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Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Archive for the 'Tyson’s Tyrades' Category

Get in quick: demos and workshops for the new session

Jim R Tyson12 October 2021

As well as our popular training courses in this new session, we are also offering some short demonstration sessions that are geared not towards teaching you to use software apps, but to understand a task associated with learning or research, to know what software is available and how to choose the right app for your work.  These are:

These are all around an hour long with some time for questions.

We are also offering:

DSD: In a Nutshell: Starting an Nvivo Project (10 December)

which will cover starting a new project, essential memoing, importing data documents, basic coding and simple queries.

And finally a longer workshop which will which will introduce Zotero for collecting and organising bibliographical references and pdfs, and also using Zotero extensions to annotate papers and generate reports on your reading:

DSD: Kick-starting your literature review (15 December).

These sessions are very valuable before you start out on a research project and can help you understand not only what software you may end up using, but what support and training you can expect at UCL.

Further information and booking links

If you have never booked a course with use before we recommend you go to full details of how to book and other practical information about our courses.

For staff on payroll and those who have previously booked on MyLearning:
Book via MyLearning

Everyone else:
Book via UCL Learning pages (this includes students and non-payroll staff, unless you’ve previously used MyLearning)

See you there!

RStudio v1.4 – new stuff

Jim R Tyson16 June 2021

I am a massive fan of RStudio.  Not just for R development and data analysis.  I use RStudio a lot in writing learning materials, recently for R, but also for Pyton and Stata using literate programming techniques and the learnr package (yes, you can include Stata code in markdown documents with a little work!)

There are a whole bunch of (no doubt wonderful) things in this Preview release that I haven’t yet bothered to look at, but somethings have got my immediate attention.

The visual markdown editor

I have mixed feelings about this. I know that visual editing – that is, something partway towards WYSIWYG, a la Word – is appreciated by lots of people, but I loathe it. I took up LaTeX a long time ago to get away from Microsoft Word (and, not to boast, I am a very proficient Word user). But, even I found that 90 per cent of the time, LaTeX was too complicated for what I needed. Hoorah for Markdown.

RStudio actually provided my first introduction to Markdown and I revelled in it from the beginning, especially combined with Pandoc: one source many ouputs! At last the world was beginning to understand.  Write in one simple lightweight format and get HTML, PDF, DOCX and other formats automatically.  And of course it put literate programming within easy reach of all R programmers and learners. With the learnr package writing R study materials is a breeze.

But, still some people don’t like plain text editing. Well, the 1.4 Preview shows off the new visual editor. It’s not a complete WYSYWIG offer like Word, but it does show you a live close to end-result preview and has menus to formatting, layout, tables, images, citations. If you really don’t like typing text this may be just what you are looking for to push you that last step into literate data analysis with R and RMarkdown.

Inserting citations with Zotero

Yes, zotero users can now use the source editor to insert citations with point and click – just like Word users. There is no need to first export the references to a BibTeX file first – RStudio handles that for you. Using BibTeX is another thing that people have sometimes mentioned when talking about the difficulty of writing in Rmarkdown.

New Python functionality

And then, oh joy, the new python functionality. I find that very few people are aware that it’s a breeze to combine Python and R code using Rmarkdown documents, although it may take some effort to understand all the set-up requirements for python chunks at first: it took me 15 minutes the first time I tried to run import numpy as np!

Now, this new release adds tools for configuring python, conda and virtual environments. For me the real advance though is somewhat simpler: now you can see python data objects in the RStudio environment pane and view python dataframes in the normal way.


The last of the new features I know I will use is the introduction of ‘rainbow’ parentheses. Nothing to with Pride month apparently, just adding colour coded bracketing to help you balance your parentheses.

Time to give R (and Python) with RStudio another look

If the user interface has put you off moving to R and RStudio, then now is definitely a time to have another look. Especially for Stata users, complexity and ease of use really aren’t a reason to prefer Stata any more and the move to R coding really isn’t that difficult.

Once more: Accessible documents from LaTeX

Jim R Tyson7 March 2021

This is blog outlines some changes to the advice I gave previously on how to produce accessible documents using LaTeX. The changes concern the production of PDFs for use digitally, and conversion from LaTeX to HTML.

ISD general guidance on producing accessible materials on its Accessibility Fundamentals pages still holds.

In that previous blog entry, I included as an aim to ‘get as close as possible to producing ‘tagged PDF’ or PDF/UA documents using LaTeX’. This is not currently doable. I replace it with the aim to ‘get as close as possible to producing reasonable accessible documents using LaTeX’. Given the long standing difficulties meeting accessibility requirements from LaTeX source in PDF the advice must be to produce HTML documents when accessibility is required.

