An Online Physical Education Course…No Kidding!

As strange as this sounds, I’m not joking when I say that my 14 year-old son just completed his ninth grade Physical Education course….online!

Our state of Indiana requires two Physical Education credits for a High School diploma – PE 1 and PE 2 (normally taken in 9th and 10th grade, respectively). However, many incoming students who wish to participate in certain extracurricular activities are allowed to take PE 1 over the summer before ninth grade, as an online course.

Online-phys-ed-courseThis allows greater time in their schedule during the school year for their activities and, thankfully, this exemption is reserved for kids who are doing athletic-like activities. A large number of the students who do the online course are in the Marching Band, like my son. And after a summer of long practice days, I can attest that this is a very physically-demanding pursuit – especially when playing a large instrument, like the baritone saxophone.

But still….online Phys Ed?? Come on??!

Online Course Challenges

Everyone I’ve mentioned this to has had the same – “I don’t believe you..that’s crazy!” – reaction. And after having gone through the process, I tend to agree. Here’s why…

The content of the online course seemed sensible and useful to me – covering aspects of weight management, cardiovascular fitness, nutrition, flexibility and preventing injuries, and fitness plans. But a key aim of the course – based on the academic standards – appeared to be promoting fitness and physical activity to the kids throughout their life. Sorry, but I just don’t think an online phys ed class is likely to achieve this.

There were weekly physical activity logs the kids had to submit. Did they get out and shoot hoops or play tag or go to a dance class? They needed to do an hour a day for at least 3 days each week to meet the course requirements. But how can anyone really know they did it? They could have been couch potatoes lifting snacks to their mouths and calling them arm curls…. And they missed out on trying new types of activities or getting better at ones they may have only just started in middle school.

Information Not Enough for Healthy Behaviors

But more than that, my concern about this online approach to Physical Education is that it seems to imply that all people need to change their behavior and set them on a path to lifetime fitness success… is information. My recent public health studies (along with a lifetime of my own challenges) have shown this is not the case. There are many guiding theories and frameworks in health promotion that show how what we do regarding our health – like how active we are or how healthy we eat – is influenced by many factors, including our beliefs about the importance of these actions, our self-confidence in doing these actions well, the barriers we encounter around us, how our role models think and behave, and what our “circle” or society expects of us. For example, if in a certain culture playing tennis is considered “unmanly” – and a boy’s circle of friends all aspire to manly activities – then reading that tennis is a good lifelong physical activity probably won’t induce him to pick up a racquet. On the other hand, my husband and I had great success getting our young (Star Wars-crazy) son to eat flank steak for the first time when we told him it was Luke Skywalkers’ favorite meat!

The course was clearly trying to influence student behavior, since a parent survey near the end of the course asked if your child had changed their eating or exercise habits. But, since most of the online course was geared toward learning information, doing small research exercises and writing quizzes, there really weren’t great opportunities to impact the other behavior influences – such as peer pressure and role modeling. These are probably best done through conversation and interaction. Some online courses can have these elements. I took one in my public health program which required a lot of online forum work involving all the students in the class – but this took a lot of time and effort, which most teens are unlikely to commit to for a summer phys ed course!

Why the Concern?

In the end I’m glad my son will have a lighter load in ninth grade and I know he will continue to get lots of physical activity in the fall through Marching Band. But I also believe that Physical Education should be taught in schools – and is there for an important reason: as a recent study (discussed in this New York Times article) has shown, physical activity (especially aerobic activity) is one of the most critical factors for a long and healthy life. If we think Phys Ed is needed, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that children are getting the desired benefits when we sub-optimize the teaching method. So, in the end, it’s once again up to parents to ensure that our kids are well set for a lifetime of healthy exercise habits – and we should try to address the behavior change drivers beyond information.

About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited twenty-year old. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global oncology education programs as well as by her twenty-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a founding member of the PedSafe Team


One Response to “An Online Physical Education Course…No Kidding!”

  1. Suzanne Hantke says:

    Great article Audra! Thank you for posting! I found pros and cons on both ends of it….. as a kid with two left feet and zero co-ordination, I think an online class would have been ideal for me growing up. It might have saved some serious self-esteem issues i had from always being picked last and being mocked for my lack of co-ordination. Being forced to participate in team sports such as softball or baseball…. when the ball came my way, I either screamed and ran, or covered my head and ducked!! This did not make for happy team members! However, I did excel in individual sports, such as gymnastics and that sort of thing. But on the flip side of that, I was also a couch potato, channel surfer, and had horrific nutritional habits. So for the ones who are good at sports, I think this is a lousy idea, but for others, some who may be handicapped or physically challenged in one way or another, I think it is better than sitting in a resource room during those periods.

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