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.