April 19, 2017

A recent study assessed high school students’ and health teachers’ perceptions of an online sexuality education intervention – and found the tool a valuable resource that provided high-quality health education while improving student engagement, privacy and comfort.

Liz Chen

Liz Chen

Dr. Clare Barrington

Dr. Clare Barrington

Liz Chen, MPH, doctoral student in health behavior at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, and Clare Barrington, PhD,  associate professor of health behavior at the Gillings School, are co-authors of the study, published online April 4 in the American Journal of Sexuality Education.

Noting a significant decline in formal sex education for adolescents in the U.S. between 2006 and 2013, particularly for adolescents in rural areas, Chen and a team of master’s students adapted an evidence-based teen pregnancy and HIV prevention intervention, called MyHealthEd, to increase access to sex education in rural schools.

The research team pilot-tested the intervention with 135 ninth graders from four public schools in rural eastern North Carolina during regularly scheduled health, physical education or study hall periods. Twenty-nine of those, nearly all of whom identified as African-American, participated in nine gender-specific group interviews.

The team prioritized ninth graders in North Carolina because one-third of the state’s ninth graders report having had sexual intercourse and because ninth grade is the last year in which students are required to enroll in a health education class.

Three health and sex education teachers also participated in individual interviews.

The intervention generally was well received by students and teachers. Students reported that the online education program allowed them more autonomy, more interaction with peers, more engagement, greater privacy and comfort, and clearer expectations about their behavior. Teachers noted positive attributes including decreased need for daily lesson planning, decreased daily grading and the opportunity to learn new information from the lessons.

Chen and Barrington call for additional qualitative and quantitative studies of future related intervention. They note that future school-based online interventions in sex education more directly should involve other adults, such as teachers and parents, and that future iterations maintain student autonomy while addressing teachers’ needs for classroom control.

The program “highlights the potential to integrate formal and informal learning to facilitate lifelong learning,” the authors write. “…It is important for all related professionals to intentionally frame online sex education interventions as a part of a student’s sexuality education” so that the students will not believe that, by completing the intervention, they have learned all they need to know about their own reproductive health.

“School-based health education is often one-size-fits-all,” said Chen, who is also a former high school science teacher. “Moving forward, we need to better individualize health education – and not just sexuality education – to improve student engagement and health outcomes. Leveraging technology may be one cost-effective way to do it.”

The authors acknowledge support from N.C. State University’s Institute for Emerging Issues and the State Employees’ Credit Union Foundation.


Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu

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