Educators should learn to use the PDF format – all of it

As a teacher, one of my most precious tools in daily life is the PDF format. It is the true digital paper format, capable of retaining my vision of a document across devices and OSes while also allowing for some highly advanced internal functionality. Unfortunately, I increasingly feel like the sole surviving advocate for the format in the education world, as distributing Word documents is ostensibly taking over more and more. To be honest, that’s a disastrous development.

The problems with the Word format are many. Firstly, with it being an editing format, it’s roughly the equivalent of giving someone cake batter instead of a cake. Opening the file can be enough to ruin its look, as it relies on fonts being available on the target system where PDF embeds them in the file. I recently taught my colleagues about OpenDyslexic, an open source font for dyslexics, and had to add a serious emphasis on the need to save as PDF for any teacher who wants to distribute documents using the format. Secondly, any advanced editing (margin sizes, photo alignment, etc) is often broken not just between different Word-capable viewers, but between versions of the official Word software itself. I have assessment forms that I carefully designed in Words on Windows that are extremely broken if opened on Word Mobile or Online. Finally, it just doesn’t match PDF’s annotation features, let alone its forms feature or any other such tools. It just overall doesn’t work well for any sort of distribution, even switching devices while working on it.

PDF, on the other hand, is designed to work between devices – mostly. There are still compatibility issues, especially with some horrible viewers like the Chrome built-in viewer, but these generally affect ability to use advanced features rather than the look of a page. Fonts are retained, and so is any design choice made by the creator. It retains the concept of a “page”, which – and you may call me old fashioned here – still has its use in a “text reflow”-centric world. However, PDF’s uses go far beyond just creating these digital pages.

Personally, I use PDF forms a lot. This is a feature in which you can specify fields inside PDFs that can be filled out, signed, have an image inserted, a checkbox checked, etc. I use it for teaching since it allows me to lock the design of a page and still allow the user to input information. The “user” can be a student who reads a text (as a PDF) and then answers questions in the given text input boxes. It can also be me as a teacher, using an assessment form that has an actual clickable checkbox instead of many teachers’ method of making a table in Word and inputting the letter X in it. I’ve done oral presentations with vocational students in machine workshops where my only tool has been a keyboardless iPad with a PDF assessment form, using a combination of checkboxes (which touchscreens love) and voice recording annotations to complete the entire assessment process in a documented manner without any issue with being in a machine workshop. These uses would be clunky at best, impossible at worst, if using Word.

Voice annotations aren’t the only awesome annotation feature of PDF either. Where Word gives you either a very crude comment system or an (in my opinion) annoying “track changes”-mode, PDF has a whole range of features intended for annotation that are completely separate from the core file. As an example, most free PDF software allows you to annotate, which specifically adds to an annotation layer of the file, easy to distinguish from the core. More advanced software will also allow you to edit the file itself. Adding an image can for instance be done either to the annotation layer, or the base file, and while it may be confusing to understand the difference, you understand the importance of separating the two once you do. As digital assessment is increasingly becoming the norm, this should in my opinion be done in a format designed with this separation.

As a final education example, let’s talk scans. Depending on where you live, there is likely some sort of dealin place that lets teachers and educators copy and distribute scans of journals, books, and so on. When I was a student, I could have sworn that half of these scans were being done while parachuting off a plane in a war zone. Crooked, low resolution scans where the middle of the book is visible as a large shadow- covering part of the text a bit too often. In these situations, most educators at least stick with PDFs, though some have found the “convert to Word” feature and made it worse. However, few, if any, do any sort of post-processing on the scanned pages. Optical Character Recognition is often done by scanners, but can be done manually, and will help not just with searching and highlighting text, but also allow anyone who use accessibility tools like screen/text readers to actually use the files. I still remember being a student and using an advanced Android TTS engine to read material to me – after having done OCR myself. As a teacher, I make sure my scans look like they were digital all along, using ScanTailor and other software to get there. Some may call it OCD, but I think it’s a fair trade to spend five extra minutes on a scan I’ll re-use for years, knowing that hundreds of students might have to deal with the “parachute edition” scan if I don’t.

I know I’m optimistic when I’m hoping for a world where every teacher knows what the annotation layer of a PDF is, but I’d be happy with just having PDFs sent to me whenever I don’t need to edit a document. PDF is an amazing format if you use it right, and it pains me to see that so few educators know that its existence is key to their job being a whole lot easier. Word has its uses, but an editing format is an editing format for a reason.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.