Are QR Codes in the Classroom Worth the Trouble?

Does anyone really use QR codes anymore? I personally find them rather a pain in the you-know-what because the amount of work it takes to dig through my phone searching for that stupid QR code reading app is far greater than the amount of time it takes to type in a URL, and even better — a tiny URL.

That being said, they often do spark a sense of curiosity, even with their awkwardness. That is probably why they work well in museums and libraries, and even as gamification tools (think scavenger hunts). In terms of education, I see QR codes sitting at the intersection of discovery and learning. In other words, they can be used as an exploratory learning tool.

So, are QR codes worth the trouble? I would say yes…sometimes. But in the everyday classroom, I recommend they be used sparingly to avoid novelty fatigue. And I also recommend they be primarily used in ways that align to their learning affordance as motivators of curiosity that stimulate inquiry.

In fact, I suggest teachers model classroom use of QR codes after museum and/or library use. For example, in a museum, QR codes are often used to provide additional information on an exhibit, sometimes prefaced by an intriguing question. Similarly, libraries often use them on display items to link to reviews or read-alikes or related sources. What both uses have in common is that the patron gets to decide whether or not to use the QR code to access additional information. That’s called learner control. And the motivation to scan the QR code comes from a well-designed exhibit or library display.

Based on that model, I recommend classroom use of QR codes to be primarily limited to exploratory learning that is tactile (concrete) in nature. Science and history come to mind. For example, in an introductory science lesson on rocks and minerals, attaching QR codes to a variety of real-life samples provides both a sensory learning experience, as well as a discovery learning experience (just keep in mind that QR code reading devices need to be at the ready). When combined with more traditional instruction (e.g., a mini-lecture), students not only learn what rocks are, but they also learn how they feel, and can see how they are formed. And QR codes provide that initial motivation to learn so that the textbook-based lesson (the required stuff) doesn’t feel so forced. Likewise, a history lesson with primary sources and/or historical objects can be structured the same way.

While exploratory learning (in my opinion) offers the most authentic and meaningful approach to using QR codes in the classroom, there are a couple of alternative uses that come to mind. One is using QR codes in a similar way to using flashcards in preparing for a test. For example, if students are required to identify and name those rocks and minerals in the aforementioned science lesson, they can practice with QR codes attached to the rock samples (I suppose a poster of pictures with QR codes underneath might suffice as well). In a way, this might be a better approach than flashcards because the lag time between scanning the code and checking their answer gives them a bit more thinking time.

Another alternative approach to QR codes is using them as a behavioral tool (especially in elementary classrooms). For example, if a class is able to stay on task, follow classroom rules, or achieve some other specific behavioral objective, the QR code can be used as a gamification tool to reveal an earned reward. And I imagine the student who gets to scan the QR code would feel especially proud:)

The bottom line on QR codes is that while they do offer some interesting opportunities for integration in the classroom, sticking with meaningful integration a la exploratory learning is the approach I recommend the most. That way the act of using the technology itself becomes secondary to the learning process. Alternative approaches, such as the flashcard approach might not be worth the effort, especially with all the apps out there that serve similar purposes (Kahoot comes to mind). On the other hand, I am intrigued by the use of the QR code as a behavioral tool, both because it would be incredibly simple to implement and because the gamification aspect of it may provide that extra motivation for students to meet their goals.

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Ten Types of Tech Tools That Every Teacher (and Librarian) Needs

Technology integration can be a daunting task, especially with the myriad of tools out there to choose from. Where do you begin? That’s what today’s post is all about.

Mulling it over, I have come up with ten types of tools that should serve as the foundation of a student-centered approach to technology integration. I chose the tools based on their ubiquity, multi-functionality, and potential for use across the curriculum. I also focused on function rather than specifically named tools (this is key to good technology integration), so I will discuss them in a categorical context (though I will give examples for each category).

Here are the ten types of tech tools I recommend for (almost) every classroom and library:

1. Screencasting tools: Screencasting tools, which run the gamut from free to quite expensive (e.g., Screencast-O-Matic, Camtasia, Jing, ScreenChomp, etc…), are truly multi-functional. While screencasting is commonly used for flipped learning or in the context of a technology project, it can also be used as a form of assessment, where students record their actions on screen (e.g., playing a serious game, searching in a database); or student-recorded presentations can be used as part of a peer teaching strategy.

2. Dictation tools: Dictation tools (e.g., Dragon Dictation, Siri, Google Voice) should be available in every classroom and library as part of a universal design for learning initiative. Students who are visually impaired, second-language learners, dyslexic, or who have fine motor difficulties benefit from dictation tools, which free up barriers to writing. Additionally, using dictation tools can help all students improve both enunciation and pronunciation, which are an essential part of presentation skills. Dictation tools can also serve as a central part of a storytelling curriculum in the early grades, allowing young students to “see” what they are saying (how cool is that?).

