Making learning count

Recently there has been quite a lot of discussion on some of the Blackboard Users’ mailing lists about support for equations on the web. Displaying complex formula on the web is a tricky thing to do as equations may use special fonts, special symbols and require what to a standard text editor are very strange layouts (think of fractions, summation, etc).

Currently Blackboard use a Java Applet (WebEQ) which provides a visual editor with an equation editor button. This equation editor works a bit like the one in Microsoft Word. It allows you to build quite complex equations from scratch, and many users are quite happy with it.

There is, however, a grwing consensus from some staff in science departments (especially Mathematical Sciences, Physics and Engineering) that they’d like something better. As people who work with equations every day, they already have libraries of formulae developed in packages such as LaTeX and would rather paste the equations from these, than rebuild them from scratch each time.  Whilst you can convert LaTeX to MathML and then paste that into the equation editor, you lose the link to the LaTeX formatted source, should you wish to edit the equation again later. Building equations from scratch using MathML is quite a convoluted process, and most people end up using something else to do this for them.

Also there are issues from the student experience. As each equation in Blackboard is rendered on the page using a Java Applet, pages with lots of equations (e.g. a big maths test) can be slow to load, and we have had occasional reports where not every equation has loaded for a given user. That’s far from ideal.

Thus people are now talking about either creating a new content type that can be used to display equations, and/or adding extra mathematical equation functionality to the existing Visual editor in Blackboard. Several different approaches have been suggested. These range from converting the equation to an image or a PDF (quick, but not very accessible) to using some inline javascript to render them in your browser. Some solutions require you to have browser plugins or special fonts installed. There is now an active community of users debating these on the blkbrd-l listserve (BLKBRD-L@ASU.EDU)and I thought I’d summarise the suggestions to date here in case anyone not on this list has used them and wants to share their experiences:

  • There is a dvi to pdf conversion program written by staff at Kettering University in the late 90′s that is part of ost LaTeX distributions dvipdfm – see:
  • Peter Jipsen at Chapman University (a Mathematics lecturer) has developed a system called ASCIIMathML that simplifies entry of mathematics notation on web pages.  It just requires the inclusion of a bit of javascript.  See
  • The ASCIIMathML syntax is a simplified version of LaTeX, but if you want to use real LATEX, Douglas Woodall at Nottingham modified Peter’s code and produced LaTeXMathML see:
  • Jeff Knisely has extended and enhanced Woodall’s code, see:
  • Someone else suggested a javascript library called which can render both MathML and Ajax, see:
  • We even had a suggestion to try using the Google Charts API (which incidentally we use in duo to generate the graphs in the new Postgraduate Annual Review tool). See:
  • Finally, as in the next version of Blackboard (Release 9.1) there is a feature which allows you to add more functions to the built-in visual text editor. Partly to teach myself how this works, I have just written a simple Add Symbol tool which works rather like the tools in a Word processor or the TinyMCE editor, where you see a range of tiles and click on them to add symbols such as Δ or Σ. That will be released when version 9.1 is made public.

I’d really appreciate any feedback/user experience of using any of these tools, or indeed any we’ve missed off.

Update: July 2011

This post about using MathJax in Blackboard looks interesting…


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