UNIVERSITY PARK – Penn State continuously looks for ways to diminish the misuse of alcohol among its students by pioneering new programs such as AlcoholEdu for College, an online learning module for first-year students throughout the Penn State system, a panel of experts explained Friday in a report to the University’s Board of Trustees.
Those presenting included Gail Hurley, interim vice president for Student Affairs; Margaret Spear, senior director of University Health Services, Linda LaSalle, coordinator of Health Education Services and Linda Higginson, assistant dean for advising in the Division of Undergraduate Studies.
Spear explained that the University’s various approaches to reduce dangerous drinking and its negative outcomes have been broad and deep. She cited the innovative programming of LateNight-Penn State in the HUB-Robeson Center, which was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a model prevention program; residential programs including substance-free interest houses and other healthy living options; and additional programs and services such as alcohol intervention treatment and rigorous enforcement by police and Penn State’s Office of Judicial Affairs. Despite these efforts, Spear said Penn State still has a problem, as confirmed by national data and ongoing local evaluative measures.
The ongoing challenge of deterring high-risk drinking has resulted in a new approach to address the problem: AlcoholEdu for College. Penn State has received a $245,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to support implementation of the program as part of a three-year initiative.
“It is novel in several different ways,” said Spear of the online program. “First of all, it is truly population-based in that it will touch every single first-year undergraduate student at all Penn State campuses. Second, it will be proactive and preventative occurring prior to their matriculation or arrival on campus. Over the course of time, as cohorts move through Penn State, we will reach a point where all students on campus will know what AlcoholEdu is and will have a common understanding, vocabularies and experience.”
According to LaSalle, AlcoholEdu for College is an online alcohol preventative program created by Boston-based Outside the Classroom, whose mission is to address “epidemic-level public health issues.” The program teaches basic facts about alcohol and motivates behavior change. More than 500 colleges and universities in the United States — including Big Ten schools Indiana University-Bloomington and the University of Iowa — use the program.
“The program incorporates evidence-based prevention strategies,” said LaSalle. “AlcoholEdu is revised each year to include the most up-to-date scientific research and incorporate feedback from students and professionals. It is delivered in a multi-media format that includes dramatic vignettes, scenario-driven exercises, interactive tools, pop quizzes, video animations and simulated blogs.”
The course consists of two parts, the first to be completed in the summer before students arrive on campus. The second will occur after a 45-day “intersession,” allowing students to integrate strategies with their own experience on campus, said LaSalle. In addition, parents will receive a letter from the University encouraging them to talk with their student about alcohol use in the college environment. This also will be enforced during the parent First-Year Testing, Counseling and Advising Program (FTCAP).
During the three-year implementation, Andrea Dowhower, director of Student Affairs Research and Assessment, will oversee the evaluation component of the project. Data will be collected on students’ alcohol-related attitudes, knowledge and behaviors at three points in time during the AlcoholEdu experience. Promising research from other universities that have implemented the program already shows the effectiveness of the online module.
According to Higginson, data from the University of Iowa, which implemented the program with its first-year students in fall 2006, showed 77 percent reported learning more about blood alcohol concentration and 46 percent reported learning more about how alcohol affects someone’s ability to give consent to sex. Also, there was a 15 percent reduction in first-year students reporting hangovers and a 10 percent reduction in first-year students reporting blackouts.
Data from the 2007 implementation are not yet available. Other figures collected reported fewer negative outcomes — hangovers and academic consequences, fewer incidents of heavy alcohol use and fewer incidents of risky behavior while drinking. Higginson said these studies suggest that AlcoholEdu leads to higher levels of positive results at institutions where implementation includes the entire first-year class. She believes the program will contribute to a strong foundation for academic success for Penn State’s students.
“While my responsibilities focus on implementing the First-Year testing, counseling and advising program, as a member of the Penn State and local State College communities, I understand the many serious consequences of dangerous drinking among our students,” said Higginson. “I join others in these communities in being optimistic about the potential positive changes that will result from implementing AlcoholEdu for this year’s new students.”