In our last blog post, we looked at Office 365 and OneNote and provided a demo of some of the OneNote features users might find useful, this included adding sections / pages and some accessibility features. The week before, DigiKnow created a how-to video and demonstrated how staff/students could work online using Office 365.

This week, we turn our attention to one of the most widely used file types: the humble PDF.

What the PDF?

With so much going on at the start of the academic year, there is much to keep up with. One of those things is how students receive notes / slides from lecturers and how students can use those materials to make their own set of study notes.

Hold up! Let’s provide some background experiences from yesteryear, 2004/5 (not that long ago).

When going through university, if we were lucky, we may have received photocopies of materials from lecturers. This meant the lecturer had to physically go and copy enough materials for students in the class. That was a lot of paper, time and budget!

Additionally, as students, we also had to copy notes from the board, read book chapters and other recommended journals, as well as making our own notes around the teaching sessions for revision purposes later.

If a class was missed, we hoped we could copy someone’s notes to catch up. This wasn’t always possible.

Yes, we had the internet and we could view online journals (if universities were subscribed). However, in 2004/5, there were no e-books. Physical books were purchased or borrowed from libraries for a set amount of time OR we had to read in the library.

We had it hard, but back to 2020!

What is a PDF?

The letters PDF stand for Portable Document Format. It’s probably one of the most universally recognized formats for documents which need to be shared / viewed / printed but not amended. Typically, documents shared for public viewing would be PDF format.

It all started back in 1991 when John Warnock (Co-founder of Adobe) started the paper-to-digital revolution: The Camelot Project. Warnock’s vision was for any document to be captured in a standard and shareable format which allowed viewing / printing from any device (in 1991, different computer systems) but not amending.

Warnock’s vision became reality in 1993 when the Adobe Acrobat Reader was launched and the PDF was born. More background on the PDF timeline can be found in the Resources section for History of the PDF.

Adobe Acrobat Reader used to be the mainstay for viewing PDF documents. If your machine has Windows 7 or older, it may need a copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader (this is free). However, most modern browsers allow PDFs to be viewed.

What are the benefits of lecturers using PDFs?

Lecturers can create PDFs of teaching content and other materials to share with students. Here’s some of the advantages of the PDF format.

  • As a file type, PDFs are universal and all platforms (PC / MAC / mobile devices, etc.) can display PDF files.
  • They are small in file size and quick to download.
  • When uploading PDFs to Canvas, they don’t use up much file space.
  • PDF documents support text, images, audio, video, hyperlinks, etc.
  • This file type can be interactive.
  • It can be password protected.
  • Information in PDFs are searchable.
  • Accessibility can be added to PDFs, i.e., bookmarks and structure. This allows screen-readers to read PDFs and widen audience participation.

As teaching and learning materials, PDFs are typically uploaded to Canvas (at Queen’s University) for students to view and/or download. These PDFs could formerly have been PowerPoint slides, Word documents, Excel Spreadsheets, etc. Many other software applications can print / export to PDF.

PDF is the best format as all devices can read / view them, whereas, if PowerPoints are given, they are much bigger in file size, take time to download and up until recently not every student may have had PowerPoint to view the content.

In 2020, we’re very much thinking of remote and online learning. The PDF format is a size and time-saver for even the worst internet connection and available to all.

Imagine the worst-case-scenario where a student has low connectivity and joins live-teaching sessions with just their phone audio, pre-downloading the PDF still allows this student to follow the slides during the teaching session.

Student benefits when using PDFs

If you have been provided learning materials in the PDF format, it’s because they are quick to download and readable on any device.

  • PDFs can be downloaded and stored in your filing system.
  • You can create study notes by annotating PDFs.
  • They can be ‘re-printed’ from Slide format to Handout format using Adobe Acrobat Reader or web browser.

Students can use PDFs for digital note-taking. In Queen’s University, this can be done using the OneNote App via Office 365 (which can be accessed from any internet connected device).

Other note-taking apps can be downloaded to mobile devices. Here are a few options:

And of course, other note-taking Apps are available. Do explore and find one to suit your needs.

PDF trouble-shooting
I’m a student using Canvas and I want to preview the document on screen but it keeps downloading. What am I doing wrong?

When students are using Canvas, it helps to know how to read the icons. If hyperlinked text is clicked, it will either download a file OR open a new webpage.

Below, we demonstrate the icons beside text, i.e., the Preview icon beside a file and the New Tab icon beside a web link. Students will encounter these in Canvas.

NB: If students are using the Canvas App on mobile devices, this may appear differently.

