be in place for the next decade. The standards also will dictate how publishers handle the topic in textbooks. (See "Texas grapples with evolution in new science standards.")

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, board member Barbara Cargill disagreed with opponents to the new proposed standards.

"There are many, many gaps that don’t link species changing and evolving into another species, so we want our students to get all of the science, and we want them to have great, open discussions and learning to respect each other’s opinions," said Cargill, a former science teacher.

"This isn’t about religion. I don’t know how many times we have to say it before people accept it. It’s about science. We want to stick to the science."

Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, rejected the notion that the new proposed standards weren’t religiously motivated.

"It’s just the same old attempt to add religion to science curriculum. It’s a science classroom, so only science should be taught–not a blend of science and religion; they shouldn’t mix the two," Eberle said.

He continued: "And to base arguments on fossil evidence is antiquated. There have been so many advances in technology, such as new DNA methods, that clearly show the connection between species. We’re pleased that the ‘strengths and weaknesses’ language was removed, but disheartened that this clause was added."

The board will make its final decisions on the wording of the state’s new science standards at a meeting in late March.

Links:

Texas Board of Education

Texas Citizens for Science

National Science Teachers Association

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Virtual Worlds Almanac is a handy guide to exploring virtual worlds

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) recently unveiled a wiki called the Virtual Worlds Almanac, an online catalog of virtual-world environments that allows users to edit and contribute information. Educators and students can refer to the site for information about a host of virtual environments, including Second Life, as well as education-specific virtual worlds such as Whyville. "We hope this will make it easier for the community to collaborate and to keep abreast of innovations and new product offerings," said FAS President Henry Kelly in a press release. "FAS is interested in the potential virtual worlds offer for education and learning." As of press time, the site contained information on 86 different virtual-world environments. Users can find virtual worlds that match their interests by searching according to criteria such as intended audience (children, pre-teens, teens, adults), purpose (community, education, gaming, marketing, professional), language, platform, name, or relevant features.

http://vworld.fas.org/wiki/Main_Page

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Dreambox to help elementary-age students learn math through games

After nearly three years in development Dreambox Learning this week officially unveiled its first online education product, TechFlash reports: a new adventure game designed to teach five-to eight-year-olds math skills. Tested on 1,400 kids, parents, and teachers, the Bellevue, Wash., company’s K-2 Math offering automatically adjusts programs based on the child’s learning. The idea is that kids are having so much fun immersed in the games, they don’t realize they are learning. K-2 Math has more than one million different "learning paths" that kids can embark on and four gaming themes: pirate, pixie, dinosaur, and pets. The product, which sells for $12.95 per month, competes with Knowledge Adventure’s JumpStart. Founded in February 2006 by former Microsoft executive Ben Slivka, Dreambox Learning raised $7.1 million in 2007. The company obviously has ambitious plans. In a press release, CEO Lou Gray claims that the new product  "will transform how kids learn via the web…"

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New Smithsonian chief eyes ed tech

Warning that American education and research have fallen behind, the new head of the Smithsonian Institution has launched an ambitious effort to digitize its 137 million artifacts and use social-networking tools to reach a new generation of learners.

"Technology and new modes of communication based on the World Wide Web are dramatically altering the way people access, interact with, and communicate knowledge," said G. Wayne Clough, who formally became the 12th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution on Jan. 26 but has been on the job for about six months.

At the same time, "International test scores show American children falling further behind those of most of the other developed nations at the very time our competitors are focused on winning the battle for technology-based jobs," said Clough during his installation ceremony.

A former Georgia Tech president with degrees in engineering, Clough promised to "chart a bold path" in bringing the world’s largest museum complex into the 21st century.

"Our goal should be no less than to build the foundation for a new era for this great institution," he said. "The explosive growth of new communication and networking tools provides us a unique opportunity to share our vast collections and other resources in ways not possible before, with people all around the globe."

Some of this work had begun under Clough’s predecessors, including a web site–www.smithsonianeducation.org–that includes free lesson plans (correlated with state standards) to help teachers make use of some 1,500 digital artifacts from the Smithsonian’s collections.

But fewer than 1 percent of the institution’s collections have been digitized so far–and that’s not nearly enough, Clough declares.

"Our job is to authenticate and inform the significance of the collections, not to control access to them," he said. "It is no longer acceptable for us to share only 1 percent of our 137 million specimens and artifacts in an age when the internet has made it possible to share them all."

Clough’s goal is to digitally photograph or scan each object and publish it online, accompanied by curatorial content from Smithsonian experts.

Another example of how the Smithsonian will use technology to broaden its reach is a series of free online education conferences that will launch Feb. 4 in cooperation with LearningTimes LLC.

This first online conference will focus on the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln through live presentations, moderated forums, and demonstrations of resource materials.

In addition, an online exhibit hall will allow educators to experience virtually what Washington, D.C., area teachers have experienced for years at the Smithsonian’s annual education expo, known as Smithsonian Teachers’ Night. In the virtual exhibit hall, educators will learn more about the Smithsonian’s classroom-ready online resources.

