Published: July 1, 2013

John CrimaldiThe use of online course-management platforms and interactive learning environments is gaining traction at many Universities, but the use of these systems is certainly far from the norm. In this document, I discuss possible barriers to successful implementation of these systems for technical courses in engineering and science disciplines.

1) Enhance learning through peer-to-peer learning and communication

An effective learning environment will facilitate peer-to-peer communications between students. Students can ask, answer, and discuss questions related to lecture, readings, concepts, and problems. The use of a social-media type interface for this purpose is advantageous in the sense that most students are already familiar and comfortable with it. In addition to asking and answering questions, students can provide feedback about the quality of previous answers, resulting in a dynamic environment. The environment can have the additional advantage of encouraging students to work in a collaborative mode.

2) Facilitate student-faculty communication outside of lecture

An effective learning environment will also enhance the instructor’s capabilities to respond to student questions in an interactive manner. This can supplement the interactions that take place in traditional office hours.

To achieve these two objectives for a technical course, however, requires attention to the special languages that are used for communicating in technical environments.


1) Words (the spoken or written text language)

For many students, this is the most natural way of communicating, and it can be effective in many situations. However, it can be extremely limiting for many types of technical descriptions, which is why it is only one of three “languages” that we use.

2) Pictures (the language of illustration)

The mantra “a picture is worth a thousand words” is especially true in technical fields. Pictures can show the geometric configuration of a physical object, easily conveying spatial relationships. Graphs and other technical plots are special types of pictures that can (when properly prepared) serve to effectively demonstrate the relationship between a range of variables in a problem.

3) Equations (the language of mathematics)

Many complex ideas and relationships in technical fields are best described in the language of mathematics. This is a rich language, with well-understood conventions and nomenclature that transcends individual disciplines.

I teach my students that almost all forms of technical communication can be enhanced by the synergistic use of more than one of these “languages”, and that many situations call for the use of all three. 

Each of the aforementioned objectives for adopting an online learning environment involve strategies for enhancing communicationHowever, technical communication involves multiple “languages”, including words, pictures, and equations. The words part is easy: all online systems (e.g. email, web pages, social media) are developed with a text requirement as a fundamental feature. For many types of communication, the use of words alone is satisfactory. But for technical disciplines, effective communication often requires the use of pictures and equations in addition to words, and this is where many online systems fall short. An ideal platform will not only support the transmission of image and equation data, but it will support their native creation. Users should be able to make a quick sketch using a built-in feature of the application, and they should be able to quickly type an equation using standardized conventions. And then a user should be able to quickly annotate a picture or equation sent by another user.

With regards to implementing a solution for incorporating equations into online content:

There have been many piecemeal approaches to typesetting equations in word processors, html, and the like; most approaches are unsatisfactory. The one method for typesetting equations that has begun to approach a standard is LaTeX. LaTeX is a document markup language for the TeX typsetting program. Equations are typeset using a text-based series of commands. There is a relatively small learning curve, but the quality of the output is superb (see Fig. 2, prepared with LaTeX).

LaTeX commands can be incorporated into an online learning environment. Any text that is typed between a special set of markers (typically dollar signs, e.g., $a+b=c$) is interpreted by the system as a LaTeX command and displayed as a typeset equation. I am aware of one online learning environment called Piazza that has taken this approach. I plan to test this environment in the next academic year with a large (120 student) undergraduate class in fluid mechanics.

The goal of the test will be to see if the environment can accomplish the stated objectives (enhance student-to-student communications and faculty-to-student communications, both in interactive settings), while permitting users to communicate in all three of the standard “languages” (words, picture, and equations) used in technical communications