Monday, July 16, 2012

Electronic Reference Materials on Field Trips: PDFs

Cover of Field Trip Guide viewed
on iPhone in Adobe  Reader.
In addition to traditional paper field trip guides for our upcoming geology field trip to Spain, we are also providing an electronic (PDF) version for students with smartphones and tablets.  In a previous post I discussed the benefits of using GIS apps to enable exploration and manipulation of the information that is typically presented on paper maps in a guidebook.  In this post I look at the benefits of a PDF version of the guidebook for use with Adobe Reader or other PDF apps.  

This electronic document approach also allows us to provide students with access to supporting reference materials that we couldn't fit into a reasonably-sized guidebook. Typically such extra materials would be available as single copies that only one person could examine at a time.  In addition, assuming our international WiFi hotspots are working, students with smartphones and tablets will also be able to access the wealth of information the web has to offer.

These days students are very comfortable working with electronic versions of documents, and the capabilities that apps like Adobe Reader offer.  Some of the benefits of electronic reference materials we are looking to take advantage of on this trip include:
  • Searchable -- As with any electronic document, one of the great advantages over paper is being able to search for text within the document, such as a formation name, an author, a city or road name, a species of fossil, etc.

Searching for references to the Buntsandstein formation
in the field guide in Adobe Reader on an iPhone.

  • Pan/Zoom -- A paper guidebook limits you to the resolution, scale, and paper size you select at the time of printing.  In the electronic version you can easily pan and zoom the contents of the guidebook, such as figures or maps.  You are of course still limited by the screen size of your device, and being able to view a large area at a readable resolution (i.e., text on a map) works better on tablets than smartphones.

A complete page view in
Adobe Reader on an iPhone.
Zoomed in to the Cameros Basin on the same page.
  • Clickable Table-of-Contents -- Students can click on a entry in a table-of-contents or index and jump straight to that section.  For instance, you might have major headings for each day and sub-headings for each stop.  Apps like Adobe Reader also provide intuitive features for navigating a document, like thumbnail pages, slider bars, etc.

Clickable Table-of-Contents in Adobe Reader on iPhone.
  • Links --The Table-of-Contents isn't the only place you can have links in your documents of course.  Field guidebooks often borrow heavily from papers or the web, and you can easily link references in the guidebook to the original publications -- providing them in electronic format as well, if you desire, or linking to them on the web -- for students who want to delve deeper on a subject.  
  • Scope of Information -- Printing costs and physical usability are among the things that limit the scope of materials you can include in a paper field trip guide.  By using electronic documents instead, you can include a wealth of additional, supporting reference materials for students who wish to explore further.
The main PDF app that we are recommending students use for this trip is Adobe Reader, as it is available for a variety of smartphone and tablet operating systems.  For iOS devices, students can of course use iBooks as well.  In brief preliminary testing with our guidebook and some large map sheets included as additional reference materials, we found that Adobe Reader seemed to perform faster than iBooks when it came to scrolling and zooming through those documents.

While PDF is pretty much the ubiquitous electronic document format today, particularly for scientific papers, there are other formats for which the above benefits are equally applicable, such as Microsoft Word or Google documents.  So you are not limited to one method or format for authoring a guidebook.  

In our case, the guidebook was created in Microsoft Word and optimized for printing on A4 paper (as we had the guide printed in Spain rather than before we left in the US.)  The electronic version was then simply created by saving it in PDF format, so little effort was required to produce it, besides making the table-of-contents clickable.

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