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Marc My Words: The Greatest Mobile Learning App Ever (until the next one comes along)

by Marc Rosenberg

November 9, 2010


by Marc Rosenberg

November 9, 2010

“For mLearning, tags have huge possibilities. They add depth and vitality to content in ways that significantly enhance just-in-time access to information, and improve understanding and performance. In print-based materials, tags add a new dimension of richness and authenticity.”

I pride myself on not being too geeky. I know that technology does not, in and of itself, make for great learning. But every once in a while an innovation comes along that has such interesting potential, I just can’t help myself. I’m talking about two-dimensional barcodes, or tags, sometimes referred to as “2D tags” or “2D barcodes.”

Editor’s Note: Parts of this article may not format well on smartphones and smaller mobile devices. We recommend viewing on larger screens.

No doubt you’ve seen these tags around. You can create them easily (more on this later), and they can hold a lot more information than traditional barcodes. Using your smartphone, you scan the tag and your phone quickly finds the associated content on the Web – from URLs, to maps, to contact information, to photos, videos, and more. Inexpensive scanners will also do the same for laptops and PCs.

Why is this exciting? Because almost any physical (non-Web) object can use tags to provide additional information, including multimedia content, precisely at the moment of need. In the travel industry, tags are sprouting up on maps and brochures, and near places of interest. At the Eifel Tower? Scan a tag and get a multimedia presentation on how they built the landmark. Going on a walking tour of a historic section of a city? Scan a tag to find local sights. Retailers are starting to use tags on in-store displays, showcasing product usage and customer testimonials. Print advertisers are inserting tags in ads to bring them to life and to link the reader with the product in more intimate ways. These are just some of the ways people are using tags. Contact information, phone numbers, and map coordinates are additional examples of information that one can embed in tags.

For mLearning, tags have huge possibilities. They add depth and vitality to content in ways that significantly enhance just-in-time access to information, and improve understanding and performance. In print-based materials, tags add a new dimension of richness and authenticity. By placing them in textbooks, user guides, and job aids, for example, you can easily provide users with significant – and updatable – learning enrichment, including additional resources, video-based demonstrations, expert presentations, and more. And no computer is necessary; just a smartphone.

On the job – in factories, stores, offices, warehouses, etc. – tags provide performance support. By placing them in locations where workers may need reinforcement, demonstrations, or special information, they can activate a tag to get content directly related to the current task.

So how do you do this?

Creating tags is easy (I know this because even I can do it). There are free and simple software apps that enable you to create tags on your computer, which you then save as images. You paste the images in or on your end product. There are also free and simple smartphone apps that read the tag. Two major tag formats are getting the most attention right now, and you can use both for mLearning: the QR tag format, and the Microsoft tag format. (See Table 1.)


Table 1. 2D tag formats


QR Tag

Microsoft Tag


Black and white, square format; looks like a randomly disbursed collection of pixels. Google is a heavy sponsor.

Color or black and white format; looks like a collection of geometric shapes in neat rows. A Microsoft product.


The most popular format right now. Open source. You see this tag type below on the left.

A newer, currently less used, format. You can graphically modify Tags to look like something else (e.g., a logo, a place of interest). This tag type is below on the right.

Tag Generator (this is one of many available) You will need a Windows Live ID (free).

Tag Reader (apps available for most smartphone operating systems)

Download any 2D or QR barcode reader from any mobile app store (most are free)

Visit on your smartphone’s browser, or go to the Microsoft site (noted above) for SMS instructions, or download the “Tag Reader” app from any mobile app store (free).

Placing tags

Paste tags in or on your material leaving white space around the tag.

Scanning tags with your smartphone

Open the scanner app, hold above the tag, and let it do the work.


Sure, you can still use lengthy URLs in your materials, but tags may do a better job in a more seamless and eloquent way. And, as smartphones become more dominant, access to tag readers will become widespread. Despite differing formats, and the potential for another VHS/Betamax or Blu-ray/HDVD type war, people will be using tags more and more in many aspects of business. We will not leave learning behind.

Try it!

Below are two tags, a QR tag (Figure 2) and a Microsoft tag (Figure 3). Download the appropriate reader(s) to your smartphone. Then print this article (or try scanning directly on your computer screen). Scan each tag with its associated reader and see where they take you (sorry for the shameless self-promotion in one of the tags). Now, start making your own. Create tags that link to videos, Podcasts, Websites, or social network pages for starters. Then use them to add value to your learning materials by linking directly to specific task-related resources.

Geeky or not, you’ll have to agree, this is pretty cool stuff.


qr code graphic

Figure 2. QR tag


microsoft tag graphic

Figure 3. Microsoft tag

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Appreciate this!
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Marc, GREAT explanation. I've seen people struggle to get this. Appreciate the clarity and will share vigorously! (And agree this tech holds enormous potential.)
Good stuff Marc - we just used QR codes extensively for the first time when running an ARG. Worked really well. They are quite unique looking things, so once they appear two or three times people starting asking questions and noticing them everywhere!
Thanks for sharing Marc. I agree, this can really enhance learning in many ways.
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