Virtual P.E.? NO SWEAT!

Well, not exactly. Students still have to put in the laps, but for those with body-image issues or hefty course loads, taking gym class online is a welcome alternative that educators hope can spur a permanent interest in fitness.

Tammy Cowan still chokes up every time she tells the story of how one student’s life was forever changed by enrolling in her online gym class.

“I had a young lady in my class who was a heavyset girl, and she was frightened to death of doing the fitness test, of having to run the mile—she didn’t want anybody to see her running,” recalls Cowan, a physical education teacher for Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). So she arranged for the girl to take the fitness test separately, when no other students would be around. “No one in her family had ever exercised. She was afraid of gym. It was sad, actually.”

It was this fear that prompted the student to enroll in the district’s online physical education class, offered through its online learning program, Minneapolis Public Schools Online. This would allow her to complete physical activity and written assignments on her own time. Little did she know the dramatic transformation she was about to undergo. As the course progressed, through the student’s journal entries, Cowan says she could detect her rising confidence.

“She would get more and more specific with the workouts that she was doing,” Cowan says, “and you could ‘read’ that she was proud as she increased her distances or was able to work longer with an elevated heart rate. Her journals would go from a phrase like ‘Activity: walked 1 mile. Did not enjoy, too hot’ to ‘Activity: walked 2.5 miles with my friend. Worked hard and enjoyed getting my heart pumping.’ You could see her developing this sense that she could actually do this.”

When the time came for the student to take her final fitness test in person at the end of the course—the teachers test at the beginning and end of the semester to see if students’ fitness levels have increased—Cowan e-mailed the girl to see if she again wanted a separate testing time, but, much to Cowan’s surprise, she said she’d be okay running in front of her classmates.

When the student came in for her test, “I’m not joking—I didn’t recognize her,” Cowan says. “She probably had lost 40 pounds in the semester. And the level of confidence that you could just see in her physical presence...she was athletic and she was active.” When Cowan asked her if she would take the next-level P.E. course online, the girl said no: She wanted to come in and take it at school.

“Best story I have,” Cowan says. “It still brings tears to my eyes.”

She and her colleagues have plenty more inspiring stories just like it, which would seem reason enough for any district to try a similar program, but enabling access to physical education for all students is just one benefit of MPS’ online gym class. The reason for its implementation was larger in scope: The district was trying to find a way to deal with the effect of increasing course loads, which resulted in as many as 1,200 students a year being allowed to opt out of their P.E. course if they met a minimum activity requirement.

And it wasn’t only students who participated in varsity sports like football and basketball who were opting out; members of the marching band and cheerleading squads were also given permission to forgo the class. This meant that students were also missing out on the more cognitive aspects of the course—specifically, nutrition and health. “Education is clearly changing,” says Frank Goodrich, another of MPS’ online P.E. teachers, who developed the course with Cowan over the past five years. “There continues to be more demand from students in terms of getting more out of the same length of the school day.”

For Goodrich, a can’t-beat-’em-join-’em approach makes sense: “We can continue to do what’s been done for a long time, which is to just advocate for our curriculum and our spot in that six-hour school day, or we can provide a flexible, alternative way to deliver our curriculum.”

Evolving With the Technology
MPS’ virtual gym class is offered for credit recovery during summer school or in lieu of in-person gym class during the school year. The only difference between the two offerings is that students who take the course during the school year work online only and complete workouts on their own time, while the summer school version is a blended model, coordinating web-based instruction with in-person sports activities with other students and visits with teachers.

Students who sign up for the online class—about 10 percent of the district’s enrollment, says Goodrich—do so for a variety of reasons that make participating in traditional brick-and-mortar gym class difficult, from demanding course loads and body-image issues to physical or emotional impairments.

“The first year of the program, we had a young woman who was pregnant,” says Jan Braaten, who teaches P.E. and health and also is a summer school coordinator for the district. “She started the course pregnant, and she finished the course walking with her baby in the stroller.”

MPS offers two online gym options,
Fitness for Life I and Fitness for Life II, that allow high school students to complete the two semester credits each of P.E. and health required by the state of Minnesota. The classes, which are based on both national and Minneapolis physical education standards, were initially developed via Blackboard, but about 21/2 years ago, the opportunity to save money prompted the district to switch over to the open source learning management system Moodle.

“Blackboard cost $20,000 annually; Moodle costs $0,” says Renee Jesness, the district’s online learning coordinator. “When I saw the stability, versatility, and course management tools with Moodle, it became clear that open source was the choice to make.”

