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January 23, 2008

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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June 5, 2002

UN envoy confirms terrorist meeting

Kmonicek says Al-Ani, Atta spoke in Prague

The Czech envoy to the UN has confirmed that an Iraqi agent met with suspected Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta, in the latest rebuke to widespread U.S. media reports dismissing the Prague encounter as a fabrication.

“The meeting took place,” Hynek Kmonicek, a former deputy foreign minister, told The Prague Post flatly in a New York City interview.

Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross announced last fall that Atta and Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, a second consul at the Iraqi Embassy in Prague, had conversed at least once, in April 2001. Gross would not rule out other encounters.

The controversial meeting became known as “the Prague connection” and was mentioned frequently as a possible pretext for renewed hostilities between the United States and Iraq.

Al-Ani was expelled from the Czech Republic April 22, 2001 — less than a month after the conversation — for “engaging in activities beyond his diplomatic duties,” a phrase usually reserved for allegations of spying or terrorist-related activities.

Kmonicek, the Czech Republic’s UN envoy since October, is the most senior government official to openly confirm the encounter since unnamed U.S. intelligence officials began challenging it in anonymous comments reported last month by Newsweek magazine, The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Kmonicek, considered a Middle East expert, once directed the Middle East department of the Foreign Ministry.

In the interview, Kmonicek said he ordered al-Ani’s expulsion after failing to receive answers from the Iraqi chief of mission regarding al-Ani’s role in Prague.

“He didn’t know [what al-Ani was up to],” Kmonicek said. “He just didn’t know.”

Kmonicek refused to label al-Ani a spy, however.

Last fall, international media widely reported that Atta, a 33-year-old Egyptian who allegedly piloted one of the hijacked Sept. 11 jetliners, and al-Ani had spoken in Prague — though the subject of their meetings was never positively revealed.

The rendezvous between the al-Qaida operative and the Iraqi intelligence agent was confirmed by Prime Minister Milos Zeman, who told CNN in October that the two men were scheming to destroy the headquarters of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Zeman later backtracked, saying he was describing only one possible scenario.

In recent weeks, unnamed U.S. law enforcement and intelligence sources have been quoted as saying the Czechs may have made up the encounter or at the very least confused the dates.

Although Atta flew from Prague to the United States in June 2000, the sources said that the Czech intelligence apparatus, the Security Information Service (BIS), had failed to convince them Atta and al-Ani ever came face to face.

The Newsweek report hinted that the Czech government might actually have retracted the allegation and apologized to the United States for making the error.

But Kmonicek, a government official with top security clearance, was adamant that al-Ani and Atta met in April 2001, as Czech officials have stated repeatedly.

“At the time [of the meeting] I was in Prague,” he said. “It’s not like they [the Czech government] sent me a cable saying, ‘Say this because you are our ambassador.’ It’s not like that. I was the person who had to [expel] al-Ani.”

Last October, in an interview with The Times of London, Kmonicek raised alarm bells about the possible significance of the meeting. “It is not a common thing for an Iraqi diplomat to meet a student from a neighboring country,” he said. He made similar remarks to Newsweek, which apparently did not seek him out when it reported the recent U.S. rebuttals.

Atta was an architecture student and draftsman in Hamburg, Germany, during the 1990s. He is believed to have visited Prague at least twice in 2000 and 2001.

One senior Czech official familiar with details of the Atta/al-Ani matter and who requested anonymity speculated that the media reports dismissing the meeting were the result of a “guided leak.”

This source said officials determined to influence President George W. Bush away from entering into renewed conflict with Iraq could have provided such a leak.

The Prague meeting has been mentioned as a possible smoking gun directly linking Baghdad with the Sept. 11 attacks, though Bush said as recently as May 28 that the U.S. had no immediate plans to strike at Iraq.

Kmonicek said the Czech government collected detailed evidence of the al-Ani/Atta meeting, but declined to elaborate on the nature of the evidence.

At the same time, Kmonicek dismissed recent news agency reports that al-Qaida and members of Afghanistan’s deposed Taliban regime had regrouped in Eastern Europe, including the Czech Republic.

“The Interior Ministry opened an investigation and found nothing,” he said.

Kmonicek was unhappy at recent characterizations of the Czech Republic as a terrorist hub.

“If I wanted to set up an Arab spy network, I would go to Queens,” he said, referring to a borough of New York City with a sizable Middle Eastern population.

Prague, he said, has a small-town feel where “everybody knows everybody” and Arabs don’t blend in the way they might in Queens.

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