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Case methods for online learning

By Janet Salmons / June 2003

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Case analysis is a popular teaching strategy in higher education, particularly in professional degree programs such as business, social work, education, medicine, law, and policy studies. This strategy allows students to apply ideas, theories, and concepts to realistic problem-solving situations. In a virtual classroom, the world is just a click away. Because the online learning environment and the online world of professional life overlap, instructors have new opportunities to engage students. This tutorial will examine how guiding students through the analysis of case studies can enhance online learning.

A case study is a well-researched story with characters and drama. A particular dilemma is embedded within the story, and the case is designed for students to extricate the dilemma and resolve it in a way that demonstrates achievement of learning objectives. A case study provides a snapshot of an organization at a specific moment in time. Cases are prepared using in-depth research and interviews with key players. The best studies integrate quantitative and qualitative information with diverse perspectives about circumstances of the case. Case studies representing many disciplines are now available online on a free or fee-per-download basis.

Today, professionals increasingly must collaborate to solve problems. Cross-disciplinary teams are a regular feature of organizational life. Being an expert in one area is not enough; one must have broad understanding of complex issues and trends, and the internal or external implications for the organization. It is one thing to teach skills related to development of field-specific professional expertise, but much more difficult to teach the judgment, balance of perspectives, teamwork, and communication needed to be successful in today's fast-paced work environment.

Experiential learning encourages students to bridge theory and practice—to apply principles and theories in practical ways. Case analysis provides one kind of experiential opportunity. Unlike field placements or internships, case analysis allows for safe experimentation and reflection without concern for the impact on real organizations or clients. It promotes a systems approach and a cross-disciplinary view of issues. Perhaps more importantly, case analysis offers students a chance to see that there are no easy answers and that often there is not one right answer.

Case analysis can be assigned to individual students, teams, or a class to promote student-to-student exchange and peer learning. When case analysis is used in the online setting students also develop skills with electronic technologies. These skills are valuable to students preparing to practice in nearly any field.

In his book, Management Challenges For the 21st Century, Peter Drucker observes: "Information Technology has focused on the 'T' in 'IT.'" The "T" focus has meant attention to advancements in hardware and software, and with collection, storage and transmission of data. "The new information revolutions will focus on the 'I.'" They ask, "What is the meaning of information and its purpose?" In posing this question, Drucker echoes thoughts of Charles Gragg: "…no amount of information, whether theory or fact, itself improves insight and judgment or increases ability to act wisely under conditions of responsibility" ("Because Wisdom Can't Be Told," Harvard Alumni Bulletin, 1940). Gragg argued for the advantages of a democratic, interactive teaching approach using case analysis to foster development of insight and judgment. Today we can follow his advice and use case studies in the interactive environment we call the Internet. With this approach, tomorrow's leaders will have the advantage of having learned in the same environment in which they will work.

How Can Case Study Analysis Enhance Online Learning?

In the context of online instruction, case analysis can be used to achieve the following goals:

Develop online research skills. A case study tells a story that takes place within a given time frame. Students can broaden their understanding of the context for the case by researching historical antecedents or more current developments.

Develop student competencies for working in virtual teams. Team assignments require agreements between distant students on norms for frequency, quality, and means for communication. Issues like fair division of workload, congruence of work styles, and expectations for a project must be resolved in order to complete the assignment. Experience in these online negotiations and problem solving will contribute to students' virtual work skills.

Introduce students to new technologies. Case-related assignments can be designed to introduce students to communication means not otherwise used in the class.

Build online learning community. Discussion of recommendations, debates about different conclusions, and role-playing of possible outcomes can enliven classroom interaction. By using a variety of interactive techniques throughout, the case analysis process can create a lively and dynamic class community.

Let's look at the steps of case analysis, and explore examples of online teaching strategies for each stage. For the purpose of this article, they will be presented as a sequential series of learning activities. Naturally an instructor would pick, choose and adapt learning activities to meet course goals within parameters of time and class size.

What Are the Steps of a Case Analysis?

Case analysis typically progresses through a series of key questions. The results are analyzed to solve the problem encoded in the case. Key steps include:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Plan the inquiry
  3. Conduct the inquiry
  4. Identify and evaluate alternative solutions
  5. Offer the best recommendation
  6. Present conclusions

Any or all of these steps can correspond to online learning activities. The following section includes suggestions for student, team, or class assignments.

  1. Define the problem(s)s. The first step for students is to assess the case and define its central problem. Students should identify issues being presented, perspectives taken, and the protagonist of the story. Students should survey the data, exhibits, and other supporting information. A single problem may be apparent based on this initial reading. If multiple problems emerge, they should be prioritized or classified into categories such as personnel, resource, and market issues.

    According to E. R. Corey's "The Use of Cases in Management Education" (Harvard Business School), clear problem definition will:

    • Name immediate issues and define them in a way that calls for action-oriented answers
    • Put these issues into context with broader organizational and historical issues
    • Deal with problems from the perspective of an individual, and recognize the responsibilities and scope of authority for the person in question

    Good preparation is key to students' full participate in subsequent steps of the case analysis. The instructor should consider making problem definition an individual assignment to ensure that all students have carefully reviewed the case study. Then, when each student has a well-defined problem, team assignments can be made.

    One option, particularly when a case contains several compelling matters, is to group the class into teams based on their problem definitions. For example, some students may have selected the manager's hiring practices while others selected human resources policies or the company's recent reorganization as the immediate issue in the case. Each team could pursue their respective angle. Later in the process, teams can compare and contrast the recommendations with the class as a whole.

    When students are inexperienced with online team projects, the instructor may introduce some virtual team basics at this point. Instructors can assign specific team projects and roles, or students can be required to create a team agreement and norms to define their approach to communication and collaboration.

