- Posted by Joseph on March 15, 2021
learnlatex.org: A place to learn LaTeX online
This is a guest blog post by Joseph Wright, creator of the learnlatex.org site. Joseph is also author of the Some TeX Developments blog, member of the LaTeX Project and active contributor on TeX StackExchange.
LaTeX is a great system for producing technical documents, but as it is not a word processor, there is an entry barrier. In many ways, learning LaTeX is like learning a 'real' programming language: we have input ('code') and run ('compile') to get output. It's not surprising, therefore, that we might look at how people learn those 'real' programming languages and want to provide similar tools. A quick search will show that while books remain important resources, interactive web-based training is the first contact many users have with a whole range of programming tools. The learnlatex.org project was born out of the desire to provide the same easy-to-access approach for LaTeX beginners.
Good starting points
Before we worry about the technical detail of providing online lessons, there is a much more important question: what should be in those lessons. Luckily, the people behind learnlatex.org already had some experience in that: in particular, Nicola Talbot had already developed a collection of excellent LaTeX resources.
Building on these, we started constructing a curriculum. The aim is to get users started with LaTeX, not to tell them everything. There's a tricky balance, and so learnlatex.org splits out the lessons into a core set of 16 ideas plus a parallel set of 'going further' pages.
The central idea is to get people started with one of the most common LaTeX tasks: writing an academic document such as an article or report. So the topics start with simple LaTeX structure, cover things like including images and move on to long documents and bibliographies. We do cover math mode, but don't go into a lot of detail: yes, math mode is a core LaTeX strength, but for many users, mathematics is just scary.
We don't expect to cover everything in one go, so we finish with perhaps the most important lesson: where to look next and get more help!
Keeping it current
There are lots of LaTeX resources online, but over time things change and a lot of those web pages don't get updated. The team behind learnlatex.org include several active members of The LaTeX Project, which means there is real expertise in how LaTeX works best today. The site is also hosted on an open system: GitHub Pages. That lets anyone log an issue or suggest an improvement. So the site will stay current, and we can expect users to get the best possible advice on reliable and readable LaTeX documents.
Using LaTeX online
Existing users of Overleaf will need no introduction to the idea of using a full LaTeX system in the browser. That's great for lots of reasons, but for beginners the biggest advantage is they can try LaTeX out without having to install anything.
On learnlatex.org we currently offer a couple of ways of using the examples online. We've set them up so you can open in Overleaf (thanks to Overleaf for extending the API to enable this). We also provide a lightweight set up where examples run directly in the web page. This method means there's no need to leave the site, or to log in anywhere. Of course, it means that you can't save your changes, but when trying out ideas that is perhaps not a bad thing!
None of that ties anyone to the site, of course. The examples are plain text and can be copied and pasted into an editor. We tell people how to set up their system with a LaTeX installation, we just don't expect that everyone will. So users can learn online, then take which route they prefer and apply the skills they've picked up.
Speaking your language
When you are learning something new, it's nice to have instructions in your own language, even if you speak another one. For LaTeX, like a lot of technical systems, there is a lot of information in English. On learnlatex.org, we currently have seven different languages available: the core team do write the lessons first in English, but translations have been created into for example Spanish and Marathi.
There's also language-specific stuff you need to think about when you are using LaTeX: different languages come with different typographic traditions. So each translation has it's own dedicated pages to highlight what you might need to know about specific to the language you are writing (and reading!) in.
On learnlatex.org, we have set up a site that is up-to-date both in it's content and web design, and provides multiple ways to try LaTeX out. There's a structured approach to the lessons, with more detail for those who need it. It's ready to use now in seven languages, with more translations underway. We hope it will soon be one of the places that new LaTeX users look to get started.