Teaching Sex Ed Online, Take Two

On March 24th, I published a post on teaching sex ed online…during a pandemic. Since then, I have spent hundreds of hours learning about online tools and online facilitation. I have also provided more than 70 hours of online training with many more planned. Suffice to say, I’ve learned a lot since that original post.

The post in March and the associated training were born out of necessity. Facilitators needed support as they pivoted from teaching sex ed in face to face settings, as they had always done, to teaching sex ed in online settings, which they had never done. We provided that support as best we could, given the information we had. But now we have more information!

And the world and what it is asking of facilitators have both changed again. We are looking towards the fall semester without clear guidance or mandates from our schools, organizations, funders, or even curriculum developers. We have time to plan, this time, but many of us still don’t know if we will be teaching in person, online, or a hybrid of both. And unless our plans are to teach exclusively online, we are well aware that we may have to move our plans from in person to online based on local viral numbers.

So now, three and a half months later, I have a new, updated list of things to consider when teaching sex ed online during this particular pandemic:

  1. This is different from teaching almost every other content area online, and it can be done well. The engaging, participatory, facilitated environment that most sex ed classrooms encompass can be brought into the online environment – you just need to know how! Turning your creativity, enthusiasm, and buy-in up to 11 is the first step to providing an exciting, dynamic, informative online program, and you can absolutely make that happen! Specific, detailed planning is the key.
  2. Maintaining a trauma-informed lens is even more critical in the online space, and much more difficult to do. We must make online sexuality education trauma informed. Some problems include: participants not having a safe space to receive or participate in this education given their family dynamics, participants being triggered without facilitator awareness, other people participating or engaging with the class in ways that the facilitator cannot see or control, participants using the class as a springboard for going down a YouTube or Google thread because they cannot ask the facilitator a question, and more. Some ways to address these issues include: robust group agreements that you revisit every single class, having two facilitators available at all times, and letting participants know what content you will be discussing beforehand. Use all of the tools you used in F2F environments: be aware, be alert, and directly address anything that you are worried about. Taking the time to have a trauma-informed approach is not taking away from the curriculum, it’s adding to it.
  3. There are specific and important ways to respond if your participants disclose in a digital environment that they are experiencing violence in their real lives. Your reactions must be based in a trauma-informed space, take legal requirements into consideration, and be aware of the increased risk of violence when families are quarantined together. Being responsive, available, and attentive to participants and the ways they need you to show up is important. Thinking through potential disclosures and your responses to them will help you prepare.
  4. Teaching about communication is even more important than before COVID. All communication education prior to COVID worked from an assumption that the mere act of being together in the same room would not, itself, be a potential infectious risk factor. Increasing young people’s capacity to discuss risk factors, identify their own needs, and communicate those needs has never been more important. These communication skills need to honed in both in person and digital modalities.
  5. Find and/or make a curriculum that works online! There are not many sex ed curricula that were written for the online space. Some curricula developers are allowing their F2F curricula to be modified for online use and some that are not. Make sure you know which kind you’re using. Replicating an in-person curriculum online doesn’t provide the most effective online learning experience. Taking synchronous in-person lesson plans and moving them into a digital modality just doesn’t have the same learning impact. Rather than trying to replicate a curriculum as-is, it is critical to modify it, with an eye towards activities and engagement that work well (or even better!) in the online space. This will provide substantial increases in participant engagement and learning.
  6. Class environments that are synchronous (at the same time, by video or voice) and asynchronous (at different times, by text, video, and/or voice) have both upsides and downsides. Ideally you can use both methods in integrative ways that are most effective for specific content, but many schools and organization are providing direction on exactly how teachers must interact with their students. Based on what your administration is telling you,  you can still get the most out of any online environment with creativity! In the same ways that you work to create engaging in person activities by thinking outside the box, you can do the same online. For synchronous environments, look into ways that your platform allows real-time interaction. This may mean providing students with the opportunity to  annotate as a way to brainstorm, integrating polls for anonymous feedback, watching videos together, and having participants engage in whole-group movement activities that everyone is able to participate in. For asynchronous environments, stay deeply engaged and respond to at least half of the participants’ responses, write assignments that connect personally and currently, like having participants look up information like the closest STI testing center to their home and report back on how they’re handling testing during quarantine, and include discussions that are just for fun rather than being required to allow for some sanctioned chit-chat.
  7. Developmental appropriateness matters even more when you’re trying to teach sex ed online. Sexuality education is all about developmentally appropriateness. In face to face settings, facilitators spend a lot of time considering the age appropriateness of the content that they present. However, the structure by which that content is presented is also critically important. Experienced facilitators have an innate sense of how long they can lecture, how to provide interactivity, and what is interesting to participants of different developmental stages in face to face settings. We need to re-learn all of these elements in the online setting.
  8. Talk with parents, caregivers, and guardians when they are available. The adults who support the participants in your online classes want, and should be able, to connect with you. They may also want to connect with each other. Providing digital support to these adults is a critical element of an effective digital sexuality education program. The adults might not be able to read everything you send them or hop on a phone call, but they want what is best for their kids and they want to understand what you are doing with them. So be in touch with them and tell them what you’re doing and how they can interact with the learning process.
  9. Know that this is going to be awkward for everyone. If the events over the last three and a half months have taught us anything, it’s that we can expect an awkward moment or two in the digital sex education space. One of your participants will end up video conferencing from their bed. Someone will bring or say something inappropriate during a synchronous lesson. And these things will be weird and uncomfortable and you will find new, inventive, and effective ways of addressing them.
  10. Practice self care and self compassion. While these are top priorities at all times, for participants and facilitators alike, it is even more so in times of deep trauma and stress. And everyone is experiencing trauma and stress right now. Preparing to attend to your own self care and self compassion needs, as well as supporting your participants in attending to their own needs, should be a critical element of your work plan.

There is so much more to each of these ten elements. The UN|HUSHED team and I continue to delve into teaching sex ed online in an evolving way. I don’t believe that this post will be my last. The first one was written in an emergency. This second one is written as we take a breath and prepare for uncertainty. I hope for the third one to be written from a place where we know what is coming.