Episode 3: Prof Satish Annigeri

Prof Satish Annigeri is currently the Registrar (Evaluation) at the Visvesvaraya Technological Univeristy (VTU), Belgaum. He has taught Civil Engineering at BVB College of Engineering (now KLE Technological University), Hubli for more than 25 years. Prof Satish has been one of the earliest users and supporters of Free Software usage in education and for IT infrastructure implementation. He is also an avid endurance cyclist and has completed 100+ km rides multiple times.

In this episode, we learn from Prof Satish about why Free Software matters in education and how teachers and students can imbibe the values of the free software movement into their learning.


Sir, this is going to be a conversation about software freedom, and how it impacts our life, and my attempt to understand your take on software freedom, and your awareness. So to start with, how would you like to define what you do as a person?

I’m an educator. I teach engineering students. I believe that the ability to do things is very important, and free software is one way students can do and build things. And from this perspective, free and open source software and the freedom movement is very important.

So how you get started? How did free software became a part of your life?

I didn’t know what free software was when I started working with software. Being a civil engineer, I started with the numerical computations. The first experience with free software was when I started using Linux. I remember it was Red Hat 5. I believe it was Red Hat 5. It was the first time I realized that you could do things the way you want with free software even though at that point of time I didn’t know what free software was.

For me the prime thing was the ability to do things. I remember the first experience where me along with my PhD adviser, we built a small network for the civil engineering department at the University of Roorkee. We were able to give Internet access when the industry didn’t have Internet access and that
too on a dialup modem. This ability to do things I think is what made me understand the power. It was only later that I understood about licenses, and the freedom, and [Richard] Stallman and other things.

But as I believe it gives the chance for somebody to do things which possibly you could not have done otherwise.

And why do you think having this chance is important?

Human endeavour, I think, requires solving problems: academic, societal, whatever, and in today’s world, many solutions involve using software whether it is simulations or building devices. It is impossible to solve problems nowadays without using software in one or the other way. And therefore, having the ability to choose and build things with free software is important because it gives you the freedom which possibly non-free software would never give.

And so why do you think this is not a very common place understanding? Why is it that not every person in education, every student or every teacher doesn’t desire the same element of freedom or the same level of freedom?

Okay. I really can’t — I have not cracked this problem yet. I myself have worked with many of my colleagues, and faculty from other colleges trying to get this movement going for quite some time, but okay, the understanding and the realization amongst educators today is much better, but it, I mean, I fail to understand why everybody doesn’t simply pick it up. Is it the curriculum that is responsible? Is it the lack of awareness? It’s very difficult to say, but I see the scene changing. I can — people do not really understand the true meaning of freedom. They do not appreciate the different types of licenses, but I begin to see what value free software has in building things, and that is changing.
But still understanding the true essence, I still don’t see it. And I frankly, I don’t know the reason. I fail to understand why it would not be pervasive. I don’t know. I can’t explain.

Yeah. So, have you been able to translate this technological freedom into other aspects of the life or has it played any — what sort of role has it played in other areas?

None of it directly, but my appreciation of what the free software community has changed the way I look at things. For somebody to give complete access to something that they have created without the slightest hesitation, I think not many people really appreciate. Many of us use free and open source software, but perhaps I’m not aware what motivated those developers. This has really helped me, and that is one reason why I make all effort to advocate and use free software in my teaching or research. I take every opportunity to spread the use of free and open source software. I think that is one way it has affected.

So tell us something about your most challenging experiments in trying to apply the concepts of software freedom in your academic life? What was your experience in these experiments?

I have tried several times to get thinking of the faculty or the board of studies changed where okay, simple replacement of tools. Let’s not talk about free software and the freedom movement, nothing. Just let us simply try to replace an existing proprietary tool with something that is you can say a free
and open source software. That is when I saw that many people believe that something that is free cannot be of quality. Everybody raises questions about its ability to meet the expectations, or documentation, or support when, in fact, they use the minimal features of the proprietary software that they are actually using. So this has been a great challenge.

If you are having such a simple task to replace many of the tools with free and open source… many people think that our attempt in doing this is to save money and save cost. I try to tell them that this is a way to get students to play with things. I try to tell them that this is a way student gets an opportunity to test himself against others. Nowadays you have so many open source software challenges and things like that. But the understanding of this even today after trying for quite some years, it’s still very low. I think it is a tough thing. I have not been able to convince people about this.

What are the biggest bottlenecks that you see in free software adoption or usage in the larger level of education, I mean, apart from what you have already outlined about it?

