Small is Big: Converting PDFs to E-Learning Modules

What does a PDF bring to mind? Pages and pages of words? Lengthy research documents? Boredom at its peak? And no escape?

Well to some extent that’s true, considering the omnipresent nature of these documents that haunt you everywhere. PDFs have almost become a standard for writing company announcements, policies, terms and conditions, how to’s, newsletters, training material and what not. While some PDFs may be short, quite many of them – such as those used for writing policies & procedures, or for training purposes may be mercilessly long.


One of the biggest myths surrounding e-learning is that it is simply information presented on a computer screen. NO. Printed paper material could do that. E-learning is much beyond just saving paper – it is the realization of the full potential of instructional design by harnessing the functionalities provided by IT, such as interactivity, animations, call to actions, etc., in a manner that takes care of the cognitive load on learners. So, lengthy PDFs cannot be a part of an effective e-learning course. Existing PDFs, can however be converted into short e-learning courses, keeping the following things in mind:

Chunking content

Chunking content will be the basic task of converting any PDF to a course. The onus is on instructional designers to read through the entire document and divide it into portions.

  1. Begin by dividing the entire PDF into large identifiable sections.
  2. Scrutinize each section to assess if it can be made smaller. Any section which can function as a standalone topic should NOT be combined with any other. With e-learning or m-learning, small is big.
  3. Each standalone topic must have its own defined objective which elucidates what specific knowledge it would impart. Learners must feel motivated to take a course by learning from the objective that they will add these specific skills/knowledge to themselves. Learn how to write objectives here.
  4. Break paragraphs from the PDF into bullet points wherever possible. For example, if there is a one-page continuous introduction which talks about why compliance training is important, extract the points stated there and put them in a numbered/bulleted list “Benefits of Compliance Training”.
  5. While creating lists, do not go for more than 2 levels of indentation, i.e.
  • Many levels of sub-division may cause learners to lose mental track of the main sub heading. If there are too many subcategories that need to be covered, convert them into standalone topics as suggested in point
  • Use hyperlinks to connect these topics. This keeps pages neat while adding depth to the course.

Designing the layout

One of the drawbacks of PDFs is that they aren’t generally very appealing to the eye. Content is packed together so close, that learners tend to mentally reject it as soon as they encounter it. The result is, they might scroll up and down the doc, but actual learning hardly happens. While converting a PDF into an e-learning object, this drawback must be kept in mind. Using standardized colors creates an impact. If possible, use different color schemes for different kinds of topics, say all compliance training modules in black and red, while all marketing related modules in blue and black. Keep text neat and adequately spaced, but beware: adequately does not mean too much, spacing should be optimum. A pilot test or taking the opinion of a third person helps.

Embedding multimedia and interactivity

  1. Adding multimedia such as images, labelled diagrams, videos, etc. are literally worth thousands of words if you can add the right multimedia element at the right place. Don’t give in to the temptation of adding ‘empty’ multimedia just for the sake of it. This is the most common problem with images because of easily available resources such as shutterstock, flickr, etc.
  2. For explaining processes, diagrammatic life-cycles or chain processes can be incorporated wherein each step or stage in the process is clickable for further information.
  3. For difficult words or technical terminologies, create mouse over events. By hovering the mouse over a new term, a one-line description should appear in a bubble or box. This clarifies concepts to the core without students having to move to different pages or access the internet to understand. Remember: the easier it is to learn, the more they will.
  4. Use call-to-action (CTA) buttons in contrasting colors. CTA verbs such as ‘click’, ‘read’, ‘begin the course’, etc. create a sense of urgency and catch learners’ attention to find out more.
  5. Also embed quizzes or short crossword puzzles to increase interactivity as well as test the learning of trainees. Create them at the end of each short module and collect their scores. This will keep them motivated throughout the course.

PDFs are a source of rich and high quality material but often fail to keep learners on track. Thankfully, e-learning saves the day! Good luck!

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