What is it?
QR codes are two-dimensional bar codes that can contain any alphanumeric text and often feature URL's that direct users to sites where they can learn about an object or place (a practice known as “mobile tagging”). Decoding software on tools such as camera phones interprets the codes, which represent considerably more information than a one-dimensional code of similar size. The codes are increasingly found in places such as product labels, billboards, and buildings, inviting passers-by to pull out their mobile phones and uncover the encoded information. Codes can provide tracking information for products in industry, routing data on a mailing label, or contact information on a business card. Small in size, the code pattern can be hidden or integrated into an esthetically attractive image in newspapers, magazines, or clothing.
Who’s doing it?
QR codes are popular in Japan, where they are used for commercial tracking, logistics, inventory control,
and advertising. Their popularity
is climbing in Europe, the United States, and Canada as people increasingly
use mobile phones to access 3G networks. So far, their application in learning has been limited, used by some instructors in slide presentations to direct students to web sites where the slide deck is hosted or where supplementary information can be found. In England, a grant-funded venture led by Andy Ramsden at Bath University investigates ways to use QR codes in academic settings.
As other institutions have signed on to the effort, Ramsden has conducted “idea factories” (brainstorming sessions) at those campuses, resulting in a number of proposed uses for QR codes, including putting them into library books with the renewal phone number encoded (University of Gloucester) or putting them in equipment rooms where they might be scanned to access a how-to manual (University of Leicester). Some see potential in using QR codes to direct students to RSS feeds or lecture podcasts. In physical learning spaces, QR codes might indicate what types of learning take place in each area or provide a link to scheduling software that offers the opportunity to reserve a room. QR codes might also be effective repositories of data in problem-solvingactivities involving role play or alternate reality games (ARGs). In Australia, for instance, a promotional ARG for the movie Quantum of Solace used QR codes to hide clues in the unfolding game.
How does it work?
Data can be translated into a QR code by any QR generator, many of which are available free online. Users simply enter the data to be translated, and the generator produces the code, which can then be displayed electronically or in printed format. Decoding the information
can be done with any mobile camera phone that has a QR reader, which is freely available online for most devices. Once the software is loaded, a user points the cell phone camera toward the code and scans it. The software interprets the code, and the cell phone will either display the text or ask for permission to launch a browser to display the specified web page.
Why is it significant?
The idea of linking spaces to information is not new, but QR codes combine simple creation with easy access to QR code readers. As a result, QR codes might kick-start widespread thinking and innovation around information connected to locations and objects. In museums, for example, QR codes might appear on plaques beside art displays, directing patrons to information about the artwork
and the artist. QR codes posted on a building might offer visitors the history of the building itself or the corner on which it stands, and they might give the architect’s name or discuss the events happening in the city when the building was built. At botanical
gardens, codes could direct users to information about the medicinal uses or food value of botanical specimens on display or offer data about the climate or soil requirements necessary for certain plants to thrive. Because QR codes are so inexpensive, they might even be printed as stickers and temporarily added to campus signs for a class activity.
What are the downsides?
Not everyone is aware of QR codes. As a result, not everyone who sees one will know to pull out a cell phone and take a picture of the matrix. Not everyone owns a camera phone, and because many cell phones do not include a QR reader, the software must be downloaded and tested. Moreover, a QR code might direct users
to a website that does not display properly on a cell phone. Taken as a whole, it is impractical to expect students to be able to capture coursework information from QR codes without some support. Beyond that, while projects like the one at Bath University are investigating potential uses, the challenge remains to find appropriate
and effective pedagogical uses of QR codes.
Where is it going?
QR codes can store quite complex information in a small matrix. As awareness grows about how useful they are, we can expect to see them in more public venues. Commercial packaging will display codes with detailed nutritional information or links to websites
where users can play the latest product-associated game or register for updates or coupons. In academic uses, QR codes on student tests could help ensure anonymity in grading. Posted next to artwork or in musical or theatrical programs, QR codes might lead students to open forums where they could join in community
discussions about what they’ve heard or seen. In scientific endeavors, QR codes could take the place of printed labels; attached
to lab work, samples, or medication options, they could preserve confidentiality of participant names.
QR codes may presage other applications that use mobile devices to decode information. Already one popular mobile application interprets
the music signature of a song it “hears” and provides the name of the work and artist. New applications might read photographs
and employ face-recognition technology to provide a name and related data or identify a pictured object and direct users to online resources about it. The technology may evolve so that data embedded in a QR code can be interpreted differently by different viewers; that is, passwords or biometric data might open more data to some authorized users, or viewer signatures may unlock different information sets.