Hacking education: Google U

I’m lucky to be at a great Union Square Ventures session on hacking education today. I believe education will be restructured radically and that will be accelerated out of the so-called financial crisis. You can follow tweets at #hackedu; Union Square will put up the entire transcript later.

In honor of hacking education, I’ll put up all of the Google U chapter in What Would Google Do? (the rest after the jump):

* * *

Who needs a university when we have Google? All the world’s digital knowledge is available at a search. We can connect those who want to know with those who know. We can link students to the best teachers for them (who may be fellow students). We can find experts on any topic. Textbooks need no longer be petrified on pages but can link to information and discussion; they can be the products of collaboration, updated and corrected, answering questions and giving quizzes, even singing and dancing. There’s no reason my children should be limited to the courses at one school; even now, they can get coursework online from no less than MIT and Stanford. And there’s no reason that I, long out of college, shouldn’t take those courses, too.

You may suspect that because I’m a professor, I’ll now come out of this litany of opportunities with a rhetorical flip and demonstrate why we must preserve universities as they are. But I won’t. Of course, I value the academy and its tradition and don’t wish to destroy it. But just as every other institution examined in this book is facing fundamental challenges to its essence and existence in the Google age, so is education. Indeed, education is one of the institutions most deserving of disruption—and with the greatest opportunities to come of it.

Call me a utopian but I imagine a new educational ecology where students may take courses from anywhere and instructors may select any students, where courses are collaborative and public, where creativity is nurtured as Google nurtures it, where making mistakes well is valued over sameness and safety, where education continues long past age 21, where tests and degrees matter less than one’s own portfolio of work, where the gift economy may turn anyone with knowledge into teachers, where the skills of research and reasoning and skepticism are valued over the skills of memorization and calculation, and where universities teach an abundance of knowledge to those who want it rather than manage a scarcity of seats in a class.

Who’s to say that college is the only or even the best place to learn? Will Richardson, who teaches fellow educators how to use the internet in the classroom, wrote an open letter to his children, Tess and Tucker, on his blog, Webblog-ed.com: “I want you to know that you don’t have to go to college if you don’t want to, and that there are other avenues to achieving that future that may be more instructive, more meaningful, and more relevant than getting a degree.” He said education may take them to classrooms and lead to certification but it also may involve learning through games, communities, and networks built around their interests. “Instead of the piece of paper on the wall that says you are an expert,” he told his children, “you will have an array of products and experiences, reflections and conversations that show your expertise, show what you know, make it transparent. It will be comprised of a body of work and a network of learners that you will continually turn to over time, that will evolve as you evolve, and will capture your most important learning.”

If that is what education looks like, what does a university look like? I asked that question on my blog and entrepreneur and technologist Bob Wyman (who works for Google) responded by abstracting the university and identifying its key roles: teaching, testing, and research. I’ll add a fourth and unofficial role: socialization. Let’s examine them in reverse order.

Socialization is, of course, a key reason we go to college and send our children there. Adults see college as a process of maturation and increased independence and responsibility. Students, on the other hand, may see it as a process of getting away from the parents. Whatever. Jeffrey Rayport, a consultant and Harvard Business School professor, sat with me in the Harvard Club in New York and told me it was designed by a graduate of the university who didn’t much care for the school’s harsh Cambridge atmosphere. In the club, he created what he wished Harvard had been: warm wood and fires, Harry Potter without the pomp and kitsch, the experience—the Disney World—of education. I do think there is a time to have that experience and live with our peers. Old people do. My parents live in Sun City Center, Florida, a town where one legally may not reside if under the age of 55. Why not have youth towns where residents are evicted by age 30: Melrose Place University?
But seriously?.?.?.??if one has the luxury of time and resources to explore the world before buckling down to a job and a mortgage, great. That exploration can take the form of backpacking around Asia, hanging out in a dorm, or joining the Peace Corps. Or these days, it may mean starting a company. Our young years may be our most creative and productive. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Google boys dropped out of school at various stages to start their corporate giants. Should we be forcing young people to go through 18, 16, or even 12 years of school—trying to get them all to think the same way—before they make things? Instead of the perennial call to subject our youth to mandatory national service—how’s that for a way to squander a precious resource?—shouldn’t we instead be helping them find and feed their muses?

