Are PDFs Enough for Your Learners?

If you write or design information resources, you’ve likely spent a lot of time with Portable Document Format (PDF) files. They’re inexpensive to create, easy to print or distribute digitally, while offering a lot of flexibility in design and functionality.

Many trainers and educators rely heavily on PDFs to deliver everything from supplemental content, such as readings, assignment instructions, worksheets, and accessible transcripts of multimedia content for learners with limited internet connectivity or who use assistive technologies like screen readers.

If your team is already familiar with creating great-looking PDFs, you might be wondering if you really need anything else to grow the knowledge and skills of your audience.

Are PDFs a Good Alternative to a Course?

They could be… but don’t eject your LMS plans just yet.

When choosing how to share knowledge, your best option depends on your specific situation.

  • Who are your learners?
  • What knowledge or skills are you offering?
  • What do you hope to achieve by growing their abilities?

An effective learning experience isn’t just about putting the information you want to share out in the world. It’s got to be clearly aligned with your learners’ interests and delivered in a way that supports your big-picture goals.

Do Your Learners Need Guidance?

PDFs tend to be a fairly static learning experience, with learners passively receiving information in a faceless, text-heavy format. Learners won’t have many options to ask questions or verify their understanding along the way.

If your content is complex, technical, or nuanced, your audience will require both focus and motivation to complete it without the prompts and feedback typical in even a basic asynchronous course.

Learners already familiar with this type of learning, such as those with strong academic backgrounds and those already familiar with your subject matter, are more likely to be successful with PDF-only formats.

However, if your audience doesn’t often read long-form or technical material, is new to your topic, or has a lot of other demands on their energy and attention, you may find your PDFs don’t have the impact you hoped for.

By contrast, even a basic asynchronous course can provide guidance through the content. Interactive navigation elements give learners more control over their pace. Exercises allow learners to check their understanding throughout the learning process, build their confidence in the material, and even practice applying their new knowledge in scenarios or simple simulations.

For example, in the Signal for Help Responder course Onlea created for the Canadian Womens Foundation, learners practice responding to signs of intimate partner abuse and see the outcome of their choices.

Screenshot from an interactive scenario. There is an illustration of a masculine figure escorting a woman with crutches from a car into a house. The interface provides three options for how to respond. 1: Call the police, 2: Follow them to the door and confront Trevor (the man) 3: Go home and call or text Meredith (the woman).

While quiz questions and scenarios can be written into a PDF, they can't match an online course's capacity to respond to learners' choices with feedback, a feature that provides significant returns in learner focus and skill development.

Courses also tend to provide a greater sense of human connection. You can probably recall times a relatable or charismatic presenter made a difference in how well you learned something. This effect can be felt in live workshops, pre-recorded videos, podcasts, and even animated characters but doesn’t come through as well in static documents.

Does Your Content Come With High Cognitive Load?

Learning can take up a lot of mental resources, so it is a good idea to consider the learner’s cognitive load and look for ways to manage it. Think of your materials like an application on your phone or computer: if they require more space or processing power than is available, they likely won’t run properly.

Outside of graphic design, PDFs don’t offer many options to reduce cognitive load, which can present challenges if your content is dense, technical, or complex.

In addition to engaging with the actual ideas in the material, the learner must manage the pace of their experience, read carefully, recognize when they have missed something, and revisit the relevant section or seek out additional support. That diligence requires a fair bit of energy, particularly if they are new to the subject or the delivery language is not the one they grew up with.

A learner who already has many demands on their time and attention, who struggles with stress, health difficulties, or a disability, likely won’t get much out of materials that come with high cognitive loads—and may avoid them altogether.

By contrast, asynchronous courses “chunk” content, breaking up ideas to be less overwhelming and reinforcing them with interactives and multimedia like videos or animation. They offer progress-tracking bookmarking features, which allow learners to easily see how much of a section remains and take breaks without losing their place in the content.

By helping learners focus on small sections at a time and reducing the need to closely track and evaluate their own progress, cognitive load is reduced, and learners can take in information more easily.

How Will You Measure The Success of Your Content?

Creating learning resources is a big job, so you’ll likely want to know if all that effort is having an impact.

PDFs don’t provide any options for data collection, so your options for measuring the success of your content are limited to basic metrics like download counts, which don’t provide actionable information, and feedback surveys, which tend to have low response rates.

If you want information that will help you improve or expand on your learning materials, such as completion rates or test scores, your organization will be better served by a course hosted on an LMS.

PDFs as Supplementary Handouts

PDFs can be extremely useful as handouts or saveable takeaway material, particularly if learners will lose access to an online course in the future.

A large, multi-page handout or workbook or a copy of a slide deck are unlikely to be revisited, but brief, practical documents may be easily saved on a desktop or printed and posted in a convenient location for ongoing reference.

Here are some of the items that work well in this format:

  • Checklists.
  • Resource lists for quick reference.
  • Mnemonics or other reminders.
  • Just-in-time process instructions or job aids.
  • Templates for various tasks.

PDFs for Practice and Application

Research shows that interactivity improves learning, and PDFs can be leveraged to make that interactivity practical and applicable to the real world.

Here are some of the ways that we at Onlea have used fillable PDFs to supplement learning:

  • Goal-setting exercises that can be saved, printed, and posted.
  • Reflection activities that can be referenced later to focus tasks or track progress.
  • Templates and exercises to guide new job-related tasks.
  • Personalized plans for behaviour change.

For example, we created a PDF to guide learners through the process of planning an exercise routine that fit their needs. Part of a series of micro-modules on diabetes management, the downloadable resource allowed the learner to create and save their schedule in a way that would make their plan easier to follow.

A screenshot from of a PDF exercise featuring a fillable activity schedule. For each day of the week, the learner can write in what they plan to do in the morning, afternoon, and evening.

Practical PDFs like these work well to supplement both facilitated synchronous courses and asynchronous courses that learners work through on their own.

Accessibility Considerations

While many people think that providing PDFs as an alternative to an online course will help them comply with accessibility requirements. But PDFs are not automatically accessible for people with disabilities.

As with other online mediums, a PDF is only accessible if it is deliberately designed that way. For example, it must present information in a highly logical, hierarchal structure that is legible to people using screen readers. Any graphics that help inform the learner must have alt text, and any purely decorative one must be easily bypassed.  If your PDF has interactive elements like fillable sections, that adds even more complexity.

When it comes to accessible design, there is no substitute for training and experience. If your organization doesn't haven't expertise in this area, we highly recommend seeking outside input to ensure your materials are compliant with both legislation and the real needs of your learning audience.

To PDF or Not to PDF?

Is it worth it for your organization to invest in a full e-learning development or synchronous course? Maybe, maybe not. But if PDFs are your alternative, you need to consider whether they will do the job you need them to, and whether there will really be cost-savings in ensuring that they are accessible and effective.

Ultimately, PDFs may work best as supplementary material supporting a facilitated class or guided eLearning.

If you’re interested in exploring your options further, reach out! We’d love to learn more about your organization and its goals for training and education.

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