Example of some Canvas Icons
Example of some Canvas Icons
I’ve downloaded the PDF to my computer. Where is it?

Typically when anything is downloaded to the computer, it sits in a Download Folder. It will need to be moved to another folder destination for study purposes.

If the item is downloaded a number of times, it will have a number at the end of the filename. This denotes the item has been downloaded an additional number of times, i.e., the number added to the filename.

Once you have moved the PDF, any additional downloads should be deleted. This saves file space and reduces confusion, more so if one PDF has been annotated.

I can’t view the PDF I downloaded, what can I do?

What can you try to find the problem? Try opening a different PDF to ensure the PDF viewer works (i.e., Adobe Acrobat Reader on the desktop or the chosen browser). Adobe Acrobat Reader may need updated.

It might be other PDFs open with no problems. This means the PDF that doesn’t work is the problem. Contact the PDF creator and advise them of a fault, take screenshots to explain the dilemma.

If viewing the PDF on a browser, try a different web browser and/or delete temporary internet files to see if this fixes the problem. Again, if the PDF is at fault, contact the PDF creator.

The PDF only partially downloads on the browser, I can’t see past the first slide. What can I do?

Go back to the PDFs’ original link (on the internet or Canvas), right-click and choose the Save Link As. This should allow you to download the PDF rather than view it in the browser. It can then be opened via the Desktop in other PDF viewing applications.

I downloaded a PDF of slides (from the internet or Canvas), they’re in ‘Slide Format’ but I want them in ‘Handout Format’, what can I do?

Here, we cover 2 scenarios using Adobe Acrobat Reader and web browsers.

Slide format example - one slide per page
Slide format example – one slide per page

When you display the PDF in Adobe Acrobat Reader, click Print and Adobe PDF. This allows you to scale the document, choose the page size and orientation of paper, etc.

Using Adobe Acrobat Reader's print to PDF
Using Adobe Acrobat Reader’s print to PDF

Essentially, you can re-create the PDF to suit yourself. Below, we had slides which were printed to PDF at 60% scaling and the new PDF printed to a folder. This now replicates the Handout format and annotations can be inserted to the blank space underneath each slide.

PDF has been scaled and printed to Handout Format
PDF has been scaled and printed to Handout Format

PDFs can be printed to Adobe PDF via web browsers. This works slightly differently as the page orientation cannot be changed.

In Chrome (other browsers are available with varying results), we opened a PDF and clicked print:

Chrome browser print settings
Chrome browser print settings

This allows us to print the PDF at 100%. In the Scale box, currently Default, this can be amended to a percentage. In the next image, we chose 75%:

Whilst the orientation of the page cannot be changed, this gives us white space around the slide for annotation purposes. This would get ‘printed’ as a PDF to another file location.

When we tested this in the EDGE browser, the slide remained in the centre of the page with white space around it. In Firefox, it printed at the top of an A4 page. Do experiment. If all else fails, Adobe Acrobat Reader (if not already available) can be downloaded for free.

I need to amend the information in a PDF but I don’t have the original file. What can I do?

Imagine the scenario where lecturers join or leave Queen’s and teaching needs to continue uninterrupted. From a student viewpoint, it’s business (or study) as usual. However, a new lecturer may need to review previously taught content and amend this.

If the original file is not available, PDFs can be amended using Adobe’s Acrobat DC. This allows:

  • PDFs to be edited in Acrobat DC and saved
  • information to be exported to PowerPoint / Excel / Word, amended and then re-PDF’d

Acrobat DC can also compress PDFs to smaller file sizes or save the information in picture formats. However, the Acrobat DC software is a subscription service and not everyone will avail of or have a license for this.


The humble PDF as a file format often gets overlooked and taken for granted. Students may prefer other formats but when it comes to file size versus download speed, the PDF wins. More so in the online / remote learning arena and based on the worst-case-scenario for student access to online materials given their available connectivity.

Not everyone has an uninterrupted internet service all of the time.

In this blog post, we’ve taken you through a brief history of the PDF and how it came to be and why (more is available on the PDF timeline in History of the PDF within the Resource section above).

We have also looked at PDF benefits for lecturers and students and given students some suggestions for PDF annotation Apps. Then we looked at some PDF troubleshooting scenarios and finished off with how to reprint a PDF to allow space for annotating.

We hope this post has been beneficial to staff and students regards PDF usage.

Next time

In our blog post next Monday, we will be looking at PowerPoint file types and compatibility. This is to help staff and students recording materials for teaching or presentations.

Please do join us then to learn more and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter: @MDBSelearn.


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