Wikimedia Takes its Academic Approach to Africa

Oct 26, 2007

Just because content is free, that doesn't necessarily mean it's always accessible. The Wikimedia Foundation, which includes popular, wiki-based programs such as Wikipedia, Wikinews, and Wikiversity, has established a reputation of providing the full content of its projects, free-of-charge. The non-profit organization also aims to expand the accessibility and distribution of its content in order to educate those in the developing world. However, providing access to these countries--which, many argue, need information the most--means that content needs to be translated into many different languages.

The Wikimedia Foundation, founded in 2003, has created several past programs aimed at tackling the language barrier so that learning can thrive in the developing world. And, in mid-November, the foundation will continue its quest by co-hosting several Wikipedia Academies in South Africa with iCommons, an organization that collaborates with open education, open access publishing, and free software companies, in order to provide learning opportunities around the world. The goal of the Wikipedia Academies is to increase the number of Wikipedias in African languages, and thereby broaden the knowledge base. "Currently, Wikipedia has 250 language versions," says Sandra Ordonez, communications manager for the Wikimedia Foundation. "However, there are around 7,000 languages worldwide, so we have a lot of work in front of us."

In the past, the foundation has had several partnerships with other organizations that share the common goal of extending learning in disadvantaged communities. Most recently, the SOS Children's Village--the largest orphan charity in the world--created a CD/DVD version of Wikipedia that was child-friendly and complemented the UK curriculum, which is implemented by schools throughout the world. The CD/DVD was then distributed to schools within developing areas. Says Ordonez, "The project was a great success."

And, if past efforts are any indication of what's to come, the foundation's charitable mission to South Africa has the potential to change the face of learning--in a case where a "facelift" is essential. Wikipedia's content model also means that individuals have the freedom to take the content and mold it to their specific needs. "In many disadvantaged communities," says Ordonez, "individuals have little, if any, access to educational resources. As such, Wikipedia's free content can be used to create a variety of free educational tools, such as textbooks."

The Wikipedia project collects knowledge from all corners of the world in order to educate others. The impending Wikipedia Academies in South Africa aim to extend the reach of Wikipedia by preserving languages such as Maori and Swahili. Jimmy Wales, founder of the Wikimedia Foundation, says: "We believe that everyone in the world should have access to education, regardless of race, nationality, gender, age, or economic background. We also believe that everyone has knowledge to contribute. Through the public's support and the foundation's continued efforts, we expect to have a similar impact on communities in the most remote areas of the world as we have in more developed parts of the globe. It’s an exciting, moving, and very real opportunity."

According to Alexa, a web information company, Wikipedia is one of the ten most-trafficked websites in the United States, and around the world. Says Ordonez, "The Wikimedia Foundation's goal is to empower world citizens to share in the sum of all human knowledge." With the help of the Wikipedia Academies in South Africa, the foundation is working towards its goal of individual empowerment by providing greater access to an unlimited supply of collective knowledge.