Learning provides an insight into the world around us and helps to define lives, careers, and beyond. When it comes down to CAD learning, however, most people limit its potential to commands, clicks, and picks. This article explores how learning across multiple Autodesk tools is becoming a true catalyst for life-long career success. Learning is explored from three angles: first by enabling digital tools that are easy and fun to learn. What if learning CAD was as fun as playing a video game? Second is the use of credentials and learning pathways that provide new directions for the roles that ever-changing industries demand now and into the future. How can we anticipate the direction that they hope for their designs, so that we help them succeed? Third is understanding learning’s value to enable industry best practices and market success. How can we put an actual number to the impact that learning provides across education, industry, and society?

The Learning Constant

Two of life’s certainties, which are key for human growth, are that people never stop learning and that change is inevitable. Humans start learning even before they are born as they try to make sense of their environment, first to survive and then to thrive. This process continues throughout their entire lifespan as situations continuously change and the need for adaptation becomes consistent and imminent.

Learning transcends the structure of traditional education. In the professional world, companies are beginning to understand the impact that learning has in helping employees become better at what they do for integrating technologies that make work more efficient and resilient, which ultimately has a positive impact in the marketplace. Companies also can learn from financial trends, technology innovations, and customer behaviors in order to be more competitive. Organizations have also realized that learning about themselves and their unique needs and capabilities is a key factor for market differentiation. This continuous learning process is fundamental and exciting, moving from simply gathering knowledge to developing tools that promote self-discovery, reflection, and growth at multiple scales.

Learning shouldn’t be an afterthought; it should be a key driver of how products are imagined, developed, and used.

In today’s world, three factors are dramatically changing the way that we learn and apply new skills in traditional education, in the workplace, and in society: the degree of enjoyment that learning can provide, the pathways that we follow to acquire new skills and knowledge, and the market value that learning provides. Let’s take a closer look.

Enjoyable Learning

Computer-aided design (CAD) is designed for using it. While this might sound like an obvious statement, it is a key reason for understanding a significant gap between how we learn and how we use productivity tools. Learning and using are two very different processes, and while they benefit from each other, they have different frameworks and goals. To assume that people will learn by simply doing is dangerous. It can create a learning curve so aggressive that it discourages people from even trying to adopt new tools. When products are designed just for using them, people tend to struggle with understanding how they work, and perhaps most importantly, they don’t see their value in practical situations.

A common practice to address learning curve is to develop materials such as tutorials, guides, and case studies, all packaged as “learning tools.” These materials are similar to putting a band aid on a wound rather than actively helping to heal it or exploring how to prevent future injuries from happening in the first place. Learning shouldn’t be an afterthought; it should be a key driver of how products are imagined, developed, and used.

Think of the last time that you truly enjoyed doing something. Maybe it was playing a musical instrument, practicing an exciting sport, or beating hard levels in a video game. What these activities have in common is that they lead to flow: a sense of being fully immersed in an activity that generates joy, satisfaction, and purpose. Developing activities that elicit a sense of flow might be one of the most effective ways to promote effective learning.

The concept of flow has been explored in great detail by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who explains that in order to achieve it, there are three basic principles that need to occur simultaneously: having clear goals, receiving immediate feedback, and finding balance between the challenges we face and our skills to solve them. These three factors are excellent pillars to define how tools should behave. The most interesting thing about flow is that it produces continuous learning, as people in this state are always challenged to improve their skills and performance at an achievable rate. This effectiveness addresses the way that an activity is assimilated and executed while also providing a positive experience, making it more likely that the activity will be performed again.

When thinking of CAD, Tinkercad is a good example of a tool that promotes flow (Figure 1). Its simple interface and workflow are based on natural human gestures and promote direct interaction between the user and the geometry that is being created.

Tinkercad and Fusion 360
Figure 1: Side-by-side comparison of an adaptive learning experience in Tinkercad (left) and Fusion 360 (right). The intuitive modeling workflow could evolve into a foundation level for CAD learning in any Autodesk product.

The direct connection between user and model is achieved by removing unnecessary features that might get in the way, and focusing on the tools that are essential to geometry creation. In Tinkercad there are no planes or sketches to worry about so the focus is all on three-dimensional bodies. While this process might feel limited at first, users quickly find novel ways of combining basic shapes that lead to complex models. Also, editing happens by simply pulling and rotating faces and edges, just like you would stretch, compress, or turn objects in real life.

Products with more sophisticated capabilities such as Fusion 360 also have the ability to provide an intuitive experience that generates flow. In its T-Splines environment, named Sculpt, Fusion 360 allows users to manipulate geometry in a direct way (Figure 2), as explored in the AU class, Organic Shapes the Easy Way: Direct Modeling in Fusion 360.

