Adapting texts for use in the English language classroom

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The other day, Jen Artan was asking me about finding authentic reading material for my class that wasn’t too difficult. The comment was from a blog post I had written about Frequency Level Checker and so I thought it might be a good time to go through my steps in adapting material for my classroom. I know there is a lot of debate about adapting authentic material for the language classroom, but I feel there is a balance here that needs to be maintained between giving texts that are too difficult for students and needing students to be exposed to authentic language in use. I don’t believe that adapting a text has to take away from the authenticity and will make it better for students.

Step one: Copying the text

There are a few options here. If you already have the text in a document, there’s nothing more to do than just select the text and copy it. If you are copying from a website or a paper document, there are few more steps involved.

One of the problems of copying from webpages is the extra text you often end up getting due to a number of factors. To reduce, or even eliminate this, you can use one of the following bookmarklets (each page has instructions on how to install and use the bookmarklet with your browser):

Read Now from Readability: This bookmarklet converts the page you are on into a clean, readable page from which you can easily copy the text. Also works well when you have a page that is hard to read due to too many ads, small text, and other distractions. One of my favourite bookmarklets.

Text Only from Textise: This boomarklet converts the page you are on into a text only page. Unfortunetly, it also leaves all of the image tags and other extraneous bits. The nice thing is that it is plain text, so the formatting is completely stripped away which works well for some difficult pages.

Print Friendly from PrintFriendly and PDF: This bookmarklet makes the page you are on into a printable page and leaves you some formatting options as well. One nice thing is the option to remove the images from the page. You can also click on objects and lines on the page to delete them, allowing you to remove image captions and other header and footer data. You can also make the page into a PDF for printing.

Instapaper Text from Instapaper: This bookmarklet is similar to Read Now.

If your text is on a piece of paper somewhere or on a webpage or PDF that is locked, you can always convert the text into an image and then use OCR to convert to text. Here are some options for converting text:

Office Lens from Microsoft: This is a free mobile app for iOS, Android, and Microsoft Mobile devices. This is my favourite app on my phone. I use it for “scanning” all sorts of things from documents to business cards to rewards and membership cards that take up too much space in my wallet. Once the image is taken, Office Lens automatically crops and adjusts the image for clarity. You can then have the image automatically uploaded to OneNote which will take the image and run OCR to find text which can then be searched and / or copied. This is now my go-to app for documenting things.

OnlineOCR: This is a registration-free online app that converts images into a text file. It can also convert to a formatted Word document, but that doesn’t always works as well. The text is amazingly accurate, even more so than what I’ve found with Adobe Acrobat.

Google Drive: You can upload an image to your Drive account and convert the image to text by opening the image with Google Docs. In the new file, you will find the image at the top with the text down below. It works pretty well, but I find I have to strip away a lot of formatting first.

Step two: Highlighting difficult words

Once you have your text ready, go to Frequency Level Checker and check your text there for vocabulary level. Here are some general tips on usage:

  • Set Level 1 as black and then make all of the other options as red (ie. Level 2, Level 3, Outside Levels, and Symbols). This way you can get a quick visual of how many of the words are outside of the main 1000 words we use in General English. If your text is a sea of red, then it may be a good sign that the text is quite high. Even for a higher level class, a text with a lot of words above the first level may make it too difficult to read fluently.
  • Take a screenshot of the page or keep the page open for reference later on.
  • This is only a guide. Keep in mind that a particular word or phrase may appear multiple times throughout the text making the text look denser than it is.

