Educators weigh pros and cons of sex ed through a screen

For the past year, educators on and off campus have had to manage teaching sexual topics virtually; they say while the online format brings its own challenges, for some students, it can also have its perks. 

SIUE offers a Public Health course known as PBHE 210 “Sexual Health,” which has previously been taught by Public Health Professor Nicole Klein. While she said she hasn’t taught the course during the pandemic, Klein has taught it virtually during the winter sessions that were already online before the pandemic, a format she said comes with pros and cons.

“In an asynchronous class, you don’t have that immediacy where you are sitting down and discussing with another person — that could be considered a disadvantage in some cases,” Klein said. “When you have to maybe write for a discussion board … there’s some advantages to that; you have time to really think and really craft what you’re going to say, so … I’d say there’s probably pros and cons to each side of that.”

Public Health Instructor Jennifer Caumiant will be teaching PBHE 210 next fall. She said she has been using the format’s dependency on technology to her students’ advantage.

“I’m very into TED Talks or into podcasts, so finding other ways to meet them in their technology … as opposed to being in the classroom and if you miss that lecture for that 50 minutes, then you miss the lecture for that 50 minutes,” Caumiant said. “Being able to have it accessible 24/7 online … that’s one of the pros of the format.” 

Cary Archer, manager of education and outreach with Planned Parenthood Illinois, said while the virtual format can comfort some, it can keep others willfully disconnected. 

“Virtual provides for people who maybe are not as comfortable talking about these topics when they’re actually in a physical space with people — they could be more likely to communicate their thoughts,” Archer said. “On the negative side, it is much less of a personal interaction, and it means that students that don’t want to be engaged can check out very easily without anyone knowing.”

Archer said Planned Parenthood has adopted a few techniques to keep people engaged and avoid Zoom fatigue.

“I think the biggest thing that’s important is to … recognize that just because it’s virtual doesn’t mean everything has to just become a lecture,” Archer said. “But also, trying to use … spaces where, digitally, they can also be putting their answers in a written way — so the ability to use polling, if you have the poll feature. We use a lot of shared Google documents where we ask questions and then have spaces [where] people can use the link and start typing, so we can see everybody’s answers being typed.”

Only 38% of U.S. high schools teach all 19 sexual health topics the Center for Disease Control deems essential. Klein said because of this, it’s important to make sure students are fully informed about sexual topics and that their information comes from credible sources.

“I think that it’s really important not to overestimate how much sexuality education an SIU student arrives on campus with … 62 percent of SIUE students arrive on campus with gaps in their sexuality education ... so I think not assuming a baseline of knowledge is important,” Klein said. “It’s difficult because if you start to Google ‘sexuality education’ on your own, it’s really kind of the Wild West out there.”

Some credible sources Klein said she recommends are Bedsider, Scarleteen and Sex, Etc., each online resources with additional information on topics of sex and sexual health. Klein said she also recommends Columbia University’s “Go Ask Alice,” which covers a wide array of health topics including sexual health. 

Caumiant said students can always reach out to Health Service on campus, or they can seek off-campus resources like the World Health Organization and Guttmacher Institute for more information on sex education and reproductive health. 

Archer said Planned Parenthood’s ability to provide both education and actual health care services make it a particularly good resource for newly-independent college students. Archer also said Advocates for Youth is an organization that offers sex ed curriculum for anyone the age range of grade school through young adulthood. 

As the pandemic continues, so does sex education; Caumiant said going forward, educators should try to stay patient.

“Just [have] a little patience, a little grace in helping people find what they need,” Caumiant said. “Trying to understand that everybody comes with their own challenges … but just trying to be understanding and to provide the information, the resources that can be most useful for them.”

Archer said educators shouldn’t let the circumstances overshadow the subject’s importance.

“Young people and people in general … need accurate information, they need to have spaces where these things can be talked about,” Archer said. “Those things can all still be done virtually. I think there’s a sense that just because it’s virtual, that sexual health isn’t as necessary of a topic — it still is.”

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