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Thoughts on requiring students to submit assignments as PDF

What’s your take on restricting upload file type to PDF for all written assignments? My org is leaning that direction to support our graders, but I fear it will make more work for our learners and support staff. Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts. 

5 Replies
Community Champion

I suppose the first question is "as opposed to what"? PDF instead of .docx or similar word processing formats seems like a reasonable idea in terms of type of information presented, but I worry this would get interpreted broadly and you would lose key features of document types such as spreadsheets or slideshows by students reducing them to PDFs "because all of our assignments are supposed to be PDFs"). 

You also may have issues with students not keeping an editable copy of a paper they turned in as a PDF, and then needing to re-type it from scratch to incorporate revisions. Yes, they should be keeping copies of all of their work in suitable formats, but if the version uploaded to the LMS isn't editable I suspect the gap between "should" and "actually did" will become more apparent.

I suspect the "tech support" issues on turning documents into PDFs would be pretty minimal (since pretty much everyone has a "save as PDF" option when printing), but the issues of whether or not it would be a good format for assignments to be in is larger than that and may depend on the type of assignments used at your institution and the teaching styles of your instructors. (You'd also probably get at least one student doing something odd like printing out their papers and then scanning them in order to get PDF versions, or turning in handwritten and scanned papers rather than typed ones, so there might be some additional formatting/expectations issues to troubleshoot.) If you have campus computer labs, you'd obviously want to work with whoever runs them to make sure that there is an easy way to convert documents to PDFs using lab computers. 

As a teacher, I use PDFs for "fixed" documents that won't need to change but not for anything that might need updating. For students, I suppose it is a case of how many of their assignments represent something that will not need further updates.

At my school, we've gone another route and strongly encourage students to turn in assignments as shared Google Docs. (We have them turn in URLs to the live docs rather than use the built-in Canvas integration.) This makes it much easier for assignments to have an ongoing revision process with teachers providing comments and students revising and resubmitting based on those comments. PDFs would not work well for the way I use assignments because I use the revision history features of Google Docs heavily to see what the comments were and how the student responded to them in their revisions. However, if your assignments are stand-alone things that are only submitted once rather than living documents that go through a revision process, this issue would not apply to your use case.

Community Champion

  @thompsli ‌ makes many great points here, and I concur. .PDF files are good for word processing files, but they can be restrictive for other purposes like spreadsheets and slides.

If I was going to require .pdf files, I would either make or find some tutorials on saving documents in .pdf for the programs people commonly use at your institution and have all instructors post the tutorials in Canvas.

I hope that helps, Kathryn!

Community Champion

PDFs also have accessibility and mobile-friendly issues.

In PC Word, you have to make sure to tick the box to save the accessibility tags under Options in the Save As PDF dialog. In Mac Word, you don't even have that option at all.

Save PDF with structure tags

Some PDFs are actually larger than their original Word file counterparts. If a user is in a low-bandwidth environment, the filesize impact the download/upload experience.

PDF is bigger file size than DOCX

And a couple times in the past,  I've had PDFs try to open with the wrong app on my mobile device.

I agree with others that PDFs are great for static content that needs to have the formatting and layout preserved, but to require all assignment submissions as PDF would limit the functionality of different file formats.

Cheers - Shar

I agree that making sure a PDF is accessible is very important, especially in terms of OCR readability. There is an option to convert PDFs to this feature in more recent versions of Adobe Acrobat.

New Member

Thanks for your input everyone.

  •  @thompsli  - Great idea about using Google Doc URLS as living documents.
  •  @dhulsey  - Yes, tutorials and support would be needed for Windows and Mac users, in addition to all of the programs students might be using: OpenOffice, G Suite, Pages, KeyNote, Word, PowerPoint...
  • ishar-uw - Good points on storage consumption, load time, mobile and accessibility.

I'm beginning to think more comprehensive assignment instructions and settings are needed for our learners (limit file upload types, prevent file attachments to discussions, distribute writing templates perhaps). Also loving the Google Docs idea.