Step three: Adapting the text

For words or phrases that are outside of the lexical range of my students, there are four options available to me: define, delete, simplify, or leave alone:

  • Define: If I feel the word is important for the student to know (eg. an important word for the story, or a word I think would be important for them to learn at this point), I can create a glossary of sorts for the story. This glossary should not be long, maybe in the 5-7 word range for a news article. I tend to just put the glossary in the story and will highlight the word (eg. make it bold). I may do something before the student starts reading as a pre-reading exercise, but I don’t find it makes much of a difference and often takes up more time than necessary.
  • Delete: This is a bit trickier since it often means re-writing a section of the story. Often times, I will take out a sentence that has some difficult phrasing if it doesn’t really add much to the story.
  • Simplify: This is what I primarily do to the difficult sections. I find easier ways to say something in order to make the story more readable. I know that there are some who say this takes away from the authentic reading experience, but that would only happen if I end up re-writing a large part of the text. I am only advocating for modifying a small percentage of the document in order to gain some fluency for students. If a text is 85% within the reading ability of my students and I can modify 10%, that makes it much more readable for the students.
  • Leave alone: There is a lot of debate over the ability of students to define words from context. I think there is a balance here and I often look for places where I can leave difficult words in a text knowing that students can make good predictions on meaning based on context and situation. This requires me to take time to think about the word in that context and whether or not there are enough clues to make an inference. Done well, this can be a really positive thing for students.

Example:

Here is an article I found in a local free newspaper. The article happens to also be online, so I don’t have to scan it in. “Toronto scientist sharing research in real-time”

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Since there is a lot of images, ads, and other things on the page, I used the Readability bookmarklet to strip all of the extra parts away.

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I then took the text and ran it through Frequency Level Checker, highlighting only the words that weren’t part of Level 1.

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Glossary words:

  • Publish
  • Research
  • Lab
  • Data
  • Online
  • Blog
  • Academic

I chose these words since I’m teaching an EAP course and we are looking at the validity of online research. I would then go and either create definitions or link to the online definitions. I tend to not just use definitions when introducing new vocabulary since it takes the word out of the environment in which it is used. Collocations, variations in form and definition, and so on are all things that affect the meaning of a word and need to be taken into consideration. In this situation, some of the words appear in various forms (eg. research, researcher, researching) and alongside other words (eg. academic research, academic science).

Deleted words / text:

  • Breaking scientific ground
  • Lay language
  • Access
  • Real time
  • Inspire
  • Take note
  • Avoid duplication
  • Huntington Protein
  • Cognitive
  • Physical decline
  • Huntington’s Disease
  • Glory
  • Create collaboration
  • Speed up
  • Openness
  • The norm
  • Sustain
  • Tied
  • Incremental breakthroughs
  • Obviously
  • Scooping
  • Super competitive
  • Out-compete

Many of these words were not that important to learn at this point, so I simply took them out. Some of these words could be quite useful to learn, but maybe at a different time. The goal here is fluency and some increase in vocabulary. Having too many new words and phrases takes away from the reason for the reading in the first place.

Learned from context:

  • Biomedical
  • Risk
  • Goal
  • Community

I felt that these words were important enough to leave in, but not really necessary to define. In most situations, if the student is unable to figure out the meaning from context or from using logic to piece it together (eg. Biomedical), then it doesn’t hurt the story. In these circumstances, if these words were simply taken out, the story still makes sense. I’m also making a guess that words like goal will already be known from another situation (eg. sports) and can be easily applied to this situation. This builds on their scaffolding.

The end result:

As researcher Rachel Harding works away in her Toronto lab, she’s doing something that hasn’t normally been done before.

She’s publishing her lab notes and data online along with blogging about her work in a simple way at labscribbles.com. She’s believed to be the first biomedical researcher to blog about her work as she is working on it rather than waiting for experiments to be completed or their results published.

When other researchers see what’s she’s doing, they can choose to build on it, use it to help their own work or simply make sure they are not doing the same thing as her.

“One of the biggest problems in the way academic science is done is everyone is kind of sitting in their own corner, not really talking too much to each and not sharing with everything,”

“Everything is being duplicated, and it’s the person who gets to the one point where they can publish first who becomes famous.”

The movement toward open access to scientific data movement is meant to help scientists and researchers around the world work together to make discoveries more quickly. But, this isn’t normal in the world of academic research. That’s because the money that’s needed for the work often goes to making big discoveries instead of the smaller pieces those discoveries are built upon, Harding said.

