'The students come in with unflagging enthusiasm--even on school holidays.'
At first glance, there seems to be nothing unusual about the educational television program being aired to students in the classroom at South Hills High School in West Covina. But then a student in the classroom speaks to the face on the monitor.
"Excuse me, Miss Thompson," says the student, speaking into a microphone. "We don't understand that."
The face on the monitor responds: "OK, Chris. What is it you're having trouble with?"
Welcome to Polynet, a microwave television system that allows students in eight San Gabriel Valley school districts to talk back to their on-camera instructors at Cal Poly Pomona. University officials say it is the first such system in the state and the only one in the nation offering university course work to qualified high school students, although many districts offer some form of television teaching.
The program is the brainchild of Bob Threlkeld, an associate dean who came to Cal Poly a year ago to develop programs under an instructional broadcast license granted to the university by the Federal Communications Commission.
Threlkeld likens Polynet, which began last month, to "a giant conference call . . . (with) video reception." He said the program's primary goal is plumbing a new market for prospective Cal Poly students, because the traditional supply of students is diminishing.
Before the service began, Threlkeld said, he met with administrators from 15 area school districts to discuss educational services that Cal Poly could provide. Threlkeld said the educators generally agreed that the best service would be to air Cal Poly courses so that students could earn college credits while completing their high school curriculum.
University officials responded to Threlkeld's proposal for Polynet by allocating $150,000 to get the project started. Participating districts paid $4,100 each for the present two-quarter offerings.
A satellite dish facing Mt. Wilson was installed on the roof of the Fine Arts Building of Cal Poly's Kellogg West campus. A classroom was transformed into a mini-studio. Threlkeld agreed to install satellite dishes on participating high school campuses and to wire them for audio and telephone transmission if school districts would share the cost of instructors and courier services.
Signals beamed from Cal Poly to Mt. Wilson are rebroadcast to high schools in the Pomona, Walnut Valley, Rowland, West Covina, Covina-Valley, Charter Oak, Bonita and Claremont school districts.
But the system has not been without technical glitches. In its first days there were unexplained blackouts and static which, it turned out, were caused when Cal Poly campus security guards turned on their walkie-talkies. The problem was solved by moving the microwave transmitters into a steel box. Other problems, like audio feedback, are being mastered by engineer Ed Boykin and the student technicians he is training.
Courses offered include beginning psychology and two advanced math classes. Spring quarter classes will include beginning anthropology and philosophy and two advanced math courses.
The instructors from Cal Poly were selected not only for their teaching skills, but also for their ability to adjust to television instruction, Threlkeld said. Instructors talk into a camera while overhead cameras focus on charts and written materials placed on their desks instead of on blackboards.
"It's an exciting experience," said Carol Smith who teaches 12 units on campus in addition to her televised statistics class for high schoolers. "I can't see the kids but I can hear them from each school and I'm learning to identify their voices. They're wonderful--not passive or inhibited at all. They jump right in with questions and comments."
At exam time, tests are delivered to each school by couriers who then return them to Cal Poly for grading.
In all, 105 students are participating this quarter. The students were selected on the basis of grade-point averages, teacher recommendations and interest in the advanced course work. Most are seniors. Each math student was required to pass a qualifying exam. Many are drawn from programs for gifted and talented students and the group includes many from minority and low-income families, school officials said.
Some school officials say that scheduling has been a problem. William Poidevin, the principal of South Hills, said the courses must be offered at 7 a.m. and after 3 p.m. to avoid conflict with regular classes.
"Still," Poidevin said, "the students come in with unflagging enthusiasm--even on school holidays."
Other administrators report similar interest.
Threlkeld has plans for expanding Polynet to districts farther afield. Ironically, the program is now restricted not by a limited broadcast range, but by local telephone dialing areas. Phone lines are used for the students' audio hookup, and long distance phone rates could make the cost prohibitive, he said.
Moreover, Threlkeld noted, it is unclear whether funding will be available to continue the program. Future costs are estimated at $152 per student per course.
Jim Martin, assistant principal at Claremont High School, said qualified students would never be asked to pay for the courses in his district. "The school board would not support the program if it were only available to those who could afford it," Martin said.