Perhaps we need to separate youth from education. Education lasts forever. Youth is the time for exploration, maturation, socialization. We may want to create a preserve around youth—as Google does around its inventors—to nurture and challenge the young. What if we told students that, like Google engineers, they should take one day a week or one course a term or one year in college to create something: a company, a book, a song, a sculpture, an invention? School could act as an incubator, advising, pushing, and nurturing their ideas and effort. What would come of it? Great things and mediocre things. But it would force students to take greater responsibility for what they do and to break out of the straitjacket of uniformity. It would make them ask questions before they are told answers. It could reveal to them their own talents and needs. The skeptic will say that not every student is responsible enough or a self-starter. Perhaps. But how will we know students’ capabilities unless we put them in the position to try? And why structure education for everyone around the lowest denominator of the few?

Another byproduct of a university’s society is its network—its old-boy network, as we sexistly if accurately called it. That club has long held value for getting jobs, hiring, and making connections. But now that we have the greatest connection machine ever made—the internet—do we still need that old mechanism for connections? LinkedIn, Facebook, and other services enable us to create and organize extended networks (any friend of yours?.?.?.??) springing out of not just school but employment, conferences, introductions, even blogs. Members of Skull and Bones at Yale and graduates of Harvard Business School may object, but as an internet populist, I celebrate the idea that old networks could be eclipsed by new meritocracies. Facebook didn’t just bring elegant organization to universities, it could supplant them as a creator of networks.

The next role of the university will be harder to nurture in a distributed architecture. Research, pure and directed, are values of the academe that the marketplace alone may not support. Unless it has a market value and is paid for by a company, research must be subsidized by foundations, endowments, donations, and tax dollars—and often by the generous passion of the researcher. That will still be the case. The question is whether research will be done in schools or in think tanks and whether it will be performed by professors or by paid thinkers. There’s little reason that research must be performed on campuses by academics and little reason why those academics cannot work in wider networks. Research has long been a process more than a product as papers are peer reviewed and research results are replicated. That is even more the case now as research is opened up online in web sites, blogs, and wikis and as their contents are linkable and searchable via Google (which provides a search service for academic works at scholar.Google.com). This openness invites contributions, collaboration, and checks.

The next role of the university is testing and certification: the granting of degrees and anointing of experts. The idea of a once-in-a-lifetime, one-size-fits-many certification of education—the diploma—looks more absurd as knowledge and needs change. Are there better measures of knowledge and thinking than a degree? Why should education stop at age 21? Diplomas become dated. Most of what I have done in my career has required me to learn new lessons—long past graduation—about technology, business, economics, sociology, science, education, law, and design. Lately I’ve learned many of these lessons in public, on my blog, with the help of my readers. That is why I urge other academics to blog and be challenged by their public. I believe that should count as publishing. Blog or perish, I say.

Our portfolios of work online, searchable by Google, become our new CVs. Neil McIntosh, an editor at the Guardian, blogged that when he interviews young candidates for online journalism jobs, he expects them to have a blog. “There’s no excuse for a student journalist who wants to work online not to have one,” he wrote. “Moreover, the quality of the blog really matters, because it lets me see how good someone is, unedited and entirely self-motivated.” Our work—our collection of creations, opinions, curiosities, and company—says volumes about us. Before a job interview, what employer doesn’t Google the candidate (a practice banned by law in Finland, by the way)? Our fear is that employers will find embarrassing, boozy pictures from spring break, but that’s all the more reason to make sure they also find our blogs and collected works.

Sometimes employers will require certification. That, as Wyman says, is where testing comes in: exams to make sure our new doctors, lawyers, and PC support staffs know their stuff. But these exams are often given by professional organizations—medical boards and the bar—rather than schools. Preparation for those tests is undertaken by test-prep and commercial-education companies such as Kaplan. Universities ceded the market to them. Still, testing makes sense; it is our guarantee against the citizen surgeon (or that the citizen is qualified). It does make more sense to test students after they’ve learned a subject than before. Tests given before education commences—entrance exams—might better serve students if they discovered not what students know but rather what they need to know. Between SATs and exams mandated by No Child Left Behind laws in the U.S., we are succumbing to a tyranny of testing that commodifies learning. The system tries to turn out every student the same.