“The biggest risk about being open from the beginning is someone can come in, see what you’ve done, leave out all the experiments that didn’t work—which is going to happen—and they can reach the end goal more quickly than you” Harding said.

“But the goal here is that it isn’t a fight and we work as a community”

Text adapted from original news article written by Jessica Smith Cross

Sentence complexity, paragraph and sentence length, and text length remain about the same. There is plenty for the student to deal with here without adding too much to their plate. This whole process took a bit of time on my part, but in the end, it was much easier than trying to locate something that was perfect. I also have the flexibility of using texts that fit my students’ needs in content and language.

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Frequency Level Checker: Easily check the lexical level of a text

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As an English language instructor, I am always on the hunt for reading and listening material that I can use in my classroom. As simple as that sounds, it is always a tricky endeavor simply because most of the material created is meant for someone fluent in the language and makes use of a larger lexicon than language learners have.

While there are a number of tools that provide reading level scores such as Gunning-Fog and Flesch-Kincaid, these are designed for native speakers and are connected to student grade levels. They take into account sentence complexity and paragraph length along with vocabulary density, but don’t give an indication of what words, phrases, or idioms that increase the difficulty.

A few years ago, I came across a rather simplistic looking tool that has really helped me out over the years to find and edit text for my students that fits within their vocabulary level. Here is how it works:

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  • Find a text you would like to check and paste it into the box at the top of the page.

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  • You will find five options below the text box.
    • Level 1 = the main 1000 words we use in general English.
    • Level 2 = the next 1000 words we use in general English.
    • Level 3 = the 800 most used words in academic English.
    • Outside Levels = words not in the above three levels. Proper names fall under this category since they are not in the vocabulary lists.
    • Symbols = anything that is not a letter (eg. punctuation, numbers).
  • There are a few options on using the colour coding system:
    • Select the colour of the text for each of the levels by clicking on appropriate radio button. I tend to leave everything black that is not what I want to find and make the one or two levels in colour that I want to highlight. For example, if I am trying to find words for my intermediate level class that may be difficult for them, I select black for Level 1 and for Symbols, but make Level 2 red, Level 3 green, and Outside Levels blue.
    • If you want to only see words from a specific level or levels, you can hide everything else by choosing ‘Invisible’ for those levels you want to hide. This is helpful when you are building a glossary or are looking for lower level synonyms for simplifying/altering the text.
  • Once you have chosen your colour options, click on ‘Enter’ and a new window or tab opens up with three areas.
    • The main area in the top-left has the text in the colours you have chosen.
    • Along the bottom, you have the totals and percentages for each category, including word families. This is helpful for seeing what percentage of the text your students should know. Keep in mind you want the percentage to be pretty high (~95%) for fluency and for figuring out words from context.

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I hope that helps. Let me know what you think!

Create an online resource library with students using Send Ape

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One of the workshop sessions I have given over the past few years in on the creation of a resource library with students, a place for them to find reading or listening material that they can use outside of the classroom. Getting students engaged in extensive reading and listening is critical in their language learning process. The more they are exposed to the language in use, the more they are able to comprehend and make important connections.

I am also an advocate of students taking control of their own learning. They are only with me for a short time each week in comparison to time outside of the classroom. They need to learn how to learn on their own, a skill that many students have not yet been exposed to in a more traditional learning environment. Allowing students to choose their own reading and listening material is important since they will become more engaged in the process and also will learn the vocabulary necessary within the environment they plan on using English (ex. their major in university, their work environment, travel).

A large part of them taking control of their learning is in finding and creating content that appeals to them and then sharing that with others who may also find it helpful. This is simplified through the use of social sharing online, a cloud-based approach to the traditional library. This allows students to create audio or video content for listening, and also the creation of text-based material for reading. Even photos can used to share signs, newspaper articles, and anything else students find throughout their day that can be useful in learning language in context.