A clear policy from the top regarding the appropriateness of free and open source software and inculcating them into curriculum, getting faculty trained in those, and propagating not just the saving in cost, but also the major benefits that the students would get through the ability to play with things, the ability to create things on their own… this should be done top down. It is very difficult to do this bottom up… individual faculty trying to advocate is important. It is necessary, but if it comes top down, I think it will be much faster, much quicker.

So what advice would you have for enterprising students who doesn’t want to let the college interfere with their education?

I think today students have this great resource – the Internet, and the motivated student I am sure will be able to learn and create things on their own. It is just that they need to be pointed in the right direction. They need to be shown the usefulness of the things that they could do.

While many academic institutions focus exclusively on the examination system, I am sure there are several students who are also interested in doing things outside the exam system, and the number of resources today, the MOOCs, and the tutorials, or the StackExchange or whatever, I think there is a great opportunity. There is today, you know, much easier. It is much easier today to develop an additional ability or skill compared to let us say 10 years ago.

So how does one cultivate this correct learning attitude? And how early can we start building this learning attitude and curiosity?

I think it is great that a student develops through personal experience or a personal motivation. I don’t know if it can be taught en masse. I don’t know if curiosity can be taught. I think the environment in which the student is put is more critical in helping a student to identify a problem for himself. It is, in fact, the moment a problem is set by an outside person, it becomes a task.
When a person sets a task for himself or herself, I think that person is on a self-driven path.

I think many times this happens because a student is motivated by a benchmark. It could be non-academic. I know somebody who would want to become Sachin Tendulkar, for example. Somebody else would like to become Zuckerberg, for example. So what triggers this, I find it very difficult. But a teacher I think has a major role in showing, you can say, higher levels that the student could reach. May not be that all students would aspire to reach that level, but I think some students would.

Recently, in the free software community, we’ve had a lot of discussion about diversity, ethnic diversity, gender diversity so that we can have multiple perspectives to problem solving. What is your view on that in our context here?

I think in the engineering field, the engineering academic field today at least the gender-wise there is some parity, not much of a difference there, especially, in the computer science related branches. But in the others, it is still skewed.

There is no conscious effort by academic institutions to understand the need for diversity. If there is a parity between boys and girls today, it is pure chance. It is not by design. And I don’t know if anybody is thinking of diversity in any other aspect, maybe urban-rural or privileged-unprivileged. I don’t see that as an important consideration in any of the things that we do. And I am equally, you know, guilty! No – I think it is not at all much of a point, and really needs to be consciously studied and developed. Right now – it’s not at all a concern.

So two pieces of advice. One to teachers to deal with free software and one to schools. So what would you like to advice?

For teachers, this is not necessarily related to free and open source software. I believe that a teacher’s responsibility is to create an atmosphere or environment where learning is encouraged. Thinking by oneself should be encouraged. Considering alternative views, alternative solutions should be encouraged. I personally believe that it is impossible to teach anybody anything unless the person wants to learn. Being able to create that environment where teachers are motivated to learn is important.

One way to make students learn on their own is to show the satisfaction of building and creating things, and solving problems – perhaps those which have already been solved, but solving those problems by themselves, trying to understand how things work, and free and open source software has a great
role to play in this. So we should leverage free and open source software in developing this environment where students are told how complex it is even though the final solution may appear to be very simple. So mastering these tools and being able to build things will create that environment.

For the students, you should build things with your own hands, no matter how simple that would be, no matter how primitive that maybe at this point of time, maybe that has been done 1,000 times earlier by others, but the satisfaction of doing things with your own hands is the starting point to learn. You should set your own benchmarks. You should — the students should set their own benchmarks. They should look for new problems on their own. They can always be guided by the teachers but their personal experiences are what will drive them to the next level. So you should leverage free and open source software on this journey.

Any final closing words that you would like to add?

The free and open source community is amazing. People should understand what motivates people to contribute things without expecting let us say returns in monetary returns. The ability to create things which satisfy oneself and satisfy others can be a great joy. Being able to create such a thing, a product, or a service, or whatever — is a great joy, and you should learn from all the people
who contribute to free and open source software — whether small or big. So there is a life lesson to learn I think by studying the motivations and the methods of working either free and open system.

And so where can people find you? How do they contact you?

I am currently Registrar (Evaluation) at Visvesvaraya Technological University in Belgaum, but I am a professor at the KLE Technological University in Hubli. I can always be contacted at my email address: satish.annigeri@gmail.com.

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