QR Codes in the Classroom

by Susan Brooks-Young

QR codes are making a jump in the world of education. Find out how you can incorporate them into your classroom.

You’ve seen the square black-and-white codes that appear on everything from newspaper and magazine pages to soft-drink cups and cereal boxes. Called QR codes, these scannable images are designed to provide quick links to a variety of digital resources: websites, images, audio recordings, and more.

You may be wondering where the connection lies between something frequently used for advertising purposes and the classroom. In part, it’s the engagement factor—students and adults alike enjoy scanning QR codes because it’s fun to see where they lead. But more importantly, there are solid academic reasons for using QR codes.

QR codes can be used to extend teachers’ reach in and outside of the classroom. Not only that, students can use the codes in demonstrations or presentations of what they have learned. This column explores specific ways teachers and students can generate and use QR codes to support teaching and learning. We’ll start with an explanation of what QR codes are, how to create them, and how they are scanned. Then we’ll move into a description of ways classroom teachers are using QR codes to enhance instruction in the classroom and away from school.

What Is a QR Code?

Quick Response (QR) codes are not the same as barcodes. How do they differ? Used to track store inventory or for customer checkout, barcodes are comprised of lines and 12 numbers. Data are represented by varying the space between the lines and the width of the lines. Barcodes are considered to be one-dimensional and are read using an optical machine—fixed or hand-held. UPC barcodes are very familiar in the United States.

QR codes are two-dimensional scannable data matrices. The contents of the code are deciphered using the camera on a mobile device and an app for scanning. The data in QR codes are arranged using square dots on a square grid. The most common color scheme for QR codes is black square dots on a white background, but it is possible to use different colors. More than 7,000 numeric characters or about 4,300 alpha-numeric characters can be stored in a QR code, far more than what can be stored in a UPC barcode.

What kinds of data can be embedded in a QR code? Quite a selection—including website URLs, text messages, voice messages, documents, images, videos, and virtual business cards. Most QR codes require an internet connection to work, but some do not. For example, text messages and contact information are accessible with or without the internet.

Generating QR Codes

QR codes appear to be complex in design, but they are easily generated. All that’s needed is the information that will be embedded in the QR code and access to a website called a QR code generator. There are many generators to choose from. Some are completely free to use, while others offer free features. There may be times when it’s handy to use a paid feature, but educators usually find that, with a little creative thinking, they are able to meet all their QR code generation needs with free sites or the free features on paid sites. For example, some generator sites charge a fee to produce codes for document files. A no-cost way to create codes for these files is to post them in a public or shared folder in the cloud using Dropbox or a similar service, capture the URL for the uploaded document, and then generate a QR code using that web address.

Various QR code generators offer different features. For example, Kaywa.com is very basic. Copy a URL, navigate to Kaywa.com, paste the URL in the text box, and a QR code is generated. There are six other types of information that can be made into QR codes using this site, but the options are limited. QRStuff (QRStuff.com) allows users to create QR codes that link to a wide variety of digital resources: websites, text messages, and YouTube videos, to name a few. Some generator sites offer a feature that allows users to change the color scheme of the QR codes from black and white to something else. Take care if you decide to do this. There must be sharp contrast between the two colors used to make up a QR code if it is going to be scannable. This is why the color scheme of choice is usually black and white. If the two colors are closely related, (e.g., green and blue), the QR code may be unreadable.

Along with the need for sharp contrast between colors making up a code, there is a reason why QR codes have a white border. This margin separates QR codes from nearby text or images. Without this white space, the code may not be scannable. Finally, the small squares that appear in three of the corners of every QR code allow the scanner app to read the QR code no matter how it is orientated, so you don’t need to worry about which side of the square is the top.

Once it is generated, right click on the QR code while it is still visible on the computer monitor and save the image to the computer’s hard drive as a jpg file. You may want to create a special folder to store all your QR codes. Take the time to give each QR code image a name that will help you remember later what that code links to. The next time you want a quick link to that URL or message, you can save time by reusing the existing QR code.

Because you’ve captured QR codes as jpg files, it’s easy to copy and paste one or more into all kinds of digital files so they can be scanned. If you decide to print QR codes, be sure that the image is crisp and clear. A smeared or faded QR code cannot be scanned. Try one or more of these QR code generators:
•    Kaywa: The free version of this QR code generator can be used to create codes for seven different kinds of information.
•    QRStuff: The free version of this QR code generator allows users to generate QR codes for 20 different kinds of digitized information.
•    QR Voice: Generate free, brief synthesized voice messages.
•    QR Code Treasure Hunt: Enter a series of questions on this site to create a QR code for each. Then post the codes so students can complete a treasure hunt.

Scanning QR Codes

Having a QR code is not enough. In order for QR codes to be useful, there must be a way to access the information embedded in them. This is done through a process called scanning. Most often people use the camera on a smart phone, tablet, or similar mobile device and an app for scanning QR codes. There is a long list of free QR code readers to choose from, but some are better than others. The i-nigma app is free, runs on iOS and Android, and tends to be very reliable. Scan – QR Code and Barcode Reader is a free app that runs on Windows 8.