There are a number of ways of doing this, but there are certain obstacles that need to be overcome. One such hurdle is the use of online sites that require registration. If it at all possible, I try to use online tools that don’t require that students give up their personal information. Also, the site needs to be accessible from multiple devices, not just laptops or desktops.

One such site that works very well for this purpose is Send Ape. Send Ape is a file sharing site that allows for video and audio playback, document and image viewing, and multiple users without having to sign up or deal with advertisements. Here is how it works and how it may be used as a resource library:

  • Go to Send Ape and click on ‘Create new page’.

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  • Send Ape will give you a page with a unique name. From what I can see, there is no way to change this. In the middle of the page, you will see a dotted box that says, “Drop your files here”. You can either drag and drop your files into the box, or you can click on the box and you will be prompted with a file manager where you can choose your file.

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  • Once your file is loaded, depending on the file type, you will see it appear in a box on the righthand side.
  • Video files can be played in a window or fullscreen by clicking on the ‘Preview’ button. You can also click on the ‘Share’ button to get a direct link to the video in a new window. This is a great way for students to upload video they have taken on their mobile devices without having to sign up for YouTube. Lastly, students can also archive the video by clicking on the ‘Download’ button and adding it to their own device for offline viewing.

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Video pop-up window

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Direct link shared video file window

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  • You can listen to the audio files by clicking on the ‘Play’ button. You can also click on the ‘Share’ button to get a direct link to the audio file in a new window. This is a great way for students to upload audio they have recorded on their mobile devices without having to sign up for any site. Lastly, students can also archive the audio file by clicking on the ‘Download’ button and adding it to their own device for offline listening.

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  • Most documents, including PDFs and Microsoft Office documents, can be viewed directly in File Ape. Click on the ‘Preview’ button and a pop-up window will appear with the document.
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Document pop-up viewer

  • Click on the box icon with an arrow in it in the pop-up window and File Ape will open the document in a Google Document viewer that you can share with others.
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Google document viewer

  • All items are shared in a “page” that can be shared with others. You can create as many pages as you would like, although there is a 4GB limit if you use the unregistered option. Sign up and you will be given 10GB of storage and a login ID. Unfortunately, you will need to use a Google or Facebook account to register. There is not email option available.
  • To create a new page, click on the ‘+Add page’ button on the left side of the screen.

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  • There are a number of options available for each page.

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  • The far left button pops out the share options. The best choice is the link available at the bottom of the box. You can share this page with anyone using this link. It is also useful for when users switch computers without an account. More on that in a minute.

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  • The second button changes the view from ‘Blog’ view to ‘Thumb’ or ‘List’.
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Thumb view

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List view

  • The third button along the top is the sort button. Click to change it from most recent to alphabetical.

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  • The fourth button is the security button. Students can choose to add a password to the page before sharing.

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  • The fifth button along the top is the availability option. Users can set a date when to make it available and when to stop making it available.

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  • The last button is an important one. You can choose if visitors can add files to the page (great for students to have others give their input), can allow others to view their page (ie. make it private), or if visitors can delete items from the page (probably best kept off). Students can also delete pages here.

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So how would this work as a resource library with students? Have students create their own pages and then share them with the rest of the class with the option available for others to add content. Maybe one student is interested in computers. That student could make a list of reading and listening material that they have found or created and then share it with their classmates. Other students can then add files they find related to that topic to the page. This can be collected on a class website or a shared document. This becomes the reading and listening resource library for the class.

There are a lot of other great uses for Send Ape such as sharing videos with students, having students share their presentations on a page so the teacher can get them all lined up and ready when students are ready to present to the class. Teachers can share listening files with the class for those who missed class. Teachers and students could give feedback on writing assignments.

Here is a printable guide to creating a page as a resource library.

Here is a sample page you can add to. Please keep it clean! 🙂

Let me know what you think about Send Ape!

