PDFs aren’t something I’d normally spend much time thinking about (I much prefer swimming or learning the guitar in my free time). The format barely existed when I was doing my undergraduate degree, so when I came to my Masters 20 years later, I was thrilled that there was this simple way to get all my reading material on my computer or iPad. OK, it was mildly exasperating that it was fiddly to highlight or copy text for my notes, but it was a small price to pay for how readily available all the information was.
However, a recent meeting with the European Ally User Group has given me a whole new perspective on PDFs. It raised various questions about how useful they are, from both an accessibility and a study skills perspective.
The problem with PDFs
In the best-case scenario, an accessible PDF can be created from a Word document by including things like alt text to describe images and using appropriately styled headings. A screen reader should be able to cope with a PDF generated in this way.
But even in this best-case scenario, PDFs are not ideally suited to online academic reading and research. Students will struggle to annotate, highlight, or copy-and-paste parts of the text without downloading extra apps. Regarding accessibility, PDFs do not address needs for changing fonts or colours. And most PDFs are designed to be printed on A4 rather than viewed on a screen – the size doesn’t change automatically to suit the device and browser, so the user will have to rely on zooming and scrolling horizontally as well as vertically.
What about the worst-case scenario? This would be where a page has been scanned to produce a PDF. As well as exacerbating the issues described above, screen readers may not be able to get any useful information since the text will just be an image, rather than readable characters.
There is some help available: students can use Blackboard Ally to transform PDF files to a format that suits their needs. However, this isn’t 100% reliable as I found in some experiments with older, scanned PDFs. For example, using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) on a PDF with what appeared to be a shadow effect on a title resulted in double letters, changing Week 1 to WWeeeekk 11. There were also some unfortunate effects from tables – where a cell spanned two rows, it shifted all the data in the first row into a column to the right. But anyone using a screen reader would already be having issues with these documents anyway. So wouldn’t it be nice if students didn’t have to rely on this kind of fix – if the file was already conveniently available in a form that would work for all users?
Let’s start with the bare minimum – avoiding the worst-case scenario and making sure that PDFs are nicely structured for screen readers. When creating your own PDFs from Word, follow these general accessibility principles:
- add alt text to images (right-click an image and select ‘alt text’)
- avoid tables unless they are necessary (and don’t merge cells)
- use styles for formatting headings and text to improve page navigation and give structure to the document (proper use of styles will change your life, I promise – see this Quick styles video for how to use them if you don’t already)
- in Word, click on ‘check accessibility’ from the Review pane for additional recommendations
- use ‘save as PDF’ or ‘export to PDF’ rather than ‘print to PDF’ to preserve the document structure and any hyperlinks (ensuring you’ve selected ‘Document structure tags for accessibility’ under Options)
- if you have access to Adobe Acrobat Pro, you can also run an accessibility check with this, which will give helpful suggestions for fixing any issues
If you’re using a scanned file, have a look for an online text version. If you can’t find one, as a last resort you may be able to use optical character recognition to update scanned PDFs. Unfortunately, this will not work for mathematical notation – formulae are notoriously difficult to make accessible.
But can we do better than that? Well, why not move away from PDFs entirely? A potentially really accessible alternative (for your own content, at least) is to consider putting it in a Moodle page or book rather than locking it inside a PDF. This will have the bonus for you that you’ll be able to edit it easily whenever necessary – and if another lecturer takes over a module from you, they’ll be able to easily update this content. You can also use the selection of lovely formatting styles in the page content editor under the teardrop icon 💧 to improve the page appearance while maintaining accessibility.
Throughout the Ally webinar that I mentioned at the start of this blog post, participants were sharing their institutions’ PDF policies and recommendations in the chat. These included promoting the use of ePubs, converting all PDFs to HTML, providing both PDF and HTML alternatives, or recommending linking to accessible Google docs instead. The general feeling was very much one of PDFs being on their way out – and no one sounded sad to see them go. Would you miss them?
If you’re interested in accessibility in Moodle, contact Tom Cripps (email@example.com) for more information and support.
Credit Image: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/young-troubled-woman-using-laptop-at-home-3755755/