Physical education with Jon Szychlinksi is not your traditional gym class. Just as professional athletes study game tapes to identify their weaknesses, Szychlinski’s middle schoolers do, too. While a team of kids might play volleyball, their peers record their movements, giving them footage to study when it’s their turn for a break.

Students also use their down time to record video self-reflections and upload them into an online classroom management platform. Szychlinski gives students clear rubrics based on federal, state and local physical education standards so they can place their physical fitness on a continuum and chart a course for improvement. He records his own video messages for students and offers feedback they can find in the platform.

Sports and physical fitness are still a big part of Szychlinski’s PE class, but technology is, too.

Szychlinski uses Otus, a comprehensive data management and communication platform, that his district, Berwyn North School District 98, just outside of Chicago, offered to teachers four years ago. His district dropped the platform, but Szychlinski has used it to overhaul his class. (Otus is free for teachers, whether administrators purchase a subscription or not.)

Szychlinski uses the platform to bring together grades, student demographic information, testing data and anecdotes he collects about each kid. It also hosts all the video he and his students record. These types of platforms are becoming more common in schools as educators try to understand students better and keep up with their challenges and progress. Comprehensive data management systems make it easier to spot patterns, particularly because the platforms generally create user-friendly reports with the click of a button. They also offer teachers an online home for their class materials.

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Szychlinski’s primary goal in using technology for physical education, which Otus developers are working to facilitate, is to track fitness, nutritional and academic data, and help students see the connection between the three. He believes the data can help students see patterns between their physical health and academics, and give students the evidence they need to make better choices about their diets and their physical activity while they’re still young.

“We can share that with parents, with doctors, with other teachers,” Szychlinski said. “Every kid is not equal. We want to have real data about where kids are and where they’re going.”

Szychlinski faces challenges in using technology for physical education. None of his school’s other PE teachers track data in the same way, and students get reassigned every quarter. At the end of the school year, Szychlinski may only have had a few months with a given student. But he still finds his data-tracking worthwhile.

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At the very least, it has eliminated dead time in his small gym, where there’s not enough space for every student to participate at the same time. Now, even when kids are waiting to play, they can reflect on how to improve their form, their performance and ultimately, their overall health.

Some things, of course, can’t happen with technology. For a recent vocabulary lesson, Szychlinski introduced his students to the term “cardiovascular endurance.” “What’s that?” the middle schoolers asked.

“I’ll show you,” Szychlinski told them. “Start running.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

This story about technology in physical education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun in Bremerton, WA. After graduating with...

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