The 3 types of electronic signatures (plus examples of when to use each in education)
Over the past several years, an ever-increasing number of educational institutions have switched from “wet” paper signatures to digital signatures. A 2021 Hotwire survey, for example, reveals that 33 percent of K-12 schools are converting at least some of their paper forms to electronic equivalents, citing “easier access to information” as the prime driver behind this change.
But while electronic signatures can provide several advantages over paper ones, including tighter document signing security and enhanced identity verification, it’s crucial to be aware that not all e-signatures are equal. Different types of electronic signatures each provide their own balance between affordability and risk mitigation.
The three types of electronic signatures are simple e-signatures (SESs), advanced e-signatures (AdESs), and qualified e-signatures (QESs). Each is best suited for different scenarios and requirements, so it’s critical to understand their various use cases.
In this article
- Simple e-signatures provide little or no authentication at minimal or no cost
- Advanced e-signatures are linked to specific signers, but can still be vulnerable to fraud.
- Qualified e-signatures include third-party authentication, making them legally binding
Simple e-signatures (SESs), as their name suggests, are the easiest to implement. But since they don’t include any identity verification, they’re best limited to use cases like attendance sheets and other basic forms. Advanced e-signatures (AdESs), by contrast, provide a somewhat higher level of verification — while even more secure qualified e-signatures (QESs) include built-in third-party identity assurance that makes them legally binding, but which may not be necessary for everyday document signing.
When’s the right time to use each type of electronic signing? The answer depends on your institution’s decision framework for document workflows — and your ideal balance of cost versus risk tolerance in various signing scenarios. Let’s take a closer look at these three digital signature types and see examples of when and where educators are finding each one most helpful.
Simple e-signatures provide little or no authentication at minimal or no cost
The most common digital signature type in use today is a simple e-signature (SES), which can be applied to a document by anyone who opens it — often with a single click or a few strokes of a mouse or fingertip. Like the “wet” paper signatures of earlier decades, an SES doesn’t include any verification that the signer is who they say they are, or even that they intended to sign the document in question.
One key reason simple electronic signatures are so widespread is that they’re extremely cheap and easy to implement. Most apps that can open a PDF now come with built-in SE functionality, while numerous websites enable users to apply SESs to digital documents for free. The wide availability and affordability of SESs can make them useful for low-stakes use cases like signing classroom and field trip attendance forms.
Still, SESs’ simplicity means they suffer from many of the same vulnerabilities as traditional paper-and-ink signatures. Just as some students of yesteryear learned to fake their parents’ signatures on absence slips and grade cards, anyone who can open a document and imitate another person’s signature can easily forge an SES. Even if an app or website requires users to be signed in to apply an SES, anyone with access to that user account can simply sign in and apply someone else’s SES to any document they open.
For all these reasons, SESs are not legally binding. They provide little or no protection against fraud — or even against simple misunderstandings, such as a student accidentally applying another student’s SES to a document while signed into the wrong user account on a shared device. However, they’re so easy and affordable to implement that many educational institutions use them across a variety of low-security signing scenarios.
Example use case: Collecting student signatures on a field trip attendance form when teachers can independently verify each student’s attendance.
Advanced e-signatures are linked to specific signers, but can still be vulnerable to fraud.
The next step up from an SES is an advanced e-signature (AdES), which is clearly and uniquely linked to a specific signer in a way that’s under that signer’s sole control and enables the signer to be formally identified. Most AdES providers aim to ensure this higher level of authentication by means of a digital certificate, which (ideally, at least) is linked to a piece of personal info like a phone number or student ID, or to a particular device.
While advanced electronic signatures tend to be somewhat more expensive and complex to implement than SESs are, many institutions consider this a fair tradeoff for the tighter security they provide. AdESs are ideally suited for use cases in which some degree of identity verification is desirable, but where full-fledged legally binding identity assurance isn’t necessary. For example, they may come in handy for administrative documents like class add/drop forms, and for signatures on non-binding agreements like volunteer sheets.
However, it’s essential to remember that an AdES is only as secure as the verification method(s) it uses. For example, many AdES providers allow users to sign with their own self- created certificates — which means you’re still effectively taking the signer’s word that they are who they say they are. In short, while multi-factor authentication can help protect AdESs against many simple forms of fraud, it doesn’t make these signatures secure enough for legal contracts and other formal agreements.
Example use case: Obtaining a student’s signature on a class drop form, which requires some security and identity verification but doesn’t have to be legally binding.
Qualified e-signatures include third-party authentication, making them legally binding
The most secure type of digital signature is a qualified e-signature (QES), which requires the signer’s identity to be verified by multiple third-party trust service providers (TSPs). In Adobe Acrobat Sign, for example, we use cloud signatures backed by the Cloud Signature Consortium (CSC) standard, in which TSP experts authenticate each signer’s identity via a mobile app, a username/password combo, and/or a video call where the signer must present a driver’s license or other government ID.
This multi-factor authentication process creates a unique audit trail attached to every qualified electronic signature. (Adobe Acrobat even enables you to view the audit trail for a QES by clicking on that signature’s properties in a digital document.) Each QES’s audit trail makes it legally equivalent to a handwritten signature, which means most jurisdictions consider a QES to be legally binding on most types of written agreements.
The ironclad identity assurance built into QESs makes them ideally suited for vendor contracts, tuition agreements, and other formal documents that might need to hold up in a court of law. In use cases like these, the TSP verification process provides effective risk mitigation by authenticating each signer’s identity, verifying their intent to sign, establishing their consent to do business electronically, and proving that they did in fact sign the document in question.
Example use case: Finalizing a vendor contract or tuition agreement, which will serve as legal proof that a person or company has entered into a formal relationship with your institution.
As your institution weighs the risks and affordability of these three e-signature types, it’s worth remembering that this isn’t an all-or-nothing decision. Many institutions, for example, reserve QESs for high-stakes documents while using AdESs for administrative forms and SESs for everyday attendance sheets.
You’ll derive the most benefit from each type of e-signature by considering what type of security is necessary for each use case — and which document workflow will make the signing process as seamless as possible within those requirements.
To discover how easy it is for your school to create legally binding electronic documents with Adobe Acrobat Sign, check out our free webinar, Demystifying E-signatures. And to explore how Adobe technology can power your school’s digital transformation journey, visit our Education Resource Hub for handy step-by-step guides. See you there!