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QR codes decoded

Smile! You’re online using your smart phone camera

Lately you might have noticed small black-and-white or multi-colored squares on the pages of your favorite catalogs and magazines. These squares aren’t an attempt to introduce abstract art into your life but rather another means of conveying information in our already information-packed world.

These squares are called QR codes or mobile tags. QR stands for “quick response,” and the design of the square is actually a two-dimensional bar code that can be interpreted by a smart phone camera or webcam. The user “scans” the QR code using a smart phone/iPod Touch application or QR-code reading software, and the app directs the user’s browser to further information online. For instance, at Sephora stores, the shelves are lined with QR codes; customers can use their smart phones to scan the codes and see videos about how to apply the makeup in question. In Japan, billboards frequently feature QR codes, and U.S. marketers are starting to catch up.

So are educators. Not only are QR codes easy to use, but also they are easy to create.

How to scan QR codes

In order to use QR codes to access information, you will need a QR-code app for your smart phone or, if you have a webcam, software for your computer (such as QuickMark). Some smart phones come with QR-code readers preinstalled; if not, search your provider’s app store for “QR code.” (In order to read the multi-colored Microsoft Tags, you will need the app available at Download and install the apps, and then test them using the sample codes on this page.

How to use QR codes in the classroom

It’s easy to see how QR codes might be a marketer’s dream, but how can educators use them? Education bloggers are filled with ideas.

The British educational technology blogger Tom Barrett (who writes at reported on his experiences using QR codes in a Nov. 25, 2010, post. Rather than relying on smart phones, he gave his elementary-age students printouts of QR codes and had them hold the printouts up to webcams on netbooks loaded with the QuickMark software. Writes Barrett: “I know that my class can all get to a website faster and with less intervention using the codes. This is technology increasing independence and solving a real classroom problem.” You can read Barrett’s post by scanning QR code No. 1 on this page.

Washington, D.C., middle school librarian Gwyneth Jones (who blogs at uses QR codes to send students on digital scavenger hunts around her library. (Students who don’t have smart phones may check out an iPod Touch.) You can read about Jones’ experience by scanning QR code No. 2 on this page.

How to make your own

Making your own QR codes or Microsoft Tags is just as easy as scanning them. One easy way to turn a URL into a QR code is through the URL-shortening site Simply input a Web address into the URL shortener, and a QR code will be generated. Right-click on the code to save it to your computer as you would save any image. (To create a Microsoft Tag, visit

Mobile tagging: Using a smart phone camera to scan a special bar code called a quick response code or QR code in order to be directed to an online video or presentation.

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