Volume XI Number 1, August 2005

Applications of Electronic Technology to Rural Gifted Students Who are Blind or Visually Impaired

Frank P. Belcastro
Northeast Iowa Community College


Electronic technology can be used to overcome many of the restrictive factors or barriers to delivering services to rural schools and it can expand the world of rural gifted students who are blind or visually impaired. On-line college and high school sites offering courses are listed. Also listed is a site for tutoring and one offering help for teachers of rural gifted students who are blind or visually impaired. Recommendations are made for legislatures and for rural school districts.

One population of students missing from much of the research literature on rural schools is gifted students, including gifted students who are blind or visually impaired (Spicker, Southern & Davis, 1987). They face serious challenges: they are often not identified, are not provided with sufficient resources, are not given support, are not provided with appropriate educational programs, and are less likely to receive special services. (Cross & Dixon, 1998; Hebert & Beardsley, 2001; Howley, Howley & Pendarvis, 2003; Jones & Southern, 1992; Kearney, 1991; Seal & Harmon, 1995; Spicker, 1992).

The U.S. Office of Education, in its 1993 report, defined gifted children: “Children and youth with outstanding talent perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of their age, experience, or environment. These children or youth exhibit high performance capability in intellectual, creative, and/or artistic areas, possess an unusual leadership capacity, or excel in specific academic fields” (National Excellence, 1993, pp. 54-57).

One of the major characteristics of gifted students, perhaps the key characteristic, is that their rate of dealing with new information is much faster than the average. Evidence of this comes both from evaluation of gifted students’ learning in classroom situations and from experimental psychology (George & Denham, 1976; Keating & Bobbitt, 1978).

Because of their giftedness, intellectually gifted students will be condemned to review material in their classes that they have mastered two or three years before unless some special programming or interventions are provided for them (Gallagher & Gallagher, 1994).

In addition to economic and cultural conditions, rural schools that serve gifted students who are blind or visually impaired are limited in their ability to deliver services. Each of the following factors must be considered when designing a service delivery system for rural gifted students who are blind or visually impaired: geographic barriers, seasonal problems such as heavy flooding, the continuum of population sparsity, the differing variations of English spoken in rural communities when clustering students, the labor needs of differing rural communities which involve the use of students, and the barrier of inadequate teacher preparation because teacher training institutions most often do not take into account rural education in their training programs much less consider the training of teachers for rural gifted students (Gear, 1994; Helge, 1994; Sarkees, 1990).

How can states and rural school districts overcome these limiting factors? A promising solution lies in the area of electronic technology.


Electronic technology is “any equipment or interconnected system or subsystem of equipment, that is used in the automatic acquisition, storage, manipulation, management, movement, control, display, switching, interchange, transmission, or reception of data or information” (Federal Communications Commission, 2004).

Schools in the United States and the world over are increasingly using technologies from satellites to personal computers. The use of electronic technology is a major tool of the information age and is particularly important in the context of rural education, where the transmission of information is relevant to many rural problems (Attkisson, 1996; Lewis, 1999). For rural schools, the use of electronic technology offers particular benefits from which the smallest and most isolated schools can potentially gain the most. In addition, the use of electronic technology will dramatically reduce the problematic impact of time and distance on rural education (Baldus & Colangelo, 2003; Hofmeister, 1994), as well as overcome many of the factors or barriers to service delivery previously mentioned (Aamidor & Spicker, 1995; Maddux, 1998).

The intent of using electronic technology is not to replace a high quality teacher and classroom; the intent is to use it as a tool which educators can use to provide needed services (which many rural gifted students who are blind or visually impaired are not presently receiving) more effectively and efficiently.

The use of electronic technology is an equalizer of the access to education. For as long as one has access, one’s age or gender or socioeconomic, geographic, or population-density circumstances will not hinder one’s access to information; thus, access to electronic technology will greatly assist students in acquiring knowledge and taking advantage of educational opportunities.

Although most rural schools have access to some type of technology, such as audio and videotapes and/or instructional television as well as two-way television, it is the use of personal computers to connect to electronic mail (e-mail), the Internet, and CD-ROMs that holds the most promise for removing the isolation of rural school districts and communities (Chandler & Maddux, 1998; Maddux, 1996).

Research comparing distance education to traditional classroom instruction shows that teaching at a distance can be as effective as traditional instruction when the method and technologies used are appropriate to the instructional tasks (Beck, 2002; Partow-Navid & Slusky, 1999; Zucker & Kozma, 2003).

