Why gym teachers and football coaches are routinely tapped to helm the great ship of pubescent awkwardness known as Sex Education certainly is one of God's own private mysteries. Anyone who ever remembers watching their bewhistled P.E. teacher clumsily draw fallopian tubes on a chalkboard knows that maybe a face-to-face setting might not always be the best way to teach the birds and the bees.
But rejoice blushing middle schoolers, a new study may have delivered your salvation. Researchers from the University of Toronto and Yale recently conducted a randomized and controlled trial that found Internet-based sex education effectively improved students' knowledge and attitudes toward sex.
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The study included 138 ninth graders from 69 different schools in Colombia, a country where 60 percent of young people are sexually active by the age of 18 and only 55 percent of young women reported using a condom during their first sexual experience.
The semester-long course, designed by Profamilia, a local nonprofit affiliated with Planned Parenthood, covered topics such as sexual rights and freedoms, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and contraception. Students could access online tutorials from school or personal computers and could email questions to remote tutors.
"The sensitive nature of this issue can create discomfort and lead students to avoid engaging with the material or participating at all," states the study's paper, written by Alberto Chong, Marco Gonzalez-Navarro, Dean Karlan and Martin Valdivia. "The anonymity and privacy which are possible with computer-based learning may actually be better suited to teaching adolescents about sexual health."
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Six months after it ended, researchers found the "course showed itself effective in improving students' knowledge and attitude indicators in the short and medium term, and led to a reduction in self-reported STIs among the sexually active at baseline."
Student were given condom vouchers six months after the course ended. Researchers found that "treated students" - those who participated in the course - redeemed their vouchers at a rate 10 percent higher than those in the control group.
Researchers also found "strong indication that effects of the course were reinforced when treated individuals had larger percentages of their friend networks in treatment classrooms."
Anything that improves sexual health knowledge and awareness, I'm all for. However, I'm a bit wary of face-to-face interaction being replaced entirely with online telecommunication, especially when it comes to education. A subject such as sex is already taboo enough. Is retreating behind an online veil of privacy really the best way to promote an open and honest dialogue?
I'm not sure. I could argue both sides of that debate, which makes it an interesting question. However, as a former educator, I've witnessed too many teachers and mentors take the easy way out by sticking a kid in front of a computer screen - to the point where logging in really meant tuning out.
Besides, everyone needs to witness a jittery football coach unroll a condom on a banana at least once in their life.
Credit: Fabio Cardoso/Corbis via Coexist