Finally we arrive at the core, the real value of a university: teaching. Here I violate my own first law when I say that complete control of one’s education should not always belong to the student. For when we embark on learning, we often don’t know what we don’t know. Or in Google terms, we don’t know what to search for. The teacher still has a role and value: If you want to learn how to fix a computer or operate on a knee or understand metaphysics, then you hand yourself over to a teacher who crafts a syllabus to guide your understanding. When it’s clear what you want to learn—how to edit a video with FinalCut, how to speak French—it’s possible for a student to use books, videos, or experimentation to teach herself. The internet also makes it easy to connect teachers with students—see TeachStreet?.com, which in only two cities has 55,000 teachers, trainers, tutors, coaches, and classes, according to Springwise. I wouldn’t go there to learn surgery, but I might to get help with my stale German.

One benefit of the distributed, connected university is that students may select teachers. Instructors won’t be able to rest on tenure (I speak as someone who has it) but must rise on merit. Today, instructors are graded on sites such as RateMyTeachers?.com, but students are still prisoners to their school’s faculty. If they could take courses from anywhere, a marketplace of instruction would emerge that should lead the best to rise: the aggregated university. Instructors could also pick the best students. A class would become a handpicked team that might research a topic as a group, blog their collective process of discovery, or write a textbook and leave a trail of their frequently asked questions and answers for the next class or the public (what are courses but FAQs?). That product will be searchable and may provide a way for future students to find and judge courses and instructors. It’s educational SEO, bringing the internet’s ethic of transparency to the classroom.
There could be new models for education. One might be education by subscription: I subscribe to a teacher or institution and expect them to feed me new information, challenges, questions, and answers over years. Many schools give graduates refreshers and updates in skills; at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, we call this offer our 100,000-mile guarantee. Education could be a club more than a class: We join to learn and teach together, sometimes handing the teaching duties to the best student on a given subject. Peer-to-peer education works well online as we can see in language-learning services such as Livemocha, where teachers in one language become students in another and where anyone in its gift economy can critique and help any student. It is a learning network.

In the classroom, real or virtual, Google forces educators to teach differently. Why are we still teaching students to memorize facts when facts are available through search? Memorization is not as vital a discipline as fulfilling curiosity with research and reasoning when students recognize what they don’t know, form questions, seek answers, and learn how to judge them and their sources. Internet and Google literacy should be taught to help students vet facts and judge reliability.
Is there a university, post-Google? Yes, these institutions are too big, rich, and valuable to fade away. But like every other institution in society, they should reshape themselves around new opportunities. Universities need to ask what value they add in educational transactions: qualifying teachers, helping students craft curricula, providing platforms for learning. We need to ask when and why it is necessary to be in the same room with fellow students and instructors. Classroom time is valuable but not always necessary. Many professional MBA programs have found ways to limit time together so that education need not interrupt life. The Berlin School of Creative Leadership (where I serve on the advisory board) has students meet in cities around the world so they can tap local expertise. Universities can become bigger than their campuses, and by bringing together special interests and needs from around the world, they can also become smaller, focusing on niches of knowledge while leaving other topics to other institutions. Schools, too, will do what they do best and link to the rest. That requires them to make their knowledge open and searchable; Google demands it.

How will universities work as a business? To quote former MIT professor and satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer about the famous German rocket engineer who came to NASA: “?‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down / That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.” If I taught three, three-credit courses a term for two terms to 20 students in each and they paid what they pay to my state-supported university—about $250 per credit—that would bring in $90,000, which is what I am paid (I don’t do it for the money). In a competitive market, would students pay $750 for my class? That depends on the quality of my teaching, the reputation of the university, and the state of the competition. If they pay that amount, it still leaves no money for the university. Funds to support its structure would need to come, as they do now, from public or private subsidies. It doesn’t look like a sustainable model.

