Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Shoutout to Anki

I'd like to point out Anki, an open source (GPL 3) virtual flashcard program I've been using. Anki runs on all major PC platforms (and an impressive array of mobile devices), and is feature-rich. It has a plug-in architecture. Cards can contain not just text but also images and audio files. Anki supports LaTeX, so it should be easy to put mathematical formulas on cards. Use of card decks is very flexible (including an easy way to have cards representing difficult concepts repeat sooner than cards representing easy concepts). It is easy to create or import card decks, and you can share card decks (and plug-ins) with other people through their AnkiWeb site. (Disclaimer: I have not looked at the available shared decks, nor have I looked at any plug-ins. The basic download fills my needs.)

My use for Anki has been to learn my students names. At the outset of each semester, I acquire a class list with student photos, strip out the photos, and turn them into an Anki deck. During idle moments at coffee shops, I play the decks and learn to associate names with faces. (Addressing students by name on the first day of class freaks them out; I think they tend to be more docile thereafter.)

I'm not a big fan of rote memorization in education, but I suppose it has its place.  I could see using Anki to learn formulas from queuing theory (for instance, "M/M/1 steady-state queue length" on the front, the corresponding formula on the back) or perhaps some terminology from linear programming (graph of a feasible region and an objective hyperplane tangent along an edge on the front, "multiple optima" on the back). As there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy, I suppose there are more ways Anki could be used in the teaching of operations research.


  1. How do you get photos of your students- do you take snapshots in class?

  2. Our campus IDs have photos, and our registrar's office makes class lists with ID photos included available to faculty through a web site. I scrape the photos from the web page. They're pretty accurate for grad students, not so much for seniors (who probably are still using their freshman year photo). Guys experiment with facial hair (women hopefully not), both genders experiment with new hair styles, and cumulative mac-and-cheese consumption takes its toll.

    If you don't have a similar option, you might ask your students to e-mail you a reasonably representative photo of their choice. One of my colleagues came up with an innovative idea: he's thinking of doing flash cards including audio files of the students pronouncing their names. (I assume he'll either record them himself or explain to the students how to do it.)

  3. I also use the campus ID photos to learn names. It can be tough with undergrad males--they change a lot between freshman year and the time they get to me when they are juniors and seniors, but it works well for all other students. The upside to living in Virginia is that names are really, really easy to pronounce.

    I'm not as diligent as you and do not learn names until after the semester begins. I'll give Anki a try if only to keep the students docile ;-)

  4. @Laura: Funny that you have a harder time with the undergrad males -- I have a harder time with the undergrad females.

  5. I use this to learn Japanese symbols. Rote memorization isn't all you have to do with these things, but you have to tackle them from many angles. Once I have them somewhat rote-memorized, it gets easier and easier to see them in the texts until I actually know them.


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