Video Interview: Rodrigo Arboleda of One Laptop Per Child


Sergio Sarmiento: Hi friends, welcome to the interview. Today with us is Rodrigo Arboleda, he is a man who wants to give a portable computer to every child in the world. Rodrigo Arboleda is the President and General Director of an organization called One Laptop Per Child. This means a mobile computer for each child. When this idea was first proposed, many people thought it was crazy or that it was something that should not even be attempted. There were those who said that computers were distracting and for entertainment, not for education. And there were others that thought, no, the situation was ideal and this project should have been pushed because it could be benefitial.

Rodrigo Arboleda, is the President and General Director of the organization One Laptop Per Child. He is also a visiting lecturer from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is in Mexico attending the Innovative Education Summit being held at the Hotel Marquise in Mexico City. Rodrigo Arboleda, thank you for being with us.

Rodrigo Arboleda: Thank you for having me.

Sergio Sarmiento: Well, the first thing we'd like to say is that what we have here is not a toy, it's a computer.

Rodrigo Arboleda: This is a computer which is more robust than what its appearance indicates because it's designed to be like a toy for children... because it's for children of ages 5 and up. But it has a lot more in the sense of a computer than what it appears. We have granted over a thousand... no more than a million computers worldwide...

Sergio Sarmiento: 1.2 million computers...

Rodrigo Arboleda: in less than 21 months; out of which 85% are in Latin America. Two countries in particular have taken the lead. The first one: Uruguay, where last October 1st President Tavare Vazquez delivered computer number 380,000 to elementary schoolchildren; finishing up the task that 100% of elementary students in Uruguay having one of these computers connected to the Internet.

The second country is Peru, where they will deliver one million computers this year. And there are other countries, especially in Africa where we have one country worth mentioning and that is Rwanda, a country that only 10 years ago suffered one of the largest genocides perpetrated in modern history. There are now 110,000 computers in the hands of schoolchildren, and the European Union and the World Bank and many other entities are financing the project so that they can get computers to all children in Rwanda. We are pushing for a million computers this year.

Sergio Sarmiento: Rodrigo, I understand it is important to have a computer but... What difference does it make in academic performance? What difference does it make in a child's life, having a computer?

Rodrigo Arboleda: The theory of cognitive development was originated by a very famous person in Geneva named Jean Piaget.

Sergio Sarmiento: Well, the great Swiss...

Rodrigo Arboleda: The great pedagogue, right. Seymour Papert, our pedagogic director studied under Jean. For more than 40 years at MIT, Seymour, along with other scientists identified that when children become masters of this small child-machine universe, they develop a series of thought connections and competencies; a series of connections between brain cells that pushes them into a learning mode that is much more efficient and faster than everyday learning systems.

Sergio Sarmiento: Is it a little like learning languages? Like when you are young they are a lot easier to learn?

Rodrigo Arboleda: For that same reason we want to start with elementary schoolchildren and not with high school students; because a child under this level of discipline acuqires three or four important things. First off, brain connections. Second, the memory footprint is a lot deeper and permanent throughout time. Third, the capacity for concentration is a lot longer. If you have a child that plays Nintendo since young; you'll see that they can play for hours without stopping. Third again: it fires up children's creative capacity. And fourth: it also sparks up the innate curiosity of children.

Sergio Sarmiento: Some traditionalists think that having early access to a computer will cause children to lose interest in books; or that they will not comprehend other types of learning materials.

Rodrigo Arboleda: We have learned that on a computer children read a lot more than if they did not have a computer; because in order to read they first have to investigate. The first thing they do is search in Google and Yahoo!, and from then on they become even more curious. It's just that at this moment what we need is to understand a new profile of children's minds that are up to the challenge of creating wealth in the 21st century. And creating wealth in the 21st century requires the creation of innovators more than pundits, because innovators will create intellectual property... They are the ones who have created Google, Blackberry, Facebook, eBay... those are all based on intellectual property. It's the new means of creating wealth. And for that we need minds that... [end]

Rodrigo Arboleda: And creating wealth in the 21st century requires the creation of innovators more than pundits, because innovators will create intellectual property... They are the ones who have created Google, Blackberry, Facebook, eBay... those are all based on intellectual property. It's the new means of creating wealth. And for that we need minds that are interested in innovation.

