Your Quick-Guide To Using QR Codes In Education

These funny looking checkerboards are cropping up everywhere – at zoos and in museums, in books, on airline tickets and driver’s licenses, on product packaging and store displays, online, and even in classrooms. They are rapidly replacing the standard old zebra stripe barcodes familiar since the 1970s and their popularity is due in part to their much greater versatility.

How is it that something as seemingly simple as a box with a bunch of smaller boxes inside it can be powerful enough to influence our daily lives and what benefits can they possibly provide for education?

What are QR Codes?
Quick Response (QR) codes are visually scanable data matrices that can, according to the Daring Librarian, store up to 7,089 numeric characters or 4,296 alpha-numeric characters – up to 590 times the information possible in a standard 12 line UPC barcode. This data capacity means that QR codes can store almost anything – URLs, text, math problems, etc.

Most often what they do when scanned is redirect the device to a website that contains more information about the item scanned. The technology for decoding these images is now fairly ubiquitous as they require only a smartphone or iPod with a camera and installed QR code reader applications. Here is a look at how they work from the University of Miami:

While these handy codes are being used extensively for marketing, even in higher education, there must be academic applications for such a prevalent technology.

Educational Application
There are many creative ways to use QR codes in the K-12 classroom such as creating interactive scavenger hunts, serving as writing prompts, and guiding student learning to online resources. Even with the wealth of possibilities, the use of QR codes is currently fairly shallow in higher education. Used primarily as marketing tools or to guide students to useful information about campus resources and events, there are some missed opportunities for taking advantage of QR codes in the higher education classroom.

  • Student Resource Collections:  As an instructor you can create a handout for students that contains a layout of QR codes each linked to an online resource that students are responsible for reading. Given the propensity for students to use e-readers and portable devices, this is a natural way to provide students with links to course material that instantly pops open on their portable devices.
  • Just-in-time Instruction: In a lab setting, for example, QR codes can be attached to work stations, equipment, samples, or other resources to provide students with detailed instructions, supplemental information, or links to relevant materials, all of which can enhance the students’ experience and ability to complete the assigned work.
  • Alternate Reality Games: Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) use digital information to change or enhance reality in some way. With some planning, QR codes can be used to help students imagine the world in a different way. Get started by using QR codes for a virtual scavenger hunt and expand on the idea from there. Here’s how.
  • Integration of Media into Presentations and Reports: Students can incorporate QR codes into a presentation or report to add information or resources that enhance the material. For example, in a sociology report, students could include QR codes which link to video recordings of actual oral history interviews. As another example, UC Berkley recently helped students supplement research symposium presentations through the use of QR codes.
  • Digital Storytelling: For the creative-minded student QR codes can be used as part of a digital story. This video example explains the concept  far better than words can:

YouTube video

  • Interactive Student Response: Again, given the prevalence of smart phones, tablets, and other connected devices, using QR codes to engage students during a classroom presentation is one possibility for making a lesson interactive. Any in-class activity can make use of QR codes to allow students to test their knowledge via multiple choice questions, provide tips for solving in-class problems, as group discussion starters, or as enrichment activities. The possibilities are only limited by the instructor’s imagination and willingness carve out the time to do the legwork to generate the codes.

These are just a few of the ways in which QR codes can be incorporated into the higher education classroom. Thinking about them as doorways for bringing outside resources into the classroom, or for helping student to connect with information beyond the walls of the university provides a starting point for thinking about how these simple little squares could enhance any lesson.

For more ideas check out this LiveBinders compilation by Steven Anderson which contains a great collection of resources about QR codes and their use in education.

The Benefits
Just like any new technology, QR codes have a learning curve to overcome before they can be integrated into the classroom. Fortunately, it is a pretty shallow curve, particularly if you already incorporate web-based resources into your curriculum. Even a slight curve can be daunting for some though, so here are a few of the benefits of incorporating QR codes that might help convince those who are reluctant to adopt new tech tools.

  • Coolness factor: While this is a minor consideration, being up-to-date with and incorporating the latest technology into your teaching makes students feel like their education isn’t outdated, and being an innovator never hurts with reappointment committees.
  • Interactivity: QR codes let students be active in their learning. At a minimum they offer an interesting way to push information to learners. At their best and most creative use, QR codes can provide true interactivity and engagement, and that translates to more effective and efficient learning.
  • Easy connections: One of the main reasons to use technology in education is because of its potential to make life easier for the teacher and the student. The scan and pop ability that QR codes give to portable devices accelerates the retrieval of information and can get students engaged more quickly than almost any other means of content delivery.
  • Accessibility: With a wealth of free QR code generation tools available online, this is a medium that requires little or no background knowledge or searching in order to find useful and helpful resources. This ZDNet article,  50 QR Code resources for the classroom, provides a comprehensive list of web-based tools that can get you started using QR codes immediately.
  • Portability: QR codes are intended to be used with portable, connected devices. Most students have them, expect to use them, and are excited by the prospect of being able to use them in the classroom. Additionally, the use of mobile technology and resources that support it frees students, instructors, and learning from the confines of the classroom. Learning can happen in more authentic contexts, or at times and in places that are convenient to students.

Ultimately the choice to use or not use QR codes in higher education comes down to a matter of personal preference. They do, to a certain extent represent a fad that will have its heyday then pass into obscurity (anyone remember Web Quests?), most likely to be replaced by the vastly superior Augmented Reality. However, using them now can simplify your life a bit and help to engage students. It will also help you understand what you are looking at the next time you go to a store and see a funny, spotty square on _________________ (fill in product name here).