Online phys ed catches on in schools

A seemingly incongruous concept that began in Minneapolis public schools is starting to catch on in other school systems, too: taking gym class online.

Minneapolis school officials said they’re hearing from school districts around the country that are interested in the program. In Minneapolis, student waiting lists are filling up fast.

“It’s like we started the ball rolling, and it started rolling so fast, and now we’re trying to catch up,” said Jan Braaten, content specialist in physical education for Minneapolis schools. Braaten is making a presentation on the program in January to a national conference of phys-ed teachers.

The Minneapolis school system’s online physical education allows kids to choose a physical activity they enjoy and do it for 30 minutes three times a week–on their own time–while keeping an online journal. A parent or coach must confirm the student did the activities, and a fitness test at semester’s end will turn up any cheaters.

Course choices have ranged from weightlifting to swimming to horseback riding.

The course is proving phenomenally popular in Minneapolis, and teachers and administrators who developed the course believe they’ve hit on a way to help kids grow into adults with lifelong healthy fitness habits.

“You’re always going to have kids who say phys ed is not their favorite thing or their priority,” said Frank Goodrich, a longtime PE teacher who supervises an online gym class. “We want kids to be physically active and fit their whole life. If there’s a percentage that we were missing and we’re reaching them now–that’s pretty cool.”

Online classes have grown increasingly common in high schools in recent years. But phys ed has been sort of the last frontier. Although available at some online-only schools nationwide, it’s been less common at traditional high schools.

“I was a big skeptic at first. It didn’t make sense to me,” said Brenda Corbin, a longtime phys ed teacher who ultimately helped write the curriculum for the new course.

Teachers said they had to embrace a shift in physical education that was already under way: Less emphasis on team sports, and more on personal fitness, health, and wellness.

Josh Boucher, a 15-year-old sophomore, has a hip condition that makes it difficult for him to run. But he also has a black belt in karate, and last summer was able to turn his training into his phys ed class.

“I was doing so much physical activity–more than most gym classes,” Boucher said. “Now I can get credit for it.”

He also rejects the idea that the online classes are easier than traditional gym. Students must study the health benefits of their activities and get assignments on related topics such as healthy eating.

“It’s time-consuming,” Boucher said. “We had hours of written work where we were learning about fitness and how to better our lives–more than I’d ever had in gym class.”

The teachers are in contact through eMail and by phone, meeting face-to-face at least twice–once at the beginning of the semester and once at the end, for baseline fitness testing.

The students “have to do better physically at the end of the semester compared to the beginning,” said online PE teacher Tammy Cowan. “If they don’t, I wouldn’t pass them, to be honest.”

It’s not hard to spot cheaters, the teachers say.

“You’re in contact with them constantly,” said Goodrich, a gym teacher right out of central casting–trim and fit with buzz cut and intense stare. “You’re going to get a sense pretty quick if they’re fudging it.”

“It’s not appropriate for all students, but for the ones it works for it’s good practice for the rest of their lives,” said Dolly Lambdin, a health education professor at the University of Texas and past president of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. “The issue here is if students can take it into their lives and move toward self-responsibility.”


Minneapolis Public Schools

National Association for Sport and Physical Education


Opinion: Philly wireless plan tough on ISPs

In his “Media Frenzy” column for The New York Times, Richard Siklos examines the spread of municipal wireless initiatives, focusing on the plan to offer free wireless access throughout the city of Philadelphia. Siklos points out that one of the problems with such programs is they tend to favor one vendor over another and make it harder for existing ISPs to compete. A number of companies that already have internet customers in Philadelphia were not even given a chance to bid on the Wireless Philadelphia contract. (Note: This site requires registration.)


Coaches find high-tech pipeline to recruits

The Los Angeles Times reports college sports coaches are taking advantage of the latest technologies, particularly text messaging, to communicate with recruits at times when NCAA rules prohibit telephone contact. Major college sports programs are giving their coaches Blackberrys, Treos, and other devices so they can keep in touch with their tech-savvy recruits. The NCAA currently has no restrictions against text messaging and eMail, although it is possible these rules will have to be changed to keep up with new technologies. (Note: This site requires registration.)


