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College Success – Part 2: Technology

On today’s podcast we have some familiar voices, Leslie Thatcher and Kate Katalick back to discuss transitioning to college.  Today’s topic?  Technology.

Episode Number: 35

Aired Date: December 10, 2019


SPEAKER 1: Hello and welcome to Perkins eLearning To Go. Each week, our hope is to provide you with an inside look at special education topics, in particular, visual impairment. Through a series of interviews with leaders in the field and a fresh look at our webcast series, we know you will learn something new when you are on the go. Now it’s time to sit back, relax, and let’s hear what this week’s podcast is all about.

VALERIE: Hello and welcome to Perkins eLearning To Go. This is Valerie. On today’s podcast, we have some familiar voices. Leslie Thatcher and Kate Katulak are back to discuss transitioning to college. Today’s topic, technology. As you can imagine, technology is extremely important for any college bound young adult, but this is especially important for those with a visual impairment. Leslie and Kate will discuss this and the importance of learning the basics of technology from an early age, what they should be learning and who should be teaching them. Here we go.

Let’s talk tech requirements for college bound high school students.

LESLIE THATCHER: Oh, we can talk about that, Valerie.


LESLIE THATCHER: Where would you like to start?

VALERIE: So why is this topic so important for students with VI?

KATE KATULAK: Because technology is really the foundation of so many other things, for learning, certainly. When a student is in any academic class, they need to be engaging by taking notes, by reading by researching, writing, reflecting their learning to their teachers, corresponding with their teachers and so on. And how many students, whether they’re visually impaired or not, accomplish those things is through the use of technology.

And so it’s especially important for students who are visually impaired, though it’s important for everyone. It’s especially important for students who are visually impaired, because not only do they need to learn the mainstream technology, but they may also need to learn assistive technology or some of the compatibility features that enables them to access the tech in the first place. And I will keep coming back to the simple fact that there’s not enough time in the day to teach a student with a vision impairment all the things they need to learn.

And so when does technology instruction happen? Do they get pulled out of their classroom to learn it? Does a TVI or tech instructor push in and teach it to them? If so, their concentration and attention is going to be focused elsewhere when they may need to be learning what the rest of the class is learning. So it’s really tough to just recognize that. We know it needs to happen. We know that students need to learn these things. But when is it going to happen?

And there is a lot of other barriers in the way which we’ll get to later in this podcast and thinking about time, as I’ve already mentioned, also having the expertise and resources, and the list just goes on. But bottom line is we know it’s really important.

LESLIE THATCHER: And it’s important to start as early as possible, because as we’ve alluded to in these other podcasts on this topic, the gap just gets wider and wider because time becomes more and more compressed because the academic demands keep going up and up and up, and there’s a pressure to graduate on time. And if we don’t learn the foundational skills early in technology, then it’s more difficult to integrate new technologies and they’re growing and evolving all the time right now. It is an extraordinary time to be even conceiving of technology as it relates to learning for a person with a visual impairment.

The world has opened up for them, and yet, if we don’t start teaching about these opportunities to access material more efficiently, more effectively in ways that make sense for that individual learner, it’s going to be difficult to integrate new technologies as a learning person later on. And so now is the time. And we’re going to talk a little bit about it.

VALERIE: Well, I like how you said that to give them the basis early because the first thing I thought of the technology is it changes so fast that how could you possibly teach someone in grade 5 something that they’re not going to need until college where it’s going to change so much over the course of those years, but if they have that foundation–

LESLIE THATCHER: The foundation.

VALERIE: It’s easier to adapt to new stuff.

LESLIE THATCHER: Exactly. And in college success right now, we’re really teaching those foundational technology concepts to our students, so that they can then independently think about what’s the best solution for me, why is this not working? Oh, yeah, I understand that this foundational thing is going on. And I can tackle the problem. Kate’s actually teaching the class. She could probably talk more about it, but we realize it’s like teaching a person to fish. I’m all about metaphors, aren’t I? My staff teases me and has a list of all my little metaphors.

KATE KATULAK: Leslie-isms, we call them.

LESLIE THATCHER: It’s silly, but I use them. So here we are. Teaching a person to fish versus putting the worm on the hook, right? And right now, in some ways we may be just simply putting the worm on the hook, because, you know, you want to catch the fish, versus teaching a student how to find the worm and hold the worm.

