Seizing the Opportunity to Increase Accessibility with Online Learning

Kristi Straus pushed for her Introduction to Environmental Studies course to be fully virtual in order increase learning opportunities and educate students more equitably.

The ability to take a class online increases access to environmental literacy classes, which I think are vital for all students, and it increases the likelihood that a student finishes their degree.

Kristi Straus

At the UW, Summer Sessions are open to everyone and offer the perfect opportunity to enroll in a special program, explore a new interest or take a course — like UW Professor Kristi Straus’ new virtual iteration of Introduction to Environmental Studies. Whether matriculated or nonmatriculated, students can choose from nearly 2,000 credit courses, including online and intensive learning opportunities.

Because Summer Sessions offer better access to popular courses than the regular academic year, they can also help students catch up or get ahead in their major requirements, prerequisites or Area of Knowledge courses through their accelerated learning format. With Summer Sessions, students can earn academic credit and make their summer count.

In the summer of 2019, Kristi Straus applied for a grant to collaborate with a UW Continuum College course designer and turn the course Introduction to Environmental Studies fully virtual. They got the grant, began filming in January and had six of the course’s nine weeks in the can when COVID-19 hit and “remote learning” became a much more pressing concern.

“Being in person doesn’t work for all people at all times,” Kristi said. “That’s so obvious now, but it wasn’t so obvious last summer. The ability to take a class online increases access to environmental literacy classes, which I think are vital for all students, and it increases the likelihood that a student finishes their degree, so that’s why I pushed for it a year ago. And here we are now.”

The increased accessibility of online learning appealed to Kristi, especially its ability to educate more equitably.

“Online learning can really support students who lead more complicated lives,” Kristi said, “and students who have more complicated lives are more likely to be students of color and are more likely to be first-generation college students.”

All of Kristi’s students’ lives grew more complicated this summer, which made a supportive learning environment even more important.

“It’s hard not to be with your friends and family, to be on Zoom all the time, to be worried about your health, your family’s health or your job,” she said. “Teaching online during a global crisis has allowed me to provide more flexibility to students — to say ‘I think you’re learning best when you can be present with us, but I’m going to find ways to support you even if you can’t be.’”