When I first began researching the field of online learning in K–12 education, I was surprised to learn that one of the most popular online offerings was physical education (P.E.).
P.E.? How could that be done online?
But when I stepped back and reflected, I remembered that for many middle and high schoolers, traditional P.E. is a miserable affair.
In Alia Wong’s article for the Atlantic, “Gym Class Is So Bad, Kids Are Skipping School to Avoid It” she chronicles several of the reasons why, as P.E. creates opportunities for “abuse, whether because the class forces them to use a locker room, where adult supervision is limited, or because it facilitates the teasing of overweight or unathletic kids.”
It also all too often lacks a clear purpose. Do we grade people on whether they can make a hockey goal and acquire skills? On whether they follow directions and do the best they can in different units? Or whether they simply move around?
But in online P.E., the goal is reasonably clear. It’s to help students develop the habits to be healthy adults over their lifetimes with a commitment to exercise. Nothing more and nothing less.
Students can attain “mastery” by doing a certain amount of physical activity each week, setting goals, and improving. The market of wearables and mobile phones have gradually become assets in helping track the fitness habits of students and helping them figure out how to build the habits and motivation to attain critical goals. The “online” or virtual part involves the reporting of results to one’s teacher online, reflecting and receiving coaching online, setting goals online, and programming more fitness routines online.
As a CrossFit enthusiast since 2011, that was something around which I could wrap my head. Which is why I became so intrigued a couple of years ago when I saw a new education company being incubated in my gym, CrossFit Tilt in Waltham, Mass., that was dedicated to serving students in schools with tailored approaches to training delivered through an online platform.
The company, PLT4M, has since moved on to work out of its own dedicated office, as it has grown and stretched beyond its origins. In a society marked by an obesity epidemic and widespread chronic disease that has turbocharged the nation’s health care budget, thanks, at least partially if not predominantly, to our nation’s sleep, food, and fitness habits, it’s an exciting company to follow with an important mission.
What started as a platform to help high school athletic coaches with limited resources institute sound basic strength and training programs for their athletes, with expertly taught pointers on the proper form for lifts that, if executed poorly at high weights, could lead to injury, has quickly become much more.
It’s now bringing the benefits of online P.E. into brick-and-mortar schools to create what you might call “blended learning” P.E.—physical education personalized by the power of technology to allow each individual to develop at the path and pace that makes sense for her in school. The goal isn’t just to prepare students for competition, but to prepare them for life.
Given my CrossFit-informed worries of sedentary students sitting on computers all day, to me, it is blended learning at its finest.
PLT4M is building a research-based fitness program that aligns to each state’s fitness standards from 7th grade through the college-bound high school athlete, and pairing it with an online platform that enables P.E. teachers and coaches to create a tailored playlist of workouts and lessons for each individual. Educators can also customize the different programs based on their school’s specific available equipment and space to create a program that will not just work for an individual student, but also for a class of them who need different supports.
At Glenwood High School in Illinois, P.E. teachers were working with a class of mixed-grades and abilities, which, as any teacher in any subject knows, is quite the challenge. Needing to find a way to provide individualized weight training for every student within one class period, Glenwood’s teachers were using a mix of websites, whiteboards, and pen and paper to personalize. It was chaotic and confusing.
The teachers at the school turned to PLT4M’s online management tool to deliver all the programmed content directly to students’ school Chromebooks. With flexible scheduling and grouping, students were given workouts tailored to their grade, experience level, and ability. And the teachers were able to gather near real-time information from the students on how the workout had gone so they could continue to tailor the fitness regimens for each learner.
What’s more, as in most cases when blended learning is done well, the teachers were able to focus far more on teaching and could spend their time engaging with and supporting their students, rather than focusing on administrative tasks.
Although virtual P.E. might work for some, given the amount of time most students will continue to spend in schools, personalizing P.E. with the aim not to build the best athletes, but to build the best and healthiest human beings for life who have supportive, healthy relationships with their teachers, is a welcome development that could start to make P.E. great—for the first time.