Sergio Sarmiento: And just how powerful is this small device with the two little ears that looks like a bunny rabbit?

Rodrigo Arboleda: It has three or four very important things technology wise... First, the two little ears. They are two antennas: one that communicates via WiFi, and the other one that identifies similar devices located nearby and immediately establishes a network bypassing an access point. Second, it has a screen like no other in the world that can be read not only indoors in full colors with backlight, but also the moment the screen travels outside in the sunlight, the screen turns into a monochrome device that reflects sunlight. This is the only device for children in Third World Countries, where there are no classrooms, where they are forced to learn under the shade of a tree, on in a terrace or someplace like that. And the third reason: extremely low energy consumption.

Sergio Sarmiento: Low energy consumption?

Rodrigo Arboleda: Consumes less than 3 watts compared to the most similar which consumes between 13 to 14 watts. And the next generation we will release in about a year is based on a revolutionary chip we are working on, will consume less than one watt. This will allow the computer to be the only one in the world that can run on individual solar power batteries.

Sergio Sarmiento: Is that the case with this one? Can this one be charged with solar power batteries?

Rodrigo Arboleda: Yes. In Peru we have thirty thousand such batteries, because there are some remote places out in the Andes where there is no electricity. And to recharge in each community... a lot of computers all plugged into the same generator would collapse the community's electrical system.

Sergio Sarmiento: Rodrigo, what you are telling me about the screen is that it if you are in a dark place it's like a computer screen; but if not then it works like a Kindle or a reader in the sense that you can still read anywhere, even if there is a lot of light?

Rodrigo Arboleda: Yes. Even with a lot of illumination and at a high resolution. It has very clear and fine pixelation, and it can display any fine print in the sunlight.

Sergio Sarmiento: So how was this computer developed?

Rodrigo Arboleda: Precisely at the time we decided that the bottleneck in today's education was caused by a lack of access to information technology at the individual level of every child. Nicholas Negroponte, who is the founding father of this idea, went door-to-door to each major computer manufacturer. He asked them to build him a computer for children and for educational purposes, but not a computer for adults that we could submit to an "anorexic regime". A computer that could be used by a child. And no one wanted to do it, because they all thought this would cannibalize their financial profile.

So we had to take a heroic decision, despite the fact that MIT had not previously gotten involved and did not want to get involved in a computer project. We wanted to show the way, and to that effect we said: if we want to design a computer, let's truly design it so that it can be for children and for education. And that's the result: this computer.

Sergio Sarmiento: How much does one of these computers cost?

Rodrigo Arboleda: Today they go for $209, delivered in a Mexican port.

Sergio Sarmiento: $209? So for 2,500 Mexican pesos I can have a computer like this in a...?

Rodrigo Arboleda: Right, and we hope to lower the cost tremendously through economies of scale since we are selling several millions of these computers.

Sergio Sarmiento: So how is the deal made? Is it an agreement with the local educational authorities?

Rodrigo Arboleda: Yes, generally agreements are reached with governments or non-profits since we are a non-profit as well. We are not selling computers. Our plan is an educational one, and one that changes culture. Once the computer is in the child's hands, that's when the entire process begins. They come preloaded with about 31 to 32 software applications, all geared towards developing the pedagogic capacities of the children.

Sergio Sarmiento: Like what kind? Give us some examples of these applications.

Sergio Sarmiento: Like what kind? Give us some examples of these applications.

Rodrigo Arboleda: Look, the theory behind all this comes from, more or less, from what Mrs. Montessori discovered...

Sergio Sarmiento: Maria Montessori, the great Italian educator.

