Many of you have probably heard of QR codes and may not have the most positive opinion of them.
QR codes are a type of two-dimensional barcode that can be read using smartphones that link directly to text, emails, websites or phone numbers. The downside is that you need to download special software before you can use them, fiddle around on your phone to get to the right app and the results are all too frequently underwhelming. QR codes may have their function, but the reality is that they’re often tricky and frustrating to use.
So that’s where Near Field Communication (NFC) codes come in. NFC is a wireless technology which enables communication between devices, and allows a user to wave their smartphone or tablet over an NFC tag to collect information in a convenient way. NFC tags are currently found embedded in many cards and documents. It is even being used in payment transactions, for identification purposes, in marketing, networking and to access tourist information.
Using NFC to help our students
I've been working on a mobile learning project involving scavenger hunts in my role as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language at Central College Nottingham. Through these hunts we aimed to provide our learners with information on language outside the classroom in a contextualised way. We placed posters around the campus that our English as Foreign Language (EFL) students were encouraged to seek out and scan with their smartphones. The posters contained the English definitions of nearby objects, hosted on a crowd-sourced dictionary called Toponimo, and the students then had to make a collaborative decision on the most appropriate meaning of the word, relevant to its context.
Our experience and student feedback from our original vocabulary scavenger hunts using QR codes showed that although they were easy to create they were not too easy to use and put them off the exercise. It was then that Thomas Sweeney, a researcher from Nottingham’s Learning Science Research Institute, who provided all of the technology used in these activities, suggested using NFC instead.
Our students found the interaction model with NFC tags more elegant in that the learners could simply touch a tag with a phone to share information between the phone and the tag. Additionally, the NFC tags were more convenient for teachers because they could be easily re-written and this saved us lots of time when creating new vocabulary hunts. Students were even able to create interactive posters themselves and use these to set challenges for fellow students. This was an an excellent opportunity to mix students from different language levels, something that has not often happened in that past, which students found very supportive and provided a useful bridge between informal and academic language.
Using NFC on the ground
My experience of using NFC tags was broadly positive. We found them to be an ideal way to provide students with contextual information in buildings where GPS doesn’t work and that learning outside the classroom really helped our students to develop their skills and knowledge.
Because the exercise ran so smoothly, using NFC took the focus away from the technology and allowed students to concentrate on the task at hand, deciding the correct word definition for the location they were in.
We’ve done some analysis around our project to help us decide if this type of learning was something we want to pursue. Our initial research findings suggest success. 92% of our EFL students already used their mobile phones to look up words but every student involved in the project thought that learning the words in context around the college made them easier to understand.
We used a range of methods to collect data during these studies including audio recordings of learners conversations during the tasks themselves, post activity interview sessions as well as pre-test and post-test vocabulary assessments. This mixed methods approach allowed us to develop an insight into both the learners attitudes towards the tasks and helped us gain a solid understanding of how these tasks could promote learning.
Out of the 29 students who took part, 25 of the students held a positive attitude towards the activity and saw benefits in learning using contextually relevant vocabulary. Many commented that they enjoyed the game aspect of the activity and particularly liked being free to move around the college grounds while chatting with their classmates.
What does the future hold?
Having seen the success of this type of learning first hand I believe that this technique is certainly something that we should be utilising to help our EFL students. It’s scalable and we are now even starting to work within the local community to put posters up around the city for students to continue learning outside the classroom. In my opinion the days of the poor old QR code are numbered...
Co-written with Thomas Sweeney, researcher at Nottingham’s Learning Science Research Institute.