Education At The Time of COVID 19 in Colombia

Teleworking and Telelearning are here to stay, even under these precarious current conditions. The return to the “new normal” will imply a higher proportion of work from home for executives and workers and a shift in the educational system oriented perhaps more towards what they call “inversion of terms”; do homework at school, with the assistance of “teacher-coaches” and learn at home via Google, Wikipedia, Kahn Academy, Cursera, etc. This is already being used somehow in some countries. There is no need to have to reinvent wheels. In the pandemic this experiment was a failure because countries were not prepared. But the system is in place and it is time to refine it.
Rodrigo Arboleda

Education At The Time of COVID 19 in Colombia

Rodrigo Arboleda


COVID 19 revolutionized everything in a manner hard to understand. There is no topic today that has nothing to do with this tragedy that the planet watches in astonishment and experiences in horror. Deaths and hospitalizations of close friends or relatives begin to permeate daily discussions among family and friends. We all feel affected either by the issue of health, or by the confinement that borders on an oppressive eternity, or by personal financial repercussion of companies in which we manage or work, and on people around us who have seen their entire patrimony evaporated, devastated. Depression has psychiatrists very active treating nervous breakdowns, anxieties, and even suicides of people close to us.

One of the consequences of all this dramatic environment is that it forces oneself to search all corners of the imagination for solutions of any kind, if not to cure by means of a vaccine, at least to finding solutions that make the forced confinement bearable or a return to “new-normality”, with what we would call a calculated and / or controlled risk.

Unfortunately, one of the hot topics is related to kids at home who do not have instruments to do their homework. Especially in the low-income strata. They do not have laptops or internet connection. In some cases, they barely have electricity a few hours a day. Having boys and girls locked up for almost 3 months without even being able to keep them busy learning something at the same rate and intensity as infants in high-income neighborhoods, is the most unfair case of social inequality, something that will have an enormous impact, for the worse, on the future development of our countries.

I read this week that the possibility of using radio stations to broadcast classes and assignments so that children, by listening, can learn something and / or do assignments guided by these radio waves, was being promoted.

This has resulted in low-income people having to dust off, or buy again, battery-powered radios to receive news and for their children to learn at least something. Due to the magnitude of the pandemic and its massive population being quarantined, this possibility is now suggested as “the” great revelation and a smart solution!.

Oh my God!

To think that Colombia between 1947 to 1983 pioneered the concept of distance education, using transistor radios for this purpose! It is quite ironic that for us to go to the future, we must go back to the past? Something is not right here.

Has it been necessary for a tragedy of this magnitude to validate something that, if it had continued over time, would have meant that Colombia would be today one of the most advanced countries on the planet in terms of education?

“The circle of life” as the Elton John song says for the movie “Lion King”, brings us back to the table a process that was on the way to being forgotten over time.

I am talking about Radio Sutatenza or “The Revolution of Hope”, as the visionary who created it, Monsignor José Joaquin Salcedo, called the educational process developed by his institution.

It is worth refreshing our collective memory.

During 1947–48 up in the high plateau of Boyacá, Colombia, in a little town forgotten by God and the world, priest, who while at the seminar studying to be a priest had been expelled three times for reading at nights with a flashlight, books by Marx, Engels, Hegel and Kant. A passionate for history, including that related to the Bolshevik revolution, he knew perfectly well who Lenin, Stalin, and Trostky were, and what they thought, in addition to all their atrocities and killings. Since those books were prohibited by the Church, they kicked him out of seminary. But as he knew more about communism than the communists themselves at the time, the seminar had no other option than admitting him again. He told them that to fight communism, you had to know more and better than they did about economics, sociology and politics. Quite a character for his time.

Illiteracy and ignorance reigned in these farming populations, one that hardly could plow the land with oxen. Their families were stunted, decimated by stomach diseases (the water was contaminated), premature deaths during childbirth or in early childhood were common. Life expectancy in the Colombian fields was no more than 30 years. Family hygiene, non-existent. And needless to say, illiteracy. More than 90% of the adult population was illiterate.

Monsignor Salcedo discovered a revolutionary invention of the moment; a transistor radio! Neither complacent but visionary, he put in the pocket of each peasant one of these small gadgets the size of a pack of cigarettes and, in order to reach them in the field, he set up a medium-sized rudimentary radio station with short range coverage to which he put the name of the town where he created it; Radio Sutatenza. Thus, it was born the most important experiment in Distance Education on the continent.

Over the years, Radio Sutatenza became an emporium. He educated more than 4.5 million peasants. Its radio network was the largest in the country. His newspaper El Campesino, the largest circulation in Colombia. His educational TV station, a whole complex with cutting-edge technology and equipment and a library of educational videos from the simplest to the most advanced, perhaps the largest and best of any developing nation. Its vinyl records factory with educational content rounded off what would be called today a multimedia empire today. Alvin Toffler visited him when he was writing his books The Future Shock and The Third Wave, and reflected in several pages the incredible vision and business leadership of this Monsignor who ended up being a consultant to Pope Paul VI after all. A whole step “from the mule to the Moon” as people would say.