In particular, I do not now recommend using the LaTeX package accessibility.sty to create tagged documents. Development of the package has been halted and the author no longer supports its use. If you are interested in the effort to produce tagged PDF from LaTeX source, then you should read this article from the TeX Usergroup newsletter, Tugboat. The author of the package mentioned in the article himself believes it is not yet ready for use in production. But, he writes, “with the tagpdf package it is already possible for adventurous users with a bit of knowledge in TEX programming to tag quite large documents”. I am not adventurous or knowledgeable enough to rise to that challenge.

With respect to mathematical content, I had previously recommended Pandoc which can convert to HTML with machine readable mathematical content. I have since looked more closely at this issue and I now prefer to use tex4ht which has some useful features, including the ability to include the LaTeX code for mathematical content in a page. It is also the package recommended by TUG. There is good documentation on the TUG website. However, tex4ht does not produce Microsoft Word documents from LaTeX, and so Pandoc is still the best tool if that is required. And Pandoc does still do the job if you don’t need extra features.

In the light of these and other issues, I have made the switch completely to using RMarkdown. This allows me to mix lightweight mark up, LaTeX mathematical code and HTML in one document. Using HTML to insert graphics allows me to include alt text which is not otherwise possible.

There is still to my knowledge no solution for presentations made with Beamer or similar packages. Whereas I previously suggested using the package pdfcomment to annotate images on slides made with LaTeX, I do not now since I have discovered that the comments are not well understood by screenreader software.

The current situation means that we can do very little to support colleagues with accessibility issues in LaTeX workflows and especially with respect to presentations and providing alternative text for images, beyond the advice we have already provided.

Accessible documents from LaTeX

Jim R Tyson22 July 2020

Some advice and information in this blog is superceded by this post.

Note: in this piece, many of the specific LaTeX examples are taken from package vignettes or documentation.  All packages mentioned have CTAN links.

ISD has published good general guidance on producing accessible materials on its Accessibility Fundamentals pages, with links to a host of useful resources.

While it is relatively straightforward to follow the guidelines and meet the standards set for users of Microsoft Office and for web developers, it is still not clear to many of us LaTeX (and I include markdown) users what we should and can (and maybe cannot) do.

I want to make a few points about the what, and then outline a few essential hows.

There are three aims here:

  1. get as close as possible to producing ‘tagged PDF’ or PDF/UA documents using LaTeX;
  2. produce HTML from LaTeX for screenreader software;
  3. produce Microsoft Word from LaTeX for consumers who need to modify a document themselves for accessibility purposes.

These aims are met by using the LaTeX package accessibility and the open source document conversion utility pandoc.

The package accessibility is found on this CTAN page.  To produced structured, tagged PDF include

\usepackage[[tagged, highstructure]]{accessibility}

in the document preamble.

I am not adressing using Beamer here: the same general considerations apply and ordinary LaTeX techniques can be used. Beamer cannot currently be used with the accessibility package mentioned above. To add alternative text to a Beamer presentation you can use the package pdfcomment from this CTAN archive page. At the moment, I can offer no good solution for dealing with existing Beamer presentations, but ISD is looking into what might be doable, including working on the compatibility of the accessibility package and Beamer. I am now using markdown to produce html presentations rather than PDF.

Before I get into specifics, I want to emphasize that where possible, we should try to provide people with documents that they can modify to suit their needs and that therefore in many cases a Microsoft Office or HTML document is more usefully accessible than a PDF. Pandoc makes conversion from LaTeX to HTML very simple and you can use LaTeX mathematics in your documents to be converted to HTML with either MathML or Mathjax options.


LaTeX users producing text documents are probably already covering the need for clearly structured text with headings by using the \section{} family of commands. It is worth considering use of the package hyperref.sty so that you can create clickable cross-references in your documents and a clickable table of contents. Screenreader users will find hyperlinked sections and a clickable table of contents very useful.  Hyperref can also take care of the language metadata of your PDF. Programs that access your PDF should be able to determine the language (or main language) of the document.  One way to do this is to include this hyperref command in the preamble:


Using a sans serif font, like computer modern sans serif will help make your document easier to read. LaTeX users who are typesetting mathematics should note that what research has been published has not – to my knowledge – addressed the issue of font choice for mathematics (or logic, or linguistics, chemistry and so on). Just as important is to use a good size for text. I try to use 12pt body text and 14pt and 16pt headers. The code to change font is as follows and should be in your preamble


You can use the package setspace to change linespacing in a document to 1.5, with the command


Many readers benefit from slightly wider than normal margins.  The default margins for LaTeX documents are already quite generous leading to a line-scan length that is comfortable for most readers.  If you do wish to change the margins, you should use the package geometry from this CTAN archive. There are a number of ways to use geometry.  You can use it with options in your preamble like this:



\usepackage[total={6.5in,8.75in},top=1.2in, left=0.9in, includefoot]{geometry}

Or you can use the command \geometry{} in your preamble like this:

\geometry{a4paper, margin=2in}

Use bold \textbf{} for emphasis and avoid italic. If you wish to modify an existing document that uses \emph{} (which we have conscientiously preferred for decades) you can include the following code

    \@nomath\em \if b\expandafter\@car\f@series\@nil
    \normalfont \else \bfseries \fi}

in the preamble of your document to change the default appearance of emphasis.

