Online alcohol course informs students

By Karin Dienst

Princeton NJ -- Expanding its efforts to educate students about alcohol abuse, the University is providing freshmen and sophomores with access to an online, interactive and confidential alcohol education course called AlcoholEdu.

Janet Dickerson, vice president for campus life, was instrumental in bringing this opportunity to Princeton students in an effort to answer the question: "How do we provide salient and significant cognitive information about alcohol to students who for the most part have been hearing warnings about the dangers of alcohol since adolescence?"

From her experience talking to student groups and medical professionals at Duke University, where Dickerson was vice president of student affairs from 1991 until coming to Princeton in 2000, she discovered that students are more interested in learning how alcohol affects the functioning of the brain than hearing a litany of warnings. Dickerson anticipates that the content of AlcoholEdu -- replete with video streams, case studies, questionnaires and interactive exercises -- will engage and inform Princeton students. AlcoholEdu, created by the Boston-based company Outside the Classroom, currently is being used by dozens of universities across the country.

"We want to find ways to help students learn about issues in a context where they are not pressured," said Dickerson.

"A key expectation is to make students more aware of the dangers of high-risk drinking, to increase knowledge about alcohol-related issues and to empower students to make healthy choices about alcohol," said Gina Baral, coordinator of Health Promotion Services at University Health Services.

A survey conducted last spring by University Health Services indicates that high-risk drinking affects the physical, academic and social well-being of students. One finding is that heavy drinkers are more than twice as likely as light drinkers to have a GPA below a B.

On Sept. 9, Dr. Daniel Silverman, the new chief medical officer and executive director of University Health Services, sent an e-mail to the classes of 2006 and 2005 inviting them to take AlcoholEdu and describing how to log on. The deadline for students to complete the course, which is voluntary, is Nov. 3. Students who finish it earn a movie ticket to the Princeton Garden Theatre, and residential college advisers each have access to $100 to help promote the course.

AlcoholEdu offers a pre-assessment at the start of the course, a post-test at the end and a follow-up a month later to enable students to record and track their attitudes and behaviors regarding alcohol. A final exam measures a student's increase in knowledge about alcohol-related issues. Interactive case studies allow students to explore variables such as how many alcoholic drinks the student has had in the past two weeks, age, gender and body weight. These features enable students to examine their own behaviors and gain self-awareness, thereby learning to protect against dangerous drinking behavior, according to Baral.

She said the beauty of the course is that students can "log on anytime from any computer with an Internet connection." Taking two to three hours to complete, the course can be done in parts as it returns the student to the last-visited location.

The course is composed of six chapters covering topics such as alcohol and society, the effects of alcohol on learning and memory, alcohol behavior and abuse and addiction. It also includes a glossary, a blood alcohol level calculator and resources on topics including drinking and driving and alcohol and advertising. Students are asked questions such as: "How many times in the past week did you worry about a friend drinking too much?" "How many times in the past two weeks did you: Skip a meal to get drunk faster? Worry about drinking too much? Plan to go out with a nondrinking friend? Avoid drinking games?"

Individual responses to the course are confidential, but aggregate data can be collected about groups of people. These findings will help determine the most beneficial ways to design education programs and support students.

The course is now a new baseline program of the Residential Education Program (REP). A coordinated set of programs, primarily for first-year students, REP emphasizes key community values: safety, responsibility, respect and civility. Maria Flores Mills, assistant dean of undergraduate students and chair of the committee for REP, is excited that peer educators will have a more powerful way to discuss alcohol-related issues. "We also will work with assistant masters at the colleges to provide support," she said.

Dickerson agreed that residential college advisers can play a major role in alcohol education. "We can learn from them if the online course generates public discussion," she said. "It would be nice to empower students to talk about these issues."

While the online course currently targets freshmen and sophomores, Dickerson hopes that it will raise awareness about alcohol issues across the campus. "I am excited about the possibilities to heighten awareness because alcohol is a challenge for our whole community," she said. "It would be a great success if upperclass students and leaders of teams and clubs would ask to participate in it."

Ultimately, Dickerson expects that the response of students to the course and the discussions and data it generates will help Princeton take a close look at campus policy toward alcohol and the overall campus culture.


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