CROSSING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
By giving away its software for free Autodesk hopes to make itself indispensable to the student community in India. By Gayatri Jayaraman
The papal enclave- like corridors of the Ventian hotel and Palazzo convention centre, just on the corner where the Las Vegas strip begins, are bustling with over 7,000 people. Students like Massachussets’ Institute of Technology’s David Moinina Sengeh, who is using the technology to visualise improvements on the Jaipur foot across three continents; engineers like Adam Stegeman from Stratysys, who has begun dabbling on the new frontiers of 4D printing; technology experts like Microsoft’s Surya Vanka; and the general geeks of the world, are getting themselves all excited about allied design tech- nologies. It is the site of Autodesk University, an annual event hosted by the American technology giant, filled with classes and expert sessions designed to imbue this motley crew with the indispensability of their software. The hook and bait has been reeled out. The company's policy decision to make their technologies free to students in emerging markets like India, China was unveiled two years ago, and it is now gaining momentum. Tom Joseph, director of Education with Autodesk says that when they first decided to go free, there were 11 million licenses globally. There are now 145 million licenses issued worldwide. Their Facebook student community has 2million engaged students. The idea is to take technology to students who cannot afford to come to them.
“We decided to go free in emerging markets because that is where the biggest challenge is in terms of affordability. Maybe 20- 30 per cent of schools in India and China can afford the software. One of the issues we raised internally was that if they can afford it, why should we give it free? We decided that it’s the 70 per cent, who really want it and cannot afford it, and who can possibly make a real difference to the way the technology is used, that is our focus,” Joseph explains. The company has consciously made a decision to forsake immediate profit, at its peak close to $ 80 million, for a long term one, resulting from a changed ecosystem that becomes increasingly technology, and their software, dependent. The hope is the possibility of other David Sengehs, who would discover applications for technology not yet comprehended.
How far reaching will be their inroad into the Indian market? Autodesk is already tying up with AICTE to start voca-
tional courses in Karnataka, Orissa and Maharashtra from class 6 onwards. These will begin from the next ( 20142015) academic year. The ICSE board is also engaged in beginning classes across all states. And the Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti, under the Ministry of Human resource Development is also in talks to roll out the programme. Autodesk is looking at a rural spread via nodal centres with limited connectivity. George Abraham, director of Education for Emerging Markets, believes it’s akin to imprinting one’s DNA on the future crop of students.
“Today with technologies like cloud computing the need for server space, bulky infrastructure, etc is eliminated, allowing technology companies to make inroads into space previously thought impenetrable,” Abraham points out. The education system is fragmented. Some schools have access and others don’t. But the employment world is flat. Those who have had exposure and opportunity will rise. The aim, say Autodesk heads, is to even the playing field. And of course ensure that playing field has encouraged a dependency on their software.
The small contingent from India acting as evangelists for this technological conversion include Father Jose Aikara, chairman of the Board of Council Indian School Certificate Examination ( ICSE), and Professor Dr Rajiv R. Mishra, principal of the JJ College of Architecture, as well as some civil engineering students from BITS Pilani, mentored by assistant professor Amit Goel, who have aced a design competition, crafting a unique reformative prison cell for inmates, using Autodesk softwares like Revit for their modelling. Both academics, Mishra and Father Aikara, believe that students and institutes from primary to higher education levels in India sorely lag behind the world when it comes to adopting technologies. “There is definitely the concern of a widening digital divide, where we find that students may emerge from school with a degree but are not necessarily equipped to deal with a world of technology that is changing rapidly,” says Father Aikara. Mishra believes that a majority of students who graduate remain unemployable because higher education is not practically attuned to using the tools that most companies today cannot function without. “As a result most of what is learnt is theory and academic. But ask a student to implement and create that knowledge in a real world sce- nario and most cannot.
A number of advances in technological climates have forced Autodesk’s urge to democratise design, primary being the advent of mobile devices. “The market is exploding. In the past if there were a few who could procure software and benefit from it. Today, even the common man can use most of our tools. Our investment in education becomes very important for the growth of the company,” Joseph explains.
There are two aspects to free software. The first is accessibility, but the second is practical ease of use. Neil O'Neil, a teacher attendee at the University, is an engineer turned teacher from Virgina who still constructs his own wooden models that can be later dismantled, to teach. “The problem is that you can give everyone software, but that does not mean that everyone automatically knows how to visualize and think in 3D,” he points out.
Autodesk in India says they have been quick to realise that it is not enough to give away software but need to get involved in its use as well. Content creation will be a crucial part of their India roll out; modules designed to help children think visually. Currently, the gap between an inventor who is experimenting professionally and a teacher who needs to use 3D modeling to teach simple concepts within 7th grade physics, like friction, is vast.
“The last mile now needs to be bridged: taking complex software and making it simple enough to make it relevant to school children,” says Abraham. That is the agenda with Autodesk University, the hope that by community engagement, joined classes, sessions, workshops, and the interaction of experts like teachers with designers with students and industry, something will be set in motion that will expand application and thought. Student experts, Autodesk hopes, will be the new evangelists for its technology. As Chief Technology Officer Jeff Kolawski puts it: “The illiterate are not going to be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn unlearn and relearn.” That Autodesk will be the framework in which that unlearning and relearning happens, is the hope.
Autodesk’s Facebook community already has 2 million engaged students
Content creation will be a crucial part of Autodesk’s
India roll out