The dirt on sustainable sheep farming

SFU biology professor David Hik sets up a camera to film grazing sheep near Theistareykir, northern Iceland.

May 24, 2019

SFU biology professor David Hik has taught thousands of students in more than 170 countries thanks to the two massive online open courses (MOOCs) he helped create.

Popularized only seven years ago, MOOCs offer online credit and non-credit university courses ranging from economics, languages and literature to health, astronomy and engineering. These self-paced courses can be as short as a few hours or as long as several months. Globally, more than 100 million students have participated in MOOCs.

Earlier this year, Hik was in Iceland for the launch of his newest MOOC Sheep in the Land of Fire and Ice, a collaboration with the University of Iceland and the Agricultural University of Iceland. The free, non-credit course was co-produced with Isabel Barrio of the Agricultural University of Iceland and integrates expert commentary, photographs, animations and video footage to illustrate the environmental effects and ecology of sheep grazing in Iceland.

Hik explains that soils in Iceland are of volcanic origin, which means that they are fertile but not particularly cohesive.

“Vegetation protects soils and keeps them in place, but if that vegetation is removed or consumed by animals the soil is easily blown or washed away,” he says.  “This degradation contributes to the permanent loss of fertile soil, resulting in less productive rangelands for sheep and the loss of valuable ecosystem services.”

The course discusses possible solutions to enhance the sustainability of sheep grazing, looking at both scientific and socio-economic aspects. It also includes SFU graduate student Tara Mulloy discussing her research project on vegetation dynamics and restoration in the Icelandic highlands.

The impacts of sheep grazing on rangelands are a global concern. Iceland provides an interesting case study about the delicate balance between cultural, economic, social and environmental issues, Hik says.

For example, an agreement was recently signed by sheep farmers, conservationists and the government of Iceland to ensure the consistent monitoring of grazing lands so that indications of erosion and other changes can be assessed.

Hik says sharing scientific knowledge with those on the front lines of industry, government and education is one of the advantages of MOOCs.

“MOOCs may not be the best way to train dentists, but they are an effective and accessible way to reach students and life-long learners anywhere in the world. MOOCs can democratize access to knowledge,” he says.

Hik’s first MOOC, Mountains 101 is currently the top-ranked science MOOC in the world.  Developed in collaboration with the University of Alberta, Parks Canada and the Alpine Club of Canada, Mountains 101 consists of 12-lessons that provide an interdisciplinary introduction to the mountain world.

At the moment, SFU hosts two MOOCs on Generative Art and Computational Creativity, taught by professor Philippe Pasquier in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology.