QR codes: the future is now

Two things strike me when considering Quick Recognition (QR) codes.

The first is that there is an almost infinite variety of ways that QR codes can be used and programmed. Basically, QR codes can be linked to anything which can be displayed on an internet browser on whatever device is used to read the code and go to the information it’s linked to. As we have seen, such display and processing capacity, regardless of device, is increasing rapidly. It’s been interesting seeing my colleagues post examples of how QR codes are being used in commercial, educational, and a myriad of other uses. Since I feel my colleagues (and others on the web) have done a much better job summarizing these varied uses than I could, I’ll leave that aside.

The second thing that excites me about QR codes is their potential to serve in the use of augmented reality apps. If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of such an app, watch this quick video on Layar, which is one of the more popular apps of its kind:

As you can see, Layar and apps like it use the lens on your mobile device to show you layers of information above and in addition to what you can see with your own two eyes. Layar does so, essentially, by using GPS and compass information: if you are at this point of latitude and longitude and you are facing south-southeast, then you must be looking at X, because Layar is programmed to know that X is located south-southeast of your location. Having used Layar myself, though, I have seen that this can be relatively inaccurate at times: you may looking at an abandoned parking lot while Layar is telling you you’re looking at a bagel shop which is actually a few doors or a block down from you.

QR codes, however, have the potential to be used in apps such as Layar, allowing the user to access information directly from the QR code being read, and thus providing more accuracy for the user. Beyond additional precision, QR codes would allow for a greater variety of places and objects to be labeled and, thus, provide useful info to an app like Layar. An obvious limitation is the distance from which QR codes can be read: if you need to be a few inches away from a QR code, then it does no good when you are examining a panorama from greater distance. Who, knows: maybe a QR code could be combined with something like RFID to project or broadcast QR codes and their related info.

For those who have seen any of the “Terminator” movies (so ashamed that guy was my governor for two terms) than you may remember the HUD that the Terminator has providing him information on objects and locations on his field of vision. Apps like Layar, combined with QR codes (especially if some remote sending capability is developed) could take us one step closer to such a technology. Considering that scientists have already developed contact lenses embedded with microchips, we may not be far off.

Obviously (or, at least I hope it’s obvious), I’m not advocating that we turn our students into little Terminators (though I’m sure some teachers out there are saying “I think some of my students already have been turned into little Terminators”). The point I’m trying to make is that technologies like QR codes don’t just provide users with information about reality but actually provide a way for digital information and displays to interact directly with reality. This, like all m-learning technology, allows students to access information at the time and place it is most valuable: the time and place that they are actually interested in learning about something.

Another way to think about QR codes is that they are like real-world hyperlinks: they take you to additional, related but different information on a topic of interest. The obvious difference is that they allow the user to link from a real-world physical object to digital information. On the one hand, one might argue that it’s essentially the same thing as reading a URL, then typing it in. While a direct, substantive argument could me made against what many would consider a gross oversimplification, I won’t bother. Intellectual laziness? Maybe, but the reason I don’t feel the need to make that argument is that even if QR codes are just URL’s you don’t have to type in, guess what: you don’t have to type them in! That’s awesome! In the book Mobile Learning, which I mentioned in an earlier post, the authors use the terms “click investment” to describe the tendency for users to only gravitate towards apps which can provide the intended benefit without frustrating the user with the amount of direct interaction (i.e. clicking keys, tapping on a touchscreen) they must engage in with the app. Being able to scan a QR code is obviously easier than typing a URL like  http://learn.education.illinois.edu/file.php/1646/Readings/designprinciples.pdf         into your browser on your mobile device. Let’s face it: clicking around can be a pain in the neck. Even if QR codes provide the same endpoint as, for instance, a book which says “For more info on this author, go to http://www.blahblah.blah/blahblah”, WAY more students will scan a QR code than will take the time to type all that. Regardless of how you slice it, QR codes make information much more accessible to students.

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Research on design principles

This week, we read two interesting studies which looked at using mobile phones in education. Both were written 2009 and both seemingly set out to achieve the same purpose (showing that mobile devices can and should be used in education).

