Ensure access to PDF documents

Often books or paper documents are photocopied and saved as a PDF in such a way that results in an “image” of the document rather than real text.  Image-based PDFs can also result if a digital document printed to Adobe PDF.

People who have low vision, blindness or those who struggle with reading may use assistive technology which converts text to speech. A document which is an image of text rather than real text is not usable by most types of text-to-speech tools.  Converting a text-based document to an audio file also makes it easy for students to listen to the document when they are traveling, if they have eye fatigue or potentially while working out.  

You can determine whether the document is an image or real text by dragging your cursor over the text. If you can highlight the text, line by line, then it is probably real text.

example of scanned text showing individual words highlighted

If you drag your cursor over the document in Adobe Reader and a box is drawn around the text, or if you are in a browser window and you are not able to search for an obvious word like “the”, then it is likely an image of text.

scanned text with highlight covering a block of text rather than individual lines

Colgate subscribes to SensusAccess, a web-based tool that will convert an image-based PDF to a text-based PDF or several other formats, including audio (MP3), Microsoft Word (DOCX), plain text (TXT), Braille and HTML. SensusAccess can be used by anyone with a colgate.edu email address.

Find more information about SensusAccess on the Colgate.edu website.

SensusAccess is also available in Moodle where Moodle course documents can easily be submitted to SensusAccess for conversion to alternative formats.

screenshot of moodle course home page showing link to sensusaccess

Conquer the Moodle scroll of death

When I was learning Moodle, it didn’t take me long to start searching for a way to reduce the length of my course home page.  My research quickly revealed that the long list of Moodle topics and linked activities and resources is aptly referred to as the Moodle scroll of death.

So how can we reduce the cognitive load for students when looking at the Moodle course home page?  There are multiple ways which can be found by searching “Moodle scroll of death”, but I’ll introduce the one I think is the quickest and easiest.

Just the Facts

Display only the topic headings on your Moodle course home page.  One click takes students to the content for that topic. Try it, you can always return to your original format.

If you are using the Topics format – the default for all new courses – follow these steps to avoid the Moodle scroll of death.

  1. Go to the course settings by clicking on the gear icon to the right of the course name
  2. From the menu, select Edit settings
  3. Scroll down to select and expand Course format
  4. Change the Course layout option to Show one section per page
  5. Select Save and display
  6. If you have editing turned on, you won’t notice a change. Turning editing off will show what students will see when they open the course.  They simply click on the topic heading to reveal the activities and resources for the selected topic.


The second option for reducing the scroll of death is to order your content so that the current topic that the students need to focus on is at the top.  You can achieve this by ordering your topics in reverse order, say putting week 15 at the top followed next by week 14, then week 13, etc.  Then you can hide those weeks until you reach that point in the course when students need to see the content.

To hide a topic, with editing turned on, select the Edit link to the right of the topic heading. From the menu, choose Hide topic.  Follow the same steps to Show topic when the time is right.  Alternatively, you can ask Moodle to unhide the topic as of a specified date using the Restrict Access option. Select the Edit topic menu item, scroll down and expand the Restrict access options and Add a restriction based on Date or any of several other options.

This approach may not be appropriate for all courses if you want students to be able to look ahead in the course but it can be an effective way of focusing their attention on the current content.