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Figure 2: Tango Lamp by Alex Lobos and David Villarreal. This lamp was designed in Fusion 360, taking advantage of direct-modeling features in order to achieve a form that is fluid and dynamic.

The ability to manipulate geometry directly and see how it changes in real time creates a strong connection and a sense of control that are invaluable. This connection also allows users to use a more intuitive approach to modeling, where they can immediately react to subtle changes in the model, often leading to unexpected design solutions. This workflow is not limited to the T-Spline environment, as it is also possible when using a few key features in the Fusion 360 parametric mode. This process is a departure from traditional workflows that require long sequences of mouse clicks and picks, involving selecting a plane, sketching a two-dimensional shape and applying a feature to create a three-dimensional body.

Paths to Learning

The ability to demonstrate technical knowledge and applied skills is key for career growth. When companies look for new talent, they need to find professionals that will perform key jobs using the latest tools and technology. A good way to measure these capabilities is via professional certifications and credentials, which are common criteria used by employers to find potential employees. Certifications allow for measuring software proficiency in a way that is widely accepted in industry. They also serve as a good incentive for individuals to engage in continuous training.

New productivity tools are being introduced in industry all the time, putting more pressure on students and professionals to continuously expand and refine their skill sets. Recent studies on job readiness make it evident that there is a growing skills gap between skills required for key jobs and candidates that possess them. To this gap issue, we can add that certifications based on software proficiency alone do not demonstrate the ability to perform complex jobs. It is like assuming that someone is a good basketball player just because they are good at throwing a ball through a hoop. Software knowledge is only one of many components that drive career success.

Leaders in the software industry are taking note and reimagining professional certifications, moving from a general assessment on single products to role-based models that capture specific workflows and applications, many times combining software with discipline principles and transformative skills such as collaboration and project management. Microsoft recently unveiled an updated certification system that identifies key roles in IT, such as security engineer, solutions architect, and functional consultant.

Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost explained at Autodesk University 2019 how role-based credentials go beyond proficiency in certain software, to understand processes that “require several different products.” At this level, a certification demonstrates achieving a successful “outcome rather than the user’s ability to complete a set of commands.” Under this model, we could look at successfully assessing key roles such as machining, mechanical engineering, or generative design (Figure 3).

Autodesk has launched its own single destination ecosystem for end-to-end learning and certification, with role-aligned pathways that correspond to the current and future skills required in industry. Users can access a self-paced, online, modular learning experience for future-skilling and credentialing, to help them anticipate what’s next in their career. These are just a few examples of new kinds of roles that require additional levels of specialization and expertise.

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Figure 3: Generative design is a good example of a skill set that is highly specific, yet can be widely applied in design, engineering, architecture, and manufacturing.

The Value of Learning

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of learning and its impact in individuals, industries, and society. Learning promotes growth and prosperity at multiple levels. While this importance is evident as a principle, we need to turn its intrinsic value into specific benefits. This transition is possible by defining a set of goals that can be measured and improved upon. Looking at professional learning as specific goals and benefits that can be measured will make it a key component of any institution and organization’s master plan. While humans learn constantly throughout their whole lives, many times this process is unplanned and accidental. It can be hard to know if someone is learning the right things at the right pace, and if the learning is providing the right benefits. Learning goals make it easier to measure progress and direction of how individuals and organizations are transforming knowledge into useful assets that help them to grow and thrive.

The Future Is in Lifelong Learning

As we move forward, learning is becoming more integrated and multilayered. Static knowledge in isolated areas is being replaced by active learning that is process-based and goal-oriented. People are seeing learning as a way to stay technically current, to adapt in complex jobs and projects, and to continuously grow as valuable professionals, particularly during times of profound change. For example, as a result of COVID-19, Autodesk Design Academy traffic surged in March and April 2019 as people were looking for new ways to learn and to stay professionally competitive. Learning is a lifelong journey that is no longer limited to a traditional degree obtained after a few years of intense education. Now knowledge is everywhere, and the way that it’s accessed and applied changes continuously. Professional learning is now an exciting process that can happen at any time, in many formats, providing an open-ended set of opportunities for growth and prosperity.

Alex Lobos focuses on design, technology, and emotional attachment as means to elevate quality of life. He is professor and graduate director of Industrial Design at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and a Research Fellow Emeritus at Autodesk. Alex and his students have collaborated with Autodesk, AT&T, General Electric, Makerbot, Staples, Stryker, Unilever, and others in projects covering topics such as learning futures, generative design, digital fabrication, sustainable behaviors, and everyday living. Alex grew up in Guatemala and moved to the United States as a Fulbright scholar. He holds an MFA from the University of Notre Dame and a BID from Universidad Rafael Landivar.


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