The first study was actually a chapter from a book called Mobile Learning, edited by Mohammed Ally. This particular chapter was a study which shared how a group of researchers developed a mobile “app” (though they don’t use the term, preferring the more general RLO=reusable learning object) to help students learn how to write references for their papers. I find both the relevant and somewhat irrelevant parts of the article to be just as interesting. What the hell do I mean by that? Well, now that you’ve asked, allow me to explain (and thank whomever invented rhetorical devices): on the one hand, the study reinforced much of what are now important, underlying ideas about the value of using m-learning: it provides students with a learning platform more engaging than some/most traditional platforms; it provides students with personalized feedback of what they have mastered and are yet to master; it’s ubiquitously available, allowing students to use it whenever and wherever is most applicable for them. While none of these points are necessarily ground breaking, they are all important and relevant aspects of m-learning.

Interestingly enough, I found it interesting that some of the concerns mentioned in the development are now largely irrelevant. The researchers were focusing on developing the RLO for one particular device, the Nokia 60-series of mobile phones. I imagine that at the time the study was conducted (2007-2008 from what I can gather about the time line) these type of phones were the standard cheap, widely available mobile phones on the market, thus making an app/RLO designed for them useful as many more people (or supporting organizations) could afford to purchase them and, thus, use the the app/RLO. The main concerns that the researchers expressed were the inherently small screen size, and difficulty using the 5 navigation buttons combined with an alphanumeric keypad. While phones of this general design are still widely available, there are much more advanced designs which now serve as the standard, basic (read “cheap”) models out there. There are certainly few if any mass marketed/produced phones out there currently which have nearly as small a screen as those used in the study. Similarly, phones with touchscreens and/or “QWERTY” keyboards are much more the norm now than 3-4 years ago. A perfect example: the iPhone 3g, which was considered revolutionary (and was priced accordingly) just 2 years ago is now available for $49.99.

I find it interesting that mobile technology is being developed so quickly that what served as major concerns in this study just a few years ago are now mainly inapplicable with the current crop of available cell phones. Though not the most dramatic example, it emphasizes how things thought impossible or incredibly difficult just a short time ago are now completely commonplace. There’s the famous Arthur C. Clarke quote that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Put into that context, we are experiencing things that 20 or 30 years ago would considered pure fantasy- we have the magic in our pockets. Although, as is pointed out often, we may not appreciate it as well as maybe we should:

But, I digress. Another study, entitled “Design principles for mobile learning” by the University of Wollongong also examined the value of m-learning. This study emphasized its use of the “design based” research approach (so much so that at one point I felt like I was reading a sales brochure, trying to get me to buy a timeshare in Designbasedresearchville). Despite what I may have felt was an overdone sell job, the article did a very effective job of advocating for m-learning. Not only did it outline and describe the general advantages of m-learning, it also provided two other valuable resources: general recommendations on how best to implement m-learning activities and specific contexts they can be/have been used in and how best to utilize m-learning in that context. There was a clear (and appreciated) emphasis on context in this article. In that way, this article seemed to be following the recommendations Christensen offered in chapter 7. Christensen quotes Honig, stating, “The essential implementation question then becomes not simply ‘what’s implementable and what works,’ but what is implementable and what works for whom, where, when and why?”

I have too often seen my colleagues pressured to use technology (not necessarily mobile technology) simply for the sake of using technology, or for “exposure” if nothing else. They end up taking a project they used to do with paper and pencil and all they end up doing is taking twice as long to do basically the same project with students using a laptop. If they were more “prescriptive research”- and if teachers were presented this research in ways and situations which are meaningful and appropriate- then technology for technology’s sake would hopefully wither and more thoughtful use would increase. Teachers would know-or at least have helpful resources to help them find- the answers to Honig’s questions above.

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Case study: Goggle Goggles

Google Goggles, an application (as the name would suggest) designed by Google, has received a lot of attention both by educators and by the general (at least smartphone-owning) public.

Essentially, Google Goggles is a visual search engine. The app utilizes the camera on a smartphone. A user aims the camera at a point of interest, and the app scans the image for anything that resembles an image which Google’s programmers have loaded into the app’s could-based memory. We might as well let the developers speak for their product themselves:

NOTE: though the video indicates that the app is available only for Android phones, it is now available on all iphones as well.

As the video shows, there are a variety of uses for this app. Specifically, there is great potential for its use in education:

-Sesame Workshop study: Recently, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at the Sesame Workshop conducted a study about the educational potential of mobile devices. Their findings demonstrate that students, even pre-elementary age students, can use touchscreen smartphones with relative ease. Also, the study showed that educational apps, if designed in a way that appeals to their interests, can improve student’s educational outcomes. Lastly, this study and others have pointed out the relatively low cost of smartphones as compared to other mobile devices typically used in the classroom. When one considers the fact that Google Goggles is: 1) more or less a strictly touchscreen app (2) that it is customizable in that students can take pictures of and try to learn about whatever interests them and (3) that it is completely free to download, one can see that this app follows many of the useful prescriptions laid out in the study.

-Customization: Many observes agree that one of the greatest and most consequential impacts of more and more thoughtful development and use of technology in education is the ability to provide students with personalized learning materials and learning plans. In some ways, Google Goggles doesn’t meet these recommendations as it’s display and visual interface are not visually customizable. However, one might argue that Google Goggles is extremely customizable in terms of how it is used: a user can choose to take photos- and in doing so research- anything which interests them. The only confinements are the capability of the technology itself to recognize certain types of objects and the ability of Google’s programmers to continually update what objects have corresponding information stored on Google’s servers. Moreover, one can see how the different uses of the app appeal to different intelligences, providing another recommended form of personalization for students. As Google readily points out in the video above, visual search is a very new but rapidly developing technology. Let us first consider the various ways that the app can already be used and which intelligences they might appeal to:

Use of app Intelligence(s) appealed to
Translation: using the app, students can take a photo of text in just about any language and have it translated to any other. The obvious application here is for learning a foreign language, but this could certainly be useful in examining artwork or historical regalia which contain language components. -Linguistic
Identifying landmarks: the app is programmed to identify and provide links to information on a wide array of landmarks, allowing students to quickly and easily translate their appreciation into curiosity and learning. -Logical-mathematical


Identifying artwork: Google has stored an impressive library of artwork to allow the user to take photos of a piece of artwork and be linked to information about the piece, the artist behind it, etc. The Getty Museum has recently integrated Google Goggles into all its displays, allowing visitors to use the app to discover more about their pieces. -Spatial


Books: the app can identify books. While the title and author information can be gleaned just by looking at the book itself, this allows students to learn more about the author as well as related works. -Linguistic
QR codes: an exciting aspect of the app is its ability to read QR codes. In this sense, the types of information that Goggle could end up providing to students is essentially boundless as the codes could be linked to things as diverse as a video on how to shoot a free throw to an essay on climate change. -All
Symbols: Goggles can also identify symbols. This is clearly useful in the learning of new mathematical terms and their corresponding symbolic representations and  new concepts/periods in history and the visual symbols related to them, to name a few. -Logical mathematical


This list is by no means exhaustive. There are three factors which enable for a vast increase in Google Goggle’s potential:

1) That visual search technology is in its infancy and developers will certainly improve the technology’s capabilities in the near future.

2) That Goggles (like many Android apps) can be linked with an initiate actions in other Google apps.

3) That Google (the makers of the Android OS) allows and in fact encourages open development of Android apps through the app inventor.

When we combine these three factors, we can see that Google’s brilliant minds as well as the ingenuity and imagination of teachers, students, and users in general will be able to enhance this technology. Allowing ourselves to “stare at the clouds” so to speak, let’s consider a few potential uses for Goggles that have not been developed yet:

-Recognizing mathematical concepts in space: imagine assigning your 1st grade students to go out and find and take pictures of sets of 5 or 7. That teacher could then design an app which would interface with Goggles, giving the student instant feedback on whether or not they were successful. Imagine a similar activity but with 3rd graders identifying types of angles or geometric shapes; even older students looking for 30-60-90 triangles; architecture students finding examples of cantilevers or flying buttresses (can you tell those are the only architectural terms I could think of?).

-Touchscreen writing: all of the above activities, and many more, could be combined with a touchscreen writing feature, allowing students to count the two apples on top of three, which makes 5 total, or to draw the edges of the isosceles triangle they just took a photo of.

-Historical photos: in teaching my 3rd graders about local history, I have seen their eyes light up when recognize a familiar building or intersection in town in a historical photo. It truly makes the connection between past and present so much more concrete. Maybe Goggles could enhance its landmark/building identifying features to allow users to take a photo of a building or area and, using the phone’s built in GPS and compass, determine location and provide the user with historical photos of the same location.

-Vocabulary: as the technology advances and a greater variety of objects can consistently be recognized, students, specifically but not limited to early elementary, special education and ELL students, could use Goggles to take photos of objects and a voice feature could read the name of the object, providing students with both vocabulary and correct pronunciation.There is an advertisement out right now (it’s by a big, evil oil company so I have no interest in advertising for them and posting the video) which jokingly tells the viewer that the company in question can provide customers with a “why-stopper” to answer all their children’s important (but let’s face it: incessant and often annoying) “why___?” questions. If Goggles did have this vocabulary function built into it, it may not stop the “why?” questions, but it could certainly stop a lot of the “what is that?” questions.

-Emotion: there are so-called “social robots” which have been designed to identify specific visual indicators of emotional states. Eventually, Google may be able to put this ability into its free, mobile app, allowing students with autism spectrum disorders to examine emotional cues which they may at times not understand or be able to process

-Scientific concepts: Hopefully, visual search technology will progress to the point where it can identify, for example, different species of lemurs, or various types of leaves, providing students with the easiest nature guide one could imagine.

Hopefully, you are starting to see the immense potential Google Goggles has for you and your students. Because of Google’s fairly open development policy through app inventor, seeing that possibility can easily be translated into make such potential a reality and I hope more and more educators will take the opportunity to try this app.


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Smart phone, meet light touch

The articles from District Administration Magazine did a decent job of summarizing some of the physical limits of using smartphones for education, mainly small screen and keyboard sizes. I couldn’t help but think of the Light Touch projector as a way to address those two specific concerns:

I can imagine, however, eyes rolling in some of my fellow educator’s heads when they even consider another piece of totally new technology being integrated into their classroom. I don’t have a solution for them, however, I do have a bit of video-based sympathy:

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Formative feedback tools

In having used one formative feedback tool for several years, Galileo by ATI, I must confess to having mixed feelings. As a quick intro, you can check out this site: http://www.ati-galileo.com/ati/ATIWebinars.html

Basically, the way my district has used Galileo is to assess students three times a year on math standards, then use the assessment data (which is organized by student and standard) to provide additional instruction to focused groups. Maybe I’ve been spent too much time lately reading online reviews of BBQ’s I’m considering buying, but I figured I’d give some pros and cons:

Pros:                                                                                                          -detailed feedback by specific student and standard= you know who gets and doesn’t get what

-Has a question bank related to each standard to be used in retaching

Cons:                                                                                                   -Awkward, sometimes difficult to use interface

-Interface makes some features less than easily accessible

-Assessments are designed to be given on laptops and students have had to deal with load times up to 10 minutes between answering individual questions

I’d be foolish to judge a whole class of program based on my and my colleagues’ experiences with this one example. While I must admit that I and most of my co-workers don’t particularly enjoy using Galileo, we definitely see the value in a program like it that was designed better. The obvious intended and potential strength of these programs is the customization and differentiation they provide.