3. Collaboration tools: Collaboration (and communication) skills are necessary for success in project-based learning. However, they are generally not intentionally taught in today’s classrooms. The usual approach is “throw them together and hope for the best.” Instead, collaboration tools that allow students to communicate outside the classroom should be carefully integrated into project-based learning under the guidance of a teacher. One of the simplest ways to do that is by providing a collaborative space (e.g., wiki, discussion forum) through the course page. Another simple approach is through collaborative software like Google Docs or Office 365. If you want to go beyond that, the business world has spawned loads of tools designed specifically for collaboration.

4. Writing tools: Between my thesis and my just-released book (out today!), I did A LOT of writing in the past year, and I can tell you, I hate Microsoft Word for writing. Why? Because it’s a constant battle with formatting. Now, Microsoft Word works just fine in the editing and formatting stages of writing, but during the creative process of writing itself, at times it can present as a frustrating barrier to composing something decent. This experience has made me more empathetic to the needs of students, who are just learning to become writers. As a result, I highly recommend saving Word for the final leg of the writing process, and using a simpler tool for the construction of the composition. A few options: Google Docs, Scrivener (especially in higher education), or Texts. To go super simple, use Notepad. Even blogging tools provide a less distracted approach to writing.

5. Project planning tools: If we really want to help students achieve success in project-based learning, they need to learn how to plan. Project management is a real-world skill that I believe is under addressed in today’s classrooms. Good project management skills make students more organized, and those skills can ultimately improve student success across all areas of learning. There are many ways to go about teaching project management skills, and just as many tools to support it. A simple approach is the use of concept mapping software, like Inspiration, to help students visually organize project-based tasks. For group projects, a tool like Azendoo or Basecamp can be valuable. Even a spreadsheet or table can help students develop a timeline for tasks that need to be completed.

6. Graphic design (or drawing) tools: Visual literacy is an increasingly important competency in the area of 21st century literacies. Additionally, visual tools play an important role in supporting student understanding (i.e., can reduce cognitive overload). Graphic organizers, concept maps, infographics, figures, illustrations, and more can all be created using graphic design tools. At the very least, most Microsoft Office applications (Word, Excel, PowerPoint)  include drawing tools and SmartArt, which provide the basics for graphic design. Likewise, Google Docs provides similar functions. Concept mapping software, like Inspiration, is a heartier tool for creating graphics and visual diagrams. And for more serious and precise graphic design, Inkscape is a powerful tool (and free).

7. Editing and formatting tools: The process of editing and formatting exercises higher order thinking skills, especially in the context of peer review. As I mentioned in the writing tools category, Microsoft Word performs better as an editing and formatting tool rather than a writing tool. In fact, all of the Microsoft Office applications serve as very powerful editing and formatting tools due to their review functions (e.g., comments, tracking changes). Add collaboration to that, and you have excellent and highly underutilized tools that go a long way to improve the quality of students’ research. writing, and presentation skills across the curriculum (an alternative is Google Docs). And don’t forget the dozens of video and image editing and formatting tools, which range from simple (e.g., Pixler, WeVideo, Screenr) to complex (e.g., Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Premiere). Video and image editing in particular foster creativity and design thinking, as well as visual literacy.

8. Spreadsheet software: Let’s focus on Excel (or Google Sheets) for a minute. Why is spreadsheet software included here? I included it because of it’s multi-functionality and capability as a problem solving tool. Whether using the tables as a way to categorize and organize information (planning) in a language arts classroom, or using the computational functions for data analysis in a science classroom, or using the graphing functions in a math classroom, or even using its capabilities to build a database for an information literacy session, spreadsheet software is the little engine that could (but one that many teachers shy away from) when it comes to problem-based learning.

9. Adaptive tutoring systems: Adaptive tutoring systems are typically self-paced e-learning systems that use artificial intelligence to adapt to the learner’s needs and pace. I believe adaptive tutoring should play a central role in the flipped classroom, especially in the areas of language, math, and reading because it allows teachers to track students’ progress and personalize learning, allowing some students to move ahead (reducing boredom) and giving other students the extra practice they may need to master a skill. ALEKS is an example of one of the older adaptive tutoring systems, and it is heavily used at the higher education level for math remediation (it offers K-12 tutoring as well). DreamBox Learning is a newer math program, and one worth evaluating. Knewton is a free personalized learning software that covers a variety of subject areas. And there are a growing number of adaptive reading programs available. A word of caution about adaptive tutoring though: be sure to fully evaluate any program before adoption. You want to look for evidence-based research that supports its learning effectiveness (a good job for librarians).

10Transmedia tools: Finally, number 10 (phew!) is transmedia tools. This is an emerging trend in education, more accurately described as transmedia storytelling. Transmedia storytelling combines story worlds with gaming elements (and sometimes gaming worlds) to create a powerful combination of the critical thinking and problem solving skills that good games (e.g., Portal, Minecraft) support and the content retention and empathy that storytelling supports. Excellent examples of transmedia storytelling include Inanimate Alice, Rockford’s Rock Opera, and Ruby Skye P.I. This is an important trend to pay attention to, and you can learn more about it in my new book, Transmedia Storytelling, The Librarian’s Guide (ABC-CLIO), available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and the publisher’s web site.