Can case studies really be taught online?

Dr. Charlotte von Essen

One of the most frequent and pressing questions we hear at insendi is: can case studies be taught online? Case-based teaching is a popular and widely used method in business schools, where students discuss, analyse and evaluate real-world scenarios. This approach allows students to see theory applied in practice, encourages evidence-based or data-driven decision making, and harnesses communicative and collaborative skills. If a student is asked to think back to a time where they applied a concept and it had an impact on their ability to make decisions, then learning is retained for longer (Lopez De Mantaras, R. et al., 2005). I interviewed David Wood, Accelerated MBA (AMBA) Program Director at Ivey Business School, to gather his thoughts on the recent Online Case Teaching Survey from The Case Centre and explore his own experiences of teaching cases online.


The impact of online case learning on student engagement


The survey observed that 43% of faculty found that teaching cases online was more engaging than in classroom settings, 20% felt it was equal to the  in person experience, and 30% felt it was less engaging. David notes: ‘We always knew that potential was there but I was surprised to see so many faculty in agreement with this position.  My hypothesis is that if you only try to recreate the classroom experience by using synchronous technology, you will find that it is less engaging. You have to embrace a multi-modal approach to case teaching to be more effective and engaging.’ 


Teaching cases in synchronous or asynchronous modalities 


Another interesting insight from the survey was that 72% of educators used synchronous  learning technologies (Zoom, Webex, MSTeams, GoogleMeet) to teach cases indicating, perhaps, a reluctance to teach cases asynchronously online. David observed that the transition of case-based teaching during the pandemic often took place at speed, without extensive preparation time or access to additional resources. The model employed at Ivey, which was being developed prior to the pandemic, blends both the synchronous and asynchronous experiences. Asynchronous technologies are used to help students understand and grasp the content, begin the analysis of the case, and assist them to work in teams to dig into each case, so they come to the classroom better prepared. 


It might be fair to say that in the not so recent past, experiences of case-based teaching have often been very polarised. On the one hand, learning was designed to be very absorptive, asynchronous, and solitary  with readings and individual case preparation. On the other, case-based discussion was entirely immersive, collective, and held predominantly in the classroom. However,  David argues that there is room in the middle for a blend: “We can combine asynchronous and synchronous and immersive and absorptive experiences to really help students better prepare for classroom discussion and, as a result, the classroom discussion turns out to be even more effective.” This resonates strongly with the case centre survey result, which found that those faculty who leveraged synchronous and asynchronous technologies found students more engaged.  


Online case-based learning and critical thinking development


The case difficulty cube (Wood, Leenders, Mauffette-Leenders, and Erskine, 2018) is a tool often used by educators to assess a case in terms of its conceptual, analytical and presentation dimensions. David remarks, “if you have a case which is lower in difficulty on conceptual and analytical dimensions, asynchronous learning can be very effective and sometimes even preferred. In these situations, we are helping students learn how to analyse the case and apply the concepts and tools we give them.” Asynchronous is clearly good for background and first steps, basic analysis, or sizing up a case.


But at some point, students must advance to more complex cases which demand higher level thinking. The case method shines when a learner goes beyond a simple understanding of a tool to understanding its deeper implications . This is harder to do asynchronously. As David comments, “learning synchronously, in step with others, allows students to make mistakes, and gain immediate feedback from others. It also  gives the faculty an opportunity to build on comments in real time.”The delay of asynchronous learning is problematic because it affects the context of the learning. If feedback is delayed by an hour or even a day, the flow of the learning is interrupted. The nuances of what makes the case unique—the implications of the analysis and the impact it has on the decision making process—is best done in live time. 


The need for clear pedagogical structure


There is a  danger of students feeling lost and isolated during asynchronous online learning experiences, so planning and design of case-based online learning is key. From a pedagogical perspective, the asynchronous portion of a case discussion needs to be structured. Faculty and students often remark on the enjoyment derived from the free-flowing, unpredictable nature of a live case discussion. But spontaneity can be difficult online. David advises that the intentional, directive structuring of questions is helpful: “Forums are a very effective tool for this. The use of learning teams can be hugely beneficial too: it may lead to more work but there are ways of leveraging scale there to make it a more effective and efficient process. Faculty also need to think about the pacing of questions and students' time to reflect on and contribute thoughtfully.”The model used at Ivey on the AMBA programme  and using the insendi platform, structures the learning in a simple yet effective way:


  • An introductory video 
  • A reading or video to explain a key concept or tool
  • An activity or exercise for students to explore the implication of that concept or tool
  • Preliminary case discussion in teams/beginnings of case analysis through individual work
  • Large class live discussion to extend and deepen learning
  • Review and reflection



Other educators have noted a need for larger question banks, more contextual grounding of the case, more timely cases when teaching online. David observes that “more timely cases are not a necessity, but we certainly do need to update course content regularly, regardless of the modality of teaching.”


What do students say about online case teaching?


