Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Physics Higher Education Conference (PHEC) 2010

Some of us will be attending PHEC 10 at the University of Strathclyde on 9th and 10th September. EdPER staff and students will between them be giving five presentations and one workshop. The topics we will cover include encouraging students to think like experts, selecting the students most likely to succeed on a physics degree course, a concept test for quantum mechanics, the disparity between coursework marks and exam grades and developing a problem-solving rubric.

In the workshop session, we will develop ideas and materials for developing the data handling skills of undergraduate physics students. We hope to continue the discussion after the conference using the online peer review application, PeerWise.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Stop thief!

The content on our blog (and lots of others) is currently being "stolen" by a site called What they seem to do is harvest content from other sources, run it through a text mangler and reprint it on their site giving no credit to the original authors. This has an unfortunate side effect of making our posts read very badly. (Some might argue that this is actually an improvement!)

We've asked them to stop but they have ignored us, so we're looking into more interesting ways of resolving this situation...

If you're reading this on, come over to and read our blog in its full glory.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Some slides on conversion of Mathematical Content

Last month I was involved in a very interesting one day workshop on the technical issues related to mathematical content in electronic media, organised by Jonathan Fine, Petr Sojka and myself. During the workshop, I gave a short presentation on converting mathematical content between different formats, focusing in particular on the following aspects:
  • Why do we need to convert digitised mathematics between different formats?
  • What are the most common formats out there? (E.g. LaTeX, MathML in its various guises, ...)
  • LaTeX to MathML conversion examples, demonstrating some interesting challenges (e.g. semantics)
  • Overview of some tools for converting between LaTeX and MathML
  • Conversion techniques and approaches... for geeks!
My slides for this are available to download in PowerPoint (done on Office 2008 for Mac, will look different on other platforms) and PDF form, should you be interested. Feel free to do what you like with them, so long as I get a mention somewhere!

Monday, 21 September 2009

Perspectives on Twittering at Alt-C 2009: A Need to Control Alt Tweet?

As a relative new twitter user (a twoob?), I figured I'd do my own experiment as to how more rewarding (or otherwise) it would be to participate in this year's Twitter commentary at Alt-C.

Twittering at Alt-C has been growing over the past few years and it was clear from the outset that twittering (aka microblogging) would be even more frenzied in 2009 - evident by the number of laptops open and displaying Twitterfall at Michale Wesch's (excellent) Keynote. Following the conference hashtag (#altc2009 among others) it is easy to spend lots of time reading lots of posts from others nearby...and herein lies the main problem - rather than being a valuable adjunct to the conference, this ends up causing distraction to a brain that is already working overtime trying to take in (or interact with) speakers and their talks. Some more thoughts in slightly more than 140 characters...

The good: To be fair there are some good tweets - some helpfully linking to other information or points mentioned in talks; and re-tweets sometimes point out important or useful tweets you may have missed too - which is sometimes useful when you ARE paying attention to the speaker (for a change).

The bad: Too much traffic...A large number of tweets seem to be talking about presence: "At Person A's talk on blogging, room full and I'm very excited" - or reiterating what the presenter is saying: "Person A has some interesting insight into blogging" - the latter perhaps useful to people not present in the room, but it is still 'traffic' that needs to be read. No wonder - contribution is hard - you want to say something but you have to be fast AND useful or insightful - tricky while overwhelmed with information.

The ugly: And then here comes the spam... #altc2009 reaching the 'Top Trend' tags is a sign of popularity - a bit of an achievement - but then the twitter spam arrives - lo and behold you are suddenly a 'winner' every other tweet. Sadly there are no advanced 'twitter' filters like there are in email. Sigh.

Additionally and ironically, this distraction issue brought insight into one of the recurrent 'debates' this year which was about to what extent we should allow technology to be present in the classroom or lecture theatre. If this is the kind of thing students are doing during lectures (twitter, MMS, Instant messaging) it is no wonder lectures are deemed 'less useful' - no one is paying attention! Is there a need to control this sort of distraction (for the students and for the lecturer) by banning devices or access to certain tools/websites (if this is even possible with today's ever-more-powerful mobile technology)? It certainly isn't clear cut - and would-be distractees need to be given some guidance at least.

I didn't quite appreciate the detrimental effect of this experiment until at the end of the first day I realised I'd learnt almost nothing in the talks I'd attended - maybe this was inexperience - who knows. For twoobs at least, microblogging and twitter-community involvement is a serious distraction in a place where you are actually supposed to be learning something. I think I'll stick with the pen and paper next time.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

LaTeX and ASCIIMathML to Content MathML and Maxima syntax

One of the slightly experimental new features included in SnuggleTeX 1.1.0 is the ability to attempt to convert a limited but hopefully useful subset of math mode LaTeX into "more semantic" formats, such as Content MathML and Maxima input syntax. (This release of SnuggleTeX also includes some equally experimental support for trying to do the same thing with the raw output produced by ASCIIMathML.)