However, what designers of these programs must consider is how much convenience is truly added. In its current state, Galileo can tell you who answered what type of question correctly, and provide you with a few examples of questions to provide additional practice. This is something that teachers can easily do with simpler programs and even with paper and pencil. Considering the difficulty teachers have reported sometimes in using the program, I’d contend that it really isn’t adding much convenience right now and definitely isn’t doing anything that we couldn’t or already were doing ourselves.

One can see, however, that there is great potential for these programs to provide a more user-friendly interface and to provide more detailed customization to meet individual learning needs.

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This new technology is so…new!

In considering some of this week’s readings for class (a primer on mobile security and a suite of articles about the use of mobile devices in schools), I was struck by a theme: mobile devices, specifically smartphones, are a very new technology but it has been adopted by consumers at a blistering rate.

The articles from “District Administration Magazine” (http://www.districtadministration.com/viewpage.aspx?pagename=staticpage/mobile_device/mobile.html) demonstrated, in my interpretation, very different but equally common reactions to the rapid onset and adoption of this technology: euphoria and fear. On the one hand, there were articles (“Mobile Devices in the Classroom”) which touted the great promise of using cell phones in classrooms and all the amazing possibilities such use can open up. On the other hand, the article “Is it Safe to Allow Cellphones in School?” more or less tells the reader that their children will die if they are allowed to have their phone turned on at school (yes, I know I’m exaggerating, but not that much).

What we see in both articles are common human reactions to new technology, and for that matter, change in general: some get swept up in its possibilities, others are disturbed by the changes (superficial or otherwise) that are associated with use of the new technology. Socrates’ concern that writing would destroy the memory capacity of his students was well documented. Likewise, I’m sure some folks were really excited and heralded the invention of the beta-max player. Of course, writing has done some pretty amazing things in its time and beta-max became, more or less, a common punchline in mid-1980’s stand up comedy and little more. The point of the matter is this: few, if any of us, are prescient enough to truly understand the full impact and potential for impact any technology has or can have.

Consider this article from the Chicago Tribune (http://www.chicagotribune.com/health/ct-met-technology-errors-20110627,0,5447654.story?page=2) . In this case, a technology that has been praised right and left- digital record keeping and management for medical treatment- may have, at least  partially, contributed to a patient’s very avoidable death. Though, in other cases, it has probably enabled medical professionals to save or improve the lives of others. Clearly, the technology itself is neither inherently good or bad, it is its application and proper (or improper) utilization that determines what benefit or harm it holds. We saw this in the primer on mobile security as well: the technology has been adopted so quickly that users are not aware of the risks. People can use fire to cook and thus make edible meat, or it can burn down your village. Cell phones can enable unique and powerful learning experiences, or they can distract students, shut down phone lines used by emergency responders and lead to whole schools of students dying of smoke inhalation while they text and tweet about it with their friends.

Considering the above, I found the article “From Cellphone Skeptic to Evangelist” a bit more balanced than the others. It heaped praise on the use of mobile devices in schools while somewhat acknowledging and attempting to address some of the logical concerns people in general, and educators in particular, have regarding such use. I thought the article’s focus was right on: put in place realistic, responsible rules and controls regarding the use of mobile devices in classroom and educate students about what is proper and improper. Such procedures and policies by no means make the technology completely safe or ensure its appropriate use 100% of the time, but it does get you closer than you’d be otherwise.

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In terms of educational outcomes, the greatest promise of e-textbooks is the customization that they offer. This is reflective of Christensen’s belief that greater use and development of technology in and for education will allow a much greater level of differentiation and customization for individual students.

I tend to agree with Christensen on this general point: educators must consider individual strengths and weaknesses in the forms of learning styles and multiple intelligences and technology makes this all the more possible.

Specifically, the customization of curriculum, which digital textbooks obviously facilitate, holds great promise for students with physical or cognitive disabilities. In the video below, Ramona Pierson shares her unique perspective on this. In (roughly) the first half of the video, Ramona shares her personal experiences dealing with blindness and how she began to try to customize and develop her own learning. In the second half, she discusses the projects she is currently working on in order to provide students with programs which can totally customize and personalize their curriculum and learning experiences.

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