What’s digital learning got to do with physical activity?

Quite a lot I believe.

A couple weekends ago I had the privilege of presenting at TEDx Manhattan Beach where I heard another presenter, Dr. John Ratey, speak about the importance of physical exercise in increasing brain plasticity and boosting student learning. His book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, details the connection.

Although I normally write about digital learning’s potential to transform our education, as a Crossfit enthusiast myself, I believe in the importance of living a healthy life with physical exercise.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the rise of online learning is that a student’s schooling will be spent primarily in front of a computer, with a student clicking away relentlessly as though she were playing eight hours of video games a day.

This couldn’t be further from the truth, however, if the rise of online learning fulfills its potential and creates a truly student-centric education system—which should be the ultimate goal.

As I’ve traveled around the country observing blended-learning schools, the ones I’ve been most struck by are those that give individual students the proper flexibility so that they can have the right experience they need when they need it to boost their success—both in that moment and in life. In the future of education, digital learning should be the platform that facilitates each student having a customized learning experience for her distinct learning needs—whether that experience is online or offline.

Carpe Diem Collegiate Middle and High School, one of my favorite blended-learning models, has no physical education class. Instead the school has what might be described as a fitness center with an on-site trainer who works with each student not on random mandatory athletic units but instead on a tailored program for how to live a healthy life. When students are growing antsy at their desks and need to get some physical exercise to let off some steam and reboot for more learning, they have the autonomy to go to the gym and work out.

The Silicon Valley Flex Academy, which has several elements of what I think the future of schooling will look like, is located across the parking lot from a Crossfit gym. The school has contemplated a formal partnership with the Crossfit affiliate to offer the students a Crossfit for Kids program, which, in my opinion, would be far superior to the gym classes offered at most schools.

My biggest personal surprise in online learning came several years ago when I learned that one of the more popular classes that the Florida Virtual School offers is online physical education. I struggled to imagine what this might mean, but what I ultimately learned is that the class involves a teacher working with each individual student on her daily fitness routine (from running to lifting to playing team sports) to realize her fitness goals and live a healthy life. Recalling my own experience in middle school PE, I could see the immediate benefits of having this sort of an experience instead of an awkward communal one that teaches a student virtually nothing about living a healthy life—and may even discourage that by creating negative associations with physical exercise.

It’s not just physical exercise that should see a healthier balance with the rise of digital learning, but lots of activities. Many schools are increasingly using blended learning to free teachers up to spend more time working with students in project-based learning. I’ve been struck by how much students collaborate with each other naturally—often peer tutoring each other—in the blended-learning schools I’ve visited. Whereas “socialization” often appears to me to be a negative thing in many schools, in blended-learning schools the social interactions appear to me to be far healthier and around helping each student improve. I don’t have hard data on this, but it’s my observation that this is one of the exciting—and often unintended—effects of using a blended-learning model.

To this end, when many people think about full-time virtual schools, one of their biggest fears is about students in their younger years. They ask how could students possibly have a fully online experience when they are so young. What are the downsides of spending so much time in front of a computer? The answer is that in the programs of which I’m aware, most of the learning for students in the younger years is actually offline—with books and manipulatives. The online learning mostly serves as the platform that helps the student’s family communicate with the student’s teacher and individualizes the learning, in addition to providing some exercises and games to build some basic skills.

In an age where the arts, athletics, and other so-called extracurricular activities are increasingly on the chopping block in public schools, digital learning ought to change the equation. Various blended-learning models, for example, should create more flexibility and free up more funds so that schools can offer an array of experiences, including physical exercise.

According to Ratey’s research, that’s something we can’t afford to lose if we’re serious about boosting student achievement. Student-centric digital learning provides a means to make sure that it doesn’t fall by the wayside.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.