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Digital schooling innovation

Remote learning system aimed at hospital-bound and disabled kids, but may have other uses — if it works

Prague appears to be at the center of yet another revolution — this time in the area of education.

An experimental and technologically advanced project called Digital Home School, operating under the auspices of Prague’s Hermes Civic Association, would make remote classroom learning available to hospital-bound or home-schooled children through a sophisticated high-tech learning system.

What makes the Digital Home School concept unique is its combination of Internet and digital technology that creates a virtual learning environment where teacher and student can see and communicate with each other in real time.

The technologies at the center of the project are not altogether new, but the way in which they are integrated into a single system is quite unique and, if proved workable, would be at the cutting-edge of many current remote learning programs.

In the Digital Home School model, teacher and student both have video cameras that relay live, two-way visual feeds to each other and laptop computers with screens spit into three sections that serve different functions. In one section of the screen, teacher and student see each other through the visual feed. In another section, the student can view word documents, Power Point presentations and other educational materials the instructor would upload. The third window functions like a live chat room, where teacher and student communicate in real time using the computer keypad — the student can ask or answer a question, or take an exam.

The project, in development since 2005, was the brainchild of Petr Vrabec, who works in the Department of Modern Technologies at ČSOB, one of the country’s largest banks. Digital Home School was initially designed for children at the elementary-school level. Vrabec says it has received funding from the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry and is seeking further funds from the European Union. So far, the cost of developing the system has reached almost 2 million Kč ($113,380), according to Vrabec.

The project eventually found its way to Motol Hospital in Prague 5. To test the system, the team interviewed a number of potential candidates and finally selected Dan Vaculík, a 15-year-old cancer patient at the hospital and a student at Dana and Emil Zátopek’s Sports Grammar School in Ostrava, east Moravia.

“We don’t want to say the project can only be used in hospitals,” says Ondřej Babica, a former teacher in east Moravia who is part of the project’s team, “but Dan and the technical equipment in Motol, plus his school in Ostrava, were very helpful in creating the best conditions for the pilot project.”

In November, the integrated system was put in place, connecting the hospital to Dan’s school. A two-hour test of the system was run, where Dan participated in two class sessions broadcast from his school. Although the tests appears to have gone well technologically, what has ruffled the feathers of some who had agreed to participate in the project is that they had expected a much longer test trial period than the two hours of instruction Dan received.

Babica says he heard about the situation and says he regrets they could not have provided more sessions for Dan, as many had expected.

“I understand completely that the parents, doctors and psychologists feel upset,” he says. “There were some minor complications caused by the Hermes executive council. This project doesn’t have their main interest, that’s why the original plan was to try out that experimental broadcast and finish with the project.”

Babica adds that the funding allocation was only enough for the two-hour experimental broadcast.
“I have to say we feel frustrated about the current situation as well,” he says, “and we are doing our best to continue to project.”

Vrabec and Babica are now waiting to find out whether INOWIS, a Prague technology firm that developed the software for the system, also intends to continue development, which would require additional funding. Babica says future plans would include testing the system with disabled and homebound students at the high-school level and possibly with home-schooled kids.

“At the moment, we are analyzing the pilot version of the broadcast,” Babica says. “First, we want to hear from INOWIS, which will inform us of ways the project can be improved. Most of all, we want to hear from them about whether we can extend the content of the application … what else can be transmitted to the student and back to the teacher.”

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