Let’s Get Virtual

By Eric Wills — April 14, 2006 4 min read

As the light starts to fade one Monday afternoon in January, Lyssa Hansen stifles a yawn and reviews her daunting schedule for the week. The senior at South High School in Minneapolis will study tonight for upcoming finals in composition and economics. Tuesday after classes, she has a school newspaper meeting; she’s the opinion editor. On Wednesday afternoon, she’ll work a shift serving coffee at a café. “It’s tough to cram it all in,” she says.

That’s why her guidance counselor suggested Hansen take her physical education class online. The option, first offered by Minneapolis public schools last spring, sounds like a contradiction, if not a joke, until she describes the details. Hansen jogs, walks, and lifts weights just like she would in a traditional PE class. The only difference is that she doesn’t have to shoehorn an hour at a school gym or running track into her schedule. She can work out on weekends or whenever she has time and e-mail her heart rate data to her teacher.


Few other brick-and-mortar schools have tried to teach the subject online, but the concept is drawing increased attention from educators nationwide. In part because districts are under pressure to score high on mandatory standardized tests, the physical part of students’ education can get lost in the shuffle: According to the most recent data compiled by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 56 percent of high school students were enrolled in PE in 2003—a proportion that has remained essentially the same for the last 15 years.

At the same time, administrators are also under pressure to reverse the childhood obesity rate—something Hansen, for one, believes online PE can do better than the traditional version. “When I was in gym class, I didn’t feel motivated. I didn’t want to sweat and go to [my next class] gross and nasty,” she explains. And because kids pick their own activities, she notes, PE is “on your own terms.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint how many other schools currently offer online physical education classes, but judging by the popularity of the idea elsewhere, the number seems likely to grow. At Florida Virtual School, for example, which first offered online PE in 1997, enrollment in the course has exploded. “Personal fitness,” a course that fulfills the state’s phys ed requirement, was the most popular class in 2004, enrolling 4,500 of the school’s 21,000 students.

Susan Patrick, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit North American Council for Online Learning, predicts the idea will catch on. “This is the digital generation,” she says. “Just because the medium … is some piece of technology, that shouldn’t matter.”

In large part, virtual PE owes its feasibility to recent changes in curricula. Educators across the country are relying less on traditional team sports and kickball and more on in-line skating or cross-country skiing—activities that can take place outside a traditional classroom and that teach students fitness principles they can use for a lifetime.

Students who enroll in Minneapolis classes, for instance, have performed rock climbing, karate, and even horseback riding to fulfill the three required 30-minute workouts each week. They just have to demonstrate to a PE teacher that their chosen activity will increase their heart rates to a pre-defined level.

PE can mean rock climbing, karate, or even horseback riding. Students just e-mail their heart rate to a teacher.

Sound like easy pickings for cheaters? Minneapolis educators say no. Students wear heart rate monitors and take a fitness test at the beginning and end of each course to measure progress and expose slackers. Parents also monitor workouts and sign off on them. And then there is old-fashioned intuition. “We look at their activity and see if it all jives,” says Luke Wisniewski, a phys ed teacher at Edison High School.

Nor is online PE limited to the physique. In keeping with the goal of establishing good exercise habits and increasing health awareness, students also submit written assignments on topics such as body-mass index and proper nutrition.

Not everyone thinks PE can be taught through a computer modem, however. Dolly Lambdin, a senior lecturer in health education at the University of Texas and a former National Association of Sports and Physical Education president, notes that online coaches cannot ensure that students use proper form for stretching and jogging. And she points out that traditional gym classes give kids a chance to learn sportsmanship and teamwork.

Frank Goodrich, who teaches online PE in Minneapolis, counters that he can give his virtual students more individual attention than he can a traditional group of 40 or 50. By having them watch video clips and asking follow-up questions, he says he can teach proper form for weight training and other activities. But he acknowledges that students’ lack of contact with their peers is the “weakest part” of the format, and that it deserves more thought.

Still, even detractors can see benefits to remaking phys ed for the computer age. While it may never replace traditional PE, Lambdin says, “It does have some great possibilities.”


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