On Ivey’s AMBA programme, faculty have 60% of the classroom time that they would have in an on campus equivalent course, but students and faculty alike find that they are achieving deeper and more extensive learning. In student surveys and focus groups, students were asked: What online tools were most impactful/effective and which tools were least impactful/effective? Interestingly, they gave the same answer for each question. The Ivey team discovered that it was not the technology itself but rather how the faculty used the technology that made the difference. Students identified two extremes. In some scenarios, faculty taught a case entirely asynchronously using the tools online to explore the ideas and concepts.  The  learning was effective but there was no opportunity to discuss lessons uncovered. The other extreme was the opportunity to explore these concepts online and then repeat the discussion in person. Students found this equally ineffective because they felt they wasted their time and they weren’t really advancing their learning. 


Students preferred a compromise. They remarked that they enjoyed case discussions which were initiated online (to allow them to explore some of the basic concepts at their own pace) and then continued in person. David points out, though, that students noted the importance of some overlap: “Students said it provided them with the opportunity to get feedback from the faculty.  Students could also learn from each other when their colleagues were given the chance to explain the analysis that was posted online. Having some discussion in class of the work that has been done online, not with the intention to repeat the conversation but to level set everyone’s understanding, is very helpful.”


Students stated  that the best way to implement level setting in class was for faculty to pick out two or three online contributions from students and share them to launch the discussion. As a faculty member, David feels this has improved his teaching. He reaches out the day before to a couple of students who have made insightful submissions online and asks them to come prepared to discuss their ideas. “They are still providing the content, but the faculty can filter for the contributions which are most insightful,” David notes. “As a result, the piece of the conversation which once took 20 minutes now takes 5 minutes. That’s 15 minutes more where we can explore the implications of the case: the importance of decision-making, implementation and impact on students’ own professional contexts.” Interestingly enough, the students seemed to quickly learn that if David endorsed a comment online they are likely to be asked to discuss this in class. This underscores where students find great value in online learning. Clearly, they are making the powerful argument that this is a better way to learn. 

What has been the impact of teaching online on faculty?


Perhaps unsurprisingly, most educators who contributed to the survey remarked that teaching cases online increased their workload. To follow the structure outlined above is undoubtedly more work if replicated for every class delivered on campus. But this process allows faculty to explore more of the subtleties and nuances of a case than feasible in  on campus contexts. David notes that classifying cases to work out the best teaching approach can be helpful. Additionally, it  can be useful to distinguish between:


  • introductory cases that can be done asynchronously with the use of technology to bring in automatic feedback.
  • comprehensive cases, which can be blended in a way that captures key lessons within learning outcomes in richer detail. This might mean not teaching as many cases, but getting more learning out of the cases than you might do on campus.


Another  interesting statistic from the survey was that 78% of faculty said that they intend to use some elements of online learning when they return to campus. David believes that “we have all started to realise that there are some things that can be done better online. The degree to which they are better depends a lot on the nature and structure of the programme.”


One of the upsides of blending case-based learning at Ivey has been that faculty have been impressed by how well prepared students are when they come to class. Where they have embraced blended learning and used technology, in this case the insendi platform, to enhance the discussion, the faculty have found that students gain more from their experience. They have also enjoyed the teaching more than on campus alone.


Concluding thoughts


Harvard Business School Professor Chris Roland Christensen, a key proponent of case method teaching, once reflected that “the classroom encounter consumes a great deal of energy; simultaneous attention to process (the flow of activities that make up a discussion) and content (the material discussed) and requires emotional as well as intellectual engagement’”(1994). 


As David’s insights and recent research results confirm, the same could be said of the online case-based classroom. 


About the Author:

Dr Charlotte von Essen is Director of Academic Engagement at insendi. She previously worked at Imperial Business School’s Edtech Lab and has a background in university teaching and learning design. She has designed and delivered numerous online and blended programmes and helped faculty across the world develop hundreds of courses for a range of audiences - undergraduates, postgraduates, executive education clients, and corporate learners. At insendi, Charlotte leads the Academic Engagement team, which is devoted to supporting and nurturing the company’s relationships with current partners. She also supports insendi’s user communities, including the award-winning FOME alliance. Charlotte is fascinated by the ever-evolving models and practices of Edtech. The innovations and insights of this rich and dynamic sector excite her work. She loves learning about new projects and initiatives insendi partners are planning, all of which offer fresh, exciting ways to enrich and deepen learning.


References:

Lopez De Mantaras, R. et al. (2005) “Retrieval, reuse, revision and retention in case-based reasoning,” The Knowledge Engineering Review. Cambridge University Press, 20(3), pp. 215–240. 


Christensen, C. R. et al. (1994) Teaching and the Case Method (Third Edition): Text, Cases, and Readings. Harvard Business School Press, Boston.  


Wood, Maufefette-Leenders, L. A., Erskine, J. A. and Leenders, M. R., (2018). Learning with Cases, Fifth Edition, Case Method Books, London, Ontario, Canada.