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Interactive PDF’s in e-Learning – What You Should Know

Interactive PDF’s

PDFs have been around since the early 1990’s, and in the early 2000’s software began offering features that enabled the development of PDF interactivity.

Although to some, the old familiar PDF may seem a bit boring and ‘old school’ on the outside, the possibilities of PDF design are now almost limitless in enabling e-Learning developers to create highly engaging, gamified, interactive learning experiences that can add an impressive and effective layer to your training and education programs.


Why issue your learners with a boring textbook that they’ll never open or a static text document as an accompaniment to their training, when you could turn your textual training components into animated files complete with embedded videos, animated symbols, audio commentary, music, in-document quizzes, zoom-in images and much more?


Here are some of the things that you might not know about interactive PDFs and how you could use them to enhance your e-Learning or blended learning approaches.


What is an Interactive PDF?

A PDF is a ‘Portable Document Format’, which is a document that can be opened in many platforms and readers, but most commonly is read with Adobe (previously Acrobat).

It is a way of displaying content in written, audio and visual elements that remains standardised in the user experience (format and display of the file) across devices.  Using design software such as InDesign (although this is not the only software that can create Interactive PDFs), standard static PDF documents can be made ‘interactive’ by adding elements that engage the reader and require actions from them in order to ‘explore and experience’ the document, rather than just passively read it.


What Are The Common Features of an Interactive PDF?

  • Clickable links to external web pages or documents to minimise the amount of content within your document, but still providing a multitude of extensive resources for further learning
  • Buttons to navigate around the document or trigger other actions
  • Embedded videos that play within the PDF document
  • Form fields such as checkboxes, radio options and even electronic signatures.  You can even set up form submission actions such as emailing or printing after completion
  • Bookmarks and ‘tabs’ to shift or skip to different sections in the document based on certain actions
  • Animated buttons, text, calls to action, pop-ups and ‘rollovers’ (rollovers are elements that ‘pop up’ when the user hovers their mouse over a specified hotspot in the PDF.  ‘Animated’ could mean ‘flashing’, bouncing, pulsing, moving, popping up, gliding in etc.
  • Zoom in/magnify pictures and illustrations to show a close-up, or even an ‘inside’ view.  Eg if you are teaching medicine you could have a picture of the human body, which zooms into the skin cell level, and then zooms in again to show the inside of the veins under the skin.
  • Show different versions of pictures eg:  you may show a ‘line drawing’ of an area of terrain in your PDF, and when clicked it could switch to the ‘satellite’ image and when clicked again could show the ‘photographic street view’.
  • Embed games, quizzes and tests
  • Simulations – for example if you were teaching underground mining, you could have an animated underground mine that your ‘readers’ could explore by clicking on different elements of the picture.  This picture could be 3D and include sounds and pop up videos to enable them to virtually immerse themselves into the ‘simulated’ environment
  • Download links (eg download worksheets etc)
  • Can integrate with social media buttons
  • When connected to the internet, your readers could also be directed via hyperlinks to online discussion areas, live chat, to further commentary and FAQs to increase the level of interactivity, support and social learning


What Are The Added Benefits of Interactive PDFs to e-Learning or Blended Learning?


  • Can support offline learners with limited internet connection.  You can include hyperlinks to online content, however you can also make highly interactive PDFs without the need for any internet connectivity at all.
  • Standardised experience regardless of the device – there are very limited risks to browsers displaying the content differently to how you see it
  • It’s low priced to create.  Adobe InDesign is a great piece of software that can easily be learned, and any good graphic designer will have InDesign expertise at an affordable rate.
  • Can easily be emailed, added to a website for download as the files are small
  • Almost all computers have Adobe reader on them, or it can be installed quickly and easily for free
  • No printing costs, as users can print it themselves
  • Can use any font, colours, branding and style.  There are no limits or restrictions to the way you design and lay out your PDF or how many pages it needs to have.  They don’t even have to be ‘A4’ sized! You can make them square shaped, A5 and more!
  • You can set a range of permissions, security barriers and printing restrictions on PDF files


What Are The Limitations of Using Interactive PDFs in e-Learning or Blended Learning?

  • If you choose to create your interactive PDFs using a third party software such as the Adobe Creative suite, then you can experience sudden and unexpected software updates that may require a little reorientation, training and even changes to development workflows and processes.  However, this is a small price to pay for what is essentially an upgrade.
  • If you require elements to track user engagement and progression for SCORM purposes, you will need internet connectivity on all of the devices that house the learning.  In other words, SCORM tracking requires an internet connection so any offline learning would go unrecorded.  
  • Getting the maximum interactivity in your documents may require the use of multiple software expertise, such as PhotoShop for developing photographic images, Illustrator for creating a variety of images, Flash for creating moving images, animations and video; video editing software for developing video and quality audio-visual recording equipment for the development of videos and audios.  This may require a steep learning curve for an individual, the hiring of multiple onsite staff – or the engagement of freelancers or specialist providers to bring it all together.


Examples of Interactive PDFs:

Note: These examples have simply been pulled from a YouTube search – I do not have any ownership or affiliation of any kind with any of these videos or their owners.


So how could you use interactive PDF’s to enhance your e-Learning?

Author: Sarah Cordiner


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