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I teach physics at a community college, often to biology majors who are not math or computer geeks. For certain assignments, I require them to type up materials that include math. A typical application is writing half a page of notes on a textbook chapter. In the past, I suggested that they use OpenOffice for this, and I wrote up some instructions for them on how to use its equation editor. This is awkward, however, when they want to print their work on campus, since most of the campus computer labs don't have OpenOffice. OO's equation editor is also rather clumsy IMO.

Is there a better way to do this?

I am looking for a solution that is cross-platform and has zero cost (and preferably one that is open source). My students do not already know LaTeX, so there has to be some kind of GUI.

LyX has most of the same pros and cons as OO. I would really prefer a Web-2.0 zero-install solution rather than a standalone application.

Google Docs has pretty decent math support now, and most of the math features are fairly easy to use, although I was baffled by how to produce exponents using the GUI. It's not LaTeX, but it does have a lot of LaTeX symbols built in as keyboard shortcuts (and typing x^2 was the only way I could find to get $x^2$). Unless I hear about something better, this is the solution I'm leaning toward. Printing is extremely awkward. When you do File:Print from Google Docs' interface within the browser, you get a PDF file which contains the equations rendered as lousy-looking bitmaps. I dislike the fact that it's not open-source.

I like the way MathJax works in SE, for me, in Firefox. Is there any system analogous to Google Docs that uses MathJax? The main reasons I'm not leaning toward such a solution are that: (a) my students need a GUI; and (b) for a student walking into a campus computer lab and using IE on Windows, I believe there would be a significant performance hit while the fonts were downloaded. On my linux box at home, printing sort of works, but not well -- equations are rendered in a font that is the wrong size, and they overlap the surrounding text.

Solutions based on ASCIIMath will produce hassles for students using IE on Windows, since they'll either need to download the MathType plugin or switch to Firefox -- and they can't necessarily do either of these things in a campus computer lab.

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Is the GUI really, really necessary? How about a wiki with a Markdown+LaTeXy-type-maths syntax, rendering to proper XHTML+MathML (so it prints well as well)? – Loop Space Aug 20 '11 at 20:48
@Andrew Stacey: Yes, a GUI is absolutely necessary. – Ben Crowell Aug 20 '11 at 20:59
I've never ever used a GUI to enter mathematical formulae and I can only imagine it would be extremely painful! So I have nothing to offer you, I'm afraid. If they could actually type the formulae then a wiki might work for you, but if they have to have drop-down menus and so forth, then I've no idea what to suggest. Sorry. – Loop Space Aug 20 '11 at 21:14
(Out of curiosity, I just fired up OpenOffice and had a go with their maths ... I don't think I'll be leaving TeX just yet. I'll be interested to see what answers you'll get.) – Loop Space Aug 20 '11 at 21:24
I'm getting mixed messages here: a GUI is a must because students don't know enough LaTeX, but you like the way MathJAX works on stackexchange (which involves knowing LaTeX)... – Seamus Aug 21 '11 at 20:16

Assuming your students know enough TeX to write the math stuff themselves (I mean without a GUI for writing equations, otherwise check codecogs which might help for previsualization), ScribTEX could be an option.

  • Pros: free of charge up to 3 projects, version control, on-line compilation (the resulting PDF is automatically downloaded)
  • Cons: needs to have a working connexion

(Note that I didn't test its performance beyond the sample demonstration file.)

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Thanks for the answer. However, it is not true that they know enough TeX to write the math without a GUI. I will also edit my question to say that I'm interested in zero-cost (and preferably open-source) solutions. I don't really see any reason to prefer ScribTEX over Google Docs, and since it's not free, it seems like a non-starter. Codecogs looks interesting, but when I tried it, the performance was unacceptable (took several minutes to print), and it also only seems designed for writing individual equations, not page-long documents. – Ben Crowell Aug 20 '11 at 20:53
May I suggest mathurl.com then. I'm afraid I don't know any online editor that would facilitate the edition of long TeX expressions. – chl Aug 20 '11 at 20:57
I don't mean page-long equations, I mean page-long documents containing equations. – Ben Crowell Aug 20 '11 at 21:02

This site attempts to be like Google Docs, but with LaTeX. I haven't personally used it much, just because I don't have much reason to, but I've heard good things. It's not WYSIWYG, but it does have lots of helper GUI functions, somewhat similar to TeXNicCenter. (They could even do the editing at home with LyX, export to LaTeX, then use that site to make small changes elsewhere, if that's what's convenient.)

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I made a tutorial for the tutoring center at my university that touches on this topic.

Believe it or not, the equation editor in Microsoft Word is actually quite powerful: (1) It can be accessed quickly with some hotkey like alt-=. (2) It can convert LaTeX-like commands--including ones for complex structures such as matrices--into visible mathematics in real-time. (3) It can be configured quickly (about 5 min.) to support numbered equations and cross-references.

This might be the most student-liked, accessible solution in your case!

However, I actually feel that Libre (Open) Office Math syntax and support is much simpler and more easily accessible to the beginner. Points (1), (3) apply for it, too. It's a shame that the software isn't more readily available, but I hear that it will soon be available online.

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I don't think that's a nice solution, as Microsoft Office is quite expensive, and (at least I) don't get it for free from my University by MSDNAA. – Juri Robl Sep 8 '12 at 16:50

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