VALERIE: Stab the worm.

KATE KATULAK: It’s getting weird.

LESLIE THATCHER: I know. It’s getting weird. I’m going to stop, but it’s knowing the entire process. And so we’re really backing up and kind of looking at what that looks like.

KATE KATULAK: Yeah, and it’s really all about learning curve. So when a student has had exposure to a lot of different devices, regardless of what the newest, greatest tool is out there, they’re going to know some fundamental things about all devices. There are commonalities, shared things across computer systems. In our technology bootcamp, we did a full lesson on really basic computer skills, and we asked students, how much of this stuff do you think you know already? And we had them do a little quiz to test their knowledge, and then when we started the content, students realized that they actually didn’t know what a computer was. They knew it was this thing that had a keyboard and sometimes a screen that they take with them to classes, but what they didn’t know is that actually, the phone they carry with them, the note taking devices that they have, tablets that they use, those are also computers, and across devices, there are commonalities.

There is a motherboard. There is a processor. There is input and output and things that apply to any situation if you have to problem solve if your technology goes wrong, which, as we all know, things often to go wrong, especially when we want them to go wrong the least or need them the most. And so if we put lots of different devices in the hands of students from a young age, the learning curve is going to be a lot smaller, and they’re going to be more comfortable independently approaching a new tool or getting an update on an existing device that they use and just running with it.

VALERIE: So I think my next question, you’ve answered a little bit but flip flopped a little is what’s the impact of students if they don’t have these skills needed in college? You just described what happens when they do have them. So in looking at it in reverse, what would happen to these students in college if they didn’t have any of those?

KATE KATULAK: Well, let’s take a moment to imagine any of our lives without the effective use of technology. I don’t know if I could get myself up in the morning without my Alexa telling me the time and then my iPhone reading me my calendar and then going to my computer to check the emails of things that I missed the evening before. I don’t know that I would be a functional human being if it weren’t for my ability to interact with technology in the ways that I have learned to do.

I also happen to be blind, so I rely on assistive technology, and that helps me immensely. I don’t know how people did it years and years ago before there was voiceover and JAWS and all the others many, many helpful things that we all use. But for college students or people who are thinking about going to college who are visually impaired, if they don’t have the technology, and if they do have it, but they don’t know how to use it, they’re going to be much less effective.

LESLIE THATCHER: Bouncing off of that, we keep coming back to this idea that there are foundations and then things can get more complex from there. And we also know, and we’ve talked about this before, about– we all know this– that incidental learning is one of those things that gets missed for students with a visual impairment. If you are typically sighted, take a moment to consider how you learned how to mess around on Facebook or search a website, or– it’s incidental learning in so many cases.

But with the tools and the extraordinary potential in technology and what you might call assistive technology, it needs to be intentionally taught. So assuming a student is intuitively going to figure out voiceover or NVDA or JAWS isn’t probably an effective strategy, because you can bump into walls, if you will, with the system, because it’s not something that’s massively immediately intuitive to then be able to get as much power out of it as you can and to be as efficient as you can. So that’s what we’re talking about.

KATE KATULAK: But if we have taught students from a really young age to approach technology and assistive technology in the right ways, then certainly if they have the drive, and they have that past experience, they may be able to get handed a new device and teach it themselves. But there’s a lot of nuances in learning the hundreds of key commands that go along with JAWS for example. And as we all know, being able to present students with information in a teaching environment is much more successful than just saying, hey, kid, go off and learn it on your own. You know, that’s not all we do.

We don’t just give students in a math class the textbook and say, good luck. We have a teacher to teach it to them and then check and reflect on how the learning is going and assess and evaluate and give feedback and then redesign and reteach. And the same should be true for technology.

VALERIE: I’ve used JAWS within my role here at Perkins to make sure all of our course materials are accessible through a screen reader, and it isn’t– like you were saying, it isn’t the most intuitive. I mean, it’s certainly very helpful, but there are hundreds of commands that you need to learn and having that time to be able to learn all that as we were talking about a foundation, I can see how it could be so important for someone, especially if they more recently have lost their sight, because they’re learning all over again on how to adapt everything that they already knew.