Rodrigo Arboleda: yes, what she discovered in reality was not so much that children learned more by playing instead of memorizing, something that was done at the time. What she really found out is that children learn more when information reaches them through their senses more than through their intellect; at least until a certain point in the child's life when abstract thought takes over and becomes just as important, or even more, than sensory-acquired thought. So, all the software applications are geared towards maximizing the experience of using colors, motion, sounds... And finally we enter an important stage which is to teach the child to program. A five year old child learning to program... that's something that had never been seen before.

For someone to learn how to program in my time, you had better learned algebra, calculus, physics... Today thanks to a project designed by Seymour Papert, which made him famous worldwide, a five year-old child can do what is called linear programming through images on the screen used to create programming modules; and that's considered these days, Sergio, the real way to learn.

When a child programs and makes a mistake in a comma or a line of code, he tries to run the program and it doesn't work; he must go back and find where he made the mistake

Sergio Sarmiento: Where he placed the comma instead of a period...

Rodrigo Arboleda: And that mental process of trial and error truly constitutes the most important learning process.

Sergio Sarmiento: So you say that this computer can be used by, and can even be programmed by, a five year old child? What are the appropriate ages for this computer?

Rodrigo Arboleda: This computer is understood to have about five years of practical life, since it does not have any moving parts. So between 5 and 12 years of age is appropriate. The size of the keyboard is for children with small fingers. We have already presented in Uruguay a computer which takes up the same space as this one, but with a keyboard that allows for larger fingers. In Uruguay everyone was so satisfied with their computers that they wanted us to introduce a solution for high school students. So I believe that now we can deliver computers like this one for five year olds all the way up to 17 years of age.

Sergio Sarmiento: So in principle this is designed with a five year old child in mind, and up to 10 years old?

Rodrigo Arboleda: That's right. Between 5 and 11 years old. The entire period of elementary school. The computers do not have moving parts, therefore they are not as likely to break.

Sergio Sarmiento: You have been working on this for two years?

Rodrigo Arboleda: 21 months.

Sergio Sarmiento: 21 months. What kind of results have you seen? What have you found in your field experiences? Where are the problems and what are the positives?

Rodrigo Arboleda: The most important positive is that school attendance is at an all time high.

Sergio Sarmiento: All time high?

Rodrigo Arboleda: All time high. In some places attendance has doubled.

Sergio Sarmiento: They feel motivated.

Rodrigo Arboleda: Of course. Second, drop out rates are lower. Third, there has been up to 50% increase in the number of hours students are staying in school, because that is where they have Internet access. Fourth: the dynamics of family life have changed completely. Many children in many families in Uruguay, for example, in a single family of three children all three have a computer. It's not that one laptop per family, it's one laptop per child. In many of these cases the parents were illiterate, but children have begun to teach their parents to read and write. That equation has changed completely, and we have been told that there is an article in Uruguay that said: we have just created 400,000 new teachers. And people asked why, and the reason is because these children became teachers to their siblings and their parents.

So there has been a change in the social fabric of the communities. And there are interesting examples. I was in Uruguay, and it was 2 in the afternoon and a teacher asked the classroom: what do you have to work on? So a little seven year old girls stands up and tells the teacher -this was a grain cultivating community... soy, wheat, corn, that kind of stuff- and this child says: Teacher, about an hour ago the Commodities Market in Chicago closed and the prices on future contract for soy and other grains are this and that... and the girls gives the teacher all that because she downloaded that information from the Internet. So this is a little 7 year old girl from a community that vitally depends on the prices of future contracts on grains, but until now they had no clue about what occurred in their industry...

Sergio Sarmiento: So this computer... I'm going to move it because it already turned off...

Rodrigo Arboleda: Yes, it turns itself off to save energy.

Sergio Sarmiento: Just how powerful is this computer?

Rodrigo Arboleda: The processor speed is one gigahertz, which is pretty fast. Faster than what an elementary school student needs. It has one gigabyte of RAM, which allows it to run several programs at the same time. And we have limited the storage capacity to 4 gigabytes for two reasons: first of all, we don't want it to have a hard disk because it moves at about 5400 rpm and it has a very delicate optical reader which will break on the computer's first fall and will destroy the entire device.

