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Novel online program in adapted physical education growing

by Mark Schwerin

June 13, 2011 | WMU News

Photo of WMU's Dr. Jiabei Zhang.
Dr. Jiabei Zhang
KALAMAZOO--With the help of a federal grant, a new hybrid online master's degree program in adapted physical education at Western Michigan University is growing rapidly, helped in part by its free tuition.

Enrollment in the master's degree program, which was announced in January and trains physical education teachers how to work with children who have physical or mental disabilities, has significantly increased with the help of a $1.18 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Enrollment has jumped to 27 currently accepted students. Another eleven have been recruited to begin the program in fall 2012.

The grant, awarded to Dr. Jiabei Zhang, a WMU professor of health, physical education and recreation, pays for tuition and textbooks. Zhang directs the program with technical and administrative help from colleagues in his department and in collaboration with Extended University Programs. This hybrid online master's degree program was created in fall 2009. It has been federally funded since the spring 2011 semester.

In addition to tuition and books, the grant pays for an on-campus adapted physical education lab staffed by two graduate assistants. Even WMU President John M. Dunn has gotten in on the act by serving as a consultant on the grant due to his background in adapted physical education.

Believed to be the first online program of its kind, it prepares physical education teachers to provide quality special or adapted physical education for school children with disabilities in the least restrictive, most appropriate and most inclusive environment. Children they work with could suffer from a wide range of challenges, from a physical disability to cognitive impairment, autistic disorder or learning disability.

The initiative also addresses an extensive distance learning need expressed by many potential applicants in Michigan and other states.

As more children are moved into less restrictive learning environments, the demand for teachers trained in adaptive physical education is growing rapidly, Zhang says. It is estimated some 10 to 12 percent of public school children require adapted physical education.

"There is a significant shortage of adapted physical education teachers in the public schools," Zhang says. "That is a major problem public schools have right now."

Zhang says many schools opt to put students with disabilities in the same classes as other students, making specially trained physical education teachers a necessity. Program graduates also could end up teaching in a class specifically for children with disabilities.

It is critical that students with disabilities receive quality and appropriate physical education, Zhang says.

"It helps children grow," Zhang says. "Children are undergoing a rapid rate of development and they need multiple ways to facilitate that development. Physical activity is one of the major tools to help them to grow. It not only helps them improve their physical fitness and motor skills, it helps improve their cognitive function and facilitates the development of their emotions. So PE is very, very important, especially for children with disabilities."

For more information, visit the program online or call Dr. Jiabei Zhang, professor of health, physical education and recreation, at (269) 387-2949.