Freshmen to Undergo Online Alcohol Education

Following the lead of hundreds of institutions across the country, and in conjunction with neighboring USF, the University of Tampa is to commence a mandatory online alcohol education program for its incoming freshman class this fall. Developed by the professional research team at Outside The Classroom, the AlcoholEdu program comes with a track record of success and the high expectations of UT administrators.

“AlcoholEdu is part of a concerted effort by the University and a community-wide push against alcohol abuse,” said Gina Firth, Associate Dean of Students at UT, and “it has a ‘non-partisan’ broad consensus of support from the President on down.”

Firth, who has worked in the substance abuse field since 1987, is the chair of the Coalition for an Alcohol Responsible Environment (CARE) and an executive committee member of the Tampa Alcohol Coalition in the greater Tampa community, along with Dean of Students Bob Ruday. And she is quick to explain the potential benefits that the AlcoholEdu program brings to campus: “The role of this is to allow students the opportunity to get clear, concise, accurate information on alcohol, to enable them to make low-risk healthy choices, and to be a success here at UT.”

How the program works

AlcoholEdu is an online educational device that is aimed at population-level prevention, which means that it is designed to prevent alcohol abuse on a group level, considering the student population as a community. Yet it works on a highly personalized basis, assessing each student’s individual needs and providing flexible information to meet them. It is the antithesis of the “one-size-fits-all” approach to alcohol education, being regularly revised to accommodate the latest scientific research. In fact, if a student already knows what the educational program has to offer, he or she may simply test out of it altogether.

Students who don’t successfully test out of the program will be required to undergo two extensive online sessions. The first is approximately three hours in length and includes an initial assessment of a student’s drinking patterns so that the educational material may be tailored to their specific needs.

No administrator or instructor will be able to see the results of these individual assessments. Gina Firth stresses that AlcoholEdu “is not an intervention tool, whatsoever; it’s an educational tool.” Students will log in with their student ID, which will enable instructors to verify that they completed and passed the course, but their individual data is not accessible to the instructor. Rather, it will be aggregated along with the rest of their classmates’ assessments to help provide the University with useful statistics to decide where other programs might be developed to effectively meet the needs of the class of 2011.

After the assessment, the first session will proceed with education. It will include interactive exercises with realistic scenarios, evidence-based prevention strategies, surveys conveying the latest research on alcohol’s mental and physical effects, and reflective journaling. The setup is modeled to fit Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives, a holistic classification system in the field of educational psychology, to instruct students in responsible drinking, the consequences of excessive drinking, effects of peer influence and advertising, and physiological boundaries related to alcohol.

Approximately one month after completion of the first session, students will be instructed to undergo the second session, which will “integrate key content and decision-making strategies with their experiences with alcohol since the start of the program,” according to Outside The Classroom.

The website also has other special features, including a Blood Alcohol Concentration curve, various fact sheets with a list of alcohol related laws in Florida, and the potential for students to “opt-in’ to notifying relevant organizations of the volunteer work they might be interested in.

Proven effectiveness

In choosing AlcoholEdu, the University of Tampa has decided to select a reputable program of proven effectiveness. Dr. Andrew Wall of Eastern Illinois University conducted a peer-reviewed study of 4,552 students from 340 chapters of fraternities and sororities in the U.S. and Canada. He found incidents of negative academic consequences, incidents of hangover/mental impact and incidents of drinking five or more drinks in a day during the past two weeks significantly less among those who had undergone AlcoholEdu.

Most noticeably, he discovered that the significant difference between those who completed AlcoholEdu and those who had not remained constant throughout the remainder of the school year under review. There was, however, a steady increase among both groups in all incidents as the school year progressed, which led Dr. Wall to recommend follow-up approaches to curbing alcohol abuse.

Creativity in implementation

Follow-up approaches, both those recommended by Outside The Classroom and original ideas, are part of the creativity with which UT administrators are planning to implement AlcoholEdu.

Director of the Baccalaureate Experience, Dr. Kevin Beach, has creatively taken on the project by integrating it as a mandatory part of the freshman gateways experience. It is in gateways class that freshmen will experience a follow-up “small group experience,” consisting of meetings of outside professionals, gateways mentors, and small groups of students designed to help them retain and develop what they learned in the online course.

It is also in gateways class that freshmen will first be introduced, during orientation week, to the program, though administrators are planning to make AlcoholEdu a pre-matriculation requirement in future years.

As hoped by Outside The Classroom, AlcoholEdu may also be integrated into the student conduct system itself. There are two additional components, Alcohol Innerview and AlcoholEdu for Sanctions, a 20-30 minute and a 2-3 hour session respectively, that Outside The Classroom provides specifically for students who have violated campus alcohol policies.

Though the nexus between AlcoholEdu and the student conduct process at UT is still to be determined, Gina Firth is clear in saying that violators of alcohol policy will be treated as having committed an “elevated alcohol violation” if they haven’t completed AlcoholEdu by the time of their violation, and will be sanctioned accordingly.

Continue the forward progress

Though student conduct policies regarding alcohol at UT, such as the above, have only become tougher in recent years, there has still been a decrease in the number of violations.

The 2005-2006 school year saw 609 alcohol violations; the 2006-2007 year, despite having more students, saw 415, a significant improvement. Firth speaks on behalf of the administration by saying that “we’re very pleased with the decrease in violations.”

Yet clearly she also echoes the administration in thinking that there is much more to be done. The seven alcohol poisonings that occurred during the first two weeks of the 2006-2007 school year provide a grave cause to be concerned as the upcoming school year begins.

“Alcohol is the number one health problem affecting college students across the nation,” Firth is quick to point out, and it remains by far the most violated policy at UT.

AlcoholEdu’s role is to continue the forward progress of decreasing violations and curbing alcohol abuse, focusing on population-level prevention. According to Firth, it will teach freshmen the values of the University right away, and warn them that “if you want to come here and abuse alcohol, this isn’t the place for you.”

As she stresses for the administration, “the bottom line is that we want students to succeed.” The great enthusiasm surrounding AlcoholEdu is due to the hope that it will help students attain success by removing their number one collective ob
stacle, alcohol abuse.

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