As students, teachers and administrators return to physical school environments this year, many are bringing their remote workflows with them. Over the past two years, we’ve grown to appreciate the reliability of digital documents, and the simplicity of cloud-based collaboration — in fact, a September 2021 Hotwire survey reports that more than 70 percent of education leaders consider digital transformation a critical priority for their institutions’ success.

But even as 25 percent of educators at both the K-12 and higher-ed levels have switched from “wet” paper signatures to e-signatures, and 32 percent are investing in digital student information systems — citing “easier access to information” as the main reason for these upgrades — a full 77 percent of U.S. education workflows continue to rely on time-consuming, error-prone pieces of paper. One key reason for this lag is that many educators are digitizing individual documents without building a full-fledged digital document ecosystem.

What does it take to build a digital document ecosystem? Converting paper forms and worksheets to digital docs is a great first step. Secondly, you’ll also want to replace “wet” signatures with digital ones, using an electronic signing app; and, third, use cloud-based collaboration apps to enable real-time teamwork. Cloud storage apps serve as a crucial fourth component, providing secure organization and access for your digital docs. And finally, APIs and app integrations can help you automate entire paperless workflows — completing your institution’s transition from going digital to truly being digital.

So let’s take a closer look at each of the five key components of a digital document ecosystem — and see how easily your school can implement each of them as you progress toward a sustainable paperless future.

Component 1: Digital docs, converted from paper ones via a mobile scanner app

If teachers and admins at your institution scan paper worksheets into digital files, then you’ve already taken the first step toward creating a digital document ecosystem. Apps like Adobe Scan can make this process a (literal) snap, by turning any iOS or Android device (like an iPhone or a Samsung tablet) into a mobile high-resolution scanner. Scan uses a device’s onboard camera to capture a photo of any document, such as a handwritten homework assignment or job contract, and convert it into a shareable PDF file.

If a document has multiple pages, Scan automatically adds them to the same PDF, then lets you rearrange pages, adjust the borders and contrast, then export the PDF for sharing. Each document you digitize can save your school up to $13.50 in paper, ink, and faxing costs — which means an average K-12 school can save more than $120,000 when digital docs (instead of paper ones) are used.

Component 2: Electronic signatures, added to docs with a digital signing app

Once you’ve converted your school’s forms into PDF format, Adobe Acrobat Sign can help you take the next step, and integrate electronic document signing functionality directly into those PDFs. Adobe Sign plugs seamlessly into Acrobat, enabling you to send forms out for digital signatures simply by entering recipients’ contact info into the PDF itself — without any need for email attachments.

Each time a recipient opens a fillable PDF form, Sign guides them through the entire signing process, automatically scrolling to each location where they need to apply their signature. This streamlined signing flow reduces processing times for consent slips, liability waivers and individualized education program (IEP) forms from weeks to mere minutes.

Component 3: Real-time collaboration inside cloud-based documents

As time-saving as e-signatures are, they’re just one component of cloud-based document collaboration. Acrobat’s Sensei AI technology can simplify your form-filling processes even further, by automatically sending where each PDF’s response fields are located, and intelligently populating those fields with dynamic text boxes, drop-down fields, and multi-selection menus — and allowing you to add your own custom fields, along with a “Submit” button that lets recipients return the form to you with a single click.

Sensei saves you and your recipients even more time by automatically skipping to each fillable field on the form, prompting the recipient to fill in the blank, or pre-filling the blank with info they’ve already entered; then skipping to the next field until the form is completed. Acrobat even tracks which recipients have received your invitation to fill out a form, which ones have actually opened the PDF, and which ones have finished filling and signing it.

Component 4: A cloud-based digital cabinet to secure and organize files

Nobody likes digging through dusty old file cabinets for hard-to-find paper files — so it’s easy to see why 32 percent of institutions are replacing yesteryear’s file folders with digital student information systems. In fact, many of us already use digital filing cabinets like Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive on an individual or departmental basis, and know firsthand how helpful they are for organizing and finding digital docs.

As your digital ecosystem grows to the scale of thousands of files, though, you’ll want to scale up to a professional solution like Microsoft SharePoint or Adobe Creative Cloud, which provides much more powerful search and indexing capabilities. Cloud storage systems like these protect every document with best-in-class security, and even provide identity management services that’ll enable you to assign authorization levels to specific employees and devices, so you can make sure each document only gets opened by the people who are supposed to see it.

Component 5: Automated digital workflows using APIs and app integrations

As you continue to organize your digital forms and worksheets into a professional cloud storage system, you’ll discover that many repetitive tasks (like collecting signatures) can be automated from end to end using APIs and app integrations. For example, you can connect Adobe Experience Manager with Adobe Acrobat Sign to host digital forms directly on your institution’s website — so instead of typing in thousands of emails each time you want to share a form, you can simply give each student and staff member a personalized URL that lets them sign in and fill out the necessary forms whenever it’s convenient.

Taking this automation component a step further, you can plug Adobe Document Services and Microsoft Power Automate into your digital filing cabinet, enabling you to automatically create thousands of personalized PDF forms with a single click — then automatically extract data from each form when it’s completed, and populate a secure departmental database with that info.

Automating just one document workflow in this way can massively simplify your job — but on a larger scale, the results can be truly transformative. For example, admins at the University of New Mexico (UNM) rolled out automated e-signatures across their human resources (HR), procurement and finance departments throughout 2020, and shortened their approval process for vendor agreements from weeks to just days. UNM’s automated signing portal even enabled them to collect e-signed admission forms even during a data center blackout, convincing the admin staff to roll out e-signatures across many more departments over the next few months.

The numbers are clear: A single automated signing process can increase transaction speeds by 30 percent, improve compliance by 25 percent, and reduce errors by up to 85 percent —  significantly accelerating your department’s workflows while enhancing the security and consistency of each form you handle.

To discover more about how a digital document ecosystem can fuel your school’s journey toward digital transformation, visit the Adobe for Academics website, and our Education Resource Hub, for free guides and how-to videos. See you there!

Digital Documents