An Ode to QR Codes

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

Still image from Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005), Directed by Tim Burton from; QR code from

When I was in Toronto a few weeks ago for the Sprockets panel on transmedia, I had the chance to walk (ok, run) through the Tim Burton exhibit in the new TIFF building. This exhibit reminded me of a few things. First, that I am way overdue for a re-viewing of Edward Scissorhands. Second, that trips to the museum have been replaced with trips to the grocery store since I left New York and had a baby. And finally, the exhibit — which incorporates QR codes — reminded me of how much I love these little codes.

QR (quick response) codes are basically images that contain data (think of a bar code at your local grocery store). In order to read a QR code, a user simply launches a reader on their mobile device and takes a picture of the image. The software then launches a URL which can link to a web page, display images or coupons, or stream audio or video. So, in the Tim Burton exhibit for example, the codes linked me to audio content that provided additional background on the art. QR codes have been huge in Asia for years (we talked about them in our 2009 report on mobile learning, Pockets of Potential), but it seems that they are finally picking up steam in North America.

Not surprisingly, advertising seems to be the first area of penetration. From McDonalds to Verizon, many of the biggest brands are using these codes in their ad campaigns, telling consumers to simply “snap the code.” On a smaller scale, I’ve seen them recently at both my local bakery and farmers market. However, despite the increase in their use by marketers, QR codes are definitely still emerging. It seems that many are unaware of these codes, and even once they notice them, a lot of people still don’t know what they are or how they work. But they are easy, free (usual network charges apply), and popping up everywhere. With smartphone ownership reaching the masses, I wouldn’t be surprised if this awareness shifts in the very near future.

Of course, at the Cooney Center, we are excited about how this tool can be used for children’s learning. I think that they have great potential, and have heard of many innovative projects. The GeoHistorian project, for example, uses QR codes to link classrooms with local historical landmarks. Children use mobile phones to take photos, videos, and audio clips of local landmarks, which are then combined into short movies and uploaded to the Internet. Then, using QR codes, regular citizens passing by these historical landmarks can access the student-created content.

I asked mobile learning expert Liz Kolb whether QR codes are taking off in education in North America. “In both higher education and secondary education we are seeing an increase in the use of the codes for just about every subject,” she said. “It is not common place yet (and will not be for a while), and most educators are still unfamiliar with them, but there is a slow movement happening.” Check out this great video she pointed me to about how one high school is using QR codes in a variety of subjects.

Both in their creation and consumption, QR codes have terrific educational potential. They are free to use and have a low technology investment, making them a noteworthy tool in our digital toolbox. As with all technologies however, it’s important to remember that it’s not the QR codes themselves that will provide rich (or poor) learning opportunities; rather it’s the quality of the content and the fit of the experience that will entertain, engage, and ultimately educate.


TAGS: , , , , , , , ,