Then again, look at University of Pheonix, Kaplan University, and other for-profit professional educational companies that have sprung up teaching students what they need to know for jobs. They’re not academic like Oxford, but they fill a role and work as businesses. They charge more per credit-hour than my state institution but less than prestigious private universities. I think we’ll see many entrepreneurial enterprises devoted to education emerge as the internet enables a new marketplace of learning. Perhaps different entities will maintain different roles. To learn database programming, you go to Kaplan; to learn the entrepreneurship needed to create a new Google, you go to Stanford.

On its official blog, Google gave advice to students, not about where they should learn but what they should learn. Jonathan Rosenberg, senior VP of product management, blogged that the company is looking for “non-routine problem-solving skills.” His example: The routine way to solve the problem of checking spelling would be use a dictionary. The non-routine way is to watch all the corrections people make as they refine their queries and use that to suggest new spellings for words that aren’t in any dictionary. Rosenberg said Google looks for people with five skills: analytical reasoning (“we start with data; that means we can talk about what we know, instead of what we think we know”); communication skills; willingness to experiment; playing in a team; passion and leadership. “In the real world,” he said, “the tests are all open book, and your success is inexorably determined by the lessons you glean from the free market.”
Rosenberg’s best advice for students and universities: “It’s easy to educate for the routine, and hard to educate for the novel.” Google sprung from seeing the novel. Is our educational system preparing students to work for or create Googles? I wonder.

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  • Homeschoolers have figured this out already. Between Project Gutenburg and the local library you can get most of the classics. The internet allows you to find many ways to teach the same subject to allow for different learning styles.
    What many homeschoolers are also finding is that a lot of employers aren’t smart enough to Google you so unless you have a certificate of attendance aka diploma the HR dept dumps the resume because one of the feature boxes wasn’t checked. So you have to prepare your children to be entrepreneurs where it doesn’t matter.
    Those too big to fail will miss out on the best and brightest. Oh, darn.

    • Me

      Homeschoolers have a hard time getting into college. A college degree is needed to even get your resume read. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
      Even a doctor in another country would have to get training in the US or UK for example to practice in that country. The same goes for a pilot.
      There’s got to be some uniform way of measuring someone’s progress.
      Maybe if you’ve been working for a few years, and want to go take some html classes to learn an extra skill, well you could demonstrate your skill or take a test so that you can show that certification.
      I have a Lexus Nexis account but that doesn’t make me a librarian.
      I’m sure many people have lied on their resume’s and said they have a degree when they don’t.
      There is something to be said for the college experience. Very few people are going to study enough of something they’re not totally interested in to make themselves experts. We need to focus on ways to fund our schools better and get better teachers instead of trying to totally blow it out of the water all together allowing people to google an education. That’s just silly.
      What am I supposed to do? Youtube a lecture?

      • Actually homeschoolers are sought out by colleges and universities because they are self directed learners. My kids didnt have any problems getting into colleges when they looked at their SAT scores and read the recommendations. None of the kids I homeschooled (in addition to my own) have had a difficult going either.

        There is a segment of homeschoolers that are looking more closely at apprenticeship (just like those who helped found this country) as a viable option for a successful career.

      • Me

        Re: Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach
        I and many others I talk to know home schooled children to be there because they are either in families that travel a lot, are working children like child actors, are involved with a religion that would make the parents want to keep them at home, or don’t mix well with other kids.
        Those are some stereo types, but for me I think it’s more beneficial for a child to attend a private school that the parents like better than a public school.
        There are many work programs for students in school. I agree that an apprenticeship program is VERY beneficial to obtain work experience which I see as very valuable. Sometimes more valuable than classroom time.
        What are we missing out on by home schooling? Can we be assured that the proper amount of human interaction will be there? How can we be sure that every parent is properly testing and teaching their children without bias?

        One thing that is very important to mention here is that it’s very hard for me to argue this point when our government school are so bad.

        I personally don’t find a good home school program bad, but I just worry that there is room for error, but then there goes that distrust factor. And who’s to say we’ve never had very bad teachers.

        So, never mind Sheryl, I think you win this one! haha

        I will say that since physical education, foreign language and the STEM courses (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are all so bad in government schools – which is so scary because they are the most important – then if we can be sure that home school programs are producing the best results in these areas we can be sure that home school programs will rise above government schools and gain support exponentially.

