Gym Class Goes Virtual

For many, gym class means dodging locker room bullies, donning a uniform and ducking under high flying volleyballs. For Abbie Modaff, it means horseback riding and logging onto the Internet.

As a freshman at South High School in Minneapolis, Abbie's class schedule only had room for one elective class. A flute player, she wanted to take band, but she also had a physical education requirement to fulfill. The problem was solved when she discovered "online gym" -- a way for her to work out on her own time, fulfill the physical education requirement and continue playing the flute.

It's changed her attitude about gym class, too.

"It was never really constructive, I wasn't exercising much, I wasn't doing anything I liked to do," Abbie said. "With this, I got to do what I love -- ride horseback, swim, play soccer, bike -- and get credit for it."

Abbie is one of hundreds of Minneapolis high schoolers taking online gym. To fulfill the course requirements, students must work out for 30 minutes three times a week, and record details of each workout in an online journal. Just about anything that gets the heart pumping counts as a form of exercise, from running on a treadmill to dancing at a rock concert.

But it's not that simple: Every week the students also go online to view assignments from teachers, who direct them to different web sites to learn about a fitness-related topic and answer questions about it online. Tests are given at the beginning and end of each semester. Parents sign forms to confirm that their children are indeed exercising.

For one assignment, online gym teacher Frank Goodrich had students figure out the number of calories they burned on an average day. For another, he had them calculate their body mass index.

He said the course's self-directed format is beneficial.

"When you get to choose the physical activities you want to do, it makes what you do much more enjoyable and you're probably more likely to do it," said Goodrich, a veteran teacher of classroom and online gym.

Is Cheating a Concern?

Since its introduction in 2004, the class has quickly become one of the most popular in the school district. But it has not been without its skeptics.

"I didn't understand how there was any way you could possibly do this online," said Brenda Corbin, a former physical education teacher and current curriculum developer. "So much of gym class is watching kids be physically active."

But as parents, teachers and students attest, and Corbin soon realized, it's not so easy for kids to say they're going for a run and run to the nearest pizza place instead.

"It's hard to lie about stuff like heart rates and be convincing and make sense," Abbie said.

Jeannie Modaff, Abbie's mother, compares cheating in online gym to "getting your friend to write your term paper for you."

"I don't think this program invites cheating more than any other class," she said.

Like Abbie, South High School senior Jacob Miller signed up for online phys ed to take the strain off a heavy course load.

"When I took it, I had six class hours a day," Jacob said. "It was a pretty strenuous schedule. Being able to work out when I wanted to was a lot easier."

Jacob figured online gym would be a great way to earn credit for the workouts he gets playing ultimate Frisbee. He ended up gaining much more from the class.

"I learned quite a bit of information I didn't know before -- what a cooldown does, what a warmup does, how to prevent injuries," Jacob said. "It helped me avoid a lot of injuries playing frisbee."

Josh's Story

For some, online gym means the difference between partaking in gym and, quite literally, sitting on the bench. Since childhood, Josh Boucher's hip condition has prevented him from running. Gym class was always a struggle for the South High sophomore.

"At one point, we took him out of gym," said Josh's father, Michael Boucher. "We put him in the library to play on the computers. He needed to have physical education but he just couldn't run."

While Josh can't run, he can kick -- so well in fact that he's a black belt in karate. Online gym allowed Josh to receive credit for the karate classes he takes outside of school and saved him from sitting on the sidelines. He also benefited from the academic part of the course.

"I've never learned as much about physical activity and how our body works anywhere as I did in this class," Josh said.

Changing Lives

Getting kids to stick to a healthy lifestyle is the ultimate aim of online phys ed.

"Our goal is to motivate students to be active now and for the rest of their lives," Goodrich said.

Jan Braaten, a physical education content specialist, believes the course can truly influence eating and exercise habits.

"There's a lot of individual attention, it's like having a personal trainer," Braaten said.

The class will likely catch on nationwide, said Susan Patrick, president of the North American Council on Online Learning.

"I think that in the future, there won't be any differentiation between where the education comes from," Patrick said. "We're not going to call it online learning, we're just going to call it learning."