Registration for the conferences is free and open to everyone. All of the conference sessions will be recorded and archived, and they can be replayed at any time via the web.

"As with the Lincoln conference, each conference in the series will have a single theme or topic explored through the lens of several different disciplines by Smithsonian curators," said Stephanie Norby, director of the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies. "With just a computer and access to the internet, participants can get a behind-the-scenes look into the Smithsonian’s collections of artifacts, artworks, and documents from the perspectives of history, science, and art."

Clough faces significant challenges in implementing his vision for the Smithsonian and its 19 museums.

Just one day after his formal installation as secretary, he announced a hiring freeze and eliminated salary increases and bonuses for one class of the institution’s highest-paid employees in response to the current economic crisis. He also asked several departments to reduce their current-year budgets by 5 to 8 percent. The value of the Smithsonian’s endowment reportedly dropped by 25 percent last year.

But there is room for hope in the stimulus package wending its way through Congress, which includes $150 million for the Smithsonian. And Clough addressed the institution’s financial challenges in his Jan. 26 speech.

"To be successful, we must be innovative, disciplined, focused, nimble, and more self-reliant than in the past," he said. “…Since it was founded, the Smithsonian has benefited from the generosity of the American people and the Congress. Today, we must be clear with the Congress on these issues and entrepreneurial with the public in seeking outside support."

Before his appointment to the Smithsonian, Clough served as president of Georgia Tech for 14 years. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Georgia Tech in 1964 and 1965 and a doctorate in 1969 in civil engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.

Link:

Smithsonian Institution

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Copyright settlement leaves questions

A closely watched copyright-infringement lawsuit with important implications for schools, newspapers, and other organizations that aggregate news content from other sources on their web sites or in eMail newsletters ended in a settlement Jan. 26–leaving open, for now, the question of how much content news aggregators can post from stories they link to from other sites.

The settlement calls for GateHouse Media Inc. to put up technical barriers so that Boston.com can’t capture certain content from its web sites automatically. The agreement was announced the day GateHouse’s lawsuit was set to go to trial in U.S. District Court.

GateHouse sued The New York Times Co.–the parent company of the Boston Globe and Boston.com–last month, alleging the Globe’s new "Your Town" web sites used headlines and lead sentences from GateHouse’s "Wicked Local" sites without permission.

Neither GateHouse nor Boston.com paid damages or admitted any wrongdoing.

The settlement agreement did not specify the "technological solutions" that GateHouse will employ. But one common approach to ward off so-called "scraping" of content is to add a text file to the site instructing others to stay away or to scrape only certain sections. Major web sites generally honor such instructions, and the settlement requires Boston.com to do so.

"To be clear, we have always respected and honored those protocols before this litigation," said Bob Kempf, vice president of product and technology for Boston.com.

"If they put up a barrier, we will honor that barrier," he said.

The case was followed intensely by journalists and bloggers who said it could have far-reaching implications for determining how much content one web site can scrape from another.

"I am very glad that this has been handled the way it has been handled because, indeed, if a judge had to make some rules as to what’s permissible and what isn’t, that would inevitably have some effect on all of us," said Dan Kennedy, an assistant journalism professor at Northeastern University who has been blogging about the case on Media Nation.

In its lawsuit, GateHouse claimed Boston.com’s actions violated copyright and trademark laws. Besides publishing headlines and lead sentences, it said, Boston.com provided links that sent readers directly to "Wicked Local" stories.

That meant readers bypassed ads posted on GateHouse pages and could be confused as to the source of the original reporting, GateHouse claimed in its complaint.

GateHouse, based in Fairport, N.Y., owns 97 daily newspapers, 400 other publications, and 260 related web sites reaching more than 10 million people in 21 states. Its Massachusetts publications include the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, the Enterprise of Brockton, the Newton TAB, and the Daily News Tribune of Waltham.

Kirk Davis, president and chief operating officer of GateHouse Media Inc., said the company is pleased with the agreement.

"This is essentially providing us with all the relief that we wanted on the issues that brought us to this point in the first place," Davis said.

As part of the agreement, The New York Times Co. agreed to remove–by March 1–headlines and lead sentences from GateHouse stories that were previously posted on Boston.com sites.

Boston.com will still be able to "deep link" to individual GateHouse stories without presenting the links with headlines or lead sentences.

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the agreement does not settle the overall question of how much content news web sites can continue to post from stories they link to from other sites.

Many newspapers have "made their peace" with linking, because they know it brings traffic to their web sites, but he said that with the industry struggling to cut costs and come up with new revenue streams, "now people are saying, ‘Maybe we should revisit that.’"

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“This all sounds great … but does it work?”

That’s the question that John Mergendoller, executive director of the Buck Institute, hears often. His response is a resounding "yes." But measuring project-based learning can be a challenge. If an English teacher and a math teacher both do a project, and one lasts a week while the other lasts a month, those projects will look very different, Mergendoller points out.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that teachers believe project-based learning helps students develop higher-level thinking skills. Students also become more actively engaged in the learning process.