    If the instructor prefers to proceed with the entire class working on the same problem, all definitions might be presented. Then the group could prioritize and refine the problem statement together. As an alternative, each student might present problem statements for a vote by the class, with the "winning" problem used as the basis for the class analysis.

    Whatever approach is used, at the completion of this step, one or more problems are clearly defined and teams are formed.

  2. Plan Inquiry. The next step is to articulate one to three key questions and plan how the inquiry will be conducted. Students carefully review the evidence presented in the case and its data, exhibits, or addenda to determine whether gaps exist. The kinds of questions students should pose at this point include:
    • Should historical factors in the company, the industry, or field be factored in to provide context for the current problem? Should economic, social, or other trends be discussed?
    • What current trends, either internal or external to the organization, could enable or obstruct solutions to the problem? These could include demographic or workforce trends, human or financial resources, regulatory changes, or technological innovations, to name a few.
    • Should issues of leadership, organizational culture, or management and decision-making style be considered?

    By requiring students to use online research for this step, instructors open the door to additional opportunities for learning. Depending on the level of the class and experience of the students, the instructor might provide lessons or supplementary materials about how to conduct online research and how to evaluate the resources they locate. Or, in the case where students might carry out primary research, suggestions for conducting surveys or interviews could be presented here.

    When the entire class is explicating the same defined problem, the instructor can assign different parts of the inquiry to each team.

    Regardless of the strategy, at the conclusion of Step 2 several questions that build on the problem defined in Step 1 should be stated, together with a plan for answering them.

  3. Conduct Inquiry. At this stage, the inquiry planned in Step 2 is carried out. If teams are working together outside the class forum, they can be required to report a synopsis of their inquiry at this stage. Additionally, a "Resources" thread on a discussion board can foster exchange of good research discoveries.
  4. One aspect of online research is locating resources; another is evaluating them. There are many valuable tools to assist students in both aspects and this may be a good time to introduce them. These tools are important because the quantity of information available online can be overwhelming and the quality of information varies widely.

    Instructors may contribute additional activities to expand students' research. For example, in a threaded discussion forum, several contrasting information sources can be posted. These might include articles in online publications, government documents, or reports posted on the Web site of the organization in question. Media, such as video clips of relevant speeches or interviews, could be introduced. The assignment can ask individual or teams of students to select one or more resources to analyze, and then to summarize ways their findings relate to the problem at hand.

    Assignments might include conducting surveys or interviewing knowledgeable sources. A guest can be interviewed in a virtual classroom, or invited to participate in an asynchronous question and answer session in a discussion forum. These opportunities to conduct primary research online will be especially beneficial to graduate students.

    At the close of Step 3, students, teams and/or the class will have the information they need to recommend solutions to the problem.

  5. Identify and Evaluate Alternative Solutions. At this step students formulate and evaluate alternative solutions to the defined problem. Based on evidence found in the case and from results from the inquiry, students or teams suggest two or more alternatives for addressing the defined problem. Independent and/or team research is translated into practical recommendations. When an abundance of alternatives emerge, students or teams can provide rationales for their suggested alternatives and use online polling to narrow the list down to two or three solutions for evaluation.
  6. Next, students will critically assess, compare, and contrast these alternative recommendations. External and internal factors, implementation requirements, implications, and other factors are considered. This process may take the form of peer review where students or teams review each other's recommendations.

    The evaluation process can also take the form of a role-play, with individuals or teams taking roles of key players and describing how the recommendation in question would look from his or her vantage point. Another option is a debate, with some students presenting preferred recommendations and other students querying their rationales.

    At the close of Step 4, several alternatives have been carefully evaluated. Now it is time to select the best one!

  7. Offer best recommendation. At this step, students or teams recommend the one best solution for the problem. It is necessary for individuals or teams to support and justify the preferred recommendation, citing evidence in the case results from the inquiry and other substantive sources.
  8. The outcome for Step 5 is a well-supported recommendation that addresses the original problem defined in Step 1.

  9. Present conclusions. Students or teams complete the case analysis with a presentation of conclusions. This summary will mesh research, analysis, and recommendations.
  10. Depending on the nature of the class and case, students might be asked to describe changes to management or leadership styles, business model, organizational structure, products or services, policies or systems as appropriate to implement the recommendations. Conclusions about the case and reflections on the process can be presented in the form of a paper, an electronic portfolio with files for each step, PowerPoint presentation, or some other product.

    Students may also be asked to reflect on the processes of virtual collaboration, research, and interaction. They might report on the virtual team process, with an assessment of the effectiveness of the team agreement made in Step 1.

Collaboration and Course Platforms

Case analysis at its best involves some level of collaboration, and some courseware applications are more conducive than others to team or small group activities. College and university classes are delivered online using platforms such as BlackBoard, Web CT, or LearningSpace. Some courseware has options for real-time, synchronous communications in virtual classrooms as well as anytime, asynchronous communications in threaded discussion forums. Some allow instructors to set up separate forums for teams, while others only allow separate threads. Instructors who teach in more limited environments can take advantage of free or trial tools for synchronous chat, surveys, polls or other interactive features missing from courseware. While some free services incorporate advertising, which can be distracting, use of these services can expose students to various styles for online communication and collaborative work.

Case Analysis Online: Immediate, Real…and Fun!

Case study analysis can be used to build professional, academic, and technology skills. The instructor can craft learning activities relevant to course goals and to the students' needs and interests. In the process, instructors may find their online students become more motivated to log into classrooms and participate. By building opportunities for instructor-student, student-student and student-guest interactions, the potential for meaningful learning experiences multiply. And they just might have some fun in the process!


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