Obviously, rural gifted students who are blind or visually impaired are challenged in learning and communicating because they are blind or visually impaired. The use of electronic technology would be of severely limited use to them unless some intervening products could convert the contents of the computer screen to speech. These screen-reader products exist and the most accessible way for the blind and visually impaired to become computer functional is through screen-reading voice software.



One example of screen-reading voice software is RealSpeak software (ScanSoft, 2003). This program can read the text on a computer screen aloud. Because many professors use Web sites to provide class updates, the blind or visually impaired can now use RealSpeak to access these updates.


Another is Job Access with Speech (JAWS) for Windows that uses an integrated voice synthesizer and the computer’s sound card to output the content of a computer screen to speakers. Users can adjust voice rate, pitch, and amount of punctuation spoken. Because Braille is by far the most common tactile system used by the blind or visually impaired, JAWS helps them by providing line-by-line Braille on a specialized keyboard that changes or refreshes according to the text on the screen (Freedom Scientific, 2003c).

IBM Home Page Reader

Not only does the IBM Home Page Reader (HPR) bring spoken access to the Internet for the blind or visually impaired user, it also converts Web information text in columns, tables, date input fields, and graphic description to speech. Support for low vision users permits customization of font size, background, color, and other display elements (Technology Round-Up, 2002).

OpenBook and WYNN Wizard

For printed information that is physically present, OpenBook and WYNN Wizard (Freedom Scientific, 2003a) convert written text to speech for the blind or visually impaired. For the low vision user, the MAGic software magnifies the computer screen (Freedom Scientific, 2003b).


Students with low vision have been conducting geographic research for some time and tactile maps have allowed students who are Braille readers to explore geographic information. Now the blind and severely visually impaired can access geographic maps using the map-navigation software Blind Audio Tactile Mapping System (BATS). It takes digital map information and provides non-visual feedback as the user moves a cursor across the map. As the cursor passes over a name, a speech synthesizer pronounces the name; as it passes over land, one hears the sound of horses galloping; as it passes over water, one hears the sound of waves breaking (Tosczak, 2002). Initial success with this software, as with all software, will depend on whether the user’s visual impairment is congenital or adventitious and on the user’s previous experience with computers. Other screen-reader products and adaptive technology devices for the blind and visually impaired can be located at http://www.adaptivetech.net and Technology Round-Up, 2002. Thus, being visually impaired is no longer as great a challenge in learning and communicating as it was before these products existed.

But these screen-reading products have limitations. Using them, the blind or visually impaired rural gifted students cannot access information that a screen-reader cannot describe, nor can they learn concepts that would be accessible only through vision; these require the intervention of a teacher. Also, the vast majority of web sites that are highly graphically oriented are nearly totally inaccessible using screen-reading software.

This year, 68% of American colleges and universities will offer on-line learning (Report on distance learning, 2000). More than 6000 accredited college courses are offered on the Web, and 84% of four-year colleges were estimated to offer distance-learning courses by 2003 (Worldwide College, 1999).

Through its computer-based courses, which primarily use CD-ROM, the Education Program for Gifted Youth at Stanford University offers rural middle school and high school students courses that are substantially beyond grade level. Rural middle school students are able to take calculus, and rural high school students are able to take university level courses and receive credit for them (Ravaglia, 2000).

Because cost is a factor for the parents of rural gifted students who are blind or visually impaired, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology plans to make the materials for nearly all its courses freely available over the Internet in the next ten years. MIT said that its Website—MIT OpenCourseWare—would include lecture notes, course outlines, reading lists and assignments for each course. Over the next decade, the project expects to provide materials for over 2000 courses across MIT’s entire curriculum, including engineering, arts, humanities, science, and social sciences (Long, 2002; Margulies, 2003).

Other colleges offering distance learning courses across the United States are, for example, California National University (http://www.cnvas.edu); Utah State University (http://online.usu.edu); Indiana State University (http://indstate.edu/distance); West Virginia University (http://www.wvu.edu/~exlearn); State University of New York (http://sln.suny.edu) and a host of others which can be located at http://dir.yahoo.com/Education/Distance_Learning/Colleges_ and_Universities. In addition, Peterson’s (http://www.petersons.com) online directory of distance learning identifies some 1,100 institutions—large and small, well-known and less-known, public, private, and for-profit—that provide online degree programs (Green, 2003). For many rural gifted students who are blind or visually impaired who desire to pursue degrees, the Internet may be their only viable access to higher education because of their geographic isolation.

