Education/Newsletter/September 2016/West African schools will test Kiwix, the offline Wikipedia reader

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West African schools will test Kiwix, the offline Wikipedia reader

By Gabriel Thullen (WMCH)

Classroom in Thiès (Sénégal), with math lesson on blackboard and portable computer with Kiwix.
Gabriel Thullen giving a teacher training seminar at the KOCC Barma School.
Lesson plan using Wikipedia being discussed during the KOCC Barma training seminar.
Attendees at the KOCC Barma training seminar.
Raspberry Pi hotspot with a Kiwix server and a power pack.
Kiwix up and running at the Lycée de Djilor - no internet.
Teacher's lounge at the Lycée de Djilor.
Main courtyard at the Lycée de Sanghé - no internet or cell phone coverage.
CEM (junior high school) of Soune - no electricity or internet.
Main entrance of the Thiès University.

Snippet: Seven Senegalese schools and the regional office of education of Foundiougne (serving 33 junior high schools and 7 high schools), will be testing the Kiwix offline Wikipedia during the 2016-2017 school year. These schools are in cities with limited access to the Internet and in small towns with little or no electricity, no cell phone coverage, and no Internet.

Kiwix is an offline Wikipedia reader, developed by a team led by Emmanuel Engelhardt and supported by Wikimedia Switzerland. Entire web sites, like Wikipedia, can be downloaded and compressed into *.zim files, which are then read and displayed by the Kiwix program. The Kiwix.org website proposes dozens and dozens of different zim files of Wikipedia, Wikimedia sister projects, and other educational resources like TED talks and scientific videos.

This project is run by Gabriel Thullen, a Geneva (Switzerland) Wikimedian, previous WMCH board member, and school teacher IRL. Gabriel started spreading Kiwix in July 2014 during a trip to Senegal. After visiting different schools, it became apparent that most schools have very poor internet connections, even in the larger cities. The schools have recurrent equipment problems, both with their own hardware as well as with Internet connectivity hardware, which means that it is not realistic to rely on a 100% online Wikipedia solution to provide knowledge to educators and to their students.

Jimmy Wales said:

"Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing."

The only way to achieve this is to provide that knowledge in an offline format...

Small scale trial in 2015[edit]

The project started out in August 2015 with a few small-scale trials in Thiès funded out of Gabriel’s not-so-large pocket. This trial involved two schools (a junior high school and a high school) as well as the US Peace Corps training center. Another trial was started at the Senegalese Naval Training Academy in Dakar. It was not easy getting reports from these different schools at the end of the 2015-2016 school year (even from the Peace Corps), mainly because there is a very strong oral tradition in West Africa and most everything is done over the phone. The follow-up reports had to be collected in person during the July 2016 visit.

The trial project included the distribution of 50 USB flash drives, three external hard drives and two Android tablets, with Kiwix pre-installed. Over 60% of the computers used in Senegal are fairly old and run on Windows XP. (That is OK. This report is being written on a computer running Windows XP…) However, the Internet connections do not allow the downloading of multi-gigabyte files like the different Kiwix databases. So Kiwix needed to be distributed using sneakernet technology. Obviously, in areas where there is not even cell phone coverage, that is the only solution.... Old computers running XP cannot read large USB flash drives. The maximum size is 32 GB, which is fine for the French language Wikipedia. The larger databases files, such as the English Wikipedia, went on an external hard drive. These external hard drives are, in fact, a cheaper solution for transporting large quantities of data, which is why they were used in 2015.

Training seminars were held in four educational institutions: the CEM Mamadou Diaw junior-high school, the KOCC Barma private high school, the US Peace Corps training center in Thiès and the Senegalese naval training facility in Dakar. Each seminar had 10 or 15 attendees, and each attendee received goodies, including a USB flash drive with French Kiwix pre-installed, as well as a few other *.zim files. The seminars also discussed different ways to use Kiwix in a classroom or in training.

The Senegalese naval training facility used one of the external hard drives, as well as a few USB flash drives. The Navy also ordered a Kiwix-Plug computer from Wikimedia CH. The Kiwix-Plug is a stand-alone Wifi hotspot with Kiwix running in server mode, and other devices can connect to it and access the offline Wikipedia. This was quite useful in a single room, but the hotspot could not reach far enough to cover other classrooms in the Academy, even if they were right next door. It was a lot more efficient to install Kiwix on every computer. The Kiwix program was also widely used by officers in training, when preparing for their exams while at sea. In that respect, Kiwix was very useful, as most of the Senegalese navy ships are not connected to Internet. The Senegalese Navy returned the Kiwix-Plug, but will retain the other methods of distribution.

Large scale trial in 2016[edit]

In 2016, a large-scale trial was planned taking these different factors into account and a Wikimedia Foundation Rapid Grant, titled Empowering African schools with Kiwix, was requested and funded to cover part of the expenses. The following schools and institutions are involved:

  • Thiès: CEM Mamadou Diaw - middle school
  • Thiès: KOCC Barma private school - middle and high school
  • Thiès: University of Thiès, Economic studies faculty
  • Thiès: Ecole Française Dr René Guillot - part of the world-wide network of “Ecole françaises de l’étranger”, partly funded by the French national education ministry.
  • Thiès: CRE Thiès - computer center offering free training to the local population.
  • Thiès: US Peace Corps
  • Matam: CEM Semmé - middle school
  • Soune: CEM Soune - middle school (no electricity, no internet)
  • Sanghé: Lycée de Sanghé (no electricity, no internet, no cell phone)
  • Djilor: Lycée de Djilor Saloum (no internet)
  • Bignona: Lycée Djibidione (no internet)
  • Foundiougne: Inspection de l'Education et de la Formation de Foudiougne (regional office of education)

An improved version of the Wifi hotspot with a Kiwix server based on a Raspberry Pi and Pirate Box is being developed in Geneva by Gabriel Thullen, and two prototypes were tested during the 2016 visit. The Kiwix hotspot looks cool and impresses people a lot, but is not very useful in a real BYOD environment, which is the target for the 2016-2017 trial. The Kiwix server works fine if all of the devices are also in 100% working order, and that is not the case for a lot of the computers, tablets and smartphones used in Senegalese schools. Keeping that in mind, 32 GB USB flash drives were used to distribute Kiwix.

