Viewing maths online

Tim Lowe Being able to teach and learn maths, science, engineering and even social science over the internet has been hampered by the difficulty of inputting and displaying mathematical notation. Things are set to improve though due to enhancements in our latest release of Moodle at the OU, demonstrated at a meeting today by Tim Lowe who’s been leading the OU VLE project in this area.

Here’s a screenshot of maths as it’s been represented up till now:

maths displayed as an image

The equation is a simple image. This has all sorts of limitations, particularly regarding accessibility. The second screenshot at first glance is very similar but the maths content here is in the MathML format so it works more like text than an image (though I’m rendering it here as an image so don’t get too excited…)

maths displayed as MathML

Anyway, using MathML means:

  1. If the user changes the font size on their browser, the maths changes too (unlike with images where the maths stays the same size)
  2. Users with visual impairments or colour preferences can now change the colours of the text and background, including the maths content
  3. Maths content can be copied and pasted into programs which “understand” the maths such as MathCAD or Word 2007
  4. Screen readers understand MathML so can read it out for you if you’re visually impaired.

The user needs a simple plug-in for Internet Explorer to be able to view the content. If they don’t have that plug-in an image will be created on the fly by Moodle from the MathML. Very clever.

At the moment Firefox only displays MathML in a page written in XHMTL so the next stage is to get Moodle to produce XHMTL – and then Firefox users will be happy too. Another big issue remaining is how we create the MathML content in the first place which currently requires a degree of geekery not found among many of our mathematicians. Overall though this is a significant step along the road to the online teaching and learning of subjects with mathematical content.

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