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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Reconnecting Information Literacy with Lifelong Learning

Somewhere along the line, information literacy became a set of academic, information problem solving skills, and its connection to lifelong learning got lost.

Way back in 1974, Paul Zurkowski coined the term ‘information literacy’ when he observed that “people trained in the application of information resources to their work can be called information literates. They have learned techniques and skills for utilizing the wide range of information tools as well as primary sources in molding information solutions to their problems.”

At about the same time, the term ‘lifelong learning’ was coming into into vogue, and the two ideas became indelibly intertwined. Information literacy was seen as the basis of lifelong learning (Weiner, 2011).

What happened?

Lifelong learning is certainly something we talk about when we discuss information literacy, but lifelong learning is not really the end goal in today’s classrooms. I think there are two reasons for this. First of all, the traditions of bibliographic instruction are still deeply rooted in information literacy instruction. That isn’t a bad thing, but it is an academic thing, which doesn’t necessarily translate into lifelong learning. Secondly, information literacy is really a set of multiple literacies. The information literacy of the freshman comp course differs from the information literacy of the discipline-specific course, which differs from the on-the-job requirements of information literacy. They share some elements in common, but each is also unique and situational.

I think this is also a larger institutional problem. Many institutions are so vocationally focused that they forget that education is about more than receiving a diploma. It’s also about molding students into thinkers and independent learners.

So how do we reconnect information literacy with lifelong learning?

CURIOSITY.

Isn’t that what libraries are really all about?

To reconnect information literacy with lifelong learning through curiosity, you have to think outside the library and classroom. School and academic libraries have a whole campus of opportunities to foster curiosity and make students interested in learning (which leads to independent learning, which leads to lifelong learning).

It’s not a difficult task. It just takes creative thinking.

Consider these ideas:

  • QR codes across campus. Get them out of the stacks! Curiosity drives a person to scan a QR code to find out more information about something. And there are so many opportunities around campus where you can place QR codes and pique students’ desire to learn more. Put QR codes in the cafeteria to connect students to information about nutrition, or odd food facts, or cookbooks in the library. Put QR Codes next to the study abroad posters to connect students to databases and/or books about the country and culture. Put QR codes in the Career Center to connect students to library resources on careers, interviewing, or resumes. Put QR codes in the Financial Aid office to connect students to library resources on grants and scholarships. The ideas are endless…
  • Maker activities. Creativity and curiosity go hand in hand.  Join the maker movement and offer maker activities for students to get creative. And these activities can run the gamut from digital storytelling to game design to code-a-thons, and more. They don’t even have to be technology-based (they could be craft-based such as bookmaking).
  • Microlibraries. Place microlibraries around campus. This is a great way to foster both reading and curiosity. To get started, you can use books that have been donated to the library or to your Friends group.
  • Campus partnerships. There’s more to campus life than academics. Create partnerships with campus groups such as the Career Center, Financial Aid, or Student Life. Partnerships such as these give you the opportunity to make the library’s (and librarians’) presence known beyond being a place to study or do academic research.
  • Community partnerships. Partner with local businesses, organizations or the public library. By extending the library’s reach beyond the campus, you are showing students (and the community) that the library is a place of learning, not just studying or doing research. This is especially important for commuter campuses.