Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Open-access Publication and open-source texts.

Bill Trench pointed out this web site (Digital Commons Network) committed to organizing open-access publications and this sub site dedicated to mathematics. 

If you are not familiar with it, the open-access movement is a recent development that is a response to the barrier presented by commercial publishers (particularly commercial journals) to easy access to scholarly work.  You can read more about this movement at the Open Access Pledge site (I haven't made the pledge yet, but I'm busy right now typing this post.) 

While the focus here is on scholarly research papers and assuring that they reach the public in a timely fashion, until Bill pointed it out, it didn't occur to me that open-source texts would be candidates for open-access archives.  Bill's recently open-sourced texts can be found on the Digital Commons site.  If your open-source text is not there, I encourage you to get it placed there.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Open Courseware SIGMAA Interest Survey

I thought I'd elevate this comment from the previous post (by Bud Boman) to a posting of its own:
OK, well I can't say I'm too surprised there hasn't been much response to this post.  This late in the year everyone is busy of course. 
But I expect a larger reason is that while there might be interest in joining a SIGMAA if it is in place, there is less enthusiasm for volunteering to start one. A couple of people have told me privately that they'd join but have no interest in creating a new SIGMAA, or in serving as an officer if one is created. 
So let's do this: As a way of measuring the interest without asking anyone to commit I have created a one-question survey on SurveyMonkey. You can find it here.
Everyone reading this please open the survey and click on the appropriate choice. It will literally take 5 seconds. In a week or so I will read the results and report back on this thread. It looks like there is sufficient interest we can discuss how to proceed from there. If not then I'll drop it. 
--Bud Boman

Thursday, April 17, 2014

On Forming an MAA Special Interest Group on Open Coursware

Last January in Baltimore, the question of how best to organize the open textbook community for our mutual benefit was raised. I suggested forming a special interest group through the Mathematics Association of America (MAA). At the time this was just an off-the-cuff remark. Since then I have discussed the idea with a couple of people and I believe there is sufficient potential in the idea to at least address how that might be done and to ask for comments.

I have looked into the mechanics of forming what I will, for the moment, call the Open CourseWare SIGMAA (OCWSIG). If there is interest in taking this further we can discuss what the name should actually be.

The Application Procedure

To apply to form a new SIGMAA is very easy. The precise details can be found at, but in a nutshell they are as follows. We would need:
  1. A charter. The MAA provides a model charter at, and the charters of existing SIGMAAs are also available for review. The charter would detail ". . . the common mathematical interest shared by the group of MAA members that founded the SIGMAA and also describe the goals, objectives, and activities of the organization."

  2. A list of "charter members." Basically, this is a list of MAA members who would be the founding members of OCWSIG.

  3. A list of initial officers for the OCWSIG. That is, people who have expressed a willingness to commit to a first term as one of the officers.
If we were to go forward, the first step is to contact the MAAs Committee on SIGMAAs to indicate our "intent, discuss the procedure, and address any preliminary questions." Once we have all three of the above items we would apply to that committee which would then "formally submit applications to the MAA Executive Committee for consideration and final approval."

Is a SIGMAA the right structure for us?

I think there is definite potential here. One possible objection is that to be a full member you must be a member of the MAA and I don't know how many of us are. This is mitigated a bit by the provision for unofficial members of the SIGMAA, who needn't be members of the MAA.

However, it is not entirely clear to me that the SIGMAA structure under the auspices of the MAA is necessarily the right venue. There might already be a better mechanism for organizing a community with common interests within the AMS, SIAM, AIM or possibly other organizations. I've let my membership in all three lapse so I don't know. I know that AIM is a bit ahead of the curve on this since they have already begun organizing reviews of openly published textbooks. Could someone else, more knowledgeable than me, comment on the possibility of organizing the open courseware community under the auspices of one or more of these?

Also, it might just be too early to be thinking of any kind of formal organization. I invite discussion.

My Comments and Opinion

Everything that follows is predicated on the assumption that an MAA SIGMAA is the right structure under which to organize ourselves. If that is not true there is no need to read further.

I believe many of us would be willing to be part of an existing open courseware organization, but I'm not so sure that very many would be interested in taking on the task of starting one up from nothing. This is a pretty large undertaking, not to be taken on lightly. The officer structure of a SIGMAA would consist -- at a minimum, I think -- of a Chair, a Director of Programs, and a Secretary/Treasurer. So just to get started we would need at least 3 people willing to fill those offices. Since this is my idea I feel compelled to volunteer to serve either as the initial Chair or Director of Programs, even though I don't feel particularly well qualified for either position and would be happy to step back in favor of anyone more qualified. (I won't serve as Secretary/Treasurer because putting me in charge of keeping records is a very bad idea.)