KATE KATULAK: Yeah, I mean, if that’s the right learning medium for them, text to speech through JAWS or voiceover, another screen reader, then it does certainly take a lot of time for them to learn those skills, and the overall message in this particular podcast episode, we have this technology theme going on, but you just opened up a lot, Valerie, with the recent vision loss. No, it’s great.

But you know, learning technology is crucial for someone who is transitioning to new vision loss. It is absolutely essential. But I think that we have to consider the human element that there’s a lot of other things going on as well, and they need to learn other blindness skills most likely. And I just want to make sure that is emphasized. It should never be an excuse for why a district or the educational team is neglecting teaching technology because, oh, the student is coping. The student’s going to cope a whole lot easier– the student is going to have a whole lot easier time adjusting to blindness when they start developing skills and when they get access to the tools that will lead them to be successful. And in many ways, that does begin with technology.

VALERIE: Do you see a difference between what students perceive the skill level to be and their actual skills?

LESLIE THATCHER: Yes. And partially, because you need the concepts through which to assess skill set. And if someone– for example, on an iPad, you can feel quite competent by swiping and noodling around on voiceover and whatever your own particular idiosyncratic way is, right? And be like, yeah, I’m great. I’ve got lots of tech skills. iPhones mask tech deficiencies, because a student can engineer books on their iPhone. They can run their Google Calendar on their iPhone. And yet, they may not know how to create, edit, and attach a Microsoft Word document to an email.

KATE KATULAK: They may know how to do that through their phone. We have a checklist that we’ve given students. Do you know how to do these things? We realized that we needed to be more nuanced in our language. We needed to ask can you do these things on a phone and a tablet? Great. Now can you do them on a computer? And there was often the response of, yes, we can do these things on hand-held devices, like tablets and phones, but not on a computer.

And if you don’t have effective skills on a computer as well, then you don’t have the skills that are going to get you through college and into [INAUDIBLE].

VALERIE: Do you think it’s because they don’t have computers at home or they just haven’t been taught?

KATE KATULAK: I think that it could be either of those reasons. But some of the more significant barriers, in my mind, that are preventing most students from being independent users of computers is because it’s just due to access, access to the devices and access to the training. Particularly for students who are screen reader users, there are so many key commands that one has to learn, and who’s going to teach it to them?

It takes a lot if you’re the student to just self-direct your learning and know, hey, I need to study the manual, and I’ve got to memorize all these key commands. My TVI may not know all of these commands, and they’re not teaching it to me, so maybe it’s not all that important, when realistically, it is. Tablets and iPhones and other versions of their smartphones. They can do a lot. They can get you, I would even argue, 95% of the way in an academic setting, but it’s that remaining 5% that really gets you to gold.

And when you think about an employment setting, there may be some jobs where they hand you over a tablet and ask you to do the work, but there may also be other places that are going to give you a laptop. The bottom line is it doesn’t matter. When you get a job, you accept whatever tool they give you, and you’ve got to be able to use it. And the learning curve is so much greater when you’re relying on assistive technology, like screen readers or magnification, because you don’t have that incidental learning opportunities to just, you know, OK, I’m just going to watch what happens on the screen when I do this and I do that.

You may be accessing the same information by listening, and you may only be able to do some of the commands by knowing keystrokes that will activate those things. And it takes time to learn them.

VALERIE: Well, and if you think of if you’re in college, and you have your tablet or your phone, and that’s what you’re doing most of your work on, and it breaks, and the only thing you have is the computers that are in the library at school, you have to. You know, you have to know this in order to get through that.

KATE KATULAK: Right. And there’s more limitations to using a tablet, or we haven’t even mentioned note taking devices yet, which I think are really getting better. They’re faster. They’re more user friendly. They can do a whole lot more. The interfaces have really, really changed, and they’re competitive. They are competitors to laptop computers and to tablets. But they’re not quite there yet. So students definitely need typing skills, and they need computer skills if they’re going to be in college environments, keeping up with their peers.

LESLIE THATCHER: I think sometimes we get asked what’s the best device, what should I do?

VALERIE: Yeah, give me a list.

LESLIE THATCHER: You may know where we go on this kind of stuff is, it’s complicated. But there is no one best device. And as a teacher who I love the nuance each individual learner brings, and that it could not be more true in this case with technology. And I think one of those obstacles is finding the time and probably the money to do the kinds of assessments that need to be done and the kind of integration of the assessment of a student’s learning style, the way they process the world, the way they process language, the way they process ideas, and find the best tool to support them.