Envies and dark machinations were not absent from the life of this visionary. Fidel Castro invited him several times to set up his concept of Radio Sutatenza in Cuba. Monsignor always refused. One day he arrived at his house 10 minutes after he had been dynamited. The signal was clear. He needed to leave. He went, of all places, to New York because David Rockefeller and Gustavo Cisneros, who had set up the Simón Bolívar Foundation, the real one, not Chávez’s antics, had seen the transforming success of his vision and wanted to see how to catapult him to the Latin American level. They obtained IDB’s support at that time led by Antonio Ortiz Mena, but as he once told me, the bureaucracy (the “immune system” as we would call it today) delayed things so much, trying to reach consensus by each country, that bored and frustrated, escaping from cold New York and the English language, he came to live in Miami at the end of the 1970s.

It was here that I personaly met him in Colombia, in 1982 .

Due to a strange play of destiny I, an architect with no knowledge of education and technology, ended up involved in a project of this nature for the rest of my life. It started with then Colombian President Belisario Betancur. It was called the CAMINA project. This is the untold story:

In 1982 my classmate in architecture, Nicholas Negroponte, was hired by President Francois Mitterrand to manage a project he called The World Center for Informatics. He did so because by then Negroponte was already recognized as one of the young visionaries of the moment. After we graduated in 1965, he stayed at MIT and quickly moved up the university ladders. He started several transformative projects. One, called “The Architecture Machine”, was the forerunner of what is now known as AutoCAD. The other, called “URBAN 5”, evolved over time and is the equivalent of today’s Google Maps. Two authors had written about what Negroponte was doing at MIT in the 1970s. Alvin Toffler, already mentioned before, and the other, French writer, philosopher, futurist, Jean Jacques Servan-Schreiber, author of the book of the moment “The American Challenge”, they were shocked by these “digital” developments, already deeply affecting the world.

Jean Jacques motivated President Mitterrand to lead a fundamental transformation for the future of France and the world, based on what he had seen at MIT with Negroponte and others, beginning with children at early ages (5 years old) in such a way that they could become the true creators of the future of humanity under the banner of innovation and technology.

I was visiting Negroponte in Boston in May 1982 and when he saw that I had books of Toffler (The Third Wave) and Jean Jacques (The World Challenge) in my briefcase, he laughed and told me that he had taken a “sabbatical” and was going to move in 30 days to live in Paris as the project manager of Mitterrand’s vision, the “World Center for Informatics” in which Jean Jacques was going to be the Chairman.

I was overwhelmed with admiration for my classmate. I returned to Miami and told former president Misael Pastrana and his former finance minister, Luis Fernando Echavarría, about this project, because by that time Pastrana was spending seasons in Key Biscayne. I, as young and ignorant about these issues and impressed by Pastrana’s stories about international affairs, told them about Negroponte’s new post. Pastrana said that the newly appointed, but not sworn in, future president Betancur, had Distance Education as a fundamental part of his political platform. Months passed, and to my surprise, around August 14, 1982 just a week after Betancur taking office, I received a call in Miami from the president inviting me to travel to Bogotá to meet him. Luis Fernando and I went together and from this meeting we were appointed to go to Paris with Pastrana on a special mission to request Mitterrand and Negroponte to set up a franchise of the Center in Colombia. It goes without saying that Negroponte almost had a heart attack when I told him about our intended trip because he had barely been in Paris for a month and a half and it seemed extremely premature to pay attention to this request. After many calls and discussions, but probably more due to the power of conviction of President Pastrana with Mitterrand, we succeeded and Negroponte and the Chairman of the foundation Jean Jacques, arrived in Colombia in early 1983 to inaugurate the center for the entire Latin América region. In order to have it as a policy of France, two other centers where created. One in Pakistan and another one in Senegal, Africa. It was in Bogotá that I met Monsignor Salcedo personally.

Life has strange ways of creating synchronicities, someone calls them “destiny”, and this was one of them. I became enchanted with his vision, his capacity to mobilize opinion and players, and the sheer personality and magnetism of this peculiar priest, way ahead of his time.

Radio Sutatenza reached its peak in the late 1970s when Monsignor migrated to NY and then to Miami. However, the sheer size of this mini empire produced envy, greed and interest in getting hold of the radio stations, by then perhaps the largest and most influential group of radio stations in the country. They were the Jewel of the Crown. At the end of president Alfonso Lopez mandate, there was talk about ending the subsidies that the government provided for a long time and political forces in the senate threatened to stop vital financial aid for the project. Looking for alternatives, a foundation in Caracas called ACUDE, (Asociación Cultural para el Desarrollo ), also led by Gustavo and Patricia Cisneros in association of a selected group of businesspeople and philanthropists, had been trying for some time to take advantage of the Colombian experience and Monsignor was collaborating in replicating that model within the Venezuelan culture. Monsignor convinced us to go to Caracas and for several months Negroponte and I worked on how to integrate the CAMINA programs, the name Betancur gave to his Education at a Distance project, with ACUDE from Venezuela together with Paris’s center. However, Colombia, in what we all thought was a “shooting on the foot” type of decision, withdrew the subsidy to Sutatenza and from there on the entire empire stated to fade into oblivion. A few years later, it was liquidated, sold in parts, and some other divisions just were shot down. One of the saddest and shameful events in modern education for the region.

