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Unleashing the Power of Document Sharing for Students, Faculty, and Administrators in Higher Education

While messaging via email or learning management system (LMS) has emerged as the critical and comfortable link for daily information exchange in higher education, it has unfortunately also become a platform for document sharing, an activity for which it is ill-suited. Faculty distribute important documents such as syllabi and test notes in attachments to email, a time-consuming practice that greatly increases the risk that recipients will wind up with outdated or incorrect information. Administrators commit the same error when sharing policy documents and other critical communications. A platform specifically designed for document sharing is critical in these environments.

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Introduction

While messaging via email or learning management system (LMS) has emerged as the critical and comfortable link for daily information exchange in higher education, it has unfortunately also come to double in many institutions as a platform for document sharing, an essential activity for which it is ill-suited.

Faculty distribute important documents such as syllabi and test notes in attachments to email or other messaging media, a time-consuming practice that greatly increases the risk that recipients will wind up with outdated or incorrect information. Administrators commit the same error when sharing policy documents and other critical communications.

Sharing documents through links on school websites or LMSs avoids some of the problems inherent in sharing attachments, but doing so is often inconvenient for faculty and staff, and an additional burden on IT staff maintaining the website. Doing so also shares another fundamental flaw with distributing documents through message attachments: What if the recipient does not have the application or viewer program required for reading the document type attached?

This whitepaper describes how the use of a document sharing environment designed for the purpose can enhance communication effectiveness in higher education settings.

The Trouble with Attachments

When sharing syllabi, notes, example files, and other document-based content to students, faculty often simply attach document files to a message and broadcast it to a class list, either through a university email system or through messages generated from an LMS. The pitfalls in this practice are both numerous and common, and fall into five categories:

  • Bandwidth: University email systems can have message-size limits as low as 10 MB, preventing the attachment of larger or multiple documents. Even when the sender’s limit is sufficient, the recipient may have a smaller limit that thwarts delivery.
  • Distribution: As drop/adds and other roster changes occur and employees come and go, address lists quickly fall out of date. It is all too easy to rely on an outdated list and fail to send a document to everyone who needs it, or to send it to a person no longer authorized to see it. Spam filters may hide important communications, with neither the sender nor the recipient aware of the problem until it’s too late.
  • Versioning: Often the same document is sent out multiple times to the same list, in a single thread, as the document evolves. Sometimes these threads become quasi-collaborative, with recipients editing the attachments and then using Reply All to share altered versions with the entire list. Senders can lose control of what constitutes the “official” communication, and recipients can accidentally download and act upon a document that contains outdated or inaccurate information. Who is to blame when a student completes the wrong assignment because the correct, current syllabus was buried in an email thread among other, inaccurate versions?
  • Viewing: Even when the right document reaches the right recipients as an attachment, there is no guarantee that all recipients will have the necessary program to view the document. If it’s a Microsoft Word document or a PDF, does the recipient have Microsoft Word or Adobe Reader? What if it’s something less common, like a slideshow, or an infographic in an image file format? What if the recipient receives the attachment on a tablet or phone, where support for even common Word and PDF formats can be spotty, and wants to read it there?
  • Convenience: Attaching and reattaching document files in email or LMS messaging systems and keeping up with which documents have gone out to whom is an ongoing headache for professionals in higher education. It can strap their productivity, and overburdened professionals may simply not bother to apply the care required to ensure that important communications always reach everyone who needs them.

Document Viewing as a Vehicle for File-Sharing

A multi-platform document viewer is a single interface through which a range of different document file types can be viewed on a range of different systems and devices. Some document viewers are browser-based, using an ordinary web browser as the vehicle for displaying documents.

You have used browser-based document viewers, even if you may not have been aware of it. The tools for previewing email attachments in cloud email systems like Yahoo! Mail are document viewers. And right now, you are viewing this whitepaper through a browser-based document viewer in a cloud service for document-sharing.

With a browser-based document viewer, the document is displayed within a viewer window featuring buttons for paging, and sometimes for other activities such as searching the text, zooming in and out, or printing and downloading the document where security policy permits. More importantly, a browser-based document viewer can display a variety of file types without additional software, so those who need to see the document don’t need the file’s native application or another viewer program. So called “zero footprint” document viewers run in common HTML5 browsers, including those on smartphones and tablets, to enable users to read documents in multiple file types without any software other than the HTML5 browser itself.

Deployed through an education website, document viewing technology can circumvent problems inherent in other forms of document sharing commonly used in higher education:

  • Bandwidth: Attachment size limits no longer apply, and very large files can be shared.
  • Distribution: Recipients can be directed to website containing current documents and communications, eliminating the managing of address lists and repeated messaging.
  • Versioning: When a document is accessed through a document viewer in a website, multiple versions cannot persist as they do in email threads. Updating the document requires only replacing the file on the server. When students, faculty or staff open the document, they see only the current, correct version.
  • Viewing: A broad range of file types can be published, without concern about whether readers will have the native application to view the document.
  • Convenience: Viewers can be configured to enable non-technical faculty and staff to post and replace files on the server, so sharing a new or updated document takes only a minute and only needs to be done once, no matter how many people will view it.

Low-Impact Implementation

Document viewers come in several types. Server-based document viewers are the preferred type in many higher-education institutions because they are easy to administer, scalable and robust, and enable the school to keep document files secure behind a firewall.

But there also are cloud-based document-sharing services like the one you are using now that supply not only the viewer, but also the web page to put it on. Such services enable users to upload a document file to the Cloud and present it on its own customizable page, with its own URL. Users often set up a document on the service and then share a link to it through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites.

Conclusion

Effective communication is the cornerstone of outstanding higher education. Though evolving technology has incrementally overcome many of the challenges that faced early adopters of electronic communication in education, many have not yet grappled with the inherently error-prone, time-consuming way in which they handle the essential task of document sharing.

About Accusoft

Tampa-based Accusoft provides a full spectrum of document, content and imaging solutions as fully supported, enterprise-grade, best-in-class client-server applications, mobile apps, online and cloud services, and software development kits (SDKs). Accusoft products work reliably behind the scenes for capturing, processing, storing and viewing images, documents and more. Add barcode, compression, DICOM, image processing, OCR/ICR, forms processing, PDF, scanning, video, and image viewing to your applications. For more information, please visit www.accusoft.com.

To learn more about the benefits of document viewing technology, please contact info@accusoft.com.