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Online PE class is more than mouse clicks

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 5, 2002

[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
High school student Jeff Gussow runs a one-mile circuit through his Palm Harbor neighborhood.

Taking a class such as English or algebra online probably wouldn't raise an eyebrow. But physical education?

The mere mention that my online class is PE (now known as personal fitness) brings the "You've got to be kidding" look from friends and laughs from adults. But it's how I spent part of my summer vacation.

Going to class meant traveling from my bed to the PC. But don't think that I sat in front of a computer and did curls by lifting a monitor, or worked out with mouse clicks and keyboard strokes. I actually had to do physical activities. Real sweat. Honest.

It meant getting out of bed at 6 a.m. to run (maybe trudge would be more accurate) through the neighborhood to fulfill the mile-run requirement. It meant time at a park doing pullups. It meant having my mother hold my feet down (or at least try to) as I did curlups. It meant lifting weights at the gym.

While that is what I would do if I took the class at my high school, taking an online class is different. And it starts with getting accepted at the Florida Virtual School (, whose motto is "Any time, any place, any path, any pace." It's a 5-year-old school that originally was called the Florida Online High School.

It offers a variety of classes, ranging from science to math, English to PE. It is free to students in Florida, even those who are home schooled. Credits earned there are recognized in all school districts. Its funding comes from the state.

To get started, you register online at the virtual school's Web site, then print out the completed forms. Those have to be signed by your school guidance counselor and your parents, then mailed or faxed to the virtual school.

My first attempt to sign up failed because the summer class was full. I tried for fall but got a second chance for the summer when the school added spaces. The teacher, Sherry Holloway from near Gainesville, called in June to talk to me and my parents, introducing herself and explaining requirements.

Communication is an important part of the class, and it's more than just e-mail. Lessons are online, and some tests are taken on the Web and timed. The teacher called my parents with a progress report, and I had to fax and mail documents showing that I had completed the required work. A traditional course takes between 15 and 18 weeks; summer courses are eight to 11 weeks. And students can work at their own pace. I did four assignments in one night, for example.

How does the teacher know if you actually do all the exercises that you claim? Your parents. You didn't think that they just let kids put down any numbers and turn them in for a grade? We'd never get away with that. To keep us honest, parents must sign workout logs that are sent to the teacher.

Turning in some assignments proved difficult, especially when the fax machine didn't work. It's not like a regular class where you can put your homework on the teacher's desk.

And it is very different from regular high school. After nine weeks, I didn't know what my teacher looked like (though she has a very Southern accent) or who my classmates were. I could pass them in the mall or sit by them in a movie theater and never know it.

There is no yearbook at the end of the school year, and the cafeteria special is whatever is in your refrigerator. Your locker is the floor in your room (yeah, yeah, I'll clean it up soon), and you don't have to carry around any of your books because it's all on your computer.

I'm not sure about my classmates' reasons, but I took this class online so I could take another elective, such as law studies, at my high school.

Perhaps some people will never comprehend the idea of a personal fitness course online. But it made the grade for me.

- Jeff Gussow, the son of Times personal technology editor Dave Gussow, will be a junior at Palm Harbor University High School.

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