On a hot afternoon last week, several dozen teachers sat in a crowded library at Hillendale Elementary School firing questions into a telephone about lesson plans they had faxed to Arizona a short time before.
Their answers came via the library's television, from a young woman time zones away who chatted with them in an easy give-and-take. They could see her. They could hear her. She could hear them, and she acted as if she could see them, though she couldn't.
The session provided a peek at long-distance interactive learning by Educational Management Group Inc., the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company that has been ensnared in controversy while seeking a $5 million no-bid contract with Baltimore County schools.
EMG's proposal to expand its services to 68 county schools has sparked a debate over the company's practice of shepherding educators to its headquarters for product demonstrations and training, as well as a two- or three-day stay at a four-star hotel. About 70 county administrators and teachers have been EMG guests in Arizona since October; others have visited school systems in Orlando, Fla., where the company shows off its services.
However, questions about possible ethics violations have overshadowed other important issues in the expansion proposal, including the need for such technology, and the quality of what EMG produces for classroom use.
For example, Ray Suarez, president of the Teachers' Association of Baltimore County, says teachers have to do too much work for what they get in return from EMG services.
Other critics say that the quality of EMG's materials and programming are inferior, and that similar materials are available elsewhere. And some fear that this, and other technologies, will start to replace teachers, giving already sedentary youngsters more time in front of TVs and computers.
But Hillendale principal Ellen Rappoport, who oversees a school with high-tech equipment and services from several companies, considers EMG as another way to "extend the curriculum . . . and enrich and broaden student horizons" within the bounds of good instruction.
Hillendale, which is evolving into a magnet school called Halstead Academy, has had a contract with EMG since last fall, Ms. Rappoport says. It is one of the first nine county schools to use EMG since 1992; 30 others were included in a pilot program this spring.
Last week, the Hillendale teachers were getting better acquainted with EMG's "Custom Curriculum" -- the feature of what is essentially a high-tech reference service. EMG and school administrators say the service is unique, negating any need for the county to seek competitive bids before approving the company's contract.
Through the Custom Curriculum, "teachers are given the opportunity to request within reason almost anything they want," said Hillendale's technology coordinator, Daniel Scroggs. They cannot, for instance, ask EMG to go to Tokyo and interview children, but they can ask for, and get, a few minutes with someone who grew up there.
Following a teacher's specifications, "lessons designers" at EMG headquarters set up live satellite feeds that mesh with what Hillendale youngsters are learning, he said. The feeds last only 12 minutes each, so some lessons must be done in several segments.
For instance, a Hillendale teacher had faxed a sample request, asking for a lesson in the sign-language alphabet. The woman on EMG's end suggested that this would take several segments, and advised the teacher how to request them.
One of the most successful EMG lessons last year featured the Oregon Trail, Mr. Scroggs and Ms. Rappoport said. EMG's staff found a museum curator who was an expert, and the "live feed" that came into Hillendale was from the museum, with its collection of western memorabilia, including a Conestoga wagon.
The children talked with the curator, asking questions about items they were seeing on a television.
"We could never have brought them a covered wagon, otherwise," said Ms. Rappoport.
Although teachers used EMG more frequently as the school year progressed, Hillendale started slow and some teachers were unhappy with the services, Mr. Scroggs said.
Some found lessons prepared for other schools to be the least satisfactory.
"The best things we've gotten from EMG are when we've given them the most information," he said.
Andena S. Dixon is another believer in EMG's service.
"Our kids relate to this kind of education," said Ms. Dixon, principal of Baltimore's Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary, which has a contract with EMG. "They're more visual than kids of your generation and my generation. These kids were raised on TV from the time they come home from the hospital."
EMG has contracts worth $303,000 at three city schools and $271,000 in contracts pending at three more schools, city officials said.
Nationwide, more than 3,500 schools and 1 million students use EMG, which was founded in 1988 by Illinois educator and entrepreneur Gail Richardson.
This year, EMG was sold to publishing giant Simon & Schuster, which also operates Computer Curriculum Corp., another widely used classroom technology service. Several Baltimore County schools have contracts with that firm.
EMG supplies not only satellite feeds that classroom teachers can tune into, but also videotapes, audiotapes, compact discs for computers and televisions and booklets, similar to workbooks left over from the low-tech days. Through its contract with EMG, Hillendale has a satellite dish for the school and a television, a VCR, and CD-ROM, which works with the school's computers, in each classroom.
Throughout the school year, EMG runs a daily schedule of satellite lessons that anyone can tune in, though only one class can interact with. The company also sends crews on monthly trips.
Teachers already know that EMG will go to Japan in October, an Amazon rain forest in November, Egypt in December and Africa in January. They can then plan lessons linked to these destinations.