Category Archives: learning

MathML vs LaTeX

So I was trying out some stuff in Sakai, pretending to write an assessment (quiz, to the uninitiated) with complicated equations. I ran into a few problems like you can’t do fractions, there is no square root symbol, no multiplication symbol, etc. Perhaps I will write a full review once I figure out if these limitations are real, or if I’m just missing something.

Anyway, I remember seeing complicated equations on Wikipedia, so I decided to investigate how they do it. It looks like the equations on there were generated by LaTeX, but they are just ugly png files with a lot of jaggies. I was thinking it would have been cool if they had used SVG. But, they had some info on possible future direction, which led me to the MathML entry, which is supposedly going to be implemented in next gen web browsers.

One of the more annoying aspects of what you can do with Sakai (and Microsoft’s Equation Editor I might add) is that you have to do tons of highlighting and clicking to format things. Like, if I want a chemical equation like HC2H3O2, it requires highlighting 3 things and clicking 3 buttons. That back and forth of the mouse gets quite frustrating. In LaTeX, things are much simpler. You would just write:


and you would be done. MathML, on the other hand, is a terribly verbose XML format (check out the quadratic equation example in the Wikipedia entry), so it’s not much better than the point and click method. I realize that LaTeX is a little intimidating to write by hand, and a program could easily generate either LaTeX or MathML, but I have yet to see a program that is as efficient at building equations as hand-coding LaTeX markup is. With that in mind, I think allowing a subset of LaTeX is probably the best way to allow people to enter equations. There is some interesting work out there, like this JavaScript library. It would be cool to see something like that integrated into one of Sakai’s rich text editors.

Online Learning Systems and Search

Back when I was a CS undergrad, Blackboard was not very popular yet (at least among the nerdy CS faculty).  Most classes had a class web site involving a tilde, the professor’s username and some quick and dirty HTML.  They were generally extremely simple, concise, and easy to navigate.  Additionally, they were open to the public either out of intention or lack of effort to secure them.  As a result, one could visit the ASU web site and search for a class like CSE 340 and find a collection of class web sites with syllabi, assignments, etc.  This was really useful for getting a feel for a class and/or professor’s style before actually registering for it.  You could read the syllabus and see what material would be covered, whether group work would be involved, how it would be graded, etc.  It was all very nice.

Now, everyone uses Blackboard and all of the course resources are on lockdown (perhaps for the reverse reasons as they were previously public).  You pretty much can’t find anything useful if you search for a class number on the ASU web site, based on my quick testing.  I suppose this is a good thing, because many professors consider such materials part of the intellectual property and don’t want them to be freely available, but I think quite a few wouldn’t mind if prospective enrollees were able to read through the course materials.  Perhaps an opencourseware system is the answer.