More than 20 years later, when developing the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project we noticed there were great philosophical and strategic coincidences between what Radio Sutatenza was trying to do and what we were doing. Radio Sutatenza, the radio station, became the Internet; the small pocket transistor radio is the smart phone of today and / or the battery-powered famous green and white laptop, the true symbol of the learning device.

I became the CEO of OLPC from 2008 to 2015, after working for two years as a consultant for the Latin American region. As I said before, since that remote time in 1983, I was inoculated by the “bug” of education and technology or, as Monsignor would tell me, I received the baton of command in order to follow in his footsteps. Before dying, in his sickbed, he called me at his house in western Miami with Cecilia my wife and ordered one of his assistants, Nohra, to give me a relief painting of papier mâchée of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, one given to him in gratitude in one of those small towns in Colombia. The symbolic nature of that depiction was not only for what he had done for them but because in fact if he had a lanky figure, with a pronounced nose. During that, our last encounter, with very solemn words, he told me that this picture was for me because he had never met someone in his life with whom he felt so identified and whom he saw with the profile of being able to continue with his project. He was a master manipulator!. I fell into his trap or spell, you chose the correct word.

Today almost 40 years later, I continue his quest to raise the quality and democratization of access to knowledge worldwide. To be honest, One Laptop Per Child fell even short compared to the scope and vision that his Radio Sutatenza had, if we compare it to today’s technologies and facilities of his time.

The enormous challenge now is how to take advantage of this accumulation of knowledge from the time of Monsegnor Salcedo to these new post-COVID 19 realities. This could be a true statement of gratitude for what he brought to Colombia.

There is a ray of hope, though.

As it is becoming the norm, the city of Medellin, Colombia, is grabbing the bull by the horns. Recognizing, the immense challenge latent in society but brought to the surface in dramatic form by COVID 19, it is launching a project labeled Neutral Network, in layman terms, Internet as a citizen’s right. Spearheaded by its avant garde entity, Ruta N, the innovation, science and technology hub of Medellin, its compelling narrative, with my own complementary view point, follows very much the same philosophical base of Monsignor Salcedo’s The Revolution of Hope. It goes as follows:

1. The Internet ceased to be a privilege to become a citizen’s right.

3. Teleworking and Telelearning are here to stay, even under these precarious current conditions. The return to the “new normal” will imply a higher proportion of work from home for executives and workers and a shift in the educational system oriented perhaps more towards what they call “inversion of terms”; do homework at school, with the assistance of “teacher-coaches” and learn at home via Google, Wikipedia, Kahn Academy, Cursera, etc. This is already being used somehow in some countries. There is no need to have to reinvent wheels. In the pandemic this experiment was a failure because countries were not prepared. But the system is in place and it is time to refine it.

4. All this has uncovered a couple of weaknesses for which we are not ready yet: hundreds of thousands of boys and girls (perhaps millions) “lost the year” (figuratively and in reality), especially in the socio-economic strata 1,2 and 3, because they did not have either internet nor a device from which to download knowledge and participate in distance education. Both issues, the high-speed internet, and the device (intelligent phones and / or (preferably) laptops) in which to work, now clearly ceased to be a privilege and became a citizen’s right.

All of the above brought up the possibility of using the radio again as a way of teaching at a distance. That was the beginning of this tale. Unfortunately, today’s needs are not matched by radio technology. If Radio Sutatenza had subsisted over time, we would surely have today an educational platform on par with Singapore, South Korea, Uruguay or Finland, to name just a few leaders. To paraphrase Proust, we must launch an effort to recuperate for Lost Time. But this time, to be successful, we need to do it at exponential speeds because the speed of change is such that it does not wait for large feasibility studies, nor for committees, nor “focus groups”, much less for “pilot programs”, that hateful and fearful concept.

So, if we want to learn from the vision of Monsignor Salcedo and of his Radio Sutatenza and take into account the painful lessons from COVID 19 pandemic, we must become as aggressive or even more aggressive than they were at the time and truly provide society with high speed broad band and learning devices as part of a new Social Contract that takes into consideration Innovation, Science and Technology in a meaningful and truly transformative basis.

That day we can look up at the sky and look for Monsignor in the clouds to tell him that his “Revolution of Hope” was finally executed with success. Fortunately, once more, Medellin is rising to the occasion. Only then we can rest, feeling we can tell Monsignor and to the world:

Mission Accomplished!.

Published by on June 19, 2020

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