        We’ve got a government in China that is focusing on these skills big time, while at the same time leaving their citizens with very little freedom of press or speech. There is a huge imbalance there in the wrong direction.
        If we could get our country on track to becoming the best in foreign language, physical education and STEM learning then with our Freedom of Press and speech along with our economic style we could be the true leaders of the world again and pay off this debt very fast.

  • mind jumps also to the interesting growth of peer/community-originated education. for example: http://la.thepublicschool.org/about, Meetups, etc.

  • Mike Manitoba

    Hear hear, Jeff. And in the true revolutionary “information wants to be free” spirit, I move that all instructors at every educational level be volunteer content-providers, or “citizen teachers.”

  • Winston Crabs

    Excellent! One question. Did you take the Lehrer quote directly from Wikipedia? Lehrer is best known for his quote (later appropriated by Woody Allen): “Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach communications.”

  • Roy Lofquist

    Dear Sir,

    Being a bit of a curious chap I am thrilled with the Google world. But, being grizzled and having more than my share of arrows in my back, I note that there seem to be certain disagreements amongst “experts” on any number of subjects. The role of the teacher is to lead us through the maze, avoid the Gypsies and save us years of disillusionment.


    • Andy Freeman

      > The role of the teacher is to lead us through the maze, avoid the Gypsies and save us years of disillusionment.

      That may be what you want teachers to do, but the relevant question is what do they actually do?

      Never confuse your goal for someone else with their performance.

  • Russ Walker


    Interesting thesis, and it reminded me of this Cringely essay from a year ago about technology’s impact on education. Here’s a link: http://tinyurl.com/368ss6

    Money quote: “we’ve reached the point in our (disparate) cultural adaptation to computing and communication technology that the younger technical generations are so empowered they are impatient and ready to jettison institutions most of the rest of us tend to think of as essential, central, even immortal. They are ready to dump our schools.”

  • Mike Manitoba

    Why should an education cost anything?

  • There are several important questions to ask here. Who truly specifies the rules and regulations relative to education? Is it society? Is it business? Is it parents? Is it the marketplace? Or could it become the children, who search out an education? And then the bigger question you raise can begin to emerge. Could it be Googleized? If this emerges, this will truly be a Without Warning event of great magnitude. Because this changes everything as we know it.

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  • Me

    a PBS Frontline documentary did an experiment on some University of Beijing students in China. They had no idea what the iconic tank man picture from 1989’s Tienenman Square massacre was. When you google Tienenman Square in the US you’ll see this picture everywhere. When you do the same in China you get smiling tourists and pictures of the square.
    With Google’s VP and leaders of other companies like Yahoo! in front of a US court, they are asked why do they continue to cooperate with the Chinese government’s oppression? Why did they give information over to that government that put another journalist in jail. China has more journalists in jail than any other country.
    If you ask me what would Google do. We’ll i’d say they’d do whatever it takes to make a buck. And they seem to operate similarly to China in many ways. They have a facade like the business centers of those countries with tourism, shiny new buildings and business men. But behind the scenes are the migrant workers who only come in the build things like the stadiums for the Olympics.
    Google promotes it’s facade of free flowing information in countries that will allow it, but keeps quiet about how restrictive and false it is in countries like China.
    How could Google not protest something like this? How could they not show us how different Google would look in China, and how little we would see? Are they hiding something?
    I love your concepts, but they’re just too good to be true. Too easy.
    Is this Google’s way of putting out a Beta version of the www? Well are lives aren’t beta versions. We face consequences for our actions.

    • Larry Hiner

      I have no financial or personal interest in Google, and I am an apologist neither for Google nor the Chinese government. But, do recognize that change – especially from a totalitarian state to an open democracy – occurs gradually. Without having been privy to the negotiations between Google and China, I would say that the result – a censored Google, if you will – is better than no Google at all; which is likely what would have occurred if Google did not comply with the censorship.

      Will China Google ever be completely open? Will the Chinese government ever be willing to openly discuss their dark chapters? Will history never be revisionist in some form, everywhere? Perhaps those are goals to which we all aspire.

