For the last 10+ years I’ve taught topology using a modified Moore method, also known as inquiry-based learning (IBL). The students are given the skeleton of a textbook; then they must prove all the theorems and solve all of the problems. They are forbidden from looking at outside sources. The class types up their work as they go. At the end of the semester they have a textbook that they wrote. It is a great way to learn, and at the end of the semester the student are thrilled to hold a bound copy of the textbook that they created.
When I did this first (as a student) it was a Word file shared on a floppy disk. When I started teaching the class this way it was a Word file emailed between participants. Later I rewrote the textbook as a LaTeX file. I’ve experimented with various means of collaboration. Most recently I used a shared DropBox folder to house the file. This way all of the students could collaborate on the ever-growing document.
This approach worked pretty well, but there are a few downsides. The document occasionally got forked. This happened when two or more students edited the document at the same time. It would take a while to merge the content back together. Also, a student must have LaTeX installed on his or her computer or must be willing to work on one of the computers in our building.
This spring I’m considering trying an online LaTeX environment. (And, in fact, I’m also going to try using this IBL approach in my Discrete Math class—our “intro to proof” course). I wanted a robust, easy-to-use online solution that would house the LaTeX files and any extra files (images, etc.), would allow the students to compile the document online, would allow us (me) to download the files at any time, would allow collaboration by up to 16 people (with 0-3 people editing at any one time), and would allow access to previous versions (in case someone deletes the entire document, for example).
After a little investigating I found these great sites. So I thought I’d share them with you.
- ShareLaTeX (which, from what I can tell, has merged with the popular ScribTeX)
Most of them have free and pay versions. It is likely I’ll have to pay for an account so that I can be the “owner” of the file (the textbook), then the students can get free accounts and I can add them as collaborators.
Not all of these sites fulfill my complete wish list—especially the version history requirement—but it looks like they’re all being actively developed and that new features (version history, DropBox integration, etc.) are right around the corner. I’m thrilled that the technology has come so far. I haven’t decided which one I’m going to use. If you have any thoughts/preferences, post them in the comments. Likewise, if I’m missing any sites, suggest them in the comments too.
If I could add some items to my wish list it would be:
- Point-and-click menus containing the common LaTeX symbols. This isn’t a key feature for me, but the students would love it. (In the meantime I’ll have to point my students to my quick guide for LaTeX and Detexify.)
- Table and array editors in which you enter the contents of a table in a grid (like this), then the editor would insert the code into the document
- A BibTeX interface to help create a .bib file. At a minimum something like this, but even better, something that would tie in to databases such as Google Scholar, MathSciNet, Zentralblatt, and JSTOR and scrape the bibliographic content for you.