Competing with pen & paper

In tonight’s linear algebra class, I made the mistake of leaving my paper notebook home. Ok, I thought, I’ll just use Amaya and see how that goes.

Not so well, it turns out.

Twenty minutes of lecture equals a frantic “where is that thing?”, and nothing learned…

  • The template for a MathML subscript is in a different panel from the template for a MathML summation (“sigma”), and you have to switch between panels constantly.
  • If you want two subscripts (and in linear algebra, two subscripts for an element is common), you get a modal dialog.  (Really? How many subscripts does an element need?)
  • Where’s the special “M” symbol for matrix spaces? (I’d post it, but WordPress eats everything after that U+1D544 character!)  We can get the real number set with ℝ..
  • The UI for Amaya is hard-coded, so I can’t change it at all.
  • Amaya’s copy & paste support is terrible.
  • It takes about 2 seconds to write [Ai]1j with pen & paper. In Amaya that takes somewhere around ten seconds, plus the dialog I mentioned earlier.
  • Oh, and the instructor’s going on, keeping a pace for students using pen & paper… there’s no chance of me keeping up with him.

After twenty minutes of trying to quickly jot down what he’s saying, without comprehension, I end up with some symbolic gobbledygook that’s probably about 80% of a match to what the instructor is actually saying.  But what I was able to write down was complete nonsense.

I ended up switching to scratch paper and pen, where I was not only able to keep up, but ask some insightful questions.

(Incidentally, I glanced at LibreOffice tonight as well.  I saw immediately that I’d have fundamentally the same problems:  unfamiliar UI and lots of context switching.  Too much to really listen to what the instructor’s saying.)

How does a computer compete with pen & paper?

Later tonight, I realized, if it only takes five quick, essentially subconscious penstrokes to draw Ai, and a fair bit of training to teach someone the equivalent keystrokes in an editor… then maybe a keyboard and mouse are the wrong tools to give a student.  Maybe something closer to pen & paper is best for quickly jotting down something, and then translating it to markup later… which sounds like character recognition.

Hmm, isn’t that something digital tablets and styluses are somewhat good at?  Maybe not perfect, but easier for a human to work with than a memorized set of keystrokes.

Now, I am starting to understand why computer manufacturers (and Firefox OS developers) are putting so much effort into supporting touchscreens:  because they’re useful for taking notes, at least.  Once again, I’ve somewhat missed the boat.

How does this impact my editor project?

The good news is this is way too complicated for me to even attempt in my proof-of-concept editor that I’m trying to build.  (The proof of concept is about making each XML language an add-on to the core editor.)

The bad news is if I ever want students to regularly use computers in a mathematics classroom (which is the raison d’être I even started working with computers as a child), I’m going to need to support tablet computers and styluses.  That’s a whole can of worms I’m not even remotely prepared to look at.  This raises the bar extremely high.  I’m writing this blog post mainly for myself as a future reference, but it means I’ve just discovered a Very Hard Problem is really a Much, Much Harder Problem than I ever imagined.

3 thoughts on “Competing with pen & paper”

  1. To some extent, I found OpenOffice’s formula editor similar back when I decided to use a laptop in my final year of high school, but I’m a quick learner, so I quickly preferred it because it freed me from the cramp-like pain that I get from writing by hand for long periods of time.

    (As a lefty, I can’t rest my hand on the page without smearing the ink and I also have this deeply-ingrained habit where I grip the pencil/pen too hard)

  2. Hello,

    as Math student, I’m asking you, whether you’ve given LaTeX a shot?
    Especially the newer flavours like XeLaTeX or LuaLaTeX may be worth looking at (native UTF-8 support).
    You can define macros, which handle the layout while you’re typing. For example, just declare that M shall be a matrix like \Matrix{M}_{i,j} and care for the presentation later on. The typesetting is way better than what MicroSoft Word or LibreOffice have to offer!

    I’ve not digged into Lua yet, but in case LuaLaTeX is written entirely in Lua, emscripten might be your friend 🙂

    Concerning tablet, I’d glance over Samsung Galaxy tablets. A fellow student of mine has a super cool one, where she can write notes freehandly.

  3. In practice, people giving math talks don’t use MathML, they use TeX, which has close to natural notation, e.g. \sum for sums (sigma), A_i for subscripts, etc.

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