QR codes welcoming freshmen to campus

Three in four WLU freshmen own a smart phone.

The newest crop of Washington and Lee University (WLU) freshmen didn’t have to look past T-shirts worn by the school’s IT staff in acclimating to life on campus.

First-time students came to the Lexington, Va., campus in early September and were greeted by IT staffers donning T-shirts filled with 18 Quick Response (QR) codes – nine on each side – that directed students to helpful web resources like the university’s IT help desk site and local attractions like the Blue Ridge Parkway, which connects to nearby national parks.

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QR codes are two-dimensional colorless images – like barcodes – that can be scanned by various smart phone apps. Scanning the code leads a student to the website embedded in the black-and-white design.

Guarav Malhotra, a WLU senior who works on the IT help desk, said sharing valuable web links with teenagers moving into their dorm rooms was made easier with QR codes on the shirts of university employees chatting with new students about how to connect to the campus’s wireless network or where to grab something to eat that night.

“Freshmen tend to be a bit clueless when they first get here,” Malhorta said with a laugh. “And I wish they used [QR codes] when I was a freshman. Things would’ve been a whole lot easier.”

QR codes are useless without a smart phone, but like many college campuses, WLU has seen a spike in the number of smart phones used by students and faculty members.

Two years ago, four in 10 university freshmen owned a smart phone. By 2010, 60 percent of freshmen owned iPhones, Droids, and other popular mobile devices.

Now three in four WLU freshmen own a smart phone, said Julie Knudson, the school’s director of academic technologies.

“Year by year we have seen a steady increase in the percentage of students who bring smart phones to campus and use them to do an increasing variety of tasks,” said David Saacke, WLU’s chief technology officer. “We expect that this year’s entering class will be relying even more than usual on this technology, and the QR code T-shirts seemed an appropriate welcome for tech-savvy kids. ”

The QR code-clad IT employees meeting freshmen as they arrived on the 1,800-student campus proved a great icebreaker for staffers and students.

“It was partly for fun, just to have a geeky T-shirt,” Knudson said. “What it turned out to be was a great conversation starter … and they knew right away that we were here to help them with whatever they needed.”

Even for edgy freshmen in their first few days on campus, Malhorta said scanning a QR code is “really, really simple. They see it and they know that all you have to do is point and snap a picture.”

Shirts filled from top to bottom with QR codes intrigued freshmen this year, Knudson said, but IT officials will look for new ways to draw in new students getting used to life away from home.

“I like the idea of making it fun for the students to acquire the knowledge they need,” she said. “Like anything else, you just have to keep mixing it up. … This is the thing for this year and right now, but I’m sure there will be a new way to grab their attention next year and the year after.”

Colleges and universities have found ways to use QR codes as smart phone ownership has skyrocketed in recent years.

Misericordia University, a 2,300-student campus in Dallas, Pa., was at the forefront of QR code use in American higher education, using the technology in campus paper materials since 2008.

The university recently sent print material to prospective students that included a QR code they could scan with their smart phone and watch a YouTube video of a typical day of a Misericordia student.

QR codes aren’t universally recognized yet, but college students are sure to gravitate toward the black-and-white boxes once they’ve snapped a few pictures and experienced the technology’s convenience, said Stephanie Geyer, director of web development for Noel-Levitz, an Iowa-based higher-education consulting company.

“The beauty of using a QR code on a flier, pamphlet, booklet, or anywhere else in higher education is that it creates a bridge between real-world material and online resources,” Geyer wrote in a blog post. “There’s no need for students to memorize the address for your event’s webpage or search around your school’s website looking for more information. Just point, snap and connect instantly.”

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