Kognito's university alcohol and drug simulation isn't preachy

(Kognito)

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Following releases of role-playing software for managing issues like sexual violence and mental health, the software company Kognito released another simulation tool this month aimed at reducing overuse of alcohol and other drugs among university students.

The simulation, which the company says takes less than an hour to complete, presents users with a series of scenarios, including attending a party and helping a friend with a substance abuse problem. The software includes AI-powered virtual coaches that provide feedback to users based on their chosen strategies and dialogue. And while the goal of the software is to educate students about substance abuse and help them improve skills like assertiveness and goal setting, the company’s executives told EdScoop that they’ve tried to approach the topic without being preachy about it.

Kim Wieland, Kognito’s product manager, said that merely sharing statistics about drug abuse or spouting truisms like “it’s possible to have fun without drinking” doesn’t work. What does work, she said, is “meeting students where they are.”

“That is what universities are really driving for, is to build a sense of belongingness and connectedness within their students,” Wieland said. “And so when you’re talking about alcohol and other drugs, you’re not going to take an approach like ‘say no to everything.’ You’re going to say: here is what you value, here’s the type of drinking and limits you would like to set for yourself, now we’re going to put you in a scenario and we’re going to have you see how that would play out.”

Rather than prescribe the values that students should have, the software encourages users to question and explicate their values before presenting them with simulated opportunities to reinforce those personal decisions. And according to the company’s research based on beta versions of the software, which has been purchased but not yet deployed by several universities, it is effective in altering behavior, Wieland said.

“We do know that we have behavior change and students feel more confident and prepared how to use refusal skills, they feel more comfortable setting their own limits and they are more comfortable aligning their thinking around alcohol and other drugs with their goals,” she said.

Like all of Kognito’s software, the recommended approaches to various situations — such as the use of “I” statements when counseling a friend, as in “I’ve noticed” or “I feel” — are based on extensive research and collaboration with organizations that seek to understand which interventions are effective at changing behavior with regard to often-intractable problems, like drug abuse. But even short of issues like abuse and addiction, Wieland said the simulation’s aims are more generalizable, and that broad skills like assertiveness can serve students throughout their careers after college and in all aspects of their lives.

To guide the software’s development, the company worked with several members of Ohio State University’s Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery, Wieland said. Research published by the group in November found, for example, that students are more receptive to intervention when they perceive that their peers are less approving of heavy drinking, among other factors. 

Findings like those find their way into Kognito’s products. Rather than annoyingly and explicitly remind users that not everyone drinks, for example, the new simulation includes a non-player character, named Kevin, who doesn’t drink but can be seen having fun and being accepted at the party. The goal isn’t to stop everyone from drinking, Wieland said, but to prime students with such norms and equip them with the social tools and general wherewithal so that they can feel satisfied with their decisions when difficult situations inevitably arrive during their time at school.

The pandemic has in some cases amplified the challenge. Students have generally reported greater difficulty learning, while instances of depression, anxiety and drug abuse were on the rise last year. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which characterizes “harmful and underage college drinking” as “significant health problems,” one third of students reported binge drinking at least once in the month before a recent survey. The group estimates that such drinking leads to the annual deaths of more than 1,500 students and nearly 700,000 assaults, while also contributing to learning difficulties in about one in four students.

“When we talk about ‘meeting students where they are,’ we really felt like there wasn’t anything else on the market that enabled students to practice skills,” Wieland said. “A lot of what was on the market was ‘you shouldn’t drink for X, Y and Z reasons’ and ‘if you do, here’s what your typical size of a drink is,’ which seems pretty far afield from what is actually known to work, which is really enabling students to see what some of these scenarios might look like and practicing some of these core skills.”

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