When showing the Kiwix program in the high school at Sanghé, a small town about 25 km away from Thiès with no Internet or cell phone coverage, Gabriel was told how a student would use Wikipedia to research information not available to him in his high School. He would take a local taxi or donkey cart to the main road, then grab a taxi-brousse or a bus to go to Thiès. He would go to an Internet café, pay for 30 or 60 minutes of use, and print out the information he was looking for. He would then return home on the bus, get off in the middle of nowhere and walk on the dirt road until a passing vehicle or donkey cart picks him up and takes him the rest of the way to his village. A very time-consuming and expensive way to access Wikipedia. Needless to say, Kiwix was an immediate success...

It would appear that the most successful method of spreading the use of the Kiwix offline Wikipedia reader is by having a hands-on workshop during which each individual participant spends some time looking up information on a subject that they know. The problem with a group presentation is that each attendee will not realize, on a deeply personal level, that an off-line version of Wikipedia will be able to provide information that he or she lacks. This level of understanding then encourages the attendees to share the program further on.

It is also much more effective if there are only a few USB flash drives available to distribute Kiwix. This way, attendees experience how much time it takes to transfer all the information, typically over an hour for the French Wikipedia. If the flash drives are shared during the workshop, they will be shared more outside the workshop. In 2015, each attendee received a USB flash drive, but there was very little file sharing after the workshop was over. It would appear that in 2016, fewer flash drives were given out, but a lot more sharing was done after the workshop was over.

A few Senegalese contacts helped out with the presentations. They were able to work with the attendees, and provide explanations in, which made learning easier, even for the school teachers who use French every day to teach. The different schools will be contacted during the school year, and there will be local help available if needed. The next step in this project will be to prepare a survey and a means of getting feedback from all of the schools and institutions involved at the end of the 2016-2017 school year. Ideally, these reports will be able to determine that the Kiwix offline Wikipedia reader has a positive impact on education as measured by an improvement of exam results.

Working on different levels[edit]

Gabriel met with the director and staff of the following schools and institutions were he was able to present Kiwix to some of the teachers during a workshop. Most schools were passing the final exams for their students, both the junior high schools (called CEM in Senegal) who were passing the BFEM exams, and the high schools (Lycée) who were passing the baccalaureate exams. This means that most of the teachers were dispatched to other schools all over Senegal, and that most of the teachers present had come from other schools. The impact of the workshops was very much increased, and hopefully Kiwix will spread even more. But the 2016-2017 trial will concentrate on these schools:

  • Thiès: CEM Mamadou Diaw - middle school
  • Thiès: KOCC Barma private school - middle and high school
  • Thiès: University of Thiès, Economic studies faculty
  • Thiès: CRE Thiès - computer center offering free training to the local population.
  • Thiès: US Peace Corps
  • Soune: CEM Soune - middle school (no electricity, no internet)
  • Sanghé: Lycée de Sanghé (no electricity, no internet, no cell phone)
  • Djilor: Lycée de Djilor Saloum (no internet)

The regional office of education of Foundiougne, which covers over 33 CEM (junior-high schools) and 7 lycée mixtes (full secondary schools combining a junior-high and a high school). This will form the second part of the 2016-2017 trial, and the details still need to be worked out. The Kiwix program was presented to the inspectors and their staff during a short workshop, and they are very enthusiastic about the project. Gabriel did not visit any of the schools, with the exception of the Lycée de Djilor, and this part of the project will be completely run by the Senegalese education specialists. This aspect is a very important in empowering the Senegalese schools, and the feedback and reports at the end of the 2016-2017 school year will enable this approach to be fine-tuned. The long-term goal is to spread the use of Kiwix all over Senegal, then all over West Africa.

Gabriel also met with one or two people in charge of the following institutions, and they were introduced to Kiwix. They will share the program with the teachers at their schools, but they will not be included in the 2016-2017 trial. This may change, of course, if most of the teachers of these schools start using Kiwix.

  • Thiès: Ecole Française Dr René Guillot.
  • Matam: CEM Semmé - middle school
  • Bignona: Lycée Djibidione (no Internet)

Contacts were also made with government officials, and the Kiwix program was demonstrated and installed on some of their computers. They should start distributing Kiwix among the schools and institutions in their charge. The CRE (Centre de Recherche et d'Essais) are set up by the Senegalese government in order to educate the general population in the use of modern technologies. The courses they provide are free, and they are very much interested in Kiwix.

  • Dakar: Mayor of Dakar-Liberté.
  • Dakar: Coordinator of the CRE research centers in Senegal.

The 2016 trial has used a maximum of different channels in order to determine which one is most effective in bringing Kiwix to those who really can benefit from it. They may turn out to be complementary, or the reports might just prove that Kiwix has no added value, even in places with absolutely no access to the Internet. We will just have to wait and see the results.

Read more about the Wikipedia Education Program in Senegal here.