NAS, NSTA giving Kansas the cold shoulder

The Washington Post reports that the National Academy of Sciences and The National Science Teachers Association will no longer allow Kansas to use their educational materials if the state insists on teaching students about “intelligent design” theory or undermining evolution theory by overemphasizing the views of its critics. According to NAS and NSTA, the new Kansas education standards “inappropriately single out evolution as a controversial theory despite the strength of the scientific evidence supporting evolution as an explanation for the diversity of life on Earth and its acceptance by an overwhelming majority of scientists.” (Note: This site requires registration.)


Princeton students downloading ‘vodcasts’

Princeton University’s student newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, reports that the school’s University Channel service has added vodcasts (video podcasts made possible through the new video-enabled iPods) to the list of multimedia files available to students through its network. Vodcasting, introduced by Apple in conjunction with the new iPod, allows users to create their own video files and exchange them for free through the iTunes software.


Shlain: Web inevitable in education

The internet, and our increasing reliance on technology, is constantly changing the way people go about their daily lives. Whether cultivating relationships with classmates or friends, conducting research for a project, or mobilizing people to take action in their communities, teachers and students live in a world where technology is increasingly becoming a part of all that they see and do.

That was the message Tiffany Shlain, founder and chair of the Webby Awards, an international awards program that honors the best and most innovative sites on the internet, and on-air technology expert for the television news program Good Morning America, had for the thousands of educators and technology experts gathered at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver on Oct. 27 for the second day of the National School Boards Association’s T+L² conference.

“It’s a little like the air we breathe,” said Shlain of technology’s impact. But while the pervasiveness of technology is viewed as a good thing by most ed-tech enthusiasts, Shlain cautions the pace of innovation, while loaded with potential, also could lead to certain challenges educators should prepare themselves for.

“We’re all so immersed in technology that sometimes we fail to see how it’s changing the way that we live,” she explained. When thinking about the internet, Shlain encouraged educators to ask themselves a single philosophical question: “Where are we today and where are we going?”

In an era when more than 500 million people in more than 40 countries now use the internet, Shlain says technology, as a tool, affects everything from how we view our own personal space, to how we communicate with friends and co-workers, to the way that we write and record our thoughts, and the information we consume.

Through interactive web sites like, where teenagers and adults reportedly are flocking in droves to create their own personal web environments, designed as a means of personal expression, to, the online encyclopedia that invites curious web surfers to edit and add to the comments of those who came before them, Shlain says, the internet, unlike school projects and book reports, “is organic … it’s never done.”

The result, she says, is a free-flowing culture of ideas that encourages students and others to forge new relationships, to question how they live their lives, and think critically about the choices that they make.

“People want to share what they know and people want to hear what other people have to say about things,” Shlain said.

The web also is helping many students and teachers branch out socially, she said. Dating and other personal interactions that once seemed intimidating now are becoming easier thanks to online services such as and other dating web sites–many of which seek to forge new friendships by helping connect people with shared interests. Similarly, in the classroom, many of these online services are connecting students and teachers with peers and colleagues from around the globe, enabling them to share best practices, learn about foreign cultures, and establish lifelong bonds that enhance their understanding of the world in which they live.

“Like six degrees of separation,” Shlain pointed out, the internet is constantly “expanding our network of personal relationships.”

With change, however, also comes great responsibility, she said, especially on the part of the nation’s teachers, whose job it is to prepare students for life and work in a new digital century.

“We need web literacy,” Shlain told the morning audience. With all of the changes that are occurring in how we access, receive, and process information in a digital world, she said, students and other members of the online community need to develop a sense for what is and what is not reliable. At the same time, she added, students also must understand that the internet, while full of useful information, is not the only place where quality educational materials can be found.

As the internet continues to play a more prominent role in the way that we conduct our everyday lives, Shlain says the needs and wants of students will continue to evolve and to grow–so too will the challenges facing educators.

Already, Shlain said, the web is providing evidence of new trends in education and personal communication. Blogs, a form of personal expression once defined by writings and commentary, are becoming more multimedia focused, including photographs, videos, and other features providing new outlets for personal expression. Search engines also are getting smarter, integrating advanced features and customized interfaces to help individual users more easily locate what it is they’re looking for online. Meanwhile, in the classroom, distance learning is becoming an increasingly attractive option for students looking to take on more rigorous courses.

So just where are we headed exactly?

Shlain says she’s not quite sure. But wherever this online odyssey eventually leads, one thing is clear: the allure of the internet will always be about the potential to be a part of something “larger than ourselves.”


