Wikiversity eyes strong growth over next few years

The Wikiversity project is picking up speed, and is expected to really take off in two to three years

The online collaboration that has made Wikipedia one of the most used sources of information on the Internet is also being used to build a school and offer classes across the online world, and the project is taking off.

Coordinators of Wikiversity, one of the major projects of the Wikimedia Foundation, said the project is picking up speed, and expect it to really get going within the next two or three years. Wikiversity is a free learning community, and aims to provide free educational materials and courses online. The most popular course currently on offer is on film making, said Cormac Lawler, a collaborative coordinator at Wikiversity.

Lawler and Teemu Leinonen hosted a session on progress at Wikiversity on Saturday during Wikimania, a yearly meeting to bring the international Wikimedia community together to discuss new issues and opportunities. This year, Taipei is hosting the event.

The Internet has long been associated with giving users opportunities to learn new skills for free. Type just about any subject into Google's search engine, including how to fix a car, play guitar, do needlework, or build a Web site, and then add the word 'tutorial' and up pop several Web sites offering guides on the subject.

The purpose of Wikiversity is to take learning a step further, by not only providing information, but also trying out different educational theories. "It's an experiment to see what actually works," said Lawler.

The user community and project coordinators decide the direction of Wikiversity. Anyone can offer courses, and anyone can take them. One drawback so far has been that some teachers start courses, then disappear, abandoning students, said Lawler. But as Wikiversity grows, the group expects to find ways to alleviate such issues.

Collaboration with other Internet learning projects also appears to be an issue. A number of universities offer course work and more over the Internet, but they don't necessarily conform to the Wikiversity view of the world.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's MIT OpenCourseWare project, for example, offers over 1000 free courses as well as course work for anyone who wants to use them, with the understanding that no degree will come with their completion, nor will participation bring learners in touch with MIT faculty. MIT's free course initiative, however, is not free enough for Wikiversity.

MIT uses the Creative Commons license, which asks users to attribute course materials, share alike any work made using the materials, and not use the materials for profit. Wikiversity, by contrast, uses the GNU Free Documentation License which allows content users to freely copy and redistribute materials, with or without modification, for profit or not. It does preserve the right of the author and publisher to receive credit for their work and to not be responsible for any modifications to the original, but it's different enough from the Creative Commons license to ensure Wikiversity and MIT OpenCourseWare won't work together.

Tutorials such as those listed above may also not be used in Wikiversity courses, depending on their stance on copyrights.

In any case, Wikiversity is growing. Lawler said that more features will be added over time, and that increased funding would really give the project a lift-off. Momentum is building, and could make Wikiversity a valuable learning resource for Internet users.

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