At the same time, if they have something that’s super easy, like an iPad or an iPhone, it seduces them into thinking they don’t need something that’s harder. And they think they’ve got it.

VALERIE: That’s a good point.

LESLIE THATCHER: And they resist. And so I think one of the, I guess, points I would like to make is try and get the most mainstream world that we’re working these students towards, as Kate says, the job skills that students need even after college. They need these skills. And I would like to see as many types of tools in a student’s hand as possible, as early as possible.

And we know that many students do have iPads in their hand right now, because they’re super versatile in so many ways. A student who needs voiceover and uses a screen reader, it works for them. A student who needs magnification, it works for them, right? But we know that students using magnification, for example, to read the quantity required for college level work, which on average, we’re looking at 150 to 200 pages a week, a week, of reading. It’s very difficult to do efficiently and effectively and without a really wicked bad backache, right? I mean, we know that. We know there’s physical fatigue and it’s what position you read in.

So they have to be becoming fluent in an alternative form of accessing that material soon, not in grade 12, not when they’re a freshman in college. I would argue, like, sixth grade, so that you have dual options, and you can swing back and forth between the ones that work best, and you can think in a nuanced way that, well, for this app, this need, I can use my vision. But for this need, I need to get through a lot of reading.

I know that I’m not the best auditory learner, but I have these techniques to work around that, because I’ve learned how to use outlines or I’ve learned how to write out my own outline to make sure I fill everything in or to grab the outline of the book. Do you know what I’m saying? So shifting these different expectations that are set up with it’s so easy to swipe on the iPad. I don’t mean to beat up on an the iPad. They’re awesome, and they do tons of stuff. But it it can be misleading in terms of one’s skills.

And so then when you ask them, they think they’re great, and really, they may not have ever even used Microsoft Word before. And yet, they may have to get a paper back from the professor– they may have to submit a paper in Word to a professor and then you take the comments that professor has made in the comments, know how to read them, using whatever their preferred learning medium is, reading medium, and then integrate those comments into an edit for that paper.

That just doesn’t happen overnight for anybody. But you start layering on some of the other learning curves that the students that we’re talking about, the automaticity has to be established earlier. The fluency has to be established earlier. The confidence needs to be established earlier.

KATE KATULAK: Let’s talk a little bit about fluency, because that takes me to how students access information. And as you said, some students can be very fluent when reading or navigating on a particular device, like a tablet. But is it the best way? Is it the most efficient way? Is it really capitalizing on the way that they learn best? And a student should know that by the time they finish high school.

And it’s a real struggle for teachers, because when we’re talking about accessing information, you know, there’s braille, there’s regular print, there’s large print, and there’s a whole lot of technology. And sometimes using one of those mediums is not enough. We really have to anticipate changes, different environmental circumstances. There’s a whole lot of factors that go into choosing what reading medium an individual needs in different learning environments, and so as we’re thinking ahead to college, we’ve already said that a student may read 150 or more pages per week.

And so through our learning media assessments, if we’ve determined that a student with low vision is learning best through large print or with the use of an electronic video magnifier, great, but does that mean when the reading demands increase exponentially by the time they’re in their freshman psychology or sociology, or whatever class, are they going to be able to keep up without experiencing eye strain or headaches, fatigue, anxiety about just all of the work that they have to do, or would it be appropriate if in the younger years, we introduce text to speech, if we introduce speech software? Even though it’s not their preferred way of accessing information, even though right now, it’s not how they learn best, we have to consider the transitions that are to come, and these are habits that have to be formed.

A student cannot suddenly just begin learning by listening if the text is complicated, like academic articles and textbooks often are in college. They’re not just going to suddenly, OK, my vision has gotten worse or because the reading demands have increased, now I suddenly have to rely on listening, so I’m just going to do it. It takes a lot of time to develop those skills. And we have to start young.

LESLIE THATCHER: I bring in the and then what about unintentional challenge while you’re learning this new technique of reading, and it’s difficult or an auditory processing disorder that’s been undiagnosed, and you’re suddenly trying to read. And it may not be processing effectively or efficiently in your brain, but you keep trying, and it’s not working, but you don’t have a concept for why that is, and that breaks my heart to think about. But it happens.

