Coming to a classroom near you ..

Will video kill PE teachers? Virtual coaches for exercise classes

As the 30 seven-year-old children gear up for their samba class, the teacher is looking a lot happier than she usually does in physical education lessons that concentrate on dance. For rather than pulling on her jogging bottoms and having to try to pretend she is a bikini-clad Brazilian, today she simply has to roll out the interactive whiteboard and keep an eye on behaviour.

Teachers who struggle with the rhythmic demands of dance or aerobics now have an alternative: let a virtual coach teach the children.

Called Cyber Coach Smart, this is the brainchild of a UK company that focuses on primary-age aerobics and dance tutorship.

"We created a library of exercise routines and dance-mat games aimed at five- to 11-year-olds," the company's Lyndsey Horner explains. "Primary schools can't afford expensive hardware so we came up with a system that uses their interactive whiteboards."

With Cyber Coach Smart, children learn by watching and copying videos of dance routines and classes presented by professional teachers or dancers.

The idea is not to replace teachers in PE lessons, Horner stresses, but to assist those who have only minimal PE training. "The teacher is required to lead the class activity and, of course, manage the students. Cyber Coach Smart is only a tool and cannot replace PE teachers."

She adds that another bonus of the system is that it reduces reliance on external expertise. In the past, schools have been forced to bring in expert coaches for sports that are unfamiliar to the staff. Now they can simply download a video.

Yet it's not wholly cut and dried. After all, is watching the teacher having a go at a difficult dance routine not crucial for student participation? If the teacher doesn't bother, why should the students? And if the teacher looks foolish trying, doesn't that make the students feel OK about looking foolish, too?

It seems these concerns have not cropped up in the 1,500 UK schools already signed up to the system. They say it has increased PE participation and fitness levels by offering something different, fun and easy. Teachers at Anton Junior School in Bolton, Greater Manchester, even credit it with helping to increase concentration levels.

The company plans to expand into four more countries in the next 18 months, so more schools will have a chance to assess the system for themselves. Since a subscription costs less than #163;30 a month, many more may take up the opportunity.

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