There are at least three questions that need to be addressed: (1) What would OCWSIG do for us?, (2) What would the MAA require of the OCWSIG? (3) Is it worth the effort?

The easiest question to answer is (2): OCWSIG would be required to hold regular meetings, report our activities and expenses to the MAA, hold elections for officers and conduct the activities we define for ourselves in our charter.

The first question is harder to answer, but a few things come to mind immediately. We would have funding for programs and activates. These would come primarily from dues (most SIGMAAs charge $10 per year, per member), but also we could apply for additional funding through the MAA, and we would have a platform from which to apply for other grant funding. Membership in the OCWSIG would also qualify as a credible professional service activity with our respective local administrations, something we don't get now.

More tenuously, the organization would exist to serve the needs and desires of this community, so we could conceivably organize the repository Jim Hefferon and others have discussed on other threads in this blog. In Baltimore someone mentioned that by publishing without a commercial publisher we lose some of the valuable services that commercial publishers provide, like editing and promotion. The OCWSIG might be able to fill that gap, at least in part. I confess this is only an idea and that I have no specific plan for how this might be accomplished. I mention it only as a possibility for further discussion at the appropriate time.

Finally, I can not answer the third question: Is it worth the effort? That will have to be answered by all of us as a community. Again, I invite discussion.
Any comments including but not limited to criticisms, suggestions, or even ridicule, are welcome. (Well ok, ridicule would not be welcome. But if this is an entirely ridiculous idea I hope someone can find a polite way to tell me, so I can stop wasting my time on it.)

Eugene Boman
Penn State, Harrisburg campus

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Linking Between Books

In the mathbook-xml-support Google group, Duane Nykamp, Rob Beezer, and I had an interesting exchange which touches on the themes of some previous OpenMathBook blogs. The main issues are described below.

References across books

Problem 1: Author A has previously written Document A, and Author B is in the midst of writing Document B. Author B wants to refer to an equation in Document A.

Since Author A supports our vision of open textbooks, the source of the latest version of Document A is publicly available, as is a human-readable manifestation of the work. Furthermore, Document A has an "identifier" associated to it, which allows people to refer to it unambiguously. Suppose that identifier is:
beezerXfcla .

Also suppose the equation of interest in Document A has label
eqn:FE_real_case .

The solution

All Author B needs to do is to put this in the LaTeX source of Document B:
That is it.  Everything else is technical issues.

Supplementary material for a book

Problem 2: Someone has developed an applet which is relevant to Section 3.2 of Document A. The online version of Document A would like to include a link to the applet, provided that the applet has been judged to be of high quality.

The solution

If there were an authoritative source, X, of good applets, then the author could just indicate (in the source or metadata of their book) that "I trust X." Then their book will automatically contain links in the appropriate locations to the appropriate resources.

There are technical issues of course, but no more than the solution to Problem 1. But without a central resource of documents and metadata, none of this can happen.

Some questions:

  1. Will Jim Hefferon's suggestion of an Archive for Open Math support a database of metadata for open texts (at a minimum providing identifiers for documents)?
  2. Will the Archive contain both source and human-readable versions of documents? Or will it just point to the "official" versions?
  3. Will the Archive, or some other source, provide a means of labeling supplementary material as "approved"?
  4. How will approved supplementary material indicate which documents it supports?

David Farmer
American Institute of Mathematics

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Blog activity notification.

David Farmer asked me to investigate ways of alerting regular readers of this blog to new posts and new comments on existing posts.

One solution is RSS feeds (though still somewhat passive).  I added a "Subscribe to" widget to the main page (upper right-ish) that allows people to subscribe to RSS feeds for new posts and new comments.  All of the popular web browsers support RSS feeds, though in different ways.

I also added a "Follow by email" widget to the main page.  Adding your email address to this will cause you to be notified once a day, by email, of new posts (not new comments).

I'd be interested in ideas from people on alternative solutions to the notification problem.  Tools that integrate with the blogger/blogspot platform would be best, but I suppose I'm open to moving the blog to an entirely different blogging platform if it's warranted.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Can a wiki be used to construct an open text?

