Cracking the code to engaged learning

When they first began popping up in magazines, billboards and milk cartons several years ago, QR codes flummoxed many consumers. But today these two-dimensional matrix bar codes—officially named Quick Response codes—are everywhere, having proven to be effective tools in consumer advertising. And now creative, tech-savvy teachers around the country are finding interesting ways to use QR codes to keep students engaged in their lessons.

Originally developed 20 years ago by Japanese automakers to track car parts, QR codes now connect people quickly and easily to websites or other tech-based experiences, such as a video, by simply scanning the code with a mobile device. Devices such as the Amplify Tablet, with a camera and a QR code-reading app, can take advantage of QR codes.

Karen Mensing, an elementary school teacher in Phoenix, is one of the pioneers of QR code use in the classroom and even presented a TED-Ed lecture on the topic. Last year Mensing’s students used QR codes to record book reports and New Year’s resolutions, enabling them to share their work with others in the school. The biggest hit with kids? “They absolutely love the QR code scavenger hunts,” Mensing says. Students excitedly scan the codes at different stations, answering questions, watching videos or linking to materials to move on to their next clue.

“What I like best is the level of student engagement,” Mensing says. “They love scanning and they like that there’s a little bit of mystery behind it.”

Some schools have taken the concept of QR code scavenger hunts to new levels. Lisa Highfill, a K-12 instructional technology coach and longtime fifth-grade teacher in Pleasanton, Calif., says the most popular activity of her class last year was a math-focused QR code scavenger hunt. Equipped with a grid map, students solved equations loaded on the QR codes, which were placed at various school locations to plot the coordinate of their next clue. “It was unbelievable trying to get kids to do algebra and quadratic equations in a new and exciting way,” Highfill says.

In rural Washington County, Pa., QR codes were initially launched for entirely practical reasons. Many students there don’t have a reliable home Internet connection and use cell phones for connectivity. QR codes were a way to capitalize on older kids’ cell phone use to quickly connect them to additional educational content, says Laura Jacob, an assistant school principal and head of the McGuffey school district’s professional development on education technology. “It helped them to see that their phones or iPods could be educational tools,” Jacob says. The district’s vast range of QR code uses—for recorded science labs, foreign language pronunciation, music instrument practice and small-group learning using tree identification—were captured in its video, “Black & White and Scanned All Over.”

While contexts differ widely for these educators, there is consensus around a key benefit of QR codes. “What I like best is the level of student engagement,” Mensing says, noting her students’ enthusiasm whenever she pulls out the QR codes. “They love scanning and they like that there’s a little bit of mystery behind it.”

In addition to the practical benefits of using QR codes instead of URLs, Highfill sees them helping to engage kids in active learning. “In a culture of inquiry-based learning, you are not telling kids they have to learn. [The QR codes] get kids to really buy into the activity.”

Jacob underscores the value of additional learning time QR codes maximize with mobile devices. “Our kids have long bus rides, and it’s a way to still keep them engaged,” Jacob says.

Even though all three educators are exploring what may be the next iteration of QR codes—augmented reality, which uses 3-D technology—QR codes remain part of the present. To teachers who are still hesitant about QR codes? “Give it a try,” Mensing urges.“ The kids catch on instantly. More often than not, it really opens up the walls to create 21st-century experiences that make learning so much more meaningful than doing a worksheet or reading out of a textbook.”

Leanne Shimabukuro, a freelance writer and consultant based in the New York area, has worked in the education field for 12 years.

This article was commissioned by Amplify Education, Inc. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent those of Amplify Education, Inc.