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Research finally shows that online education works — for sex, alcohol and health

NBC News | 4-10-2013

Asia Jackson likes to learn at the computer because she can work at her own pace, which is usually faster than her classmates’. Al-Tariq Linton says, “It’s one on one. If I have a question, instead of competing for the teacher’s attention, I can go back and read it on my own.” Wanda Williams says her favorite part of the online course she’s taking is the narrator of the videos it includes. “Rufus made it funny,” she says. “It was fun.”

As interest in online education rages, these 17- and 18-year-old students at Newark, N.J.’s West Side High are guinea pigs in a global experiment to answer a key but surprisingly elusive question: whether and when it actually works.

Evidence is mixed about how well online courses teach core subjects such as science, math or reading, with a recent large-scale Columbia study showing disadvantages to online learning for community college students. (The study was done at Columbia’s Teachers College, which is also home to The Hechinger Report, producer of this story.) But new research shows that, in certain topics—as for these students in Newark — computer-based instruction is not only just as effective as the old-fashioned, in-person kind. It’s more effective.

These topics include sex, drugs and health — subjects in which privacy, personal comfort and customized information are especially important, and embarrassment or cultural taboos can get in the way of classroom teaching. Simple video- and animation-based interactive courses in these disciplines turn out to be good ways of teaching subjects you may have giggled through in health class. And they’re increasingly being used all over the world with success now confirmed by peer-reviewed, controlled research. The results are important as online education continues to expand faster than its impact and effectiveness can be fully measured.

“We’re seeing significant and large effects on attitudes, knowledge, and also behaviors” from online courses in nontraditional subjects, says Marco Gonzalez-Navarro, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto who coauthored one study of the subject.

Gonzalez-Navarro, working with researchers at Yale and the University of Ottawa, found that Colombian students in an 11-week online course in safer sex created by Profamilia, part of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, knew more about safer sex practices than students who took the conventional, state-mandated health class. And their knowledge was put into practice. For every 68 students who took the online course instead of the traditional course, researchers estimated by reviewing students’ medical records and comparing them to those of peers who didn’t take the course, up to two sexually transmitted infections were prevented. The students were also 10 percentage points more likely than their counterparts to redeem vouchers for free condoms offered six months later.

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