Your New Campus Guide: A Small Patterned Square That Talks to Your Smartphone

When scanned, QR codes such as the one shown above, for Wired Campus, quickly direct users to Web pages on their smartphones.

When scanned, QR codes such as the one shown above, for Wired Campus, quickly direct users to Web pages on their smartphones.

Students touring Wittenberg University, in Ohio, can hear campus history come alive with help from their smartphones and little squares with black-and-white patterns affixed to buildings on the 100-acre campus.

Universities like Wittenberg have begun using these QR codes, which can be printed onto any flat surface, as a way to market themselves to a generation of smartphone users. Like bar codes on supermarket items, QR codes–it stands for “Quick Response”–can be scanned by a computer. But instead of returning the price of a carton of milk, these codes are directions to a multimedia-rich Web page. And the scanner, in this case, is the camera in a smartphone.

Using phone cameras equipped with a free code-reader app, students passing by Myers Hall can scan the small black squares and be instantly directed to a Web page where they’ll hear audio of Civil War gunfire and horse hoofbeats. Legend tells of a ghost horse that gallops through the dormitory, which used to house soldiers in the late 1800s. “The campus comes to life through the QR codes,” said Karen L. Gerboth, director of university communications.

The codes can be generated at no cost at a variety of Web sites. They are ubiquitous in Japan—where they were invented and are plastered on a myriad of posters and products—but are becoming popular in the U.S. and in higher education, according to Sarah L. Zauner, a research analyst at the Education Advisory Board. “It’s a free and easy to use technology, and who doesn’t like that?” asked Ms. Zauner. Universities can use free programs to track when a code was scanned and what kind of device was used.

Ms. Zauner said that the codes are cropping up in admissions handbooks, alumni magazines, and staff business cards at colleges like Michigan Technological University and Rogers State University. Library shelves and book jackets at Miami University, in Ohio, will also have codes, helping students navigate library directories or find books related to one they are holding.

At Lebanon Valley College, in Pennsylvania, codes printed onto construction-site banners provide instant access to parking information and construction updates, and discount codes at the college bookstore were printed in the welcome newsletter for incoming students.

Ms. Gerboth, at Wittenberg, said the codes provide prospective students with a comprehensive tour when guides are unavailable or for those who prefer to roam the campus freely. The cost of producing the tour multimedia and code decals was $10,000, and the university plans to offer faculty individual codes for their office doors.

QR codes will play an integral part in an upcoming scavenger hunt at Lafayette College, in Pennsylvania, aimed at getting students acquainted with library staff and services. Last year about 50 students used their phones to collect clues for “Where in the Library Is Carmen Sandiego?,” an interactive mystery based on the old children’s show, said Rebecca  L. Metzger, instruction and outreach librarian. The hunt eventually led students to the actual sword of Marquis de Lafayette, the college’s namesake.

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