A guide to Dreamreader: A free online English reading site

dreamreader1Finding good reading material for English language learners, especially for mid to lower level adult learners, can be quite difficult. The other day, Michael Griffin introduced us to Neil Millington, the co-creator of Dreamreader. I took a look over the website and I am impressed with what I have seen so far. It is still in the early stages of creation, but there is plenty of content and more still to come.

I thought I would take some time here to give you all an overview of the site and what it has to offer you as a teacher and also your students on their own.

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At the top of the page, you have five options to choose from, including easy and academic English. Each lesson has a large image, an audio playback of the written questions, and interactive, multiple-choice questions. There are also a number of downloadable items such as printable versions of the page with answers and a separate audio file.

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After doing the quiz, a button appears below the quiz that takes you to the score and answers.

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Your answers and score then appear in a new window.

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The printable handouts look a great deal like the page, but with the answers found along the bottom of the page.

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Some lessons also incorporate a reading section and/or a video to watch.

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For the academic English section, you will also find a vocabulary handout included with the lesson.

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Overall, I think this is a good site for English language learners to practice their reading skills. In time, the site may evolve and add more components, but for now, I am already pretty impressed.

 

Thinkport Annotator Tool: A simple annotation tool with multiple highlighters

Image courtesy of Philippa Willitts

Image courtesy of Philippa Willitts

There are a fair number of ways to annotate a document with software or online tools, but Thinkport’s Annotation Tool is a simple, online tool that allows for teachers and students to markup and annotate a text using a number of coloured markers. The best part is it is free and students don’t need to give their personal information to use it. Here is how it works:

  1. Go to http://annotator.thinkport.org.
  2. Choose either Teacher or Student .Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 2.47.44 PM
  3. Select either to Create a new project or Manage an existing project.
  4. If you create a new project, give your project a unique name and then type in a password for you to manage the project. If the name already exists, you will get an error and you will need to rename it.
  5. If you manage an existing project, you will be asked for the project name and password.
  6. Once you are successful in either creating or logging into a previous project, give your project a name, a subtitle (could be a simple one line instruction), the author of the text, and a citation. Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 2.51.25 PM
  7. Type in or paste your text into the Text to Annotate box at the bottom of the page. There are some font, text, and pasting options in the toolbar at the top of the box. Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 2.51.47 PM
  8. There are a series of highlighters along the left side of the page. Label the colours to match what you would like the students to use that colour for. Only the colours you label will be available for the students when they log in. Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 2.51.36 PM
  9. At the top of the page, there is a Project Instructions button. You can use that to enter instructions for the students.
  10. Once you are done editing, click on the Save button. You can also choose to Save and Send Email, but I wouldn’t suggest it.
  11. Once you are ready to have students annotate the text, give them the main page link along with the project name.
  • Students who visit the main page, click on the Student button and then select Begin your assigned project. They can then enter the project name you have given them and create a new username and password for themselves. This can be used to log back in to edit the project at a later time.  Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 3.01.25 PM
  • To highlight a word, students choose a colour and then just click on the word. You can’t click and drag lick other programs. If you want to highlight multiple words, you click on the first word and then click on the last word. Everything in-between will be highlighted in that colour.
  • Once you highlight something, a box will come up and give you a chance to label your annotation with text. Student can either just save the project to edit later, or can save and submit to the teacher for review.
  • The teacher can then log in and click on Student Submissions to review them and add comments. If you do add comments for the students, make sure to click on Save Comments before leaving the page. Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 3.12.09 PM

While this isn’t the most comprehensive of the annotation tools I have used, it provides a safe place for students to use without having to give any personal information away (ex. email address). I also like the labels for the various colours. It’s also quite simple for students and teachers to use.

You can also find hundreds more webtools that don’t require student registration on my list here.

Let me know what you think and share your ideas for how you might use it in the classroom by adding your comments below. Thank you!

Convert scanned words into editable text using Google Drive

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia

In my class today, I wanted students to work through a transcript of a lecture that they had listened to earlier. We had worked through some of the content and comprehension material, but now I wanted to look at some of the language used throughout the speech. The problem was that the transcript was in very small text and was too long for me to retype. I wanted to have it both projected on the screen as well as printed out with larger spaces between the lines for highlighting and writing notes. To get around this problem, I used a trusty standby for me, Google Drive.

