Drinking has become ingrained in the weekend culture of many college campuses. In an effort to help students make educated choices when they choose to drink, the University is offering an online education tool to incoming students.

The University started Community Matters, a program in the form of an online multimedia course that incorporates two modules, AlcoholEdu and SexualAssaultEdu, last fall. The course is administered to all new University students — including incoming freshmen as well as undergraduate transfer students — through an e-mail that students receive before the semester begins.

Though the program was brand new last year, students have been responsive to it. According to aggregate data, 96 percent of students participated in the course last year, said Mary Jo Desprez, the University’s administrator for alcohol and other drugs policy and prevention.

According to the University’s Division of Student Affairs website, “in the first ten weeks of Fall Term 2008, 70 UM students were transported to the hospital for alcohol-related issues.” The aim of the program is to lower that number and educate students about two important issues, alcohol consumption and sexual assault before they actually get to campus in order to avoid dangerous situations, Desprez said.

The first part of the course takes about 2.5 hours to complete and finishes with a quiz that students must pass with at least a score of 85 percent. Then, 30 to 40 days later, those who completed the course are asked to take a 15-minute follow-up survey, which Desprez said is intended to gauge students’ habits while school is in session.

Outside The Classroom, a company that creates educational materials, devised the dual-modular program. According to the organization’s website, the program is used in over 500 colleges and universities in all 50 states, including Harvard University, Stanford Univeristy and the University of California at Los Angeles.

The Division of Student Affairs website states that the University requires all incoming students to complete the online course in order to better prepare them to manage the transition to college life. But while the program is highly encouraged, Desprez said it is not mandatory.

“One of the things all of us, students, staff, all of us, wanted to do was … encourage people to take (Community Matters) and remove barriers people were having from taking it and not turn it into a punishment,” said Desprez.

Students who completed the program before the semester began were awarded donated prizes including season tickets to men’s basketball, a gift certificate to the Cupcake Station, free Wendy’s breakfast sandwiches and a free day pass to MRock.

For the second part of the program, students who finish the follow-up survey in a timely manner will be entered to win an Apple iPad, among other prizes.

Some students who took the survey prior to this semester said they thought the online course was useful, even though it required somewhat of a time commitment.

LSA freshman Erica Seifert said that though she thought Community Matters was “kind of a waste of time,” she did learn from the program.

“I learned a lot of things about the (blood alcohol content) I kind of knew, but I had never been taught before,” she said. “It was way better than it could have been; it was kind of a cool program.”

LSA freshman Fiona Clowney, who also completed the course, said she’s not sure how much she got out of the course.

“I don’t know that it actually helped me in my life because I’m not actually following any of the things I did, but just thinking about it in a serious way instead of just rushing into the college life,” Clowney said.

Clowney also said she thinks the program could be altered to be more student-friendly.

“I think people should take it, but it can definitely be improved upon,” she said. “I can’t really figure out how because it’s hard to relate to students in a way that they won’t think it’s you trying to talk down to them. But I think it should keep going.”

Though Desprez said the goal of the program is to educate students about serious issues and help them ease into life away from home, she knows Community Matters is not a fix-all solution.

“There’s none of us who think that this course is the magic bullet, but what it does is create a common language for a whole incoming class that you can sort of meet them there and then really get into some really important and more in-depth dialogue, knowing everyone has a baseline of information,” she said.

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