12 videos for getting LaTeX into the hands of students

February 4, 2010, 10:14 pm

There seem to be two pieces of technology that all mathematicians and other technical professionals use, regardless of how technophobic they might be: email, and \(\LaTeX\). There are ways to typeset mathematical expressions out there that have a more shallow learning curve, but when it comes to flexibility, extendability, and just the sheer aesthetic quality of the result, \(\LaTeX\) has no rival. Plus, it’s free and runs on every computing platform in existence. It even runs on blogs (as you can see here) and just made its entry into Google Documents in miniature form as Google Docs’ equation editor. \(\LaTeX\) is not going anywhere anytime soon, and in fact it seems to be showing up in more and more places as the typesetting system of choice.

But \(\LaTeX\) gets a bad rap as too complicated for normal people to use. It seems to be something people learn only in graduate school, with few undergraduates — and even fewer high school students — ever seeing it, much less using it. There is a grain of truth there; \(\LaTeX\) is not a WYSIWYG word processor, and the near-programming aspect of using \(\LaTeX\) can overwhelm users used to pointing-and-clicking for everything.

But I think that the benefits of using \(\LaTeX\) outweigh the costs, and undergraduates and high school students can, and ought to, learn how to use \(\LaTeX\) as fluently as they use a word processor for other courses. A couple of years ago, I put together a series of twelve screencasts for use in our sophomore “transition-to-proof” class on learning \(\LaTeX\). I put these screencasts online, but mainly they were only advertised to my students and colleagues. Now, however, I’d like to throw these out there for everyone to use.

All twelve of these are done on a Windows system running MiKTeX and the free \(\LaTeX\) IDE known as TeXNicCenter.  This provides students with as close to a point/click interface to \(\LaTeX\) as you could expect to get. Within that context, there are two basic intro videos:

These two videos are enough to learn how \(\LaTeX\) works and will allow you to make a simple file with uncomplicated math and text in it. The remaining 10 videos follow from these two. Some are prerequisites for the others — and those prereqs are stated explicitly at the beginning of any video that has them — but if you watch them in the following order there will be no dependency problems:

Some of these are pretty long, but all totalled (including the two “basics” videos) this is less than two hours of viewing.

When I’ve used these in class, I give students some printed instructions on how to download and configure MiKTeX and TeXNicCenter, and then I have them watch these videos out of class. They are instructed to work along with the videos. I give them about a week to do so. Within that week, if there’s a problem set or something else in the class that could be done with \(\LaTeX\), I’ll offer extra credit to students to do so, to incentivize their learning the system. After the end of that week, I will insist that all major assignments have to be done in \(\LaTeX\), or else the assignment gets a grade of “0″.

Students have sometimes struggled to get up the learning curve, but if they’re allowed and encouraged to help each other, everyone eventually gets to the point where they are quite fluent writing up homework and so on. Students have even elected to use \(\LaTeX\) on assignments in other courses, even non-math courses.

I’m going to use these videos in linear algebra this semester (our transition-to-proof course is now defunct) and I’ll be making up a new screencast on MATLAB and \(\LaTeX\). Later, probably during the summer, I’ve been thinking about redoing the entire video series; I now have better screencasting tools than I used to have, and I’d like to keep all the videos under 10 minutes so they can go on YouTube.

So feel free to use these (attributing authorship to me is appreciated but not required), and if you have suggestions or comments, please email them or leave them below.

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