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

India Today - - TECH TALK -

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

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