Each course is broken into two components: written, cognitive assignments that the students submit to the teacher (40 percent of the grade), and physical activity of the students’ choosing (60 percent). This can include participation in a varsity sport, swimming at the local YMCA, dance class—any activity for “a minimum of 30 minutes where a student’s heart rate is elevated in the target heart zone,” says Goodrich. Students learn to assess their target heart zone during the course.

A total of 15 hours of exercise are required over the course of nine weeks, which breaks down into roughly two to four workouts a week. Attending class is as simple as booting up the computer. Students log in to the Moodle platform, and the entire course is right there: all assignments, assessments, and an activity journal, which must be signed by a coach or parent.

The use of the technology has evolved over time. Goodrich describes the class in the beginning as “flat”—essentially a bunch of words on a page that students were asked to read and study. Now, however, the course is much more interactive: Students watch podcasts filmed by the teachers on such topics as how to properly check your pulse, and check out educational videos through sites like Discovery Education on the correct way to perform biceps curls and other exercises. The teachers have even created lessons for English language learners by recording podcasts in Spanish, Hmong, and Somali. And to stay on top of the latest technology and address any issues that arise, the teachers revise the curriculum every year.

Intent on taking the advances in technology even further is Mark Burchell, a P.E. and health teacher for the Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU) e-Cademy program, which provides 42 suburban districts in Allegheny County with online courses. Interest in virtual
education has exploded in the region. In the last three years, e-Cademy’s enrollment has grown a whopping 721 percent; P.E. and health are the second and third most popular courses, after math.

Burchell, who used to teach for the cyber charter school PA Learners Online, cites
the popularity of his online P.E. class at
Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, one of
the e-Cademy participants, where students enrolled in the school’s academically rigorous engineering program need to free up their day for course requirements and study time. While his students currently manually monitor and record their pulse rates during cardio activity, he’s looking to procure monitors they can use that will automate that process.

“We’re still looking for better technology to help our students learn and better understand the concepts,” Burchell says, “because learning at home on the computer is difficult. I know that; I’m taking a grad class online right now.”

Cheating Concerns
But can gym class really be effectively taught via computer? It’s easy to post reading material for students taking an online American history class, for example, but doesn’t a student need the social interaction of those classic gym favorites like dodgeball and Ultimate Frisbee?

Sarah McCluan, AIU’s supervisor of communication services, doesn’t think so. “In a traditional gym class, let’s say you’re playing basketball that quarter,” she says. “So you line up against the wall and you choose teams, and there are always a couple people who are the last picked. So what do they do? They sit on the bench for most of the class while the kids who are on the regular school basketball team play. How is that helping students learn about nutrition, health, physical activity, their bodies, burning calories, etc.?”

MPS’ Goodrich concurs. “When students have the ability to pick, just like adults would, activities that they like to do,” he says, “we as physical education educators are more likely to meet the ultimate goal: to have active people not only when they’re young, but throughout their entire lives—which has, of course, massive impact on our medical system and health care.

Still, without the watchful eye of a gym teacher, how can anyone be sure that students aren’t just writing in their journals that they went for a five-mile run while they were really sitting on the couch scarfing Cheetos? Burchell minimizes the likelihood of cheating by having his students describe the psychomotor aspects of the physical activities they perform. He’ll ask his students: When you did a squat, what muscles were you working?

“I know they have to physically do the squat to feel the muscles and know the cognitive material by telling which one,” he says.

Goodrich has become accustomed to fending off such concerns. He points out that even if you see kids jogging in front of you in class, there’s no way to ensure they’re all in their target heart zone and not slacking off. “Cheating has been in practice for as long as people have been on the earth,” he says. “If a paper was assigned in an English class in a face-to-face high school, what steps are in place to know that a student hasn’t taken it home and copied it or had someone else do it?”

He notes the importance of the pre–
and post–fitness tests in his district, which
allow him to judge if students have
improved their physical fitness relative to the workouts they’ve been recording in their journals all semester. But the most important tool to minimize cheating, Goodrich stresses, is good old-fashioned teacher intuition. “If it doesn’t look right, you simply pick up the phone and you make a phone call,” he says.

His colleague Cowan understands that conducting physical education virtually is a practical, if not ideal, solution: “I think all P.E. teachers would much rather see kids face-to-face. There’s a component of teaching P.E., that social aspect of it; it’s a class where you get to have fun and you’re encouraged to play games. This is a good alternative for a district that’s trying to meet the needs of everybody.”   

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of THE Journal.