And so there are so many layers. And the earlier we can get ahead of that, we can help a student see where those bumps in the road might be and turn them into bumps, not roadblocks, and so the earlier, the better is really, I think, a mantra that we’re finding, perhaps.

VALERIE: And I think that mantra pretty much sums up my last question, which was what do you recommend as a means to solve this problem? And so your mantra, the earlier, the better.

LESLIE THATCHER: I think to begin with, yeah. Normalizing these things is a part of the work with any student at any age would be another element I would throw in. And working together, I think, to begin to create some intentional paths of competency building, I guess. A summer session here in one topic and a summer session there and another topic are very integrated in this skill development and the holistic building of foundational concepts of self, of competency, and of someone getting to know you as a student, right?

But if there’s an intentional sequence of skill building that goes on over time, that we can all kind of agree upon, that might be something we can begin to think about as professionals. And we’re beginning to create that list. I don’t know, Kate, do you–

KATE KATULAK: Well, I want to add we need to make sure that qualified staff are providing technology instruction. I am so pleased with the release of this CATA certification. We are equalizing standards so that teachers who are providing tech instruction to our students know what we’re talking about, and I’ve already gone on and on about all the demands that are put on a TVI. and just keeping up with all the tech is so tough, and it’s too much in many cases to expect that one person is going to be able to teach students of every age level and every type of visual impairment and visual needs all the different devices that are out there. There’s just no way to keep up.

So we need to make sure that it may mean that multiple people are pushing into our schools and teaching students various devices. You may have one tech teacher who is really skilled with blindness technology. You may have another tech teacher whose expertise is more with working with individuals who have low vision, and that’s OK. It doesn’t always have to be one person teaching everything.

We’re all in it for the benefit of our student. We all want to make sure that we are creating the best possible learning environments for them, and we have to recognize that sometimes, it can’t all be put on the TVI. Sometimes it can. There are a lot of really amazing TVIs out there who are just doing it all, and I commend you. I don’t know how you do it. I’ve been in public schools as an itinerant teacher. I’ve been at Perkins working in classrooms as a TVI, and I know how hard it is.

And so I just want to say, sometimes, it’s OK to say, you know what, I’m not the best person to be teaching JAWS because I’ve never used it before. So I’m going to reach out into the community, and I’m going to find other resources, and it is on the district to make sure that this student is getting those needs, and I just don’t have time in my caseload to learn JAWS in and out, so let’s contract with someone else who already has those skills.

And I’m going to get a lot of backlash, I think, from the TVI community. But I think it’s important to be said that we have a lot of expectations on us, and we just want to do the best for each of our students. And sometimes, somebody else has to step in and provide some of that training. And I just think that’s OK.

LESLIE THATCHER: For perspective on that and to back up what you’re saying, Kate, this is a layer of expectation on the TVI job description that’s new, and I have this cute little list here of major technological innovations in the last 30 years, and for example, in 1982, the first IBM computer was presented. In 2007, the first iPhone was sold, the first smartphone, which is what we’re talking about here, right?

In 2008, the first Android phone was launched. And in 2010, the first iPad was launched. So let’s see. This is 2019. So we’re saying roughly a decade, and the CATA certification is the beginning of really catching up with that and its impact on– it’s amazing, extraordinary, wonderful implications, but allowing us to find a way to best use those implications as early as possible.

And so I think what Kate said is fair. This is a huge addition of knowledge and of skill, and we haven’t quite figured out how to integrate it all in. And just look at those dates. It’s such a fast moving world right now.

VALERIE: Well, Kate, you mentioned you might get backlash from the TVI community. But why would you get backlash?

KATE KATULAK: Because TVIs are the go to person for everything vision related, and that includes assistive technology. And so there is an expectation, oftentimes, from the families and the schools that the TVI is supposed to be the person to teach technology. They usually don’t have another assistive technology specialist in their district. And if they do, what I think a lot of people don’t understand– TVIs certainly get this, but in general, in the world of disability, I think that people don’t understand the nuance between an assistive technology specialist and someone who specializes in blindness technology. There is a real difference.

So even if the district has an AT specialist, they may not really know well blindness technology. And so it’s this CATA certification that does focus on technology for the visually impaired. And I mean, I can tell you in my teacher preparation program when I was studying to become a TVI, I think I got– I can’t remember now if it was one or two semesters, probably one semester of assistive technology instruction. And a large part of the reason that I am– what I like to think that I am the effective tech instructor that I am today in many ways is one, because I take time aside to learn things as they come out, but part of the reason I do that is because I’m blind myself, and I’m a user of the technology.