"Because project-based learning focuses on real things, an aspect of life that you can analyze, it’s motivating and it grabs students," says Peter Rillero, associate professor of science education at Arizona State University. Students learn and retain more knowledge, teachers say–knowledge that is applicable to the real world.

Hard data also show that project-based learning can be effective. Research suggests that students who engage in hands-on activities at least once a week score significantly higher on standardized tests of science achievement than students who don’t. To apply this concept to virtual experiences, Sebit LLC, developer of Adaptive Curriculum, executed a pilot program to explore the effects of hands-on learning through Adaptive Curriculum on sixth-grade students’ science knowledge.

The study, which focused on 71 students who used Adaptive Curriculum and 46 who did not, found that students in the Adaptive Curriculum group had a 49.5-percent increase in their science assessment scores from pretest to post-test. (Students in the control group had negligible gains.)

Another study, conducted in 1997, showed that students at a project-based British secondary school performed better on math problems requiring analytical or conceptual thought than students at a school that used more traditional, direct instruction.

Technology, too, has been found to play a valuable role in project-based learning. In a five-year study of students involved in the Challenge 2000 Multimedia Project–which had students complete interdisciplinary, multimedia projects that integrated real-world issues and practices–students using technology to create presentations aimed at a particular audience outperformed their peers who did not use technology in areas such as communication, teamwork, and problem solving.

–J.N.

Link:

Challenge 2000 Multimedia Project

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A sample project-planning form

1. Begin with the end in mind.

Summarize the theme for the project. Why do this project? Identify the content standards that students will learn in this project. Identify key skills that students will learn in this project. Identify the habits of mind that students will practice in this project.

2. Craft the driving question.

State the essential question or problem statement for the project. The statement should encompass all project content and outcomes, and it should provide a central focus for student inquiry.

3. Plan the assessment, part 1.

Define the products for the project. What will you assess–early in the project, during the project, and at the end of the project?

4. Plan the assessment, part 2.

State the criteria for exemplary performance of each product.

5. Map the project, part 1.

What do students need to know and be able to do to complete the tasks successfully? How and when will they learn the necessary knowledge and skills? Look at one major product for the project and analyze the tasks necessary to produce a high-quality product. (List the knowledge and skills that students will need: already learned, taught before the project, and taught during the project.)

6. Map the project, part 2.

List key dates and important milestones for this project. What challenges or problems might arise?

7. Manage the process.

List the preparations necessary to address needs for differentiated instruction for ESL students, special-needs students, or students with diverse learning styles. Ask: How will you and your students reflect on and evaluate the project? (Class discussion, student-facilitated formal debrief, teacher-led formal debrief, individual evaluations, group evaluations, or other.)

(Source: Buck Institute for Education)

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Helping project-based learning take hold

The Buck Institute for Education, which focuses on professional development and materials to support project-based learning, believes that, as with most complex instructional approaches, there are many conditions that need to be met for schools to embrace project-based learning.

First, says Executive Director John Mergendoller, teachers must fully understand the concepts they are teaching. They also need to know they are not trying to force learning on the students, but instead are encouraging students to approach learning themselves.

Then, there needs to be an accountability system that ensures students are staying on track. "You can’t just turn kids loose on the project," Mergendoller says. "There has to be a defined set of benchmarks, check-ins with the teacher."

The fluidity of this approach to learning also can discourage teachers from incorporating project-based learning into their curriculum, because it can be hard to ensure that all standards are being met–and tricky to recycle lessons from one year to another.

With project-based learning, students are in charge of their own learning. "So if they want to investigate the water in school to see if it contains lead, that’s where you go," says Peter Rillero, associate professor of science education at Arizona State University and a consultant for Adaptive Curriculum. "Every year, the project could be different."

Starting small, and letting teachers see the excitement and learning that take place with a project, can help them become willing to incorporate more project-based learning into their instruction.

"Students go from class to class and say, ‘I’m in Miss Jones’ class and we’re doing this really cool thing,’ and then the other teachers go to Miss Jones and say, ‘What are you doing with your class? The kids are so excited….’" explains Donna Gilley, career and technical education coordinator for the Metro Nashville Public Schools.

It also helps when schools have an integrated curriculum. "It’s good for a teacher to teach all the subjects instead of having them compartmentalized, so you can do one project and learn math, science, social studies, writing, [and] language arts," Rillero says.

For schools that don’t have an integrated curriculum, teachers from different subject areas can team up on projects.

Of course, Gilley adds, the teachers can’t do it alone. To make project-based learning the best it can be, schools should coordinate with outside organizations–with industry, with museums, and with other places that will make projects come alive for students.

Teachers also should not work in a vacuum; school leaders should give them plenty of time to collaborate and plan projects.

"We entrust teachers and encourage them to design the projects themselves," explains Rob Riordan, director of instructional support for High Tech High in San Diego. "To support that, [the teachers] have lots of contacts throughout the day and in the summer, where teachers are talking to each other about their work. Teachers also come in an hour before the school day with kids begins. They spend that time working in teams, studying together, and talking about the curriculum, projects, school issues, and students."

Riordan concludes: "None of this could work without professional time for the teachers."

–J.N.

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