TARSHI, an organization focused on sexual and reproductive health in India, recently launched an online course on comprehensive sexuality education for teachers. They look at its impact in improving knowledge.
In India, comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in schools is a contentious topic. I’ve heard many arguments against it, from “it’s against our culture” to “it will encourage children to experiment.” Teachers tend to consider it an additional burden to their busy days, and socio-religious-political opposition ensures CSE is not included in school curricula or teacher training. The result: teachers have a lot of doubts and conflicted feelings about sexuality and feel ill-equipped to discuss these topics in the classroom. Meanwhile, young people are forced to resort to getting information from their peers or the Internet.
There have been some encouraging steps taken, such as the Adolescent Education Program, a national curriculum that seeks to address issues relevant to adolescents and help them know their rights, counter shame and fear, and build self-esteem and confidence. But even if schools do provide sexuality education, they restrict it to menstruation, abstinence from sex, and sexual abuse—without going into the other myriad topics that make up CSE.
Why an e-learning course on CSE?
TARSHI has run a helpline on sexuality and reproductive health for 13 years, reaching young people throughout India. This experience and our interactions with parents, teachers, and policymakers informed a guide we created called The Orange Book in 2010. This guide was designed to better equip teachers to provide CSE in the classroom. Since its publication, the book has reached hundreds of educators across India, but we wanted to do more. We conducted a series of focus group discussions with teachers, and the consensus was that an e-learning course, which teachers could do at their own pace, would be ideal. Although we recognized that access to the Internet may not be available to all teachers, the gaps in CSE-related trainings is so large that any efforts towards bridging it are useful.
The TARSHI Online Course on Comprehensive Sexuality Education launched in November 2016 with a cohort of 25 participants, of which 15 completed the course. Most participants were educators working in different roles in school settings. The four-week course had six modules and sought to help participants understand CSE and to increase their comfort and confidence with addressing sexuality-related topics in the classroom. We also hoped that participants would affirm the right of young people to receive accurate information about sexuality.
Measuring participants’ attitudes
Measuring change in attitudes on any topic is a challenge, and when it comes to sensitive topics such as sexuality, it is even harder. It is easier to give politically correct responses than to share genuine, underlying perceptions. It is an even greater challenge with e-learning, where course facilitators cannot note how participants are reacting and interacting with others in real time.
To overcome these obstacles, we included many case studies in the course and formed a closed Facebook group for participants and facilitators to have a dialogue with each other. We also used a detailed checklist as our primary tool for evaluating the course.
The checklist helped us track participants’ views over the duration of the course and look at how their thoughts and ideas evolved, if at all. In addition to the checklist, we evaluated the discussions on the closed Facebook group.
How effective was the online course?
Our analysis of the checklist and Facebook group discussions show that most participants understood the importance of CSE and their role as educators in discussing sexuality with young people during the this critical and impressionable phase. Some, however, did not talk about young people’s sexual rights—possibly because this was their first exposure to a rights-based perspective. Also, an online mode of interaction only goes so far; we usually overcome these limitations by conducting in-person classes that give participants an opportunity to clarify doubts related to the course. With this batch, however, we couldn’t conduct these classes due to participants’ unavailability. Since participants in future cohorts might not be able to attend in-person classes either, we will focus even more on clarifying concepts like rights-based approaches in Facebook groups.
Through the Facebook group, participants shared their views on the topics they were engaging with in the course. They discussed ideas and concepts such as body image and challenges with talking about sexuality in the classroom, and relayed stories from their childhood.
Our experience with the inaugural cohort of the course highlights that although the online medium has limitations, it offers a good opportunity to start conversations on topics that are still taboo in Indian society. This is evident from the feedback we collected after the course, in which most participants appreciated the case studies adapted from real-life stories and the questions posed, as well as the mix of media that was used (videos, case studies, multiple choice quizzes, true/false questions, etc.). As one participant said about the case studies, “They helped me reflect on so many ideas and complex possibilities which I had not encountered so far and had not deliberated over.”