High school courses are available all over the United States. They are offered by Mesa Public Schools (http://www.mdlp.org); North Dakota Division of Independent Studies (http://www.dis.dpi.state.nd.us); Oklahoma State University K-12 Academy (http://extension.okstate.edu/K12.htm); Yukon River Academy (http://yra.gcisa.net); Babbage Net School (http://www.babbagenetschool.com/index_home.html); Evergreen Internet Academy (http://eia.egreen.wednet.edu); John Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth (http://cty.jhu.edu/cde) and other virtual high schools which can be located at http://dir.yahoo.com/Education/Distance_Learning/K_12.

For those parents of rural gifted students who are blind or visually impaired interested in Christian schools and home schooling, a list of at least ten schools can be located at http://dir.yahoo.com/Education/Theory_and_Methods/Homeschooling/Distance_Learning.

At times, rural gifted students who are blind or visually impaired can find no one qualified or knowledgeable to tutor them in subject matter. The Apex Learning Tutoring Network offers users the ability to select a qualified tutor from a list of selected educators based on cost, certification, and background. Students can either engage in an online tutoring session or select a tutor for a face-to-face session. To find a tutor, students can go to http://www.tutor.com.

Rural gifted students who are blind or visually impaired who use electronic technology need library resources to access databases. Jones e-global library (http://www.egloballibrary.com) is a virtual library manned by a team of thirty professional librarians and offers resources in the academic areas of humanities, social science, and science and technology (Technology Round-Up, 2001).

Help for teachers of rural gifted students who are blind or visually impaired is available. Educational Structures (http://www.pearsoned.com) is a teaching and learning tool designed for K-12 teachers which offers teachers access to thousands of comprehensive lesson plans customizable for rural gifted students who are blind or visually impaired, each supported by instructional resources, such as handouts, worksheets, teaching strategies, and assessment tools.

Because of its ruralness, Australia of necessity has been a leader in rural education and in the education of rural gifted students. There is one school devoted exclusively to gifted children that can be used by rural gifted students who are blind or visually impaired, Virtual School for the Gifted (http://www.vsg.edu.au), but the format and delivery of services of the remaining schools obviously provide for rural gifted students: the Distance Learning Centre in Victoria (http://www.distance.vic.edu.au), the Alice Springs School of the Air (http://www.assosa.nt.edu.au), and the Charters Towers School of Distance Education (http://www.chartowesde.qld.edu.au). Tutors at the Alice Springs School of the Air report a greater eagerness on the part of their students to settle down and study, to work for longer periods, to experiment with freer written expression, and to be more imaginative in completing assignments than their city counterparts.

The Education Department of Western Australia extended the use of technology to gifted and talented students in rural Western Australia with higher order thinking as a learning outcome. The evaluation of the project indicated that the interactive features of the technology provided task-related collaboration and gave the students the opportunity to interpret, discuss, and evaluate concepts, thereby leading to higher order thinking (McLoughlin & Oliver, 1998).

The Superhighway Teams Across Rural Schools (STARS) program located in Scotland has demonstrated how student learning was enhanced by the use of communications networks. Rural gifted students gained in increased problem-solving ability, and higher levels of motivation and task involvement. Also, they showed improvements in logical thinking skills, adopting special roles as leaders and coordinators, and taking responsibility for their own learning (Ewing, Dowling, & Coutts, 1997).

Three schools using electronic technology are designed specifically for gifted students and can be used by rural gifted students who are blind or visually impaired: the A. Linwood Holton Governor’s School serving rural gifted students in southwest Virginia; the Regional Electronic Magnet School specializing in mathematics and science located in eastern Massachusetts; and the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and Humanities, a state-supported residential school for academically gifted juniors and seniors in high school (Adams & Cross, 1999-2000).

The role of the teacher remains unchanged. As an expert in curriculum adaptation, the teacher pieces together into a mosaic the materials and experiences that constitute an individualized curriculum tailored specifically for each individual blind or visually impaired rural gifted student. S/he will continue to accommodate the certified orientation and mobility instructor; continue to use Recording for the Blind, if needed; and continue to make use of the outreach services of schools for the blind or visually impaired to rural areas, when available. For the rural gifted student, the Hadley School for the Blind is of limited use: it does not accommodate elementary school students; its correspondence courses are basic ones; and only the computer literacy course on access to the Internet academically aids the rural gifted student.

The basic core curriculum, the knowledge and skills expected to be learned by a student by high school graduation, is the responsibility of the regular classroom teacher; the expanded core curriculum is the responsibility of educators serving blind or visually impaired students and includes areas that are not adequately addressed by the regular classroom teacher, nor should they be (American Foundation for the Blind, 2004).