So I can teach a student how to use JAWS and how to use voiceover very easily, because it’s second nature to me. I use it all the time every day, but many TVIs do not have that advantage, and it’s an expectation that they just learn it on their own, and I’m going to be the first to say that there isn’t always time with all those other things that I’ve already talked about, but people are protective of their jobs and of the services that they’re providing to students, and I don’t in any way want to threaten people’s sense of the services, the adequacy of the services that they’re giving to students, but I do want to challenge people to question, am I teaching this student at the level that they need to learn in order to reach their next goals?

And if that is college and success in college, then technology is going to be a huge part of that. It already will be in their high school years and younger. And if they don’t have the skills, and if you don’t have the skills to teach them, it’s OK to contract out, and let’s find someone who can step in. It’s not a reflection on any one person. It’s a reflection of the way that the system is set up right now and how technology has changed and continues to evolve and become a central part of our students’ learning. But the TVI system, in many ways, hasn’t caught up yet, because we’re just expected to do too much.

VALERIE: Well, I guess I was thinking that the TVI can show them how to adapt or adapt their material curriculum using the technology. But I would never have thought that they were required to or expected to show the child or a student how to use, it you know? So there’s a difference. One you’re just using the tool as it’s intended. The other is teaching the tool. So I guess– I mean, I just learned something new that I didn’t know that they were expected to know.

KATE KATULAK: Well because assistive technology is one of the nine strands of the expanded core curriculum, and the expanded core curriculum is the Bible for– well, not the Bible, because it’s not– well, it is a book sold by Perkins, but–

VALERIE: No, I’m just kidding.

KATE KATULAK: The expanded core curriculum is the foundation of skills that need to be taught by the teacher of the visually impaired. And because assistive technology is one of them, it falls on the plate of the TVI to teach them.

VALERIE: I know from me going to school, I’m comparing it to, like, gym class. My homeroom teacher would never have taught me how to play kickball, you know? They send me to gym, and then the gym teacher shows you how to play kickball. Where the teacher is there to– English, you know, writing, history, et cetera, depending on what grade you’re in. So I guess I looked at it like that. So yeah, I agree with you.

KATE KATULAK: And it’s different. It’s different depending on the place. It depends on the school system. It depends on the district. There are so many variables. So there very well could be technology instructors hired by districts who do specialize in blindness technology. But it’s not always the case. I’m especially thinking about some rural areas who they don’t have a lot of students who are visually impaired, and TVIs, other teachers are stretched too thin. Their cases that are just too large. And when can they possibly learn all these things?

VALERIE: And some of them, the larger states, especially, there’s only a couple, and they’re going all over that state, so you figure a state like Nebraska, which is huge, you know, they don’t have a very simple day. They’re not going to school to school to school. They’re going across the state to help the next kid.

KATE KATULAK: So then, let’s put in a plug for the very topic of this podcast technology. We are not limited by the environment as much as we once were. We can tap into our online resources and the TVIs and other technology instructors who are out there in other states, maybe in other countries, who can offer trainings by phone, by Skype, by video chat through a computer.

VALERIE: Did you want to add anything else?

LESLIE THATCHER: No, I actually think that’s a wonderful, helpful, real world potential to address this significant time crunch and resource gap. So yeah, you’re here.

VALERIE: Thank you again, ladies. Thank you very much, and we will be talking soon again.

LESLIE THATCHER: We look forward to it. Thanks a lot.

KATE KATULAK: Thank you.


SPEAKER 2: Perkins eLearning To Go is a production of Perkins eLearning at Perkins School for the Blind. Perkins eLearning partners with school districts and agencies to provide customized training for educators of students with visual impairments and additional disabilities. Training agreements with Perkins eLearning give you the school-wide range you’re looking for without having to take on the logistics of managing your program.

We are an ACVREP certified provider and are approved for continuing teacher and leader education CTLE requirements by the state of New York in addition to providing professional development points and continuing education credits. Certain titles are eligible for ASHA and AOTA credits. Contact us at [email protected] to discuss your training needs both short and long term, [email protected].

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