Video courses and cohort-based courses are all the rage right now, but there is an overlooked option with a lot of surprising benefits: the interactive PDF course or workbook. Sure, PDFs get a bad rap because Karen can’t ever seem to rotate them properly, but these not-so-humble documents can actually deliver transformational learning experiences more easily (and often at lower cost) than traditional video courses or labor-intensive group programs.

What is an interactive PDF?

An interactive PDF is a digital document with interactive functionality such as fillable and transfer fields, checkboxes, calculated fields, summary boxes, and more. Didn’t know a PDF could do all that? Here are some examples:

This quiz page brings up different content depending on which answer choice is selected.

This transfer field copies content from a field on one page to a separate summary page.

How interactive PDFs enhance learning

From a teaching perspective, the typical talking-head video or even live group program leaves a lot to be desired. Information delivery isn’t enough. You need to provide opportunities for students to make their own meaning out of the content. Interactive PDFs are a great way to combine content with exercises and other interactions to create a self-paced, guided learning experience, all in one file.

1. You can guide learners through a process one step at a time.

I see a lot of courses and programs out there that are just dumps of information on a specific topic, maybe followed by some questions or exercises if you’re lucky. Many people learn better by taking in one concept, completing an exercise to synthesize, analyze, or otherwise engage with the information, then moving to the next concept. If your document needs to build on foundational information, you can use transfer fields to repeat answers from previous sections, so users only have to enter information once. You can also place a field directly next to the relevant instructional or informational text, and then have it reappear later on a convenient, condensed summary page to print out or refer back to.

2. You can help learners refine their ideas.

Transfer fields are also great for brainstorming on one page, and refining ideas later in the document. Learning is a dynamic process, and you can use an interactive PDF to encourage students to build upon and improve their earlier thoughts. 

3. You can rearrange, contextualize, and frame information properly.

Seeing the same piece of information in a different context can spark new ideas and connections. One field can transfer to multiple places. This means you can easily rearrange and contextualize information for the user based on your expert perspective. You can also use a summary box to pull information from multiple fields onto one page. Users can print this page out or just bookmark it for easy reference instead of wading through the entire document. 

4. You can customize the learner journey.

Your learners will all have different needs and starting points. When all you have is static content, you’re limited in how much you can tailor information to each learner. Dropdown lists and checkboxes allow users to select different options based on their needs and make corresponding changes appear in the document based on their selection. You can also use dropdowns or checkboxes to send information from specified fields to different summary or calculation boxes. These selection tools allow users to customize the document to fit their needs but still have your guidance about what attributes are important to look for and where pieces of information need to go. 

5. You can guide the pace of learning.

With an interactive PDF, you can hide or reveal page elements according to user actions such as clicking a button or leaving a field. These actions can trigger other elements to appear or disappear, and one action can trigger other actions in multiple locations. You can have things like tool tips, highlighting, or achievement badges hide or reveal as needed.

This is a great way to help users learn how to best use the document while they are using it, instead of frontloading a lot of instructions they might forget when they get into the actual document. You can also use this function to call attention to specific parts that you want to emphasize and drip information as users navigate through the document.

6. You can empower users to assess their own learning.

Y’all know how I feel about assessment. Most online course platforms are not designed to accurately assess learning, which kinda sucks for self-paced courses where you aren’t there to give feedback on students’ progress. How will they know if they’ve mastered the content or skills? If a course platform has quiz functionality, it’s usually limited to multiple choice and sometimes doesn’t even tell the user if they’re right or wrong, or why. If you use a different software for assessment, users have to toggle between tools which is a hassle and a distraction.

When you build a quiz into your interactive PDF, you can seamlessly integrate assessment and feedback with instruction. More importantly, you can add relevant information about the results as a revealed tip or a static part of the page. This gives you a chance to provide more information about why a certain choice isn’t the best answer, and that’s more educational than simply, “This is right or wrong.”

Other reasons to create an interactive PDF course

7. They’re easy (and cheap) to deliver!

You don’t need to pay for course software to deliver an interactive PDF course. You can connect a payment gateway like Stripe to an email service provider and send the course straight to the customer’s inbox after purchase. There are also plenty of eCommerce plugins that can deliver digital products via instant download or email.

8. They’re easier to produce (especially for the camera-shy!).

In many ways, interactive PDFs are easier to produce than video courses. It’s hard to outsource production of course videos because the expectation is that you will be the one teaching the content. But with an interactive PDF course, you can show up in writing instead of on camera. No fancy lighting or hair and makeup artistry required!  

9. They’re easy to use.

I bought a course…at least six months ago, on a topic that I was extremely excited to learn about, from an expert that I know, like, and trust. It’s three actionable modules, the creator is an engaging presenter, the content is great. 

I still haven’t finished it. Why? Because every time I think, “Gee, I really should finish that course because I want to do the thing it’s teaching me to do,” I have to:

  1. Find the link for the course platform in my email (it’s not on the creator’s website)
  2. Remember my password Realize I’ve forgotten my password for the course platform
  3. Reset my password for the 15th time
  4. Find where I left off on the video which has no bookmarks or time stamps

And that’s before I even get into the course itself. When I want to take notes, I have to open a separate document or find a piece of paper (never mind locate where my notes from last time are). It’s just a lot of steps, even though I consider myself very motivated to complete the course.

On the other hand, I have an interactive PDF course saved to my computer that I open up at least once a week even though I’ve already finished it. (More on that in a second.) There’s a clickable table of contents that takes me to where I need to go, and my work from last time is waiting for me. I can dive right in with no passwords required.

10. They can be reusable tools, not just static information delivery devices.

My absolute favorite thing about interactive PDF courses is that they are more than just a means to deliver content. With the right functionality, an interactive PDF becomes a tool that can be used over and over. 

Remember the course I mentioned that I open every single week? I pull it up so often because there’s a section in there that I use to generate assets that I need for my business on the regular.

Content isn’t enough. There’s a ton of free content out there on every topic under the sun, and it’s harder than ever to persuade people to pay for content. While there is certainly value in having curated knowledge from an expert, when you can create a tool that makes it easy for the customer to apply the knowledge you just taught them, the overall value of your course increases.

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