Tropical soils course chosen as edX Prize finalist

10 Nov 2020


The online education platform edX chose the course offered by the university of Leuven (KU Leuven) in collaboration with the ISRIC - World Soil Museum as one of ten finalists for their 2020 Prize for Exceptional Contributions in Online Teaching and Learning.

The course, “As above, so below: An introduction to soils, ecosystems and livelihoods in the Tropics,” is free and globally accessible. It has attracted more than 2,000 learners from 125 countries since it launched in 2019. KU Leuven nominated the course for the edX prize based on its excellent educational design and the international collaboration it embodies to offer sustainable development education for learners around the globe.

The purpose of the course is to showcase the importance and diversity of soils in the Tropics as well as diversity in the people researching and living on those soils. The lead creator of the course was KU Leuven’s professor of soil science Karen Vancampenhout supported by her colleague emeritus professor of soil science Seppe Deckers. Professor Vancampenhout said a big priority was to make the online learning experience as immersive as possible.

“We like the approach of David Attenborough: to go somewhere and marvel at things,” professor Vancampenhout explained. “That’s how we approach the course. Not just stating properties, but actually taking people to the Tropics as far as it is possible on a computer without the hot sun and the blazing sky above you.”

Professor Vancampenhout asked ISRIC – World Soil Information to join KU Leuven as a partner on this course. The collaboration was a continuation in a longstanding relationship of the two institutions working together to study and promote the importance of soils. ISRIC – World Soil Information’s Stephan Mantel, head of the World Soil Museum, was the lead collaborator to help deliver this online learning experience.

“Tropical soils are particularly interesting and important as many people in the world depend on them for their livelihoods,” Mr. Mantel explained. “In many places in the tropics, people apply sophisticated practices to tropical soils because those soils can have challenging properties which require very smart management.” This course provides an opportunity to learn about those strategies which are crucial to ensure economic and ecological sustainability as people in the Tropics experience a changing climate and increased land pressure from development.

"Ethiopia"Landscape of Tigray, Ethiopia. Photo credit: Rod Waddington

In “As above, so below: An introduction to soils, ecosystems and livelihoods in the Tropics,” learners hear from more than a dozen experts who take them around the world and into the field to show tropical soils firsthand. Professor Vancampenhout and Mr. Mantel agree that a major strength of the course is including people who live and work in the Tropics as primary experts to explain their unique soil. Soil scientists based in the Congo Basin, Ethiopian highlands, Argentinian lowlands and more provided virtual excursions to students in the course.

“There are so many beautiful stories to be told about the landscape and the people living in those landscapes, the course helps bring those stories forward to online learners,” Mr. Mantel said. The World Soil Museum holds typical examples of tropical soils and was the filming location for many of the video lessons included in the course.

"Ethiopia"Landscape of Tigray, Ethiopia. Photo credit: Rod Waddington

“Soils are a tool to understand the world today. This course is about life in all its forms--people earning a living, trying to conserve nature, fighting climate change. To do these things, you need an understanding of soils,” Professor Vancampenhout stated.

The overall winner for the edX 2020 Prize for Exceptional Contributions in Online Teaching and Learning will be announced in December. Visit the course listing to learn about how to take “As above, so below: An introduction to soils, ecosystems and livelihoods in the Tropics.”