The context of this work was the JISC MathAssess project, where we looked at the feasibility of allowing students of "foundation level" mathematics to input mathematics into computer-aided assessment software using "lax" input syntaxes such as LaTeX or ASCIIMathML. This idea was considered as a possible alternative to using Excel-like formats, or requiring students to learn the syntax for Computer Algebra Systems such as Maxima, Maple or Mathematica.

In general, this "up-conversion" approach - going from "low semantics" such as LaTeX to "higher semantics" such as Content MathML - is not possible. Why not? Well, you don't actually have to look far to see why! Consider the mathematical symbol e. In some contexts, this might represent the exponential number 2.718... but it might also represent the identity element in a group, or some physical quantity. So context is clearly important! Another very trivial example is to compare the written mathematical expressions f(x+2) and a(x+2). To someone who has studied any mathematics, the first of these will probably make them think of the function f applied at x+2, whereas the latter will probably be considered as the product of a and x+2. So, again, the underlying context is vitally important but can sometimes be inferred by following and assuming certain conventions. (This is however complicated by the fact that mathematical notations are localised, so notations common in the UK are not necessarily common anywhere else!)

The approach we take is to look at only a very restricted subset of symbols and constructs, using conventions that are considered common, sensible and familiar in the UK which, in fact, covers a pretty reasonable spectrum of the mathematical contexts that we're aiming at. From this base, it is possible to convert the simple, display-oriented Presentation MathML we expect to get from SnuggleTeX and ASCIIMathML into a more semantic Presentation MathML representation that renders the same way, before converting this to Content MathML and then finally into other formats such as Maxima.

More details on the mechanics of this process can be found in the SnuggleTeX documentation under Semantic Up-Conversion. Techy folks interested in the actual implementation might want to know that it's all done using XSLT 2.0, which is well suited to these types of conversions and is an absolute joy to use. You're welcome to rip off our XSLT and perhaps use it as a basis for similar processes, if useful. It's all in the "full" ZIP distribution of SnuggleTeX. Feel free to ask if you want more information...

SnuggleTeX 1.1.0 Released

We are pleased to announce the release of SnuggleTeX 1.1.0, which is now available to download, read about and mess around with online.

So what's new in this release? Well the most significant new feature is (some still somewhat experimental) support for "up-converting" certain LaTeX math inputs to more semantic formats than the default Presentation MathML 2.0 outputs, such as Content MathML 2.0 and Maxima input syntax. This release also includes support for doing the same thing to the raw Presentation MathML generated by ASCIIMathML. This work was undertaken as part of my involvement with the JISC MathAssess project but is something that other people might find useful in other settings. I talk about this a bit more in a later Blog posting...

As well as this, there have been a number of other enhancements, including a new Maven-based modular project structure, better distribution bundles (a "basic" ZIP if you just want the core functionality, "full" if you want everything), extra utilities and helpers, a simple way of generating web pages, better documentation and various other bug fixes. I've also added some new demos for you to play around with - try this "Simple Math Input Demo" to get you started! For full details of what's new, check out the Release Notes.

Friday, 20 March 2009

ASCIIMath Plugin for Confluence

An ASCIIMath plugin initially developed for the University of Edinburgh's Confluence wiki has been made available on the official Confluence website - with the help of Andy Brook at Dolby.

This plugin allows input and display of mathematics on a Confluence wiki page and builds on original work done by Peter Jipsen and image-fallback extensions by David Lippman. Once installed, mathematics can be added inline using the {math} wiki markup - with mathematics being expressed using a calculator-like syntax or LaTeX syntax - for example, {math}x^2 +y_1 +z_12^34{math} produces .

Additional features of the plugin allow labels for equations and block-display to allow the maths to be displayed on its own, so {math:display=block| label=1.2} d/dx f(x) = lim_(h->0) (f(x+h)-f(x))/h{math} looks like (click to expand):

The plugin uses MathML where it is available in the browser you are using - e.g Firefox 1.5+, IE 6+ with MathPlayer and degrades to using images with less-capable browsers like Opera, Safari and IE without MathPlayer.

The plugin can be found at the Confluence Plugin Library. This release works with Confluence 2.8+, though an alternative version (with a simple manual install step) is also available for older Confluence versions.