  • Me
  • J Bonilla

    Education should be free, having a paper hanging on your wall does not seem to imply much, so why does it cost so much. Even with the knowledge that a paper hanging from your wall says “we have”, It is really not a matter of what you know, but who you know. With that said, we all in a sense learn from each other. I see no reason why we have to pay such a high price for knowledge that can be learned on the internet with the click of a mouse.

  • Mike Manitoba

    Exactly, J. We need to stop paying educators and consultants for hoarding information that rightfully belongs to us. Enable, encourage, or get out of the way.

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  • Larry Hiner

    These are great comments and discussion threads! What will the university of the future look like? Will the culture of university resist or embrace the capabilities presented by new technologies? Is there some blend of traditional classroom (or at least F2F encounters) that complement instruction and information gathering on the web? I think the answers are: “remains to be seen;” “who knows?;” and, “I certainly hope so.”

    Do I want to have life-or-death surgery performed by someone who was trained by Google? I think not.

  • I enjoy reading this more than on my Kindle — where I bought the book.

    Better screen, more manipulabiilty, comments that add value, links …

  • James

    This very well may be a stupid question, but for the argument popping up that higher education should be free and unstructured, what occupations would be immune from this argument? And why?
    Aside from that, I’m all for looking into a university overhaul. But it seems to me that the structure and forced focus that a university (and all schools) provides would still be needed for most people.
    After all ,it’s aimlessness that is a root problem for many children (and adults). For all the people who can be tossed into the ether of the Internet and thrive, how many will do pursue nothing but idle activity? The question matters because their productivity and contributions — or lack there of — affect us all eventually.

  • one more thing: on research, crowdsourced. Are you familiar with Innocentive?


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  • In 1860 – 1930’s most folk relied on lots of dubious reference books to better themselves – now we expect large chunks of our population to go to public institutions to get “higher” education. Self help books and websites still about.

    The model is flawed and I agree with direction of travel suggested here – but we still need to do our bit to ensure that not too many of our global citizens are fleeced by the be a journalist is 10 days type programme.

    The bit that most countries and those who fund systems at moment have not got yet – is that the curriculum is a global one – local ones are no-longer meaningful, rich or deep enough. For the older institutions if the product is not as strong as the brand customers will move on.

    In last millenium best universities were in Moorish Spain – times change

  • Dave

    There is a college in Kentucky which provides a free education but you also work for the college. Wonderful concept that has worked for years…..


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  • Jeff, Obama just gave Arne $100 billion as an educational stimulus package. Changing the construct of eduction is good. But the content must change too. By that I mean this: http://bit.ly/xGVpy PLS RT [email protected]

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  • Doing some research about many topics, I found this chapter very interesting, it inspired me to post it as a big tag cloud. Very fast reading!


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  • There’s such an interesting conversation that I can’t keep silent and would like to express my own opinion.
    I think that basic school education in classroom is necessary. It gives you basic knowledge on a wide range of issues. And even if you don’t want to know that the capital of Poland is Warsaw or that rubber is extracted from tree you SHOULD know it. And it’s good when there’s smbd who ask you about it. As for college education – it’s your choice. It’s a road you choose.

  • Google provides a good platform for improving education and there is definitely a new way of doing things. Empowering education with technology is the right thing for us all to embrace, but removing one-to-one personal contact of teachers (and i am talking from the perspective of a teacher in Further Education – post 16 – in the UK) is not the answer to every issue.

    There are so many part of the book which are important and inspiring, but it has flaws that i would like to discuss with you Jeff and on my own blog.

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  • A few things, outside academia, need to happen before this vision is realized. Mainly, employers need to recognize the value in that web-hosted portfolio. I wonder when that will happen, though, as there are often dozens, if not hundreds of applicants for any position. Will someone Google them all? Or, as is the case now, preselect several worthy of undergoing deeper scrutiny?

    I also wonder about the notion of letting students select their own professors, etc. I have known too many students over the years who are focused on ease and less on academic vigor.

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  • Willow Generous

    You can use a plugin called Akismet key you can find it in your admin section under plugins, then add plugins if you use WP. This key is free and stops spam, hope that helps Deb

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