Online Sex Education

Think back to the days of your first sex education class. Chances are you remember a couple of bananas, a few sniggers, and a wash of pubescent hormones. But as it turns out, all sex ed classes are not created equal. Now, two graduate students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, are filling the sex ed void with a tailored online curriculum for teens in poor rural areas.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), only 22 states and the District of Columbia require that public schools provide sex education, and two of these states don’t mandate HIV education. Out of all 50 U.S. states, only 19 have laws saying that, if provided, the sex education curriculum must be medically, factually, and technically accurate.

For one, the North Carolina General Assembly recently passed a bill mandating that sex ed curricula for kindergarten through 9th grade students include medically unproven information about a link between abortions and later preterm births.

While the discourse surrounding sex ed will always be terse in a country where different religious, political, and social views are at odds, the truth is that sex education affects not just quality of life, but academic achievement as well. Elizabeth Chen and Vichi Jagannathan, both graduates of Princeton University, observed firsthand the effects of sex education classes that left much to be desired when they taught at a rural high school in eastern North Carolina.

Rural teen pregnancy rates in low-income counties in North Carolina are nearly five times as high as rates in higher-income counties. When it became clear that teen pregnancy stopped some of their brightest students in their tracks, Chen and Jagannathan decide to fill the gaps in sex education with a new-millennium fix: an online, individually tailored sex education curriculum called MyHealthEd. 

“[We] realized that poor health behaviors and outcomes, especially those related to sexual health, negatively impacted students' academic achievement,” said Chen, a candidate for a masters in public health at the University of North Carolina's Gillings School of Global Public Health, in an interview with Healthline.

“We grew tired of listening to all of our students' misconceptions and seeing some of our highest-performing students not attend college because of unintended teen pregnancies,” Chen added. These misconceptions ranged from "you don't need to use a condom in the shower" to "you can't get STDs while on the pill."

“Very few of our students received a formal health education during their middle and high school years,” Chen said, and while the need to fill those gaps was apparent, how to do so was the challenge. After much discussion, Chen and Jagannathan decided to combine their interests in public health and online education, respectively. The pair entered IntraHealth's SwitchPoint Silo Busters Lightning Contest earlier this year and won first place for the MyHealthEd initiative.

How MyHealthEd Works

The MyHealthEd program starts with creating something most teens are already familiar with—an online profile.

“During health class in school, students will create MyHealthEd accounts for the first time and fill out an initial online survey on their sexual health knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors,” Chen said. Hopefully, any shyness a student may feel in a classroom setting will be tempered by the online interface.

After their profiles are completed, software will interpret the results and create an individualized curriculum for each student.

“Students will then go through a series of interactive modules that will present information, challenge students to think critically, and provide a safe space for them to ask questions anonymously,” Chen said. As they go through the program, students will self-report their condom use and other sexual habits so that the MyHealthEd software can also collect a unique, tailored set of data.

“Individualized sex education is important because each student is different. Teachers differentiate instruction for core content classes, so MyHealthEd will do the same thing,” Chen said.

The upsides of online sex education are numerous. Students can receive immediate feedback, they can work at their own paces, and those with learning difficulties can also take advantage of features like “read aloud” (into headphones, if they so choose). But most importantly for districts struggling to fund even the bare minimum, let alone sex education classes, MyHealthEd will be cost-effective for school districts in the long run, Chen said.

Chen and Jagannathan have created a crowd funding campaign to raise money to launch MyHealthEd. With 18 days left, the duo is still shy of their $25,000 goal. Chen says she and her partner welcome public feedback on their project.

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