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Online Physical Education: The Elephant in the Room

by Brian Kooiman, Lake Elsinore Unified School District, CA

There's a feeling among some physical educators that Online Physical Education (OLPE) has been thrust upon them. These same physical educators also feel that OLPE cannot contribute to a meaningful physical education curriculum experience. Despite these reservations, many states are now requiring high school students to take at least one online course before graduation (Brown, 2012; Watson et al., 2012).

Others make online courses available and accept them towards an earned high school diploma. In 2007, the National Association for Sports and Physical Education (NASPE) developed a position paper that identified NASPE's preliminary position for OLPE courses. Today, students across the country are increasingly electing to take OLPE courses. Recently, former NASPE President Craig Buschner expressed his thoughts on OLPE in pelinks4u. This paper indicated that OLPE lacked 'best practice,' should address the same curriculum as traditional PE, and that hybrid/blended models of OLPE delivery may be best suited to the needs of public school students.

For some, OLPE is an oxymoron since the very thought of physical education taken online creates a contradictory image in their mind. Some, upon hearing about OLPE perhaps imagine students sitting in front of a computer completing reports or worse yet playing video games and turning in activity logs showing that they have engaged in physical activity when in fact they haven't. For others, OLPE may conjure images of the humans in the movie Wall-E who had stopped moving and depended on technology to meet their every need resulting in a morbidly obese populace that had lost the ability and desire to move. Worse yet the prospect of OLPE raises fears that trained physical educators will not be needed as instructors in virtual settings that rely on technology rather than traditional physical activities, facilities, and equipment.

Physical educators may feel that a robust curriculum will inevitably suffer when offered in an online environment. This view is precipitated by the current lack of research into OLPE and its effect on student learning, the fear that well-prepared physical education teachers will be seen as unnecessary by policy makers seeking to save money, and the concern that loss of student contact for feedback and assessment will hinder effective instruction. Recent research seems to support these concerns: Daum & Buschner (2012) reported that 75% of students taking OLPE are not physically active for the recommended amount of time. At least thirteen states allow non-credentialed instructors as the teacher of record. And it appears that most OLPE courses focus on information searches and some fitness for life activities while making no effort to address the social and emotional growth of the learner.

In response to these concerns some physical educators may be tempted to ignore OLPE with the thought that it will simply go away if they do not acknowledge its existence. This will not work. We cannot go back to a world without OLPE as the move towards OLPE has already begun and grows stronger with each passing month. As stated earlier, many states have begun to offer and some even require online courses for secondary students. For this reason, physical educators need to take notice and not simply react negatively to the trend towards OLPE. We need to be proactive and help to determine the course of this mode of instructional delivery. Physical educators through their action or inaction will be responsible for the path that this new mode of instruction takes.

Physical education researchers need to investigate the efficacy of different curriculum delivery strategies. A comprehensive curriculum in physical education contains four main components: physical, mental, emotional, and social. OLPE curriculum that does not address all four of these components fails to present a complete curriculum creating gaps in the development of the learner. The social and emotional aspects of OLPE course delivery may be the most problematic. OLPE students usually lack the peer interaction evident in traditional PE classes. This limits the ability of the student to demonstrate that they can get along with other students, accept diversity in other learners, and can cooperate or compete with self-control while being physically active.

In an effort to address a void in 'best practice' on OLPE, I recently conducted research on "exergames" to see if they might provide OLPE students with a more complete curriculum experience. An exergame is a video game that requires players to move their bodies during the game while standing in front of the video screen. Exergames exist that allow users to engage others over the Internet for head-to-head cooperative or competitive play. I chose the Xbox 360 gaming console because of its unique input device. The Xbox 360 uses video and infrared beams to track the body position of participants.

Other gaming systems (e.g. PlayStation and Wii) require the user to hold an apparatus or stand on a pad to respond to player input. Xbox Live is a networking portal that allows users to connect for remote head-to-head exergame play remotely over the Internet. Neither of the other two systems offers this type of connection for their exergames. Additionally, as an adapted physical education specialist, I felt that the Xbox input method had the greatest potential for use with students with special needs since it did not require the user to hold an apparatus for input and can track modified physical movements for seated (wheelchair) players.

