Board questions value of 'virtual field trips'


With picturesque prose and visions of virtual reality field trips, Baltimore County school personnel pushed hard last night for a $5 million contract that would put the county on the cutting edge of high-tech learning.

But board members weren't necessarily sold.

In a lengthy discussion, they questioned the educational results and the possibility of other firms doing the job cheaper and better, or at least as well. The school officials are negotiating a three-year contract with Educational Management Group Inc., of Scottsdale, Ariz., which would bring the equipment and technology to 68 county schools and teacher-training sites. But the board must approve the contract, which it is likely to vote on at its August meeting, before the deal is closed.

"EMG has opened a whole new world of learning," said Stephen W. Mackert, principal of Mars Estates Elementary School, one of nine county schools already using EMG services.

Daniel Scroggs, a teacher at Hillendale Elementary School, said the technology "can send students on virtual field trips without leaving the classroom."

According to company officials, students have traveled on that network to the Amazon to study rain forest species or to Alberta, Canada, to accompany paleontologists on a dinosaur dig. The EMG technology also is used for teacher training, electronic mail, polling and other administrative purposes.

But board member Robert Dashiell asked, "Why is all that necessary?What is the result of that pilot in concrete terms?" he asked, referring to schools that tried EMG services from March to June of this year. "Speak to me in grades, in test scores. Don't tell me they love the videos."

Mr. Dashiell and other members asked repeatedly if other companies did not offer the same services.

Robert Cox, the school system's technology coordinator, assured the board that no other firms could match EMG, though "other companies are racing to get here."

Nearly every speaker lauded EMG's "Custom Curriculum," which tailors programs to a teacher's specific needs and subject matter. School officials assured board members that this is "unique" to EMG.

According to public documents available to The Sun, EMG has obtained at least five contracts in Baltimore County schools totaling $1.5 million since 1993.

In January 1993, Woodmoor Elementary School, Woodlawn Middle School and Woodlawn High School were selected as pilot sites for EMG's interactive learning program. Other schools where EMG technology was installed were Church Lane Elementary School, Cromwell Elementary Regional Magnet School of Technology and Hillendale.

EMG develops and distributes customized multimedia instructional materials on line as well as live inter active television services to more than a million students in 3,500 schools nationwide, officials said.

The company distributes its services through a global network that consists of satellite feeds and a private, broadband wide area network.

The EMG services are not accompanied by commercials.

"It is the wave of the future," said Andrew Giangola, spokesman for Simon and Shuster, EMG's parent company in New York.

"It is an electronic blackboard, the most effective use of television in the U.S.A."

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