Behind the scenes at eLearning with Robin Sitten


Hello, and welcome to "Perkins eLearning to Go." This is Valerie. With me today is Robin Sitten, who is the Program Manager for eLearning. She is also the voice behind our monthly webinar series. Thank you for sitting with me today, Robin.

Thank you, Valerie.

So, as I mentioned, you're the Program Manager for Perkins eLearning. So what is your day-to-day like?

My day-to-day is very broad. Being the Program Manager for Perkins eLearning means that I supervise all of our online professional development offerings-- so, that's the courses, the self-paced tutorials, also our web resources, and regular series like the webinar series. And then, of course, this podcast is now part of that which Valerie manages is also part of the program. And the CVI endorsement process is also under my supervision, as well as just long-range planning for the professional development program.

And you're also the voice behind the webinar series.

Well, it is my voice and I host the webinar, so that's how those two things come together. We launched that webinar series almost about 10 years ago. We're coming up on 10 years of that program, and that has really grown a lot. And so being able to host that, and introduce people to the program, and have brief interviews with our presenters is-- it's really interesting for me.

And we do get some leaders in the field to discuss their specialties which, for free, that's a treat.

Oh, that's the beauty of distance learning. So that we are able to bring people literally right into your home, into your ears, into your car that you may not get the chance to meet, even at a conference or maybe you've only seen from afar. And the fact that they give their time and expertise to us as is the strength of that program.

And, so, you mentioned a few of the things-- the webinars, the online classes, the self-paced tutorials, and all those can be found on Perkins eLearning website. And so, in a typical course-- if someone were interested in a course, what can they expect from distance learning if they have never had it before?

Distance learning is a very different way of approaching our material. It's not better, it's not worse, but it is very different, and I think for some of our participants they've been surprised by the difference. In a typical instructor-led course, you're going to have recorded lectures by your presenters. So that gives you the flexibility to watch them at a time that's convenient for you in a place that's convenient for you. But then there'll also be readings from the appropriate texts-- many of those are available online or through trade journals.

And the real richness of our online courses is the discussion that takes place with the rest of your class. Most of our classes are about 25 people. We have some classes that seat up to 50 people. And again, it's a way for you to meet colleagues, fellow professionals that you would not ordinarily meet, and kind of challenge your own understanding of what your children's situation is.

It can be the simplest thing of being someone who's always practiced in the Northeast and then in a discussion with someone who's a TVI in Arizona or New Mexico. And understanding that, just culturally, geographically, things are very different. If you're an O&M in rural Iowa, it's very different from being an O&M in downtown Manhattan. So, those are exposures that you might get that you wouldn't expect.

And it's nice that we have the instructors who are, for the most part, leaders in their field, but also they're able to meet-- they're learning from their peers.

Absolutely. And they'll tell you that, that they really enjoy the give and take that happens in those courses. Most of our instructors are at the top of credentialing in their field. That allows us to have the support of a university here in New England that can sponsor our courses at the graduate level, as well as professional development, and that all comes from the richness of that experience and academic expertise.

So, what type of courses is offered and how do you decide on what courses to offer?

That's an interesting approach. We select the courses, of course, based on need and demand. And sometimes, we might be aware of a need before there's a demand. Something like the CVI program, the courses that we offer in cortical visual impairment, are an obvious need as the fastest growing visual impairment at the pediatric level and in the developed world, certainly in the United States and North America.

For other courses, it might be that we are aware that these are skills or knowledge that the students we work with really need, that a teacher, or even a school district, may not have encountered before. So whether that's something like CHARGE syndrome, or autism spectrum disorders with visual impairment, or the speech and communication needs of a student with a visual impairment, low vision needs-- these are things that we're aware of students need for support. And often at the district level, it's something that a teacher is encountering for the first time. So for them to come to us and be able to take a five-week course on applied behavioral analysis for students with visual impairment-- so someone who make may be certified ABA, but has never worked with a child who is blind or visually impaired, is going to be really challenged by that experience.

Outside of this podcast, which is an expansion of Perkins eLearning and pretty new, what do you see in the future for your program?

Well, we're always expanding. I like your use of the word expanding-- always deeper and always wider. Something like the podcast program is a way for us to expand the kinds of formats that we use. So, we can reach you in your car, we can reach you while you're traveling from school to school, while you're exercising, walking the dog.

