Mathematical Input Device Comparison


This post is mostly for the benefit of math and physics tutors who are considering delivering their services online. Last week I blogged about a recent 2-hour session with Michael Steele, during which we systematically compared three whiteboard-sharing services to assess their suitability for online delivery of mathematics tuition.

Today my focus is on the biggest obstacle to teaching mathematics online — how to legibly draw mathematical symbols on an internet-shared whiteboard. One day in August I spent several hours investigating this topic by drawing a set of symbols using several different input devices and taking a screen capture of each outcome. The thumbnails below are links to the resulting images. Please click on them for a much more detailed look.

The worst input device of the group was the trackpad built into my MacBook Pro. It was so hopeless at the task that I did not even bother drawing any letters or digits.inputDevTrackpad

The two online whiteboards that I have used with students are Scribblar and RealtimeBoard. Neither works with an iPad, presumably because of a need for Adobe® Flash® but I have included that result anyway, just for completeness.

The cheapest plausible input device is a simple external mouse.

The Wacom Inkling pen can be a fun and convenient device for getting sketches and handwritten notes into a computer. For this test I used its live mode that enables realtime input. Although it obviously produced more readable text than the mouse, the raggedness of the strokes is irritating. The Inkling is a fine device but my intended use is not what the manufacturer was targeting when they invented it.inputDevInkling

The device I currently keep in stock for lending to students is the Wacom Intuos Creative Pen Small (CTL480). I chose it after testing with the more expensive Wacom Intuos Creative Pen and Touch Small (CTH480). The latter device is the one shown at the top of this page and is the one used for this test. The two products look almost identical and have identical input resolutions.

The final device I included in the comparison was my Wacom Intuos Pro Pen and Touch Medium (PTH651), originally purchased for artistic use, that I personally use when working with my online students. Having a larger active area, it does enable smaller symbols to be drawn smoothly but the considerably higher price makes it impractical for me to lend one to each student. I should emphasize that mine is the medium-size Intuos Pro because, when doing the test, I wrote the word “Large” on the screen simply to distinguish the image from the one produced with the smaller Wacom tablet.inputDevMedWacom

Most of my online students use Apple MacBook laptops. The Wacom tablets have worked flawlessly after the simple installation of a driver from the company’s website. However, my first online student, who had an old Windows PC and her own Wacom tablet, had the annoyance of a dark gray circle showing up on her screen wherever she was drawing anything. This is a well known problem and this YouTube video shows how to solve it for Scribblar, which has built up a loyal following among tutors. My guess is that the fix works just as well for other online services.

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