XOWA and the power of Wikipedia in the developing world

By Sam Cooley

For many people on this Earth, especially the ones who are tapped into websites such as LinkedIn, it might seem a bit strange to even begin engaging in conversation with someone about the concept of a (relatively) self-regulated and all-encompassing encyclopedia which can be accessed for free on the web or downloaded on to a harddrive for future use.

I'm talking about Wikipedia. Most middle schoolers know all about it, and they've been told time and time again of the numerous risks of its use ("anybody can edit it", et al). While I'm not going to challenge all the purported issues with Wikipedia, I do want to highlight just how educational this website is in parts of the world where libraries are scarce and where self-studying is extremely necessary. I also want to let people know it's possible to download the whole website so it can be used on cheap computers.

Recently, while working as a mass media instructor at St. Luke's College in Northern Myanmar, I had an opportunity to guest lecture to a large number of English students at a small private school run out of a teacher's back yard. These were a group of bright, young intellectual Kachin hill-tribe people who were from very isolated and remote communities in one of Asia's least developed countries.

Their parents sent them to Myitkyina, the capital city, to get a better education. And within a few years, some will go on to be among the most educated in their communities. While Myitkyina certainly offers more in terms of higher learning, there definitely isn't a huge quantity of books or encyclopedias floating around for them to work with in conjunction with classes and assignments.

The country and the cities are too poor to offer even a semblance of the kinds of textbooks we often see in schools. While this might seem grim (especially given the prevalence of drug addiction and overall poverty in Northern Myanmar) there is a silver lining, and it's emanating from cellphone towers and LCD screens all over the country.

It's absolutely stunning how many people in Myanmar are accessing the web through affordable 3G networks with cheap Chinese-made cellphones. Village people are now surfing the web with phones charged from solar panels, yet few (including teachers) know the web consists of more than just Facebook and Youtube.

Both of these sites are a huge hit among student populations, and it chews up a lot of the bandwidth they spend their allowances on. Because of this, I was tasked to instruct students how to use the web in a way that can enhance knowledge about subjects they're interested in, whether it's medicine, science, history, politics or religion.

This is why I began teaching students about Wikipedia, how it functions, and how you can cautiously learn a great deal of information from its many, many pages. I also taught teachers and students how to Install a Java-powered piece of open source software called XOWA.

The reaction I got was surprising. Teachers and students alike were blown away after installing an up-to-date offline version of Wikipedia to their ageing, decade-old laptops.

Suddenly, an entire library of information was accessible even if they'd run out of credit on their phones!

It wasn't long before XOWA became viral. Through the grapevine, teachers heard about the program and ended up sharing copies of Wikipedia directories to each other so they could further their own studies and help students who wanted to learn about specific subjects.

At breakfast, I was meeting red-eyed students telling me they stayed up late reading about political histories of neighboring countries they'd never visited, or geological formations in areas near their homes. None of these subjects are available through the use of books in their community--the infrastructure isn't there, but the web is.

It isn't very easy to set up for the first time, but once Wikipedia is loaded into XOWA's Graphical User Interface (GUI), you're able to load pages with stunning speeds, even on old devices.

Depending on the amount of space you have on your computer or cellphone, you can choose whether you want a bare-bones stripped down version of Wikipedia (less than 1GB with more than 10K pages) or the entire website.

After three months teaching a group of highly enthusiastic people with low access to educational resources, I think the pros greatly outweigh the cons when it comes to using Wikipedia to unlock self-study to highly disadvantaged populations of people on this planet.

(I want to re-iterate that I wasn't paid to endorse XOWA, an open-source piece of software. I just wanted to formulate a rebuttal to all those who look down upon Wikipedia as a useful resource. It isn't always correct, but you can mitigate misinformation through careful analysis of references, which is a cornerstone to journalism in the first place.)