I am surprised how many people don’t know that you can convert scanned text into editable text using the built in text recognition feature of Google Drive. It works really well if the text is typed or written clearly. Here is how it works:

  1. Scan the text you would like to convert or take a really clear closeup photo of it.
  2. Go to Google Drive and log into your Google account.
  3. To make sure the upload settings are correct (this only needs to be done once), click on the gear symbol near the top-right corner of Google Drive, go down to ‘Upload settings’ and make sure there is a checkmark next to ‘Convert text from uploaded PDF and image files’. I also like to have Google ask me each time in case I am not uploading a text image. If you would like to do that, make sure there is a checkmark next to ‘Confirm settings before each upload’.
  4. Click on the up arrow next to the ‘Create’ button.
  5. Click on ‘Files’ and select the image you scanned.
  6. It may ask you something about the sharing preferences. Choose what works best for your situation.
  7. If you have asked Google to prompt you before each upload, check over the settings in the box that appears to make sure it still has the ‘Convert text from PDF and image files to Google documents’ selected and the language you would like it converted to is selected.
  8. Click on ‘Start upload’
  9. Once it is finished, you will see a new document appear in your Google documents. Click on it and it will open. The document will have the original image embedded in it along with the text. You can now copy and paste that text into a new document, presentation, etc.

I would suggest reading over the text carefully to make sure it didn’t make any mistakes, but usually it is really accurate.

I hope that helps!

Automate document conversions using EasyPDF Cloud and Dropbox

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There seems to be no end to the places you can convert documents online. Some work well, others are a disaster when it comes to output quality. Another problem is registration and options when it comes to input and output. An intriguing site is EasyPDF Cloud which offers users the option of using workflows to automate their conversions. You don’t need to register to have access to some of the conversion tools, but the real magic happens once you complete the free registration. EasyPDF Cloud can be connected to Dropbox to automatically convert documents from a single folder. Set up a workflow to convert Word documents to PDF, PDFs to Word documents or images, or merge PDFs. Here is how it works:

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No Registration use:
  1. Go to EasyPDFCloud.com and click on the conversion type you would like.
  2. Choose the file you want to convert.
  3. The Output Files list will appear. Click on the checkbox beside the new file and then click on Download button at the top.
Registration:
  1. Go to EasyPDFCloud.com and click on Sign Up button at the top.
  2. Choose a username, enter your email address (necessary to complete the registration), and password. Click on Sign Up.
  3. You will get an email with a link. Click on the link and you are done with your registration.
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Workflows:
  1. Once you are signed in, click on the Create Workflows button and you will see three sample workflows. You can edit those workflows by clicking on the Configure button on the workflow. Make your changes and then click on the Done button at the top.
  2. Create a new workflow by clicking on the New button at the top. Then choose your options of input, conversion, edits, and output by clicking and dragging the modules into the workflow space to the right. Order, re-order the modules as you see fit.
  3. You can link to your Dropbox account by clicking on the Dropbox Input module and then authenticating using the yellow button on the right. You will be directed to Dropbox where you can choose to accept or reject this connection. EasyPDF will create a new folder with two subfolders in Dropbox by default.
  4. Once you are done creating your workflow, you need to start it. At the bottom of each workflow box is a play button. Click on it and the box will go black indicating it is in use. The Dropbox workflows will monitor the designated Dropbox folder for files every five minutes. Just drop a file in the input folder and the file will be uploaded and converted before the output file is put into the output folder. NOTE: the file in the input folder WILL BE DELETED. Make sure you use a copy instead.

The biggest draw for me is the ability to convert documents using Dropbox. I only found this last night, but I am already thinking about how I could use it to make it easier to convert all of my old documents to PDF. I only wish it read Pages documents as well.

Got any ideas on how to use it? Add you comments or send me a Tweet. Thanks!