An Online Physical Education Class

[Note: The following was first posted in the ETCJ listserv on 25 March 2013. It was prompted by a discussion in the WCET listserv on “a new online theater course” earlier that morning. -Editor]

It can actually be surprisingly easy to create effective online courses in the “trouble” areas. More than a decade ago the school I directed had an online physical education class. People would pooh-pooh it as ridiculous, and then after I described the content, they would usually say, “Wow! Can I take it?”

A lot of the course was academic, teaching concepts related to fitness. Students started the class with a fitness test. They set goals for improving their fitness, and they set a personal path toward those goals. It was possible that no two students would be doing the same activities. They had periodic tests along the way to check their progress, and they then adjusted their goals and their plans appropriately. There was a final test to see how they had met their goals, and they had to write a reaction and a self-evaluation. What they ultimately learned was how to apply principles of physical fitness to their lives for the rest of their lives. 

Having heard that, go into the average live physical education class and compare. For a while, when I taught at a high school, I was given a supervision assignment near the gym. I often watched through the open doors as the students filtered into the gym for about 10 minutes after the opening bell, after they had taken the time to dress in their gym clothes. The student assistants took attendance. Then the gym teacher came in. He talked to them for a while, after which they walked through the door and out to the softball field.

On one occasion, the entire gym class was split into two teams of about 20 each, with everyone on the team taking the field. After 20 minutes of play, during which a small percentage got one at-bat, the teacher declared the activity over and took them back into the gym. With about 15 minutes left in the class, the students headed for the locker room where they changed back into their regular clothes and headed out into the hallways to hang out until the bell rang to end the class.

That was the regular physical education class. There were also classes devoted to specific sports. For example, the volleyball coach taught a class that students could take over and over called “Volleyball.” All the players on the volleyball team took it every term — what a great way to have year round practice. The same was true for every sport that a physical education teacher coached. If the sport was not coached by a physical education teacher, no course was offered in that sport.

So, which do you think is a more valid approach to physical education?

4 Responses

  1. The typical physical education class is poor. No doubt about it. Mine were in high school. Coaches don’t care much about students who aren’t on varsity teams. The typical high school science lab experience is also poor. The NRC says so. Unless you’re in a really good school and have really good teachers, your high school learning experience is likely to be poor too. I hasten to add that “poor” is a relative term and definitely not quantitative. Against what standard is it being measured?

    John Adsit has given an example of online physical education that is superior to the typical poor high school physical education classes. The students in his example learn what fitness really means first-hand and become more fit. That’s a great outcome and a huge improvement over the typical class.

    I have had the experience of frequent and lengthy interactions with my sister-in-law who spent her life in physical education and ended up as the Coordinator of Physical Education for the Newton School District in Massachusetts, where she was well-respected. From her, I learned that physical education is neither sports nor physical fitness. Those are just part of physical education.

    For example, physical education should include simple kinesiology, the study of body movement. This science is very advanced at the professional sports level. Just understanding balance can add much to a person’s physical ability. Knowing the basic physics of throwing a ball, of kicking a ball, of running, of jumping, and so on helps people enjoy their sporting activities much more.

    Physical education can include dance, climbing, and more.

    Is John’s example an improvement over the “typical” physical education class? Yes.

    I’m not yet convinced that true and thorough physical education can be done easily online. I’m more than willing to be convinced by good examples. Videos of students performing activities would have to be analyzed by teachers, I believe, to achieve parity with GOOD traditional physical education.

    The problem with John’s example is that it sets up a straw man. Online substitutes for traditional learning experiences should be compared with the best, not the worst or even with the typical. Online education should strive to equal and then to better their face-to-face competition at its best.

    We should ask whether we can fix education as it is or bring in online tools. Which should be our first resort? Can we find a good physical education teacher in that poor-performing school? If not, can we replace the poor teacher with an online class? Is that our best outcome? I’m sure that sometimes it may be, but I hope that it’s not usually the case until the online experience equals or exceeds the best face-to-face experience. That is the standard to which I hold myself in my work with science education.

  2. […] More than a decade ago the school I directed had an online physical education class. People would pooh-pooh it as ridiculous, and then after I described the content, they would usually say, “Wow! Can I take it?  […]

  3. […] More than a decade ago the school I directed had an online physical education class. People would pooh-pooh it as ridiculous, and then after I described the content, they would usually say, “Wow! Can I take it?  […]

  4. The course being online has nothing to do with its quality. You give the example of a teacher not doing his job as a comparison that will make your idea look good. I am not against the online blended-learning model, but as a quality pe teacher myself I take offense to your argument points.

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