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Stanford and Carnegie Launch Free Online Forest Monitoring Course

A joint project of Stanford University and Carnegie Institution for Science will make forest monitoring tools and training freely available to allow people around the world to monitor the health of their forests through raw satellite images. Carnegie is providing the tools and curriculum and Stanford's Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning (VPOL) has helped develop and is hosting the online course on its Open EdX platform.

CLASlite Classroom, as it's called by creator Greg Asner, trains users on the Carnegie Landsat Analysis System (CLASlite) — a software program that lets users combine and analyze satellite images to reveal deforestation and forest disturbances, such as logging or gold mining, over time. Asner is a staff scientist in the Department of Global Ecology at Carnegie and a professor "by courtesy" in the Department of Environmental Earth System Science in the Stanford School of Earth Sciences.

Users in government, conservation, and academic organizations have traditionally been trained in the use of CLASlite in person by members of the Carnegie staff. By going online, said Asner, "We hope that the number of empowered CLASlite users will soar in the years ahead."

Calling CLASlite Classroom a "new model of collaborative online learning," Stanford Vice Provost for Online Learning John Mitchell added that the new program is a "perfect example" of how Open EdX, an open source service, "can be used to support scholarship and teaching that has real-world impact, and help the scientific community enlarge the field of engaged citizenry. People everywhere who want to gain knowledge can take this course and also contribute to an important scientific effort."

Since its introduction in 2003, CLASlite has been used to track forest changes in a number of sensitive locations, including Peru, Madagascar, and Papua New Guinea.

Pamela Matson, dean of the School of Earth Sciences and a professor of environmental studies at Stanford, called CLASlite a "game changer." "CLASlite gives conservation groups and people in government who are tasked with protecting our forests the tools they need to demonstrate to decision-makers what is really happening."

In Peru, for example, the program has exposed the loss of about 2 million hectares of forest (nearly five million acres) in the Amazon over the past decade. "We managed not only to discover the areas with the highest deforestation rates, but also to quantify them," said Adrián Neyra Palomino, general director of land use regulation in Peru. "The use of this technology, adapted to the conditions of the Peruvian Amazon, resulted in regions of the country taking deforestation into account in their elaboration of ecological and economic zoning, special studies, and land use regulation plans."

The new online curriculum includes video-based lessons, guided exercises, case studies from expert users, a discussion forum, and a "relatively simple test at the end." Once a student starts the course, he or she has a maximum of one week to complete it. The course creators project that it will require about a full workday to get through the program. Those who succeed will receive a one-year license for CLASlite usage to monitor forests of their own choosing using their own computers. The class teaches users how to convert satellite images into user-friendly maps and track forest change through the stages of degradation, deforestation, or regrowth.

"The only way we are going to effectively care for the health of the planet's forests is for people to have good, accurate data on which they can make good decisions," Asner said. "And with CLASlite Classroom, we can now help people do just that."

Development of the CLASlite Classroom was provided in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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