It’s common for vendors to make free licenses available to educational institutions, and while this can be helpful for enabling students to learn the tools of the trade, it can also set them up to learn some hard lessons about vendor lock-in once they go out on their own.
To add context to this piece we’ve included insights from Dr Lukas du Plessis, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Pretoria (specializing in Machine Design and Manufacturing). Dr du Plessis introduced FreeCAD to his second-year curriculum back in 2020.
Why is proprietary CAD software the default at universities?
“Corporations offer ‘student’ and ‘community’ licenses because they hope that these will lead to users getting jobs where they will ask their employers to purchase these tools. They do not do this because they want to nurture the hobbyists or craftspeople.” – BrightBlueJim on Hackaday.com
It’s not an act of charity or goodwill for vendors to make their software free to use for educational purposes: the entrenchment of tools like SOLIDWORKS and Fusion 360 at these institutions is a key part of their pipeline as students graduate, enter the workforce, and advocate to use familiar tools at work.
These tools then become entrenched in workplaces, making it difficult for graduates to onboard if they don’t know how to use the software already:
“Not choosing Autodesk is a career ending mistake in many cases, too.” – emteycz on Hacker News
This is fine for students joining a big firm with plenty of budget for their seat. But good luck to graduates who want to start their own businesses and suddenly can’t afford the license.
This pattern is hard to shift, as educators can (understandably) be resistant to the burden of learning and then teaching a new tool. It’s tricky to coordinate across a department and align on what software is being used and taught in different years and modules. Even where educators are willing to bring in free alternatives (like FreeCAD), their lack of polish can be off putting to students.
Your students deserve better
“F360 is probably the easiest to learn, but... I strongly recommend also learning FreeCAD so you have a backup plan if you aren’t made of money.” – LightStormPilot on r/Fusion360
As educators, your students are your customers. Your responsibility is to set them up for success by teaching them design principles, not one specific tool. Including exposure to open source solutions in curricula gives students a number of benefits:
“It’s like a teacher teaching students to write a letter. The emphasis should be on the communication and writing skills—not on the tool. The teacher can’t teach the students to use Microsoft Word in order for them to write the letter.” – Dr Lukas du Plessis, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Pretoria
Of course, it is important to introduce students to industry-standard, commercial software so that they’re prepared for the workforce, but it’s a disservice not to at least expose them to the alternatives. Students who go into industry will be working in environments with mixed software, and educators should anticipate and include interoperability in the curriculum. They should be skeptical of software provided by corporations that doesn’t support data portability.
Students should at least understand that the choice of which software they use has long-term implications:
- Will they be able to switch to something else later if it becomes too expensive or no longer serves their needs?
- Will it work on their own computer when they don’t have access to their current setup?
Open source software unlocks far greater flexibility and customization for different use cases: for example, the guitar workbench presented at the FreeCAD User Conference earlier this year. “There’s no commercial package that will develop such a workbench, it’s far too niche,” says Dr du Plessis.
This aspect of the open source vs proprietary conversation doesn’t always get a lot of airtime, but it’s especially pertinent for educational institutions: commercial CAD software is often extremely hard wearing and resource intensive, and requires bleeding-edge hardware to perform at its best. Educational institutions rarely have access to the kind of hardware needed to make the software run effectively.
FreeCAD however is better suited for this environment, according to Dr du Plessis: “I introduced FreeCAD at the University of Pretoria and it’s not very hardware intensive—we’ve had no issues in the computer labs.”
Institutions can be the change
It’s encouraging to see some educators taking initiative to change the course. Dr du Plessis, as mentioned above, has been advocating for students to get exposure to and learn FreeCAD at the University of Pretoria.
The university historically has taught SOLIDWORKS to students from their first year. As he started learning FreeCAD himself, Dr du Plessis has been introducing FreeCAD to his second-year students since 2020. “It doesn’t make sense to have access to free software, but then only afterwards the students need to start paying for exorbitant licenses.”
In 2019, Dr du Plessis received funding from the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering to develop a separate workbench inside FreeCAD. One of the deliverables was to introduce FreeCAD in the university’s undergraduate program, which helped give credibility to the initiative.
“I make students very much aware of the fact that commercial packages come at a premium,” says Dr du Plessis. “I also push hard for them to understand that there is a free version. Yes, it’s not as refined, but it’s good enough for 95% of what they want to do.”
Dr du Plessis also has a vision for what he calls FreeCAD Free Labs to make FreeCAD more accessible to more makers.
What educators and students can do
Yes, there is a burden to learning new technology and then teaching it to your students, but there are a lot of free resources out there that you can point students to. You can lean on educational creators like FreeCAD Academy on YouTube and the FreeCAD community so you can focus on teaching design principles.
To any students reading this, it’s also up to you to take responsibility for your own education. Be wary of any educator that requires a particular tool rather than teaching you the principles of use that can be generalized. You don’t need permission to explore alternative tools.
The FreeCAD Project Association is interested in broadening the use of FreeCAD in education. They’ve set up a brief survey to gather feedback and start building a network of interested people. They’d love to hear from folks in academia but also non-traditional educators making YouTube content or paid courses.