Giuseppe Vitellaro, Production Editor
To my professors, a humble request: please, for the love of your students, stop uploading Word files to Canvas!
I know this will be met with resistance from folks who have been posting the same .doc files for the past 10 years. I understand it’s easier to keep doing the same thing. I sympathize with your plight—you have a system that works for you, so why change? But seriously, for the sake of your students, please consider exporting those Word files to PDFs and uploading those instead. Let me explain why.
Let’s say that Microsoft Word is the forge at which authors hammer content into a usable form through copy editing and page layout. Without getting too technical, the design of a Word file (this includes .doc and its more modern cousin, .docx) is optimized for the document preparation process; it remains malleable throughout the stages of rewrite, rearrange, redesign and retains each minute change the author makes. In this regard, the Word file format is excellent. However, just as a blacksmith wouldn’t give a sword to a knight without first quenching the steel, so too should professors avoid giving this malleable format to their students.
Anyone who has ever tried to collaborate on a Word document knows the frustration of trying to make the formatting stay consistent across versions of Word. You’re on Word 2016, I’m on 2013, Jimmy is on a Mac, and the document looks different for all of us. Perhaps this is a fact of life for authors (or at least for those poor souls not yet on Google Docs), but it shouldn’t be the case for readers. Yet that’s what happens when professors distribute Word files to students, who are inevitably viewing those files across a variety of devices.
Furthermore, Word files cannot really be viewed anywhere but in Microsoft Word. So if, for example, I want to quickly check the syllabus, I have to download the file and wait for it to open up in the glacially slow and painfully bloated Microsoft Word. Returning to the metalworking metaphor, in order to simply view the contents of a Word file, I must don my gloves and apron, stoke the coals, and get my hammers ready, even if I plan on making no changes. Why? Because the Word file format is built for document preparation, not delivery. The internal structures of the file, although invisible to the user, are designed to give Microsoft Word everything it needs to let the user add all sorts of tables and charts and endnotes and for those additions to remain editable throughout the life of the document.
This makes for a complicated file format, which cannot really be parsed except by the tool that created it—Microsoft Word. Which is fine if I want to edit the document (assuming, of course, that I’m using the same version of the software on the same operating system), but again, I typically don’t have any need to edit things like an instructor’s syllabus. No, I would rather view it in the web browser or in a program like Adobe Reader, which are both purpose-built for quickly viewing content. Mercifully, Canvas has a tool that renders images of documents so users may preview them without downloading them, but this feature is only available in the web browser. If you are like me and use the Canvas app, the file cannot be viewed from within Canvas. Then I have to hope my phone has the right software to open the file. All of this to check the syllabus.
So, what do you do? How do you quench the steel? Enter the Portable Document Format, perhaps the most widely accepted document standard in the world of computing. A PDF file looks the same across devices and doesn’t require expensive, proprietary software—like, for example, Microsoft Word—to generate or view it. A PDF works great in the Canvas document previewer, in a separate browser window, in Adobe Reader, on my phone, etc. Sure, it’s harder to edit, but again this is a feature, not a bug—you probably don’t want your students changing your handouts. So when you’re done with your handout or syllabus or what have you, simply save a PDF version as well and send that to your students instead.
Even better: take the content out of the document and put it into “native” Canvas pages. This has the advantage of being viewed equally well in the browser and the app. Sure, this won’t work in all cases, especially in those where precise layouts are required, like on worksheets. But for the majority of documents, Canvas’ native format, HTML, is the best choice. This is a little more work, but it’s essentially copy and paste from the Word document to the Canvas text entry box.
There are other more technical reasons to prefer PDF or HTML over Word, such as concerns about proprietary formats or digital obsolescence, but in the interest of time, I’m asking you to trust me: Word is almost always the wrong choice for distributing documents. Ultimately, I ask this: why not take one extra step to save a PDF and upload that instead of a .docx? It will take you maybe an extra 30 seconds, and it will make it easier for your students to view your documents using whatever device they might have.