Three in four students said they were 'very unlikely' to use QR codes.

When faced with Quick Response (QR) codes, college students have been slow to catch on to the technology, a new study suggests.

Do you snap a photo of it? Do you need a smart phone app? How long will this take? These are a few of the questions students asked in a 24-campus survey conducted during the fall 2011 semester by Archrival, a youth marketing company based in Nebraska.

Twenty-one percent of students surveyed at schools including Michigan State University, the University of Tennessee, and Virginia Tech said they were able to successfully scan a QR code, a barcode-like graphic placed in publications and on points of interest that, when scanned, opens a specific web page on a web-enabled smart phone.

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Smart phone ownership isn’t an issue—eight in 10 student respondents said they owned one. But three in four students said they were “not likely” to use their mobile device to scan a QR code.

“Higher education is just not educating students on what it takes to actually access [QR codes],” said Jerry Gannod, a Miami University of Ohio computer science professor and director of the school’s Mobile Learning Center. “And I think this is still a relatively unknown technology” outside of technology circles.

Fifteen percent said they were “likely” to scan the code if seen on campus. Still, technologists said the low cost of creating and placing QR codes and the marketing potential of guiding people directly to a web page with a simple scan would keep QR codes on college campuses.

“They haven’t generated a lot of traffic, but they are a minor piece of our marketing to prospective students … so it’s an easy component to add,” said DeWayne Purdy, electronic communications manager at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), a school of 13,000 students in Cedar Falls. “We’ll continue to monitor them to see if engagement picks up, or if they appear to be more effective in specific publications or venues.”

Some students who participated in the Archrival study thought a QR code could be scanned by taking a picture of the bar code with a smart phone. Others didn’t know they needed a third-party smart phone app to scan the code.

Some students said the process took too long, and that they lost interest.

Archrival researchers warned colleges and marketers that if college students are unlikely to use a technology, the general public likely wouldn’t embrace the technology, either.

“When it comes to trends, especially those in the tech fields, adoption doesn’t trickle down to college students, but rather the other way around,” the Archrival researchers wrote. “The college campus is what drives our popular culture—always has, always will. Without adoption or buy-in from this segment, a product will continually struggle for relevancy.”

Gannod said Miami University of Ohio has embedded a QR code scanner into the university’s dedicated smart-phone app. That, Gannod said, eliminates one of the barriers to using QR codes: searching an app store, downloading it, opening the app, and using it to scan a code.

“We’re hoping that will provide the piece that they’re not getting, to bridge that disconnect,” he said, adding that the evolution of QR codes could give colleges a more direct way to guide students to websites. “I don’t know if we know this is the long-term solution to what we want.”

Until students find good reasons to stop and take the time to scan a QR code, the adoption of the technology could languish in higher education, said Lora Louise Broady, an adjunct professor at the University of Denver with a focus on marketing and social media.

“Digital engagement with the college community will continue to grow once students find real value in the information being offered,” Broady said. “The mystique of QR codes has certainly captivated marketers in all sectors, and universities are no exception.”

QR codes, the researchers wrote, could have a short lifespan in higher education if the technology isn’t more immediately accessible for students with little patience and short attention spans.

“Unless QR codes become easier, more nimble, and can provide content that engenders a more meaningful connection to the brand or product, students will continue to shower them with apathy,” they wrote.


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