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Online Physical Education Class: An Oxymoron or Online Education’s Next Step?


 Image by JoeWSorenson via CreativeCommons

Story By Derek Reed, Wired Academic

The idea of students taking physical education courses over the internet might strike up a humorous image of a kid trying to play kickball by himself, or it might sound like an oxymoron. But as online education continues its meteoric rise, P.E. courses utilizing the medium are growing with it.

Are the days of gym games like dodgeball, red rover and fartleks going the way of bell bottoms and cassette tapes?

As of 2010, 22 states allowed physical education credits to be obtained online, up from 12 in 2006. Companies have mobilized to fill this growing space. Utah-based Carone Fitness started in 2006 and now boasts a suite of online programs that track student progress using heart monitors and workout logs.

“There’s a lot of tension around online education,” Dennis Wood, president of Carone Fitness, said. “But there’s also a lot of opportunity from a business standpoint.”

In the five years since its founding, 35,000 students have taken Carone’s courses at schools across the country. But as users continue to sign up, the debate about how online P.E. technology is best applied remains open.

In 2007, the National Association of Sports and Physical Education released a position paper that set basic guidelines for online courses. But Dr. Derrick Mears, a professor in Western Washington University’s Physical Education department who works closely with NASPE on the issue, explains that the survey revealed just how complex the field was.

“That became one of those moments when everyone sat back and said, ‘Huh, how do we do this?’” Mears said. “And I think we’re still in that stage a little bit.”

State standards vary widely. Some, like Alabama, allow districts to set their own policies, and in others, like Colorado, all students are eligible to take courses online. Some states, such as California, don’t allow online courses at all.

Of the states that allow online courses, only six offer a program that NASPE calls “comprehensive,” which includes subjects like fitness, weight training, and sport skills while also addressing cognitive concepts. Most online courses focus on one of those areas.

“At that point, you’re not teaching P.E. course,” Mears said. “You’re teaching a physical activity course.”

“The one I see as being most valid is the hybrid-type program,” Mears said. This allows the teacher to “flip” the classroom so that students watch lectures and take assessments online, on their own time, and then can spend the time they have at school actually receiving physical instruction.

Also, Mears said that a technology-infused classroom – even a P.E. class – appeals more to students in the so-called iGeneration, students who have never known life without high-speed internet, texting, and mp3 players. “Some of the preliminary studies on the upcoming generation indicate that they probably are more likely to engage in dialogue through a web-based format than they are in a face-to face setting,” Mears said.

Mears is wary of online-only programs because of the accountability issue that applies to any subject taught online. “They’re just kind of vague about how they validate the online component,” he said.

Some programs require that parents and students sign an honor code, and some (such as those offered by Carone Fitness) require that students wear heart-rate monitors whose data can be uploaded to a program that tracks student progress.

But those methods still have holes. Workout logs can be forged, and just as there’s no way to make sure the student enrolled in an online Algebra course is the one taking his test, there’s no way to make sure data from heart-rate monitors is coming from the student enrolled for P.E.

“How do you make sure the student didn’t hand the heart monitor to his friend on the cross country team, and he wore it to his race?” Mears said. On top of that, it is more difficult to correct and instruct psycho-motor skills at a distance.

Administrators and regulators continue to look into issues like these as the industry grows. “We’ve got all of these technologies,” Mears said. “Now we have to establish some parameters for how teachers can use them in the classroom.”

All challenges considered, Mears is optimistic about the field’s future. “We’re on the cusp of people finding out ways to do it.”

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