Besides, and this is even more important, we want all data created by children to remain stored in the school's server. In this fashion the teacher, from his own desk, can see the work of all children without having to go from one desk to another.

Sergio Sarmiento: In other words you're already utilizing cloud computing technology?

Rodrigo Arboleda: Of course. And they have easy Internet access. And the first word that all children learn in all languages is Google, and the first page they learn to navigate. And you can't even imagine what in the space of two or three hours these children learn to do with this device.

Sergio Sarmiento: What have been some of the experiences you've had? I imagine that you've talked to children who have used the device? What do they tell you when they use this computer?

Rodrigo Arboleda: They acquire a new lexicon. First of all they learn a vocabulary that previously did not exist. Everyone feels very attracted and hooked to the machines because it stimulates their creative capacity. Teamwork is another important thing. And up until now it's just enough to see the children and their little eyes, filled with illusion. For some children, the first night they got their computer they slept with it by their side. They did not want to let go of it. Yet other children have seen their computer damaged due to mishandling, and they do not return it to school because they are afraid that the will lose their computer altogether. The sense of ownership has been one of the most important psychological aspects they've experienced.

Sergio Sarmiento: It's interesting that it isn't the classroom's computer or...

Rodrigo Arboleda: No, it's theirs. All theirs. And that's very important.

Sergio Sarmiento: So the sense of ownership is very important to motivate them

Rodrigo Arboleda: And it's not even Mom's or Dad's: it belongs to the children only.

Sergio Sarmiento: And for many it must be the first thing they get to call theirs

Rodrigo Arboleda: It's the most precious, most valuable thing they have owned in their life.

Sergio Sarmiento: And are we going to see this in Mexico? Are there negotiations with our Secretary of Education?

Rodrigo Arboleda: Well, yes. We have already started. There is a pilot program underway in conjunction with the Secretary of Education in indigenous communities in Nayarit and San Luis Potosi.

Sergio Sarmiento: In indigenous communities, that's interesting

Rodrigo Arboleda: This computer is a project of equal access. This computer, like I told you before, is an educational project, but more importantly it is a project of equality.

Sergio Sarmiento: Now, I imagine that in a community that is located, say, at the peak of a mountain, a computer that can be powered with solar power would be indispensable, right?

Rodrigo Arboleda: Oh yes. In Peru there are 30,000 computers with solar powered batteries, and that has been very important. And we have children who speak 21 languages in 31 countries, and we are working on, at this moment, designing phonetic systems and and translating keyboards for many of the different regional indigenous languages in Mexico. We have done this with the Quechua and Aimara languages in Peru.

Sergio Sarmiento: What do you say, Rodrigo, to all this traditionalists who see one of these machines and says: "This is not learning". "This is playing with a computer".

Rodrigo Arboleda: Basically this: If we don't do something drastic like this, countries such as Mexico and others will not be able to accept the challenge that other countries have understood, such as China, India, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, etc... We can't stay behind.

Sergio Sarmiento: Is there a way to measure, not the use of the equipment, but the improvement in academic performance? We know that attendance improves...

Rodrigo Arboleda: Yes, and we are not taking those measurements. The Inter-American Development Bank is doing that, along with independent observers because we do not want there to be confusion that since this is our project then our results would appear to be self-serving. Other countries are doing this. Uruguay has tons of measures, and in their online portal they are very transparent with showing the results.

Sergio Sarmiento: You tell me this has been introduced in Uruguay, in Peru, it's being introduced in Mexico. You haven't mentioned Colombia, and you are Colombian, right?

Rodrigo Arboleda: In Colombia we have several cities. The project is in Bogota, Medellin, in some of Medellin's most complex neighborhoods. The computers are running in the Santo Domingo Savio and the Comuna 13, which were famous due to drug trafficking and violence. With former Secretary Juan Manuel Santos we reach the town of La Macarena, and that can be an example of what can be done here in Mexico. It was a community that for 25 years it was at the mercy of the FARC guerrilla. When the Army took over, the Secretary understood that the only way to instill peace in that region was with education.

