Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Edit (Math) or Bust - Sprint Nov. 16 - 19 (Part 1)

Thanks to the Shuttleworth Foundation, where I had a fellowship from 2011 to 2014, OpenStax (my current employer), and all of the participants (listed below), I was able to host a sprint at the OpenStax offices Nov. 16th - 19th to investigate easier ways to edit and convert mathematics within open textbooks, as well as to make it easier to adapt and customize OpenStax college textbooks.

Participants sitting in a u-shape with laptops, and large screen showing demo.
Some of the participants at the sprint during demos.


Two themes emerged at the sprint around common pain points. Encouragingly, we (the developers among us) were able to create prototypes that start to address those pain points.  

Different math formats result in tedious re-work. First, we realized that a substantial number of education institutions and one major OER partner have been using Pressbooks with the BCcampus textbook extension to adapt the OpenStax textbooks. However, because Pressbooks and OpenStax use different math formats, if the textbooks have mathematics in them, after import, the math has to be hand recreated which is very time consuming.

We need a simple visual math editor, with a LaTeX-editing fallback for complex cases: Secondly, although there are many individual math editing tools, there is not a simple, easy to use math editor (that will also support advanced features) for the web that can be plugged into different tools, and that can produce the right math output for the plugged in environment.

Here is what we did during the sprint

  • Because participants had experience with a wide variety of editing tools and math conversion tools, we spent the first part of the sprint demoing a wide variety of tools and processes to create and adapt textbooks that have mathematics within them.
  • Then we generated an extensive list of "pain points" within these processes.
  • Next we generated a set of users stories from the points of view of three different users: faculty adapting and customizing textbooks, students answering homework problems for scientific and mathematical subjects, and professional teams copy editing and maintaining open textbooks.
  • From those we generated an extensive list of ideas of things that we could realistically do together at the sprint and tied those to the user stories they could serve.
  • Two technical themes emerged and the developers divided into
    • Team A that would concentrate on getting textbooks from one of three editing environments represented at the sprint (OpenStaxCNX, Pressbooks, Manuscripts), and especially solving the problem of getting OpenStax math format converted to Pressbooks math format.
    • Team B worked on an editor widget for writing equations visually or using LaTeX and then getting them back into a document as MathML, LaTeX, or an image.
  • Both teams were composing existing tools, not writing things from scratch, which is one of the fantastic results of opensource software. More details to come.
  • Each day we did demos and retrospectives from the sprint.
The next blog post will have more information about the prototypes that were created with links to demonstrations and source.


  • OpenStax ( - Kathi Fletcher, Phil Schatz (, Ross Reedstrom, Dante Soares, Ryan Stickney. The OpenStax team is interested in improving math editing for their internal textbook production and interested in making customization of the textbooks less cumbersome for organizations adapting the textbooks. Two of those organizations are here at the sprint.
  • OERPUB ( - Marvin Reimer is an experienced developer who worked with Kathi during her Shuttleworth Foundation (SF) fellowship ( and works with and Marvin wrote a google docs, latex, etc converter that also publishes to OpenStaxCNX.
  • Katalyst Education (  Christopher Sweeney, Tomasz Stach, Wojciech Ludwin, Krzysztof MÄ™drzycki, Iris Gau, Michael Moran. Katalyst Education has been working with OpenStax on Internationalizing the OpenStax user interface (OpenStaxCNX) and will also be publishing free college textbooks in Polish. They are helping with OpenStax’s efforts to create online versions of the textbooks that have the same numbering and collation as the PDF versions of the books, and they are committed to developing an easy tool for authors and editors who wish to adapt OpenStax textbooks.
  • BCcampus - Lauri Aesoph and Brad Payne (remote). BCcampus has been managing the B.C. Open Textbook Project since this project was announced by British Columbia Ministry of Advanced Education in 2012. Brad Payne, Senior Technical Analyst, developed the Pressbooks Textbook plugin for Pressbooks and provides technical support for and continuing development of this and the B.C. Open Textbook Project. Lauri Aesoph, Manager of Open Education, manages the ongoing effort to import all OpenStax textbooks into Pressbooks to allow easier adaptation of these books by faculty in B.C. and elsewhere.
  • Matias Piipari of - developer of the scholarly authoring tool Manuscripts, which includes MathJax based math rendering, an equation editor, and ability to convert between math formats on importing and exporting documents.
  • Omar Al-Ithawi - Software Engineer at  Edraak, an Arabic MOOC platform based in Jordan. Omar recently released a MathJax extension for Arabic and RTL.

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