Frits Mohren on Open Education in Forestry

Published on
September 12, 2023

For the series Open Science Stories, we interviewed Frits Mohren, personal professor of Forest Ecology and Forest Management. He explains how in his opinion, open education can improve the quality and impact of teaching materials.

How did your enthusiasm for open education arise?

I find it important to train young people in forest management - not only at the university level but also outside the university.

The teaching materials we create here at WUR can be used in many more ways than just our own education.
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In recent years university education in forest management is increasingly being incorporated into general programmes of environmental sciences. Specialist knowledge about forestry receives unfortunately less attention within these general programmes. There is a need for additional resources and new ways to provide access to teaching materials on classical forestry topics, such as silviculture and forest management. The digitization and emergence of e-learning offer us more opportunities for this than before.

What is the Eurosilvics project about?

Within the Erasmus + Eurosilvics project, we'll make learning materials on forestry and management available on an open library-for-learning platform. It’s a collaborative project with six European higher education institutes. The basis is the handbook Forest Ecology and Forest Management, which my colleague Jan den Ouden and I published together with scientists from Leuven and Ghent in 2010.

We wanted to update the book with a broader European scope, making it usable for international students as well. From there, we developed the idea to set up a digital platform with open teaching materials. The project aims to make disciplinary knowledge about forest management widely available for use in education (academic, vocational and practical). We hope to launch the platform later this year or in early 2024.

What’s the project's added value?

It's a great project because it leads to quality improvement. We're looking at our teaching materials very critically.

After all, you're more aware of the opinions of your peers when you share your materials.

Moreover, you're forced to look at how your material fits into the broader context. The selection of materials and topics is done by the individual institutions and edited centrally.

Openly sharing learning materials involves more than sharing PDFs. The advantage of any online platform is that you can easily show the connection between different topics. You can make links to current projects, scientific literature or field trip materials. We also want to distinguish between levels of abstraction, i.e. BSc, MSc, and vocational training, and the links between them. In this way, students may decide on their entry level and move to more advanced topics.

All the collaborative institutes have their knowledge and materials, but that's all limited to one's own educational institution. The open online platform makes our educational materials widely accessible, independent of time and place, and also for students from educational institutions with less expertise in this field.

What will the online platform look like?

We'll give an overview of the main aspects, such as ecology, management measures etc. for forest management at the Bachelor level. From these, we highlight the main concepts, scientific theories and studies, as well as practical and social aspects etc. in 60 or 80 entries. This is partly supplemented with more advanced material at the MSc level.

We aim to provide high-quality and accessible explanations of the basic topics. The challenge is to create the same level of abstraction for all individual topics while at the same time providing enough opportunities for depth. In addition, providing structure and overview is important to prevent students from getting lost in the material.

What challenges do you face in realising the open learning platform?

The first challenge lies in the technical area. The technical development of the Moodle-based web platform (WP2) is done by specialists from BOKU University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna. I am a content expert but have little knowledge of the design and development of e-learning platforms. Transferring our content requirements to platform's technology requires more time than I'd previously realized.

A second challenge is quality assurance. We have an editorial board that reviews all submitted materials. But it also requires some consultation and tactical operation to agree on and to select the best material.

A taxing aspect concerns copyright and choosing appropriate open-access licenses etc. This is legally complex. Fortunately, the Copyright Information Point has a lot of expertise in this, on which I completely rely.

What are your hopes and goals?

With the platform, in addition to the quality boost, I hope to be able to improve access to high-quality educational materials for target groups we do not currently reach. It'd give me great pleasure if our learning platform is used in new or unexpected places, such as universities in Eastern Europe or Africa or by professionals in the field.

We also aim for the platform to be suitable for learning materials for vocational education and professionals in the field. People can then find more practice-oriented knowledge in addition to university undergraduate material. This ties in with the development of lifelong learning. Ideally, this leads to practice-based material in a national language. We don't aim to include this now but hope to develop this later.

What advice do you have for teachers who want to start with Open Education?

From the start of your project, you need to establish a strong development team and maintain effective communication with other teachers and institutions. The choice of platform software and the educational materials should be a collaborative effort.

Furthermore, it's important to seek input from students when developing open educational materials. We have a feedback group including international students and here at Wageningen, I plan to ask students from the student union to look at the platform's first draft.

What can WUR do to strengthen Open Education?

What WUR is already doing very well in its Open Science and Education programme is focusing on quality. The aim is not to share all educational resources but only those materials that contribute to educational quality.

I'd like more support when it comes to understanding online learning, the pedagogical aspects of it and how to align your teaching with that. It’s a different way of learning than traditional education with 1 teacher and 1 textbook. The university can offer expertise and advice on that. The same goes for support and advice on all technical choices.

Developing good-quality open educational materials takes a lot of time, and the university should make that time available. Now, lecturers are more or less dependent on the goodwill of a programme director and their own enthusiasm.

All in all, I find Open Education quite an exciting development, from which both teachers and students may benefit. It also provides excellent opportunities for academic collaboration with colleagues abroad.