Because gifted students learn in a fraction of the time that regular students do, there is time in the class day to engage in enrichment and/or acceleration activities such as the courses taught online at various high schools and universities. It is the teacher who determines the extent of use of online courses depending on the needs of the individual students.

These electronic technologies will most aid the rural gifted students who are blind or visually impaired and their teachers and make the following not only possible but routine: provisions for differentiated learning; virtual visits to all types of industries, governmental agencies, and institutions; exposure to different ideas through interviews with prominent and/or controversial persons; advanced study in the content areas; library searches for needed information and for research activities; communication and collaboration with other schools and with teachers and trainers of teachers for gifted students; and interaction with mentors for rural gifted students who are blind or visually impaired.

The application of these electronic technologies will be limited only by the imagination of the persons using them and, unfortunately, by fiscal considerations. The acquisition of the initial hardware and software and the cost of training staff in electronic technology will be the primary fiscal problems, especially since rural education has been traditionally under-funded.


Because the prime responsibility of federal and state legislatures is to act in the public interest and to resolve matters of public concern (Ruppert, 1996), it is recommended that state legislatures take the following steps to aid the public:

It is recommended that both federal and state legislatures “make powerful new Internet resources, especially broadband access, widely and equitably available and affordable for all learners” (Grush, 2001); fund the purchase of high-speed phone lines (Knapczyk, Rodes, & Chung, 1998) and fund hardware and software for use with electronic technology in rural schools; fund the cost of continuous rural staff and teacher training in electronic technology (Schweizer, 1999; White & Weight, 2000); fund for rural teachers the cost of attending workshops in all aspects of gifted education (Witters & Vasa, 1981); and give gifted students, especially gifted students who are blind or visually impaired, the same fiscal consideration that they give to handicapped students.

State administrators should take advantage of grants under the Assistive Technology Act of 1998. Title II of the Act authorizes funding for grants or other mechanisms to address the unique assistive technology needs of urban and rural areas; Title III of the Act provides for alternative financing mechanisms for people with disabilities to purchase assistive technology devices and services (Council for Exceptional Children, 2004).

An additional responsibility of state administrators is to inform the disabled of the assistive technologies available. The results of one survey of students with different disabilities indicate that many students did not know about the types of computer technologies that could be helpful to them or about available subsidy programs (Fossey, Fichten, Barile, & Asuncion, 2001).

Both state and local school administrators can find further assistance at one of the Disability and Business Technical Assistance Centers (DBTAC). The National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research has established ten of these regional centers to provide information, training, and technical assistance to employers, people with disabilities, and other entities with responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The center acts as a central, comprehensive resource on ADA issues. Of special interest to school administrators and to those with involvement in education settings will be materials and technical assistance developed to assist in efforts to make educational experiences accessible to all participants (ADA & IT Technical Assistance Centers, 2004).

The responsibilities of rural school districts are many. They must provide a staff member at the supervisory or administrative level who will be responsible for the gifted program in their schools. Without administrative responsibility and oversight, the gifted program does not receive the needed attention at the level where funding and resource decisions are made; ownership of the gifted program is absent and neglect is the inevitable consequence.

Rural school districts must set special requirements for teachers in gifted programs or request the legislature to mandate them; they must set district-wide goals for gifted programs; include parents, teachers, administrators, and students in their advisory groups for their gifted programs; establish special procedures for evaluating gifted programs at the district level; and involve parents in the rural school programs for their gifted children, including those who have gifted children who are blind or visually handicapped, so that they feel that they have ownership in the programs and so that they learn important ways to reinforce classroom activities (Baldwin, 1994).

Rural school districts should also apply for funds for electronic technology through the Education rate (E-rate) program. The E-rate program was established in 1996 to make services, Internet access, and internal connections available to schools and libraries at discount rates based upon the income level of the students in their community and whether their location is urban or rural; the poorest applicants receive the largest discounts (90%) and rural communities receive up to a 10% additional discount (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2000).

Telephone and telecommunication companies must make a commitment to connect all schools in their area to the Internet on high capacity lines free of charge, but give priority to rural schools, as Bell Atlantic has done (Seal & Harmon, 1995).


All students should be developed to their fullest potential; gifted students, because of their greater potential for making contributions to society, should not have their gifts neglected. As part of the gifted population, the needs of rural gifted students who are blind or visually impaired should not be overlooked and can be uniquely met by the use of electronic technology in order to help them develop into strong, independent, individuals by providing these students with the ability to compete as equals with their peers.


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