My research showed that students who engaged in exergames proximally against a non-player character [NPC] (i.e. gaming system generated virtual player) and remotely against another student over the Internet experienced a robust physical education curriculum. Physically, students were able to raise their heart rates to a moderate level of physical intensity while playing a NPC and another student over the Internet. Heart rates were raised to higher levels when students played each other over the Internet. Emotionally, participants told us that they enjoyed the exergames and were motivated to play. Students reported that they were more motivated while playing other students over the Internet than when playing an NPC.

Mentally, the subjects improved their visual motor skills after playing both the NPC and another student over the Internet. The greatest gains in visual motor acuity occurred when students played other students over the Internet. Socially, the students indicated that they felt very little connection to the NPC while they played but felt very connected to the student they played over the Internet. In all four components of Physical Education, students who played another student remotely over the internet recorded the greatest benefit.

My presently unpublished research (manuscripts are under journal review) shows that exergames may be useful for OLPE courses. Exergames can help students access all of the major components included in local, state, national and international physical education curriculums. The benefits of exergames are many. They work well as a starter activity that engages students and encourages physical activity. Exergames are familiar to today's learners since they use the same gaming systems students use to play video games. This equipment familiarity leads to increased motivation and persistence to play (Sheehan & Katz, 2010). Additionally, exergames do not intimidate less physically active students. Less physically inclined students are actually more inclined to move when presented with an exergame (Garn et al., 2012). Finally, exergames can be modified for skill levels, intensity, and duration. This presents instructors with options for differentiation making it easier to meet individual student needs.

Exergames can also serve as transitional activities. Students who engage in exergames develop confidence playing games. This confidence can lead to the desire to try the real activity in a traditional setting (Boes & Krell, 2010; Hansen & Sanders, 2008; Sheehan & Katz, 2010). This motivation appears even greater with learners who are not inclined to engage in physical activity (Garn et al., 2012).. Exergames can draw this population towards traditional physical activity.

I'm not suggesting that exergames should replace traditional physical activities, nor that exergames should serve as the entire curriculum for physical education when taken online. But my research leads me to believe that exergames can be beneficial in OLPE courses. Combined with guidance from a well-trained physical education teacher, exergames can get students moving in a progression that leads them to increase their physical activity in a variety of settings both traditional and virtual.

In summary, I am suggesting that physical educators should embrace OLPE and help to determine its future. Let's view the perception of online physical education as an oxymoron and use it to our advantage. "Oxymorons" serve to make people stop and think and create interest. As physical educators we need to stop and think about the impact of OLPE courses. The small amount of research that presently exists should serve as a starting point for physical educators to take notice of this new trend towards curriculum delivery that many are convinced cannot be effectively delivered online . It should also serve as a call to action as researchers identify what works and what does not work in OLPE courses and begin to develop 'best practices.'

The use of creative and interesting strategies, such as exergames can help to pave the way to increase the effectiveness for OLPE and raise interest among students. When the OLPE oxymoron is viewed through this lens it can serve the needs of physical educators well as they proactively engage themselves in this important topic. If physical educators will take the lead they can provide policymakers with direction, 'best practices,' and the rationale for insisting upon well-trained physical educators whenever physical education curriculums are presented.


Biography: Brian J. Kooiman has been an educator since 1980. He has taught outdoor education, biology, physical education, recreational therapy, and adapted physical education. He has mentored over 20 teachers, served as a department chairperson, multi-track leader, and coach for 20 Varsity sports. His recently completed work towards a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership led to his research on OLPE. This research topic sprang from a his interest in OLPE after teaching a remedial summer school virtual PE course, void in the literature, and experience as an Adapted Physical Education Specialist. He currently works as an APE specialist for the Lake Elsinore Unified School District.

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