from Simon J. Lancaster, School of Chemistry, University of East Anglia, Norwich Research Park, Norwich, NR4 7TJ, United Kingdom. Email: S.Lancaster@uea.ac.uk, Twitter: @S_J_Lancaster Phone: +44 1603 592009
Quick response (QR) codes are two-dimensional bar codes, used to encode information, which can be read by a smartphone. This short guide is intended to provide examples of their application to create links between the physical and digital teaching resources available to students. It describes both practice developed in Chemistry at UEA and implementations elsewhere in academia. The ease of both the preparation and reading of QR codes will be outlined.
What is a QR code?
Quick response (QR codes) were developed by a subsidiary of Toyota, Denso Wave, in the 1990s as part of a vehicle part inventory system.[i] They were designed to allow fast reading of the encoded data, hence the term ‘Quick Response’. In 2002 a collaboration between the major players in the Japanese mobile phone industry deployed the technology and current global attention stems from this initiative.[ii] While the technology became widespread in Japan between 2002 and 2007, it has proven to be a somewhat slow burner elsewhere and familiarity remains on an upwards trajectory in Western Europe. A significant proportion of staff and students at Higher Education institutions will not know what a QR code is, even if in practice they will have been exposed to them in marketing campaigns.
A QR code is a two-dimensional (matrix) code (Figure 1). The advantage over one-dimensional (bar) codes is the amount of information that can be encoded. There are competing two-dimensional systems, such as the ‘data matrix’ format but the QR system is generally preferred because it is an ISO standard, has higher capacity and has built-in error tolerance, such that codes can still be read with up to 30% of the image obscured or damaged. QR codes can be easily distinguished from data matrix codes by the characteristic squares in three of the four corners. These also serve to orientate the code, allowing reading from any angle.[iii]
Applications of QR codes
QR codes encode information. Typically this information is a URL for an internet resource, taking the user to a web page or starting a YouTube video. However, it might be an instruction to subscribe to an RSS feed or to submit an SMS or email message. The QR code thus provides a link between the physical world and the realm of digital communication. Making this connection is referred to as ‘hardlinking’ or ‘object hyperlinking’.[iv] The ability to link quickly from a physical object such as a poster, flyer, soft drinks bottle (Figure 2), even an image on a television screen has endeared QR codes to the marketing industry. Whether we recognise them or not, they are becoming ubiquitous.
Institutional QR code use
The first bastion of academia to embrace QR technology has been the libraries and it is in this field where the majority of scholarly accounts have been published.iii,[v] In libraries too, QR codes play a largely promotional role, advertising special events and collections, making services more discoverable. They have also been used as navigation aids within libraries and museums. The facile way in which they present additional information makes them useful for associating digital resources with physical items like books, but also by providing descriptions for exhibits in museums, whereby the smartphone can take the role of the virtual tour guide.
QR codes in higher education
The University of Bath coordinated a trial of QR codes in higher education between 2008 and 2010, for which UEA was a partner institution and it is at this point that we were introduced to the technology. There might be an initial inclination to dismiss QR codes as a technology looking for an essential (‘killer’) application. The Bath study identified several educational applications in which QR codes might be valuable.[vi]
The first of these potential applications was subscription to an RSS news feed. Blogging platforms are becoming increasingly popular ways of providing resources to students. The easiest way to stay in touch with a blog is to subscribe via the RSS feed. However, the RSS feed is a long series of unintelligible characters, which is very difficult to type without error, even if the student was sufficiently motivated to attempt it. Simply scanning the QR code (Figure 3) and linking directly or pasting the link into an RSS aggregator is a much more attractive approach.
QR codes can of course be incorporated into printed media, thus facilitating connections between bookwork and online activity. The QR code can also be used to connect physical presentations with just-in-time lecture support materials. As well as a link to the resource being discussed, this might also be used as a feedback mechanism through submission of a pre-programmed SMS.
The final application outlined by the Bath study is a little more esoteric and revolves around an alternative reality game. Alternative reality games might have many elements including challenges overcome by a collaborative community. It is this connection between activities in physical locations and clues, tips and online resources that the QR code allows. Perhaps, with a little creativity, there is an analogy to be drawn with the teaching laboratory.
Applications at UEA Chemistry
In chemistry at UEA, we are developing a blended learning environment in which traditional lectures and practicals are supported by extensive digital resources delivered through our learning management system. The true blending of the physical and digital is the greatest challenge to this approach but it is the one to which the QR code is ideally suited.
Our students must complete pre-laboratory VLE exercises as preparation for laboratory sessions. QR codes are printed within the laboratory manual and provide a facile (and unavoidable) link to these questions. Powerpoint presentations are displayed during the practical sessions with embedded QR codes that offer links to complementary and supplementary information and technique demonstration videos.
We have an extensive set of screencast captures of first year chemistry lectures.[vii] The inclusion of a QR code in printed lecture notes allows students to link directly to the digital version of a lecture. Just-in-time provision of QR codes allows students to save links to demonstrations and further multimedia resources that might need to be truncated or skipped in the lecture.
The popular periodic table of videos, maintained at the University of Nottingham, has an associated poster in which each of the elements is represented by a QR code (Figure 4). This is designed to be printed and displayed in classrooms so that students can scan their element of choice and link to the corresponding video. In a similar fashion we are preparing a table of QR codes linking to descriptive chemistry vignettes.
Figure 4: This poster is reproduced under an attribution licence from Periodic Videos
Since Denso Wave has chosen to waive its patent rights over QR codes, there are no licensing issues and there are many websites that will generate QR codes. The one we use at UEA is www.i-nigma.com, which is associated with the consortium that initially popularised QR codes and is free. The QR code is a fairly coarse image and can therefore be integrated into any document format that will accept images. The larger the image the further the distance from which the user will be able to successfully scan it. This distance will also depend on the quality of printing / projection and the smartphone camera.
Any smartphone with a camera is likely to have at least one app that is capable of reading and decoding QR codes. There are native apps for the Symbian Nokia phones. The iPhone does not have a native app, but there are a great variety of third party applications, many of them free that will read QR codes and execute the embedded instruction seamlessly within the application or by launching the appropriate app. Searching for the term ‘QR’ within the respective app markets will reveal several hits on the Android and Blackberry platforms. Increasingly the technology is familiar to students, but there are likely to be a number who are underutilising their smartphones and might benefit from advance warning to install the application. To this end the campus treasure hunt, which is a common part of many induction programmes can be augmented by QR codes and serve as an excellent introduction.
In summary, the QR code is more than a gimmick, but somewhat short of being an indispensable tool. Their strength lies in convenience – whenever there is a need to provide a facile link between physical and digital teaching elements, they present the best available option. The profile of QR codes will continue to grow, fuelled by the dawning recognition that their error tolerance can be exploited to allow the inclusion of graphics and branding. As QR codes become more mainstream, students will be more prepared to embrace their use to support blended learning.
We gratefully acknowledge the essential role that Andrew Mee has played in introducing QR codes to UEA.
[i] B. Furht, Handbook of Augmented Reality, Springer 2011
[iii] B. Pulliam, C. Landry The Reference Librarian, 2010, 52, 68-74.
[v] G. Little The Journal of Academic Librarianship 2011, 37, 267-269.
[vi] http://blogs.bath.ac.uk/qrcode/qr-codes-in-education/ accessed 26/11/2011