Stanford and Carnegie team up to launch online forest monitoring course

Powerful software developed by the Carnegie Institution for Science is now available at no cost to people who complete a training course hosted by Stanford Online.

Stanford Online's new course in forest monitoring uses powerful software developed by the Carnegie Institution for Science.

A new online course that trains users how to monitor the extent and condition of the world's forests using satellite imagery is now available on demand at no charge worldwide through a collaboration between Stanford University's Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning (VPOL) and the Carnegie Institution for Science. The free course, called CLASlite Classroom, was developed by researchers at Carnegie Institution for Science and is hosted by Stanford Online on its OpenEdX platform.

CLASlite Classroom provides training on the Carnegie Landsat Analysis System (lite) – a powerful software tool that lets users combine and analyze raw satellite images to reveal deforestation and forest disturbances, such as logging and gold mining, over time. In development since 2003, the software is currently used around the world by researchers and government officials from Peru to Indonesia who were trained in person by Carnegie staff.

"We are making the science of forest monitoring broadly available to people who want and need to participate in tracking and managing the health of their forests," said Greg Asner, 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.

"CLASlite Classroom represents a new model of collaborative online learning," said John Mitchell, vice provost for online learning at Stanford. "It's a perfect example of how the open source online learning platform, OpenEdX, 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."

A game changer for decision-making

CLASlite has been used to successfully track forest changes at a level of detail that previously was costly and difficult to achieve. The need for monitoring has never been greater: threats ranging from deforestation and climate change to loss of biodiversity are causing the world's forests to change faster than any time since the last ice age 12,000 years ago.

Pamela Matson, dean of the School of Earth Sciences, 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," said Matson, who is also a professor of environmental studies at Stanford.

In Peru, CLASlite revealed that the Amazon has lost approximately 2 million hectares of forest in 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."

Researchers in Papua New Guinea are also recent users. "CLASlite means that there is no excuse for being unaware of what is going on in our tropical forests," said Philip Shearman, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at the University of Papua New Guinea.

Tracking forest changes through time

Scheduled to launch on Dec. 17, CLASlite Classroom is designed for both expert and entry-level users. It includes video-based lessons, guided exercises, a discussion forum and a final exam. By the end of the course, users will be able to use CLASlite to convert satellite images into user-friendly maps and to track forest change through the stages of degradation, deforestation or regrowth. Graduates of the course are issued a free one-year CLASlite license to monitor forests of their own choosing using their own computers.

Before launching the online training, Asner and his team were challenged to travel the world teaching workshops on CLASlite primarily to government, conservation and academic organizations. "By going online, we hope that the number of empowered CLASlite users will soar in the years ahead," he said.

Effective forest stewardship begins with forest monitoring, and enabling people to see for themselves the drastic changes occurring in their forests encourages conservation, Asner said.  He has seen firsthand what happens without local engagement in forest management. The forests he studied in Brazil while completing his doctoral dissertation in the 1990s were either intact or selectively logged. But within a decade, they had been converted to soybean farms and cattle ranches. "They were wiped away," he said.

Forests are not only home to countless species of plants and animals, they also play a key role in regulating carbon, the basic element of life. In addition, Asner pointed out their intrinsic value. "Forests provide a sense of deep connection to nature and our sense of origin," he said. "When forests are destroyed, we lose not only their life-preserving qualities but a sense of ourselves as well."

Crash course in Earth science

Conversion of the course materials the team had used for overseas workshops into global web-based materials was a special task coordinated by Elif Tasar, a recent graduate of Stanford's program in Earth Systems.  Asner, Tasar and a team of Carnegie scientists and Stanford web developers created the new online training experience.

"What's most exciting is that we not only provide a crash course in Earth science topics and principles, but we also make really clear the thinking that went into creating the CLASlite software," Tasar said. "This makes it transparent."

Feedback from current users of CLASlite, including Shearman and Kimberly Carlson, a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, played a role in the refinement of the online course. Carlson credits CLASlite with enabling scientists to generate the first comprehensive metrics of land cover types cleared for oil palm plantations in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. "We were able to move beyond a simplistic conversation about forests and non-forests, to a more realistic analysis of Kalimantan's extensively logged forests and community agricultural lands converted to oil palm," she said.

Jane Bryan from the School of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Tasmania said CLASlite helps save valuable time and resources. "Without the forest cover mapping produced by CLASlite, it would have taken many more years to produce a map documenting the extent of logging in Malaysian Borneo and Brunei," Bryan said. "CLASlite saved a huge amount of time, computer processing and field labor, and represents a major advance in the field of tropical forest monitoring."

 "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."

CLASlite Classroom is a free, open, self-paced course launching today (Dec. 17). For more information and to register for the course, visit the CLASlite course webpage.

CLASlite Classroom was created with support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Greg Asner, Carnegie Institution for Science: mobile (650) 380-2828,

Judith Romero, Stanford Online: mobile (650) 862-2267,

Nancy Peterson, Stanford School of Earth Sciences: mobile (650) 776-2276,