More students taking physical education online

Britta Gjermo
Britta Gjermo holds the watch and heart rate monitor that she had to wear while taking an online physical education class last spring. Gjermo, 17, is a senior at Stillwater High School.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Online education continues to grow in Minnesota, but along with traditional courses, like English, reading and math, more and more schools are embracing online classes in subjects you might not expect, such as online physical education.

Jan Braaten admits the term 'online physical education' hits the ear awkwardly the first few times you say it.

"It's an oxymoron," Braaten said.

Maybe that's because most of us have vivid memories of gym class involving team sports like soccer, volleyball, basketball and even dodgeball, before it became a P.E. no-no in recent years.

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Braaten said even some fellow teachers weren't sure when she helped introduce an online version in Minneapolis schools. That was four years ago -- which by Braaten's count, made Minneapolis the first district in Minnesota and maybe just the second in the nation to offer online P.E.

"We really feel in Minneapolis that this is 21st-century learning," Braaten said. "You know, I think four, five years down the road people aren't even going to blink at ideas like this."

Danielle Mangine
Danielle Mangine speaks to teammates on the Stillwater High School cross country team. Mangine, 17, is captain of the team and is also using team practices to fulfill requirements in her online physical education class.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Both online and regular P.E. include regular academic aspects; read materials, do writing assignments, take tests. The 'physical' part usually involves students doing some kind activity. They usually get to pick the activity - running, hiking, swimming - but they have to monitor what they do.

Senior Danielle Mangine has been taking online gym this summer at Stillwater High School. She's also captain of the cross country team, and she's allowed to count her team running toward her online gym class. But she has to wear some extra gear, such as a heart rate monitor, so she can keep track of her actions.

But Mangine doesn't love the class. Everyone has to hit the same marks, despite each student's fitness. For three-sport athletes like Mangine - it's sometimes harder to get a heart rate up that high. Fellow senior and runner Britta Gjermo, who took online gym this spring, agrees.

"I hate proving that I'm in shape because I'll be running my heart out and this thing still says my heartbeat is at 131 - and somehow I have to get it up four beats to get it 'in the zone,'" Gjermo said. "I'm just sitting there, out of breath, saying 'I can't run anymore and this thing keeps telling me I'm out of the zone.' It's really frustrating."

Gjermo also said there's a double standard - online students have to do everything, no matter how long it takes. Regular gym class students have to do whatever they can during that 52-minute class.

Mike Dronen is the technology coordinator at Stillwater who helped launch the online course, and he's also heard complaints from students. But he said a lion's share of complaints relate to the fact that this isn't a toss-away class.

"Students taking the class are making comments back to the teacher and to their friends, saying 'it's a little harder doing physical education online,'" Dronen said. "You know, I think that speaks a little bit to the rigor that's thrown to the class."

Minnesota's only law regarding P.E. is a requirement that schools offer P.E., but it's up to districts to say how much. So, when Minneapolis pioneered online P.E., it was also setting many of the standards that other districts, like Stillwater, have since adopted.

With online gym, students taking beloved electives won't have to drop band, for example, to take gym. And it's a chance to shine for students who excel at less-traditional sports, like the rock star mountain biker kid who can't throw a ball to save his life.

But even online proponents admit the lack of team sports might mean some kids aren't learning skills like sportsmanship. And with no supervision, who will be there to tell you if you did something wrong, say, if yoga is your activity?

Students, though, are not totally disconnected from a teacher. There are usually a few in-person sessions throughout the semester. Back in Minneapolis, where parents have to sign off on activity logs that students keep, Jan Braaten said integrity is key. However, she said you can't totally eliminate cheating, even when a teacher's intuition can help.

"You know, for students who take an online English course, there's that gut feeling as to whether the student really wrote the essay he turned on, or if it seems that maybe someone else may have written it," Braaten said. "So there's still that real teacher aspect where you get a feel for it."

One estimate suggests Minnesota is one of just 12 states of offer online gym, but many in the physical education world expect that number will keep increase, and probably has already.