So all children of La Macarena have one of these computers connected to the Internet, and the backbone is provided by the military, but the town does not even have roads or television. It's more important that all children have access to computers.

Sergio Sarmiento: Let me get back to something you mentioned before: This does not have a hard disk, but it has 4 gigabytes of flash memory. What is that? Is that like...?

Rodrigo Arboleda: Flash is a type of... It's internal, but the computer has three USB ports on top of that so additional USB memory can be installed.

Sergio Sarmiento: And can you use that to print?

Rodrigo Arboleda: You can connect a printer to one of the USB ports.

Sergio Sarmiento: So it has all the capabilities of say, a notebook?

Rodrigo Arboleda: It has a speaker, a microphone, camera... video camera and for still photography too. It has everything. A notable example is that one of the first communities in Uruguay, a dairy producing town, the first homework the teacher left was about dairy cows. So all students went to Google, and one seven year old child went home very sad and told his father that everything about cows had already been written. So his father told him: "look son, tonight one of the cows, Paquita, will give birth to a calf. So why don't you write about that?". So the kid goes to see Paquita the cow, and instead of writing he filmed the calf's birth. So if you search on CEIBAL or OLPC, you will see that there have been a hundred and sixty-thousand people who have seen the video that this seven year old child made about Paquita the cow delivering her calf.

And that's just one example. And then the teacher told me: When would I have ever imagined, Mr. Arboleda, that a homework assignment so simple and so trivial like writing about cows, something I assign at the beginning of every school year, that 160,000 children from around the world has seen it?

Sergio Sarmiento: Well, I did not want to believe yet here I am interviewing Rodrigo Arboleda of the One Laptop Per Child organization. We are looking at the laptop's screen, but through its video camera because it's built-in... and well this screen has better resolution than my own computer. Well let's see what happens if I do this.... I don't know if you could see it or if I blocked the camera lens, but it's interesting. Just how resistant is this toy/computer?

Rodrigo Arboleda: Well, look: it is built for children all over the world to use and abuse, and...

Sergio Sarmiento: Don't tell me it took that... Yes, it took it well. So this handle is for carrying it, right? This right here allows me to carry it.

Rodrigo Arboleda: Yes, and here are the programs that come pre-loaded. They are 26 software applications, all educational. And that's where the pedagogic aspect comes in: exploiting the senses, sight, hearing, music. Music is very important in games and in programming.

Sergio Sarmiento: Just how much is this accepted by the teachers? Sometimes they are the most difficult to convince...

Rodrigo Arboleda: The first to receive a computer is the teacher. And the first one to be trained is the teacher. In Uruguay it was thought that they would reject them. A lady teacher with 28 years of experience, upon learning that the computers were on their way, went to the Social Security Office and asked for early retirement. So they told her to fill out some paperwork and to come back in seven weeks to get her pension. In the meantime, two weeks later, the computers arrived. So she went back to the Social Security Office and said: "I no longer want early retirement. In fact, I would like to postpone my retirement and stay at work because I don't want to miss any step of the process. It's the most important thing that has happened in my life".

Sergio Sarmiento: So this computers can be the first step in a revolution within the educational world.

Rodrigo Arboleda: They already are. The United Nations think so, and the Inter-American Development Bank recognizes it as such. The World Bank as well. I'm going to a conference in Vienna where there is already dialog regarding a philosophy of education one-on-one, and where this kind of technological teaching aides become a fundamental part of the process.

Sergio Sarmiento: Even though these computers are rather cheap, $209 in Mexico is very cheap, if you would like to deliver, I don't know... a billion computers for all children in the world...

Rodrigo Arboleda: The cost would be a lot lower.

Sergio Sarmiento: How are you guys financing yourselves?

Rodrigo Arboleda: The countries, each country tenders a credit letter and we send... since we don't make any money; it's all cost for us... we send the money to the factory in China where they are manufactured and they send them. We cover our own costs with difficulty.

Sergio Sarmiento: Which means that the Education Departments finance the acquisition of these computers.