I teach an (very) introductory linear algebra course, primarily for first-year university students. For such students there has never been a world without Wikipedia, and having many libraries of information in their bedrooms 24/7 is as natural as watching TV. After many years of internet exposure, these students have acquired an ability to navigate and absorb information from varied sources easily. Can these skills be exploited advantageously while teaching an introductory mathematics course?

For the last couple of years I have been slowly building a wiki for this linear algebra course. By design, the wiki looks very much like Wikipedia; the usual navigation, search and toolbox frames are in the same place. It "works" the same way. Along the way I have observed several assets and liabilities to this approach.

Here are some assets:
  1. Cooperation is easy. This is the most obvious one, but one which I haven't really taken advantage of. In fact, since I am the only author, this is really an anti-wiki (that will change).
  2. All browsers include the ability to read wikis, so no special software is needed (however, see below). Any operating system with any modern browser will almost always do the right thing.
  3. No special student instruction is necessary. You don't have to tell them to click on links; they do it automatically. You don't have to tell them how to print pages; they've been doing it for years.
  4. MathJax allows mathematical expressions to be typeset (beautifully) using LaTeX. This includes the extensions from the amsmath package. This means that mathematical symbols are not bitmapped but, rather, have quality matching that of the browser text. It also means that any familiarity with LaTeX can be used immediately with the wiki, and a consistency of mathematical presentation is possible.
  5. The MediaWiki software allows for macros, so that, at least in principle, markup and presentation can be separated. It also allows transclusion (this is where the contents of a defined link is automatically included when the page is opened) so that created material may be recombined in different ways.
  6. The language for MediaWiki, both for creating pages and for running the wiki, is well documented.
  7. Tools are available when necessary for
    1. colour
    2. folding text (extra text that is opened by clicking on a button)
    3. graphics
    4. animations
    5. automatically generated links (table of contents and such)

Here are some liabilities:
  1. Controling presentation with CSS is another layer of abstraction to be mastered.
  2. The syntax for nonmathematical page markup is awkward.
  3. The default editing environment is pretty awful.
  4. Structures like tables, numbered and bulleted lists can be done in various ways (html or mediawiki syntax). All of them are awkward.
  5. Using math within tables causes unexpected results.
  6. A wiki needs a GD (gentil dictateur gentille dictatrice) to ensure consistency and quality.
Here is a sample page that illustrates a different approach for introducing the cross product of two vectors. The animated gif drives the whole presentation.

Incidently, feel free to look at any of the pages on the site and use anything you find useful. Just be warned that many pages are pretty stark and some links just dangle. You can also note that it is possible to click on a 2d or 3d graphic and a hidden PostScript version will pop up showing full detail (the initial graphic is bit mapped). With a newer version of the Adobe Reader, it is possible (in theory, at least) to grab a 3d image and rotate it, scale it and carry out other transformations. If you want to give it a try, look at the figure in

Matt Boelkins has commented in this blog that writing a textbook requires writing "2 pages a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year." That's quite a burden. So here is the question: can this burden be shared by using a wiki? Is this any more feasible for a cooperative approach to the writing of open texts than any other software? Comments are welcome.

Michael Doob
Department of Mathematics
University of Manitoba

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Announcement: A live, on-line discussion of open source math texts.

The MathJax group will host a live, on-line panel discussion on open source math texts with guests Kathi Fletcher (OERpub), David Farmer (AIM), Rob Beezer (University of Puget Sounds), Kent Morrison (Cal Poly), David Lipmman (Pierce College), and Phil Schatz (conneXions).

They will be using the Google+ Hangout OnAir technology.  I wasn't familiar with this so I read a bit about it.  For the uninitiated, let me build up in steps.  If you have a Google account, then you are automatically part of Google+ (Google's social networking attempt to usurp Facebook).  One nice feature of Google+ is free video calling (I use it regularly to chat with my daughters in college).  It's like Skype, but seems to perform better. 

A video call on Google+ is called a "Hangout" and can involve multiple people.  Normally a Hangout is a private conversation between parties that have been invited to the conversation.  A Hangout OnAir is a public version of this.  There are principals that control the discussion, and observers that may ask questions of the principals in some kind of moderated way.

This particular Hangout OnAir will occur April 7, 2014, 12pm PDT / 3pm EDT / 9pm CEST / 7pm UTC.  At the appointed hour, login to your Google account (necessary?) and then direct your web browser to  If you visit this link now, you can express your intent to participate.  I encourage all of you to join this discussion, let's recapture the spirit of Baltimore. ;)