To scan a QR code, open the app, point the camera at the QR code, and wait for the app to scan the code. As mentioned earlier, QR codes often require an internet connection to link to the digital resource, but not always. Text messages and contact information are accessible off-line as well.

Use of a mobile device may be most common, but alternative methods for scanning QR codes exist as well. This is of particular interest to educators whose students may have cell phones with cameras but no data plan, or who may be using a laptop instead of a smaller mobile device. In terms of development, these work-arounds are in their infancy, so reliability may be dicey, but they are worth a look for students who have no other alternative. Try QuickMark, a free download that allows users to scan QR codes via an image file, a screen capture, or by using a webcam. There are also extensions for the Chrome browser that make it possible to read QR codes embedded on web pages.

Classroom Use

It’s important that teachers take the time to develop meaningful activities for QR codes rather than just use them because they are trendy. Effective classroom uses of QR codes generally fall into four categories—extending help to students, enhancing instruction, strengthening formative assessment, and sharing important school-related information. Here are examples of ways teachers are using QR codes effectively.

Mily Chung is a fifth-grade teacher at Niemes Elementary School, an Environmental Science and Technology Magnet in the ABC Unified School District (abcschoolsofchoice.com/niemes). The school, which is located in Artesia, CA, is in its second year of implementation of a 1-to-1 iPad program at the fifth-grade level (grade 6 is being added this year as well). Lora Ballard, now a program specialist for curriculum and professional development, taught with Chung prior to accepting a new position for the 2013-14 school year.

In the first year of program implementation, Ballard and Chung considered various ways the iPads could be used to support student learning. QR codes were one strategy they decided to try. Activities ranged from helping students achieve independence to sharing student work with parents. For example, students take turns caring for the class pet, an iguana. The rotations go much more smoothly now thanks to a posted QR code that leads to a list of directions for the iguana’s care. Instead of asking a teacher, students know to scan the code to find answers to their questions. Keeping up with homework is less stressful as well. Chung posts assignments on iCal which are accessible to students anywhere using a QR code.

Classroom bulletin boards have taken on a new appearance. Fifth-grade students now create more digital files than paper. A recent math display consisted of QR codes linked to student-created and
-produced videos on geometry concepts. A social studies bulletin board started with posted questions about the American Revolution. Students did their research and generated QR codes to links providing answers to the questions. The QR codes were posted on the bulletin board for students to scan and review.

This idea was extended when it was Open House time last spring. Chung and Ballard wanted parents to view various examples of student work using multiple QR codes, but when several QR codes are printed on one sheet of paper they can be difficult to read. How to ensure the codes would scan easily? Chung came up with an idea. What if each student generated six QR codes linked to samples of his or her work, then made a paper cube and affixed a QR code to each side of the cube? Each student’s finished cube was placed on his/her desk for Open House. It worked like a charm. Parents loved being able to pick up the cubes, scan each code, and see their children’s work.

These examples highlight three of the four effective strategies for QR code use, but what about formative assessment? Martha Thornburgh is the digital literacy specialist for Mount Vernon School District in Mount Vernon, WA. In October 2012 she posted an online presentation (goo.gl/qqxJT) which includes suggestions about ways QR codes can be used for formative assessment. Two of her recommendations, described below, are based on activities posted by Jim Holland and Susan Anderson on the Digital Goonies site (goo.gl/jX1by).

Mix and Match is an activity in which QR codes are printed in the middle of cards that have prompts printed at the top of the card and responses printed on the bottom of the card. Each card has a unique QR code that links to a positive message. Cut the cards in half, mix them up, and then have students match each prompt with its correct response. Scanning the QR code will let students know if they have made the right match (slide 7).

In the Multiple Choice Review activity (slide 10), the teacher writes 15-20 review questions, each with four answers to choose from. Each question is at the top of a page. The four answers are spaced out on the rest of the page. Each possible answer has a QR code next to it that links to a unique text message (three responses for incorrect answers and one for the right answer). The codes for incorrect answers must be different so students don’t just find the one QR code that doesn’t look like the rest in order to find the correct answer. Rotate the questions.

It’s easy to capture students’ attention using QR codes, but classroom activities must rely on more than novelty. Used thoughtfully, QR codes can promote student independence in terms of understanding how to complete an activity, strengthen formative assessment, enhance instructional activities, and support information sharing with parents. Give them a try with your students!
A former Catholic school teacher, Susan Brooks-Young spent 23 years as a teacher and administrator. She now works as a professional consultant and author. Her latest book is Making Technology Work for You: A Guide for School Administrators, 3rd Edition (ISTE, 2013). Susan invites your comments at SJBrooks@aol.com.


Source: Today’s Catholic Teacher, October 2013