Rodrigo Arboleda: Uruguay surrendered just 5% of its educational budget to finance the project.

Sergio Sarmiento: And still Uruguay gave computer to all their children.

Rodrigo Arboleda: It so happens that the Education Departments... the majority of Education Departments spend approximately a total of $20 per child just in books. This device comes preloaded with 200 books included and chosen by each country, all free. When has a child in a developing country ever imagined having a library of 200 books? And in some communities what we are doing is that each child is given a group of 200 different books, so that way the entire neighborhood can have a total of 5000 to 10,000 books at their fingertips. And since everyone is connected to the network, all books are available to all children because they can be shared by all.

Sergio Sarmiento: Rodrigo, what led you personally to get involved in this project?

Rodrigo Arboleda: Well, I'm a former classmate of Nicholas Negroponte. We are both architects. We graduated together in 1965.

Sergio Sarmiento: But from being an architect to being an evangelist of education through computers is...

Rodrigo Arboleda: What happened was that I followed Nicholas at MIT when he started all these research projects which were originally geared towards finding technological solutions for architects. That's where AutoCAD was invented. So, I kept going to MIT. And in the year 1982, in May of 1982 I went over there and he told me about him going to work full time with Miterrand in Paris, in a project that was called the Worldwide Center for Information Technology. I returned to Colombia and I told former President Misael Pastrana, a good family friend, about the Center. He in turn told President Elect Belisario Betancourt, and with him we set it off with Nicholas and Miterrand in Paris. In that time it was a distance education project, and from that moment on I was hooked and have not been able to remove myself from it.

Sergio Sarmiento: You are 21 months into this project and you tell me that there are 1.2 million computers in place. What do you expect in ten years? What is the plan?

Rodrigo Arboleda: Well, Nicholas would like to reach the 100 million computers mark. He is not satisfied with anything less. At this time there are a billion children in the world, and unless something dramatically similar to what we are doing can be accomplished, they will never be able to go further than the obscure medieval-like environment they have lived in until now. And they will not be able to participate in the world's knowledge and economic systems.

Sergio Sarmiento: Is this being applied in developed nations are well, or only in Third World countries?

Rodrigo Arboleda: Until now Nicholas did not want to do it too much in developed nations because it did not make sense. However, in the cities of New York and in Birmingham, Alabama all elementary schoolchildren have a computer because there are children in need in developed American cities as well. And we are seeing in Spain and Portugal, for example, that the children there also want to participate in this type of program for their own countries.

Sergio Sarmiento: Rodrigo Arboleda, President and General Director of the organization One Laptop Per Child. I want to thank you for talking to us during this interview.

Rodrigo Arboleda: Thank you for having me. I have nothing but the best wishes for Mexico to come out ahead with this project.

Sergio Sarmiento: And to you, dear viewer who makes this show possible, I thank you as well. If you'd like to watch a copy of this interview or the entire program, you can see it on the Internet, whether it's on laptop like this one or on another computer. The address is That's all for today, we'll see you next time.


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Very funny infomercial. The best part is when the little girl in Uruguay *SUPPOSEDLY* tells the teacher:

"So a little seven year old girls stands up and tells the teacher -this was a grain cultivating community... soy, wheat, corn, that kind of stuff- and this child says: Teacher, about an hour ago the Commodities Market in Chicago closed and the prices on future contract for soy and other grains are this and that"


Thank you so much for translating this; it's a great interview. You can see more of the OLPC Uruguay / Plan Ceibal videos at

Also liked the drop test at 0:40 of Part 6 -

Is there any official data on the increase in attendance? That alone would seem to be worth the expense of the project. And ditto data on children teaching their parents? Again, a major increase in the literacy rate of a whole village would be worth the expense.

Negroponte likes to say that 50% of children in Peru are teaching their parents how to read. So far, we've only found evidence that 50% of that statement is true. We just can;t figure out which 50% ;)

Increased attendance?: No evidence. However, there is evidence, the Inter-American Bank study in Peru of more negative attitudes toward school and toward homework.

IIncreased children teaching of parents? No evidence either.