Interactive PDFs for eLearning – How and Why?

calm pensive female freelancer using digital tablet on street
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I was struck when I joined the world of corporate training about how widespread the use of interactive PDFs was as an eLearning tool internally, but I then learned how it solves some common problems we learning designers face. Where the scrappy charter school teacher in me would normally reach for a free web app or spin up an open source online tool for a given task, there are times when it makes sense to author an interactive PDF instead. This post will introduce you to the concept so you can add this content type to your instructional design bag-of-tricks.

What is an Interactive PDF?

An interactive PDF can look very much like a slickly-produced website or eLearning asset, with colorful page layouts, text, images, hyperlinks, embedded video and audio, animations, text input fields, dropdowns, and navigation buttons. This is rich functionality that we often associate with online websites, but wrapped into the common PDF format for easier access. You can design a rich eLearning asset that does not need to live inside your LMS, or even require an internet connection to view. This can be a viable option when you are constrained by the context of your training session.

user interacting with a PDF on a tablet

When does an Interactive PDF make sense?

  • When you can’t rely on learners having internet access
  • When it doesn’t make sense to spin up a dedicated app or CMS for a specific need
  • When you want to streamline access — just open the file and use it
  • When learners need to take their own notes alongside the content and keep for future review
  • When real-time collaboration/communication is not necessary
  • When you don’t have budget or authority to offer a paid, online solution
  • When your subject matter expert will be doing a significant amount of the experience authoring

What Kinds of Learning Interactions are Possible?

As in a web app or eLearning authoring platform, you can sequence information into coherent and understandable learning paths as you see fit. You can either offer a linear “A-Z” path through the content, or let learners hyperlink around throughout the document according to their needs.

Interactive PDFs with note-taking fields are a great idea because you can give learners their own copy of the core content you delivered (like a slide deck or video), along with space for them to take their own notes and record takeaways for later review.

You can hyperlink between pages of the PDF using buttons or links on your slides, creating branching scenarios, as well as navigation buttons that help learners skip around in the document.

You can offer question prompts for reflection or deeper thinking, that learners can take their own time to write out thoughtful responses. They could either return the filled-out PDF to the instructor for feedback, or keep it as a record of their own learning. This feature enables us to build offline interaction between teacher and student into an experience without requiring a web application or dedicated CMS to support that interaction. This is a great way to avoid technical debt and also offers better security than a free webapp with murky terms of service or privacy policies.

PDFs are searchable by default, so you could create a searchable knowledge base of key terms or other information for learners to access for “just in time” learning.

Tips for Creating an Interactive PDF — Tools and Techniques

Usually, an interactive workbook is cerated in two main steps — Design, then Functionality. Each requires specific tools, and there is a different focus in each phase, described below:

The Design Phase

The Design phase can happen in a variety of desktop publishing platforms, including Microsoft Powerpoint, Adobe InDesign, Apple Pages/Keynote. In this phase, you are creating a document layout, arranging text, images, links, multimedia, and other page elements into a structured template optimized for consumption. You’re creating the look and feel, yes, but you’re also compiling and arranging all relevant content in one place, designing a navigation scheme for the document, and adding boxes into the layout that will become editable fields for your users to type into. All of this effort goes towards creating the end-user experience, and it can be shared between stakeholders and IDs at this stage.

Stakeholders and SMEs can do much of this design work themselves in PowerPoint, focusing on the content for accuracy and creating an attractive and comprehensible asset. They should work with Instructional Designers to ensure that their layout will support the functionality of the workbook that will be added in the next step.

Design Tool Recommendations in Depth

PowerPoint is the default option where I work because it’s so widely used and supported in our organization by IDs and SMEs alike. It can be used collaboratively in Office 360 for better collaboration and greater visibility with stakeholders. It can also be easily imported into Acrobat. If your organization uses Google Workspace or another slide deck creation tool, you can probably use whatever’s easiest to lay your ideas out. Consider choosing a tool with real-time cloud collaboration if the content needs to be co-authored by multiple people.

We use Adobe InDesign for more complex or crowded documents where the designer needs greater control over how all the content items overlap and fit together in the document. This is specialist software for IDs who have the Adobe Creative Cloud license, but it can be very useful on projects where consumer-level tools are insufficient.

Honorable mention goes to Apple Pages and Keynote, which offer Mac users more powerful layout tools than MS Word and PowerPoint, bridging the gap between consumer and pro-level tools. This can be a good option for the Design phase, provided the stakeholders and SMEs have Apple devices that can open and edit the files.

The Functionality Phase

Whichever platform is used to design the workbook, the interactivity is added using Adobe Acrobat, a paid PDF authorning platform (not to be confused with the free Acrobat Reader). An Instructional Designer should be brought into the process at this phase (or before!) to add functional editable fields to the document and turn it into an interactive workbook in PDF format.

Thinking Long-term — Maintenance, Future-proofing

What happens years after the initial project is completed, the workbook has been created, and the stakeholder wants to do revisions? Since the finished product was created in Acrobat by an ID, it becomes awkward for a SME or stakeholder to make updates to the content.

Updates may be made by SMEs using the same software used during the Design phase — let’s say PowerPoint. Care must be taken, though, so that newly added information does not throw off the layout or overlap with the existing content.

The Instructional Designer is always responsible for the copy editing and quality assurance of the finished product. Every new update or change must be reviewed by the ID’s experienced eye to ensure proper design and functionality of the finished product.

Thinking about Mobile Delivery

Since PDFs are designed to look like pages for printing, they often default to a standard letter page size. This can make them challenging to view on smartphones (tablets, less so). Acrobat can build some limited responsive design functionality into your document, but the best option is to offer a mobile-formatted version of your presentation if a large number of your learners will likely access the asset on their smartphone. You can design a layout using the latest average-sized smartphone dimensions as a guide so it will neatly fit on the screens of the most common phone screens your users are likely to use.

Consider using a Vendor

Learning to author interactive PDFs is a good skill for any online educator to master, but you may also consider outsourcing the work to a vendor when you can’t do it yourself. Many eLearning vendors we work with also offer this kind of service, so consider it as an option if it works for you.

So how will YOU use them?

I hope this post gives you another good option when you’re trying to decide how to build a learning experience within constraints. Adding this technique to your instructional design “bag of tricks” will help you offer the richest possible experiences in a wider range of contexts.

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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