You can use the package xcolor available from this TeX archive page and command \pagecolor{Ivory} (for example) to change the background colour of a PDF for electronic use.


Make your hyperlinks clearly distinguishable from text; make them meaningful (don’t use the URL itself or text like ‘click here’; make sure that any colour contrast complies with the guidelines on this WCAG colour contrast guidance page.) If your document is likely to be disseminated in print form, then it is useful to add a short and easily typable URL for print format readers, eg https://tinyurl.com/contrastguidance.

To get a properly presented URL use code like this:

\href{http://www.ucl.ac.uk/isd}{ISD home page.}

To control the colours used with hyperlinks you can include something like the following in your preamble after calling the hyperref package:


Images and tables

The package accessibility mentioned earlier, provides a LaTeX command \alt{} which can be used to add alternative text in any float environment.  Unfortunately \alt{} from package accessibility cannot be used with the Beamer presenation package.

While good captioning for images and tables will enhance accessibility, where necessary alternative text should describe not just what data is in a table for example EU GDP by Country 2010 to 2018 but what its relevance is : EU GDP by Country 2018 to 2020 showing the trend of reduced growth over time. The reader may choose to skip the data table sometimes if the alternative text is clear enough. Also be sure to use \lable{} and \ref{} to enable screenreader software to quickly locate relevant data or images.

If you use images which are essentially decorative, then use \alt{} to let the screenreader software know that.

Mathematical content

LaTeX source code including mathematical content can produce screenreader friendly HTML via pandoc. The best result with most modern browsers (including Edge, Safari, Chrome and Firefox) is achieved using the MathJax option on conversion. The instructions to do this are on the pandoc demo page. In all examples so far tested (and we will test more, and more fully) the mathematical content was read semantically rather than typographically so that a fraction is read “fraction with denominator X and numerator y” (with some minor variation, ie sometimes reading “ratio” rather than “fraction”).


Matthew Towers has written a useful page about accessibility and pdf files, although it has been overtaken by events with respect to useful LaTeX packages.

The TeX User Group (tug) web page on PDF accessibility and PDF standards.

Software for Success

Jim R Tyson3 October 2019

Student research successWhat does it take to succeed in a student research project, or any research project for that matter?

Well, there’s a whole lot of stuff that Digital Skills Development can’t help with, and anyway, you’re all really good at that stuff: the scholarship, the domain knowledge, the research skills.  But, there’s an awful lot that we can offer.

Getting on top of the choices that face you now and planning what tools you will use will allow you to work out what skills you need to acquire and how you are going to acquire them.  And beefing up your digital capability will not only improve your chances of research success, but will add to your capital in an area that employers rate among top desirable job skills.

When people plan research projects, they often forget to work out what software tools and techniques they will use, what skills those tools require, and where they are going to get those skills.  Often, we think it will all just be obvious and somehow it will come together.  Well, in a way it usually does, but with a little planning and foreknowledge, we can transform these decisions from afterthought to opportunity.

Digital Skills Development are showcasing three new demonstration sessions to put you on the road to software success.  Each session introduces tools to tackle specific tasks for your research project.  We’ll look at:

  1. writing: is there life beyond Word?  Is there any reason to go there?  How do I cope with fussy formatting requirements?
  2. data analysis: is it worth learning to code, or can I cope by wrestling with my data in Excel?  I don’t do numbers, how can software help me?
  3. managing literature: imagine a world where your library and database searches link seamlessly  with your citation system and a database of annotated PDFs.  That world can be yours.

If you haven’t thought about what tools you will use for each of these tasks, or if you have thought about it but you’re just not sure what to do, these sessions are for you.  There will be demonstrations of different tools and approaches with guidance and discussion of what tool is best for the job.  If you think you know what software you are going to use, then we invite you to come along and  be challenged: there may be tools on offer that could smooth the way to a successful research project.

For the new year we are adding three In a nutshell sessions.  These are short sessions – usually around lunchtime – which illustrate a specific technique in one or other software package, so for example, we will be looking at importing survey data into Nvivo for analysis.

Now is the time to move beyond those good old coping strategies and tame the software beast.  These sessions will help you do it.

Digital evening classes?

Jim R Tyson1 October 2018

This term, for the first time that I know about, the Digital Skills Development team are offering sessions in the evening. I had intended to write a blog post ready for this morning promoting these sessions and encouraging people to sign up. Alas, I fell behind. However, when I logged on this morning to check our schedule of training and bookings, I was delighted to see that the two evening training sessions for R and RStudio have already attracted more bookings than any other session – and this just a few hours after booking opened!

It will be interesting to find out how popular and successful this experiment is. If the demand is there for out of hours sessions in Digital Skills Development then we may be able to increase the offer. Do you find the idea of an evening class in digital skills attractive? Let us know in the comments.