On the Typesetting of Equations

Don’t get me wrong: there are options to put equations on a computer. Most computers have at least Equation Editor if not MathType. Scholarly papers in mathematics often use LaTeX and it’s also possible to blog LaTeX equations using WordPress. I have used these before (my Pre-Calculus students are currently working on blog posts with LaTeX equations) and they are fine in their own context.

However, I consider these typesetting solutions. What I mean is most closely analogous to the difference between a word processor and a desktop publisher. In a word processor the text can be played with, experimented with, refurbished and remodeled in a manner easier than even pencil and paper. The layout of the text, however, is secondary. With a desktop publisher the placement of text is key, or at least a distraction to a student still trying to figure out their sentences need verbs.

In the course of a normal math class, parts of equations need to be crossed out, circled, arrowed, underlined, and spaced out. When I laid out my solution to a general conic, I couldn’t use just an equation editor; I had to manipulate the parts in an image editor.

To put it another way, it’s difficult to think the equations directly to the computer screen; sometimes I have to work things out on paper first and then translate them visually. That’s hardly conducive to a live collaboration. It’s certainly still possible, but the pragmatic teacher has to ask if the loss of fluidity is worth the gain of remote interaction.

(Before you post about your brilliant online class and how everything is done on computer, keep in mind I am simply trying to explain where objections are coming from. I’m hoping it’s clear at least why the hurdle for mathematics is different than for language-based curriculum. Now, if you’ve seen these problems and have found neat ways for getting around them, post away.)

There are ways with technology to translate writing directly to digital form; on a SMART Board or a digital writing device. Some teachers will upload their SMART Board presentation to the Internet immediately after class, including any writing that happened. If anyone has done a particular lesson with these tools, feel free to share your ideas.

The ideal would be for the word processing equivalent of an equation editor. I’m not sure how that’d work; somehow it have to include the crossing out, circling, arrows and so forth we have students do in an entirely natural manner. There wouldn’t just be the ability just to write equations line by line as in a textbook, but to drop a single row and move a variable by using the inverse without any worry of typesetting. Take a look at my general conics example again; if that sort of layout could be done easily, with just natural typing, mathematics teachers would flock to your door.

Jason Dyer, Guest Blogger

13 Responses to “On the Typesetting of Equations”

  1. Okay, here’s my post (http://tcmtechnologyblog.blogspot.com/2008/02/typeset-math-easily-on-computer.html) Easy Math Typsetting.

    And here’s an example (http://tcmtechnologyblog.blogspot.com/2008/01/students-starring-in-calculus-videos.html) of going from handwriting in the classroom direct-to-digital. These are students recording the examples during class on my Tablet PC using a headset.

    After class I produce the videos and post them to the Internet.

  2. Jason, your statement that “Mathematics professionals use LaTeX…” is misleading. It’s an absolute statement that, taken at face value, would lead one to believe that it’s a rare exception when a mathematics professional would use anything *but* LaTeX. Much better would be to say “Many mathematics professionals use LaTeX…”, which is a true statement. It’s equally true that many mathematics professionals use MathType.

  3. And there are even some of us who use both! LaTeX is useful for web-based media, but in all layout situations, MathType is far superior in ease of use.

  4. I think my choice of phrasing was unfortunate on the TeX bit, I’ll reword when I have time.

    Nice on the voiceover! I also love what you’ve done with the Tablet PC.

    Now, “put it into Powerpoint so you can add graphics” (which is more or less what I do) just isn’t the same sort of ease as typing it. It’s a post-understanding sort of assignment. It *is* a neat assignment idea, but I’m trying to reach for is the same sort of ease-of-collaberation one can get by having a class make Twitter Haiku.

  5. I think that I need to show you my message boards in WebAssign so you can see just how easy it is for the students to collaborate online using programs like Jing. But… I can’t share those online because of privacy issues. Let me see if I can blur out the names of students in a recording and put something up later this week.

  6. Jason, I have written before about the value of the Tablet PC in allowing equality of access regardless of the subject matter (http://ghugs.edublogs.org/2008/01/25/whats-the-point-of-a-tablet-pc/).
    When I introduced Tablets into my previous school, the maths teachers were so excited. They had always been keen on using technology, but had been locked out by some of the issues that you have raised.
    One of its major selling points is surely a return to normality in terms of handwriting input. And everyone was so pleased to be able to use the “red pen” once again.
    Now that Tablets are relatively much cheaper than a few years ago, and being so “made for the classroom” they’ll hopefully displace the conventional machines very soon.

  7. Is there any practical comparison info: MathType vs. MathMagic.

    MathMagic (especially Mac version for now) looks better than MathType in terms of equation quality and ease of use.
    And they are promising MathML support (import & export) within a few months.
    It is growing fast.

  8. I upload most of my Smart Board lessons to slideshare.net and my class website within a few days of giving them. I don’t usually save what we write though because I give the same “lecture” to two classes. Quite a few of my sixth graders take notes then print out the presentations for their notes as well.

    I just wish that the Smart Notebook software was able to upload to SlideShare. I have to export them as .pdf’s and sometimes they don’t look very good.

  9. I tend to agree with Jason. I think the tablet PC’s work pretty well but even on the MathType screencast, it was hard to follow because figures just kind of appeared and disappeared. It really helps to see things move and get crossed out. I teach basic algebra and I used to try to use an equation editor to screencast solving for a single variable. Eventually I took to animating the whole thing in Flash and it worked out a lot better because the students could actually see things as they developed. It was a lot different for students seeing a variable move to the other side of the equals sign rather than suddenly appear on that side. But Flash takes forever and I can only use it for a tutorial rather than on specific problems.

  10. Graham, I particularly like this quote:

    If 1:1 computing is to become ubiquitous and invisible and seamless, then students must be capable of doing what students have always done. Not contrived activities, not simulations done by whiz-bang software. No, the students themselves must be able to do anything, anywhere, anytime, anyhow.

    The only thing I’d add to that is computers ought to be able to not just allow students to do what they’ve always done (if just that, why use computers?) but enhance those same things.

    I want to thank everyone for posting comments! I was originally worried nobody would be interested.

  11. Not exactly what you’re looking for, but you might want to check this out:


    It’s intended mostly as a tool for students working on homework, and it’s geared specifically toward algebra-based physics. But it’s quick and easy to enter equations (by keyboard) and manipulate them (by drag-and-drop).

  12. Dave, thanks for the pointer, I hadn’t heard of that software before. What’s interesting about it is the philosophy of aiming to make it *easier* to do the work by computer, rather than being just a pencil and paper substitute.


  1. Typeset Math Easily on a Computer - July 23, 2012

    […] prove that you can typeset math pretty easily on a computer, I took Jason’s problem and recorded my own version using MathType and a voice over. As the instructor, this would be the […]

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