Online education has proven its value in another surprising area according to conclusions drawn by a team of researchers from the University of Toronto, University of Ottawa and Yale University. Working together with colleagues from South America, scientists looked at sexual practices and attitudes towards safe sex expressed by ninth-graders in Colombia before and after they took a sexual education class – online.
Students who took the course and were sexually active reported higher rates of condom use, had lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and were more likely to be aware of issues arising out of sexually abusive situations.
Marco Gonzalez-Navarro described the results as "strong and significant," adding that online education proved an ideal medium for communicating complex issues relating to sex education.
The study, published as a working paper, tracked 138 ninth graders from 69 public schools in 21 Colombian cities who took a semester-long course provided by Profamilia — an arm of Planned Parenthood International — at a cost of $14 per student. Students spent an hour and a half each day in class on the computer, where they worked through interactive modules and quizzes on topics such as sexual rights, pregnancy, contraceptives and infections.
Students weren't limited only to course materials available on their computer. As part of the program, they could also contact a Profamilia tutor who would answer any questions or allay any concerns while maintaining the students' privacy.
Gonzalez-Navarro said that that while academic outcomes from online education have been mixed so far, for subject matter like sexual education, where the level of potential embarrassment is high and might keep kids from asking questions to which they need answers, the privacy offered by internet-based instruction could be very useful.
Researchers conducted a survey of baseline attitudes before the course started, one week after the course had finished and six months later. Students were also given vouchers for condoms six months after the course, The results of the study showed a 10-per-cent increase in condom use among students who had taken the course and a reduction in self-reported infections for those students who were sexually active when the course started.
Gonzalez-Navarro also pointed to an unexpected benefit. The students' knowledge had a positive impact even on those who didn't have the same level of expertise. Simply interacting with young people who were more knowledgeable about questions of sexual health made it more likely that the knowledge would spread in their peer group.
While the number of unwanted pregnancies and the rate of sexually transmitted infections among teens are lower in North America than Colombia, with more access to sexual education resources, Gonzalez-Navarro said a course like this could still be implemented here.
"Indicators such as teenage pregnancy are much better in Canada than in Columbia," he said. "But there's still room for improvement."