Felipe Spath is one of Colombia’s most active TEDx organizers. But only a few years ago, he was running a farm in rural Colombia and had never even heard of TEDx.
In 2011, after attending TEDxCeiba — organized by childhood friend Juan Pablo Calderón — Spath became hooked on TEDx. “I was deeply inspired and overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of the networks that were created that day,” he says
A year later, Spath was organizing his first TEDx event, dedicated to the “enormous hidden potential of projects germinating in the countryside” — TEDxGuatavita — an opportunity for rural cattle farmers, coffee growers and female artisans to gather and share ideas.
Spath continued to plan a variety of rural events and spread TEDx around Colombia. Then in 2013, while attending TEDActive, he met Sugata Mitra, who had been awarded the first one-million dollar TED Prize for his revelatory work in education and self-organized learning. Mitra’s TED Prize wish, to create a School in the Cloud where students could learn from each other using resources and mentoring from the cloud, resonated with Spath. He imagined members of his rural community back home using the creative approach to learning. “I was instantly sure it could have incredible impact on our local community,” says Spath.
Upon returning home to Colombia, Spath teamed up with fellow TEDx’er Calderón and started doing self-organized learning environment (SOLE) sessions at a small rural school near Spath’s farm. “It was a fantastic experience,” he says. Spath and Calderón filmed some of those first sessions and put together a video. The video caught the attention of Colombia’s Ministry of Technologies and Communications and sparked Spath’s hope that they could start “scaling SOLE nationwide,” he says.
SOLE in Guatavita
But in order to expand such a groundbreaking project and build a plan around it, Spath and Calderón needed someone “amazing” to lead the project, Spath says. So Calderón called their mutual friend Sanjay Fernandez.
Fernandez had a long career that spanned economics, art, education, and digital culture. He had attended some of Spath and Calderón’s TEDx events and spent time working for the Ministry of Technology, where he helped design a program and survey about how Colombians use technology. Simply put, Fernandez was a great fit.
Fernandez was inspired by Spath and Calderón’s efforts. The Colombian government had already been working to bring Internet connections to the furthest reaches of the country, including the public education system. Fernandez believed that setting up SOLEs would be the perfect project to make use of these systems.
“What we realized,” Fernandez says, “is that there is a need to give a good use to this technology, and SOLE is a beautiful methodology to give it use. And it’s a huge bet towards transforming education.”
So, Spath, Calderón, Fernandez and the SOLE team spent about a year building partnerships with divisions of the Colombian government. Then, last year, the SOLE Colombia team and its government supporters finally began scaling up their efforts.
Together, they installed a series of self-organized learning kiosks at 10 libraries and 10 public locations in rural areas around the country, opening up SOLEs to anyone interested in trying them out. People of all ages joined in and participated in the initiative.
A look at SOLE Colombia’s impact across the country.
Now, the SOLE Colombia team’s aspirations are increasing. There are a total 1,400 public libraries and 7,000 public kiosks around the country, Spath says, and SOLE Colombia’s goal is to reach all those places, plus all public schools, in the next three to five years. This would mean millions of children and Colombian people learning with SOLE.
Time will tell if the SOLE Colombia team achieves its goal of transforming education in Colombia. But they’re on their way already, Spath says, and it’s incredible to think of what will happen next.