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Using Acrobat in Writing Classes: Pros and Cons

Pros and Cons of Acrobat Files

This section provides a general comparison of HTML and PDF formats and describes the advantages of using PDF files in writing classes.

Comparing HTML and PDF

There are pros and cons of using PDF files as opposed to Web pages. Many of these advantages and disadvantages are summarized below.


Loading Quicker Slower; however, you can download while continuing to use your browser.
Screen appearance Adjusts to user’s settings

Sometimes easier to read

- Does not adjust to user’s screen; uses defaults set by author

- Set page size

- Less easy to read long documents online

Intended purpose Browsing Printing
Where used Web or Intranet More flexible: Web, CD-ROM, attachments, etc.
Formatting, fonts, spacing, pagination, special symbols,  etc. Not preserved as well Preserved
Printing More difficult Better for printing
Files Can be multiple documents & files Easier to click: one file
Graphics Not included with document Included with document
Maintenance Difficult Easier
Platform Cross platform Cross platform
Software required Browser Acrobat Reader
Annotations Possible with add-in software Can annotate documents
Security Difficult Can password protect or lock document
Color control More difficult Yes
Authoring Simple; many free HTML editors available. Must purchase and learn program

Advantages of PDF in Writing Courses

Adobe Acrobat documents have many benefits over HTML documents and are excellent tools to use in classes for the following reasons:

Preserved Format: One of the greatest benefits of PDF over HTML is the ability of Acrobat to preserve a document’s appearance, including fonts. The document can be created in just about any type of application, then converted to PDF. The formatting is preserved, including color, fonts, mathematical equations, etc. You can also create forms that preserve their format, unlike HTML forms, which have limited design possibilities. Acrobat also lets you view PostScript documents on-screen. This feature provides easy access to information that currently exists in PostScript format, such as newsletters and brochures. Because the formatting is preserved, students can view samples of good document design, including color.   

Document and Graphics Formats: PDF files may be generated from almost any kind of file: word processors, page layout programs databases and spreadsheets. You can also scan documents or images. Acrobat supports images such as BMP, GIF, JPEG, PCX, PICT, PNG, or TIFF file formats. The graphics are maintained as part of the document, unlike Web pages.

Platform Independence: Acrobat is platform-independent; Acrobat Reader is available for Windows, Mac, and UNIX. Thus faculty can use PDF documents in any computer lab, or students can view documents at home.

Internet and Browser Independence: Students do not necessarily need to be connected to the Internet or have a particular browser to view PDF files. They only need Acrobat Reader.  

Free Distribution: Acrobat Reader, available to anyone as a free download, lets you view, navigate, and print PDF files regardless of the computer, monitor, or software version. You may make and distribute unlimited copies of the Acrobat Reader software. Because Acrobat Reader is free, faculty do not have to incur duplicating costs.  

To view sample PDF files, students must thus have Reader and a computer. Using Acrobat Reader, students can copy and paste text and graphics to use in other applications. The Find feature allows readers to search for keywords.

Compression: Acrobat documents are usually smaller than other file formats because PDF uses compression. If a file is too large, the document can be split into separate parts for downloading. The files are easier to save and keep for later viewing than HTML documents. Web pages with frames are especially difficult to save. When you ask students to view PDF files in a network setting, it is easy to have them find and open a file. In contrast, just one saved Web page usually involves a number of files—especially graphics—and folders.  

Limited Flexibility: On the other hand, HTML files are often quicker to load from the Web, depending upon the length of the documents and number of graphics. In addition, Web pages adjust to the user’s monitor; in contrast, PDF documents open at the magnification specified by the author. Unless they are optimized for online viewing, PDF documents can also be more difficult to read online.(See Jakob Nielsen's article Avoid PDF for On-Screen Reading and Geoff Hart's article The Trouble With Acrobat.) Readability on screen is related to the settings used to create the file. You can save for maximum compression and thus degrade screen quality of images. You can save the file as an ebook, for print, or for online viewing.

Enhancements: Using Acrobat, you can enhance existing or existing PDF files by adding hypertext links, buttons, and Internet links. Bookmarks and thumbnails also allow readers to navigate the document.  For example, bookmarks can show the hierarchical outline of the document.

Multimedia: Acrobat documents can contain multimedia (movies and sound). Thus documents can be more interactive, and you can add oral commentary.

Security: You can lock a document with password protection, set defaults for page size and the tools visible, and add digital signatures.

Collaboration: If students or colleagues have Acrobat and proper permission, they can add annotations to the document. Acrobat also contains highlighting and rubber stamp tools. These collaboration tools can be used to edit files in groups. Faculty can also use this feature to grade/comment on student work.

Electronic Distribution: PDF files can be distributed electronically: by e-mail, CD-ROM, disk, network, or the Web. Because PDF files are an excellent way to distribute teaching materials electronically, they can be used to support distance learning courses. Students can simply download the PDF file. PDF files also print correctly on any printing device. 

Important Technology: Adobe Acrobat publishing is used in many organizations. Thus faculty can also use PDF documents as an opportunity to teach students about this technology.

Resource Material:  One of the biggest advantages of PDF files is using them as sample documents, reference materials, and a means to distribute course materials. Textbooks are usually limited in the types of documents they provide. Documents are often not up-to-date, and lengthy documents, such as manuals, are not incorporated. In addition, there are copyright and cost issues involved in printing, duplicating, and distributing handouts to use in class. Using custom printed workbooks requires extensive lead-time: getting permissions and submitting materials to a printing service. In contrast, most PDF documents are free to obtain and to distribute. Literally thousands of types of documents from a wide variety of organizations are available on the Web and ftp sites in Acrobat format rather than as regular html documents. 

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