But we can also reach you and your team through the webinar program. So, maybe you're all together having an in-service and this is something you'd like to watch together. The instructor-led courses, as we've mentioned, for teachers who are looking for community or hoping to expand their knowledge and their contacts, and even at the self-paced level, so people who are looking to work on their professional development and their licensure requirements year over year, month over month-- our small format allows them a way to do that.

So, expanding the formats that we use or the type of approach that we use, even down to our educational resource hubs-- things like Paths to Literacy, which most people are familiar with, has the technology and I know that here on this podcast, we've spoken to both of those project directors, as well-- is a way of providing a breadth of learning that can meet people where they are.

In terms of depth, we always want to be helping people elevate their experience. So, we have a lot of these overview and survey-type courses, but we need to start addressing the next level. So, we began our CVI online program with a CVI overview-- basic knowledge of what the condition is and how it affects a child's educational development. From on top of that, we added reliable scoring. We added complexity in the student's environment. We added Phase III.

So, even something like the endorsement level, where we want to continue to still keep reaching new people, new teachers who are looking to earn that credential, but we also now need to serve the 120 endorsed individuals around the world and make sure that we're meeting their needs as well. So, looking for ways of meeting all the different levels of experience, the different types of disciplines that are affected-- so whether you are an O&M, a low-vision specialist, an AT specialist, a paraprofessional-- building a collection of resources that allows the full educational experience so that no one student is, kind of, just in a box of only one member of my educational team or, I only got this until I was in third grade and then people didn't know how to help my teachers anymore.

So it's always deeper, always wider. I think that that's what we're growing toward. We're looking for more external partnerships. We've been doing a lot of customized training at the district level. So now we can work directly with a district or a special education department, help meet their needs for professional development. And also now, we're starting to partner with higher education, not just our university sponsor, which is Fitchburg State University, but also our colleagues at the University of Massachusetts, Northern Illinois-- these are other relationships that we've started to form.

So as a potential student, if they know there will be many people within their school system that needs to take these courses, the best bet is to reach out and contact you in case there is a customized training that could be created for them.

Yes, there are several ways to reach us. Right on our website,, there is a contact information form right on the front page. If you're interested, and specifically in CVI district training, there is a contact form within the CVI hub. But at any time, please contact us at couldn't be simpler-- and just let us know what your needs are.

We are custom-designing these programs with leadership at the district in order to really meet, again, the different levels of experience that you have and the particular topic interests that you have. And that goes far beyond CVI. We have a rich program in assistive technology, AAC communications, active learning, all manner of educational needs for students with multiple disabilities who are also visually impaired.

One final question--

Question me.

--if you were a student who has taken our courses, and were going to give advice to someone who is thinking of taking our courses, what is the one piece of advice you would give to them so they have a smooth transition into distance learning?

Trust yourself. And by that, I mean a lot of our very experienced classroom teachers have not had the kind of exposure to distance learning that maybe a new teacher has-- you know, someone who's come through college in the past 20 years may have a lot more of experience in working in this environment. And we see some of our participants hesitant about that, feeling like either, oh, it's not going to be the same as a face to face, or I don't have the time to do this. I don't know enough about computers to do this. I say trust yourself because the knowledge that you have in your own profession is the knowledge that you need to bring to our course.

We try to give you content today that you can use tomorrow. We try to give you ways of meeting the caseload that you have right now. And so our assignments are asking you to think creatively and help each other, and then yes, you're going to use a computer environment to submit those things. It's as simple as sending an email and it also helps you gain those skills of learning how to find resources far outside of your immediate reach.

So do you have anything else you would like to add to our discussion?

Do I?


I like to say one good way to test drive our content and our distance learning experiences is during your summer break or your holiday breaks when maybe your schedule feels a little bit more in your control. Check out one of our smaller four- to six-week courses and see how you like it, and then it's more likely that you'll feel confident to take a longer course, like an eight-week course in the fall or in the winter, when you feel like you don't have that much time.

The best thing about remote professional development is that you really do have the time. You can access our courses and our content anywhere you have an internet connection, even on your phone, even on your tablet. We encourage you to try that out.

And if podcasting is what you're into right now, make sure you're subscribing to our podcast because we are going to be updating it regularly with bonus content like this, where we're talking to some of the people who manage our program or teach our courses or who have participated in our courses to help you learn more, as you go as well.

OK, thank you very much, Robin, for sitting with me today.

Have a pleasant day.

Thank you for joining us on another edition of "Perkins eLearning to Go." If you are interested in any of our online courses, webinars, webcasts, or CVI Range endorsement, please visit us at Thank you.