Creating equations in online environments

I am currently working on a project, where I am creating web based resources (using Moodle) to teach maths. As part of this process, I need to create properly laid out formulas (or formulae if you prefer the alternate acceptable plural of formula). We are using what is becoming a widely accepted standard of MathJax which in turn supports the use of something called LaTex to create the desired formulas. So for example if I wanted to create something that looked like:

y = 3x^{2}+5x+\frac{2}{3}

I would enter this into the editor using the code:

$$y = 3x^{2}+5x+\frac{2}{3}$$


\[y = 3x^{2}+5x+\frac{2}{3}\]

At first I started to learn the exact syntax and would translate what I wanted into either of the codes above. This proved to be both time consuming and prone to mistakes. Then I discovered an excellent website that helps me do this:

This website gives me a box into which I construct the equation that I want – above the box is a huge suite of grey buttons which each represent a different mathematical function or options. These take a bit of time to learn, but quite quickly one gets the hang of this, and using the buttons and adding the numbers / letters that you require you can quite quickly create the desired formula that you want. Underneath the white box, your formula is displayed as it will appear, so it is possible to see what you are doing, and check that this is correct.

Once you are happy with what you have created, at the bottom of the screen (in a cream coloured box) is the option to choose the export style that you want – so if you need LaTex, you choose that, if embedding into WordPress, you choose WordPress etc. You then copy the code beneath this, and paste into the editor of whatever you are using.

One of the facilities within the editor, is to create correctly aligned equations:

Image of an inline equation

Which in LaTex is created with the code:

\[\begin{align*} x+3 &= 7\\ x &= 7-3\\ x &= 4 \end{align*}\]

This is very hard to manually write out, but quite easy using the codecogs website. The button for this, is the bottom right button on toolbar (letters n and r in brackets) – then under that is a button that has “y=…” as the text, and when you hover over it, it tells you that it is the align tool.

For anyone who is using mathematical formulas regularly this is a really neat tool.


Using Excel and Office 365 to create learning activities

In my previous posts I have:

  1. Introduced the idea of Office 365 and how it can be used to create collaborative activities.
  2. Given an example of how PowerPoint can be used to create a collaborative activity.

In this post I am going to look at using Excel to create a collaborative learning activity.

Many people struggle (some are scared of it) with Excel which is a shame as it can be a superbly powerful learning tool – and it can be used in any teaching area not just maths, accountancy etc. There are many possible uses that I could list here, but I will stick with a couple of simple examples.

If I was teaching research methods or statistics, and wanted to investigate the idea of 2 sets of data and what the correlation is between them, then a simple way to do this is for each student to work out their height (m) and their shoe size (European) record these in a table, then everyone plots a scatter graph of everyones results – and we look at the line of best fit, standard deviation etc. Yes the constructing of a graph on paper with a ruler is an important skill to learn, but on this occasion I want to focus on the way that the correlation changes as more points are recorded, and for that I want to speed up the plotting process, so I am going to use Excel to help me.

Image of an excel sheet with a data entry table on the left, and the resultant grpah on the right

Example of an excel sheet teaching the principle of data correlation

So I have created  a simple spreadsheet which has a data entry table – I have identified each student with the letters A-K, and I have colour coded the area they need to enter their data into with a green shading. I have unlocked these cells and then protected the whole sheet, so when the learners add their data, they cannot accidentally alter or delete any of the workings. On the right you will notice that I have pre-created a graph that will plot the data as it is added, and then underneath the table I have created some simple statistical functions to identify mean, mode, median etc of the data as it is entered.

So having created the above sheet, all I need to do is save it to my OneDrive (new name for SkyDrive) – share it with my learners (see previous post), and then allocate each learner a letter between A-K. They edit the sheet in the web browser, entering the 2 pieces of information against their letter. All of the students will be editing the same resource at the same time, so they will see the graph and the numbers change in real time as the amount of data added grows. The beauty of this is that by speeding up the capturing and plotting process, I can spend more time helping the students to understand the significance of what the graph and the numbers mean, and I could reuse the same template to add my own dummy data to show the effect of anomalies, different types of correlation etc.

Any form of class experiment which involves the capturing and sharing of class data can be achieved with this method. If the data entry is more complex than my example, then you could create a sheet within the workbook for one student, then duplicate this lots of times so each student has their own sheet.

Another useful feature is that it is possible to embed sections of the file (e.g. the results table, or the final chart) back into a piece of web space (e.g. the VLE, or a blog) – so below is an example of the final chart – as the file is used and data is entered this will automatically update.

With the above example all students could see (and potentially alter) all other student’s entries into the resource. This may not be desirable – e.g. if you are capturing sensitive data (e.g. if working out Body Mass Index and asking students for their Weight and Height) or you could ask students to feedback what they have learnt, what they have found difficult, what they would like to recover in a revision session etc.

What you could do is create a single Excel file asking for the data that you want. Once happy with this, you duplicate that file however many times you have students. You then share each file with the individual student. This may sound complex but is a lot easier and quicker than you would imagine. You now have a mechanism for students to give individual feedback to you – you as the teacher can see all of the files, so easy for you to see the information – and if you are really keen, then you could create an ‘overview file’ which uses simple excel formula to pull the data from each students file into a single dashboard type file. This last suggestion doesn’t update the data live as it is entered, but everytime that the file is opened it will pull through the latest data at that point.

If we are using Excel to create learning objects then it is beneficial to make the appearance of the file as tidy and uncluttered as possible – which I have discussed in a previous blog post –

In my next post in this series I will give an example of using Word to create a collaborative activity.