National School Boards Association

The Webby Awards


Intel co-founder gives $26M to alma mater

The New York Times reports that former Intel chairman Andrew Grove, who made his fortune as one of the company’s founders, has given back to his alma mater, City University of New York, with the largest gift in the school’s history. Grove, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Hungary in 1957, has given New York’s City College a $26 million donation. In recognition of Grove’s generosity, City College will name its engineering school after him. (Note: This site requires registration.)


Florida bill targets violent video games

Reuters reports that a bill banning the sale or rental of violent video games to minors has been introduced in the Florida Legislature. State Sen. Alex Diaz (R-Miami) based the legislation on a similar bill recently signed into law in California. The move to block children from purchasing or renting violent video games comes in the wake of research suggesting such games can increase aggressive behavior in boys. The video game industry plans to fight the proposed Florida legislation.


T+L² 2005: A preview of limitless learning

Narrowing the achievement gap and harnessing the power of technology to help students succeed in an increasingly global workforce were the topics of choice as thousands of educators and technology directors descended on Denver Wednesday for the National School Boards Association’s T+L² conference.

Technology is “a gateway to closing the achievement gap and creating 21st century learning environments,” said Joan Schmidt, president of the National School Boards Association in welcoming attendees from 49 states and the District of Columbia as well as dozens of countries to this year’s event at the Colorado Convention Center.

Her comments were reinforced by a stirring and visionary keynote address from Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who encouraged attendees and educators everywhere to embrace what he believes is the start of an entirely new technological revolution: The age of “personal fabrication.”

After years of harping on the coming of the “digital revolution,” Gershenfeld says, the time has come and gone. The new revolution, he claims, isn’t happening on the internet, but in the classroom, where teachers and students are using a newfound understanding of technology’s potential to create … almost anything.

Imagine an alarm clock you have to wrestle to prove you’re actually awake, or a wearable container that works as a portable stress reliever, capturing your screams of frustration in silence and recording them for release at a more convenient time. Want something more practical? How about a device that eliminates red-eye from photographs or low-income houses made from snap-together parts–giant Legos constructed to revitalize struggling downtown neighborhoods?

These and other innovations are all concepts that evolved out of Gershenfeld’s latest class at MIT. The course, called “How to Make Almost Anything,” stays true to its name by surrounding students with millions of dollars of lab equipment, computers, and high-tech machinery designed for what the professor has dubbed “personal fabrication.”

The ultimate in project-based learning, the course brings students together to create personalized products designed to meet their own individual needs. Whatever they can imagine, Gershenfeld says, the idea is that with the help of technology, they can build it.

Rather than mass producing products, Gershenfeld believes technology will evolve during the 21st century so that individuals can become their own manufacturers, using digital blueprints constructed on computers to produce products that address their own unique needs–whatever those might be.

“Technology can be as passionate an experience as painting a painting or writing a sonnet,” said Gershenfeld, who believes that in the future, rather than taking classes about how to use technology, the trend will be to offer more courses that teach students to create technology–from the ground up.

That’s what he’s done at MIT–and it’s what he is doing now through the creation of “Fab-Labs,” a series of project-based learning laboratories launched in the most unlikely of academic environments–from the poorest neighborhoods in inner-city Boston to South Africa and a remote village in Ghana.

With as little as $20,000 worth of equipment, Gershenfeld claims he can build technology labs with enough equipment to teach even the most disadvantaged students, from the most desolate of communities, how to fabricate their own circuit boards and create the building blocks of any electronic device.

While the concept itself might seem far-fetched to all those who lack the intellectual prowess that pervades the research labs and libraries at MIT, Gershenfeld insists the ability to create almost anything through digital fabrication will be a reality in 20 years.

But only, he says, if educators embrace the changes wrought by this new technological revolution.

Gershenfeld called on schools and communities to create “villages of innovation,” where different cultures and societies can congregate to share ideas and create new products from the power of their own imaginations–“not by being consumers,” he said, “but by being creators.”

Remember, says Gershenfeld, “we are limited only by our own creative imaginations.”

For more on what’s happening in Denver, check back with eSchool News each day during the conference for updates from the featured speakers as well as news from the exhibit floor and session reviews by the eSN Conference Correspondents.


National School Boards Association

The Center for Bits and Atoms


Electronic Music Maestros

Flash Video
The Student Electronic Music Composition Talent Search recognizes outstanding student music created with the latest software. Meet this year’s winners and hear how technology has inspired them to new heights of creativity.