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Getting case teaching online quickly

By Emma Simmons

/onlinecaseteachingRecently, The Case Centre has been exploring the challenges of getting case teaching online. Who could have foreseen how facilitating remote learning would become a matter of urgency as Covid-19 forced university and business school campuses to close? Here, we learn from faculty who have successfully achieved the rapid switch to teaching all classes online.

David Dubois When INSEAD’s David Dubois realised that moving class teaching online was imminent, he immediately thought of those faculty colleagues around the world who use his cases and of what he could do to help them. He rapidly wrote and published a supplementary teaching note for his popular cases, giving guidance on planning and teaching them online. “When you teach a case in person, you co-construct knowledge through short and successive interactions between the instructor and the participants that build on one another. You use and enrich participants’ pre-class experience in the way an Impressionist painter creates meaning through small, iterative touches of colours,” he suggests. “Reproducing this process online is very hard as neither the instructor nor the participants can rely on subtle social cues, so building upon others’ comments becomes less natural. Being online makes the instructor more of a Jackson Pollock, who poured or splashed paint onto the canvas, than a Monet. However, online settings offer other powerful tools, most notably polling, that can augment and enrich the narrative of case and class conversations,” he adds.

Some schools already teach courses in blended format, offer complete online modules, or even whole programmes, but few institutions deliver all, or the majority of, their courses online. Faculty at other schools have never taught remotely, though such institutions may have begun to explore the online space and be planning a future offering. Covid-19 levelled the playing field overnight and forced online teaching to become a reality for all.

How do you start?

Srikant DatarHarvard Business School (HBS) is, relative to many institutions, experienced in offering online programmes, including teaching with cases, but to take this across the whole school rapidly still represented a significant undertaking. It fell to Srikant Datar to mastermind the two-week transition to providing all teaching remotely from 23 March, when the HBS campus locked down.  A rapid collaborative effort was required right across the school: “We were able to achieve our aims in this short period of time not least through a partnership between the faculty, our students and the technology support that was important to making it work,” Datar reports. “While faculty worked intensively to master case teaching online, students generously gave all the engagement they could to help the faculty succeed.” HBS documented the training and teaching tips that emerged from this process for their faculty to be able to refer to, and the school has generously made them available to educators everywhere.

Jeroen van den BergAccording to Jeroen van den Berg, Hong Kong was ahead of many other places in recognising the implications for higher education of the Covid-19 pandemic due both to the region’s earlier experience of the SARS outbreak, and political protests that temporarily closed university campuses in late 2019. Nevertheless, The University of Hong Kong (HKU) faced challenges to quickly provide online learning to its huge undergraduate cohort. “Clear directives were given to both students and faculty,” reports van den Berg, “and there was an initial period when there was quite a scramble for hardware such as webcams, as faculty started to upload materials, thereby also putting a strain on existing tools built into the Learning Management System (LMS), such as Panopto.” The decision was taken to halt teaching in order to buy time and allow the faculty, and the school’s technology, to adapt properly. During this two-week window, van den Berg organised a two-day online teaching workshop for faulty led by an expert instructor from the US who had been recommended to him. “The move to online posed a genuine challenge to research-focused academics,” he reports. “Many had never taught online and quite apart from the pedagogy, their questions began with issues about how even to use some of the unfamiliar technologies, or how to get their support staff involved.” Meanwhile, the HKU IT department also held training sessions. “But our faulty showed great engagement; more than 50 attended the teaching workshop and classes began online, as planned, on 3 March,” says van den Berg.

Annie PeshkamAnnie Peshkam observed an unprecedented level of collective and individual engagement as INSEAD tackled the rapid and successful transition to online teaching. The school’s Initiative for Learning and Teaching Excellence (iLITE) held sessions for faculty to help with online pedagogical issues while the IT department offered technical training and resources. “Our faculty engagement was astounding,” she recalls, “but we first needed to reach out and educate their support staff and programme coordinators to facilitate the transition. Technical support systems were also put in place for students, and they were given detailed instruction to ensure a seamless online experience; for example, our participants needed to log in with their INSEAD ID in order not to find themselves locked out of a Zoom break out room (preassigned group IDs and login IDs need to match), which could mean missing or disrupting a crucial, time limited, part of a case session. Overall though, this process has resulted in a great deal of wider institutional learning,” she concludes.

Technical set-up

Linus DahlanderESMT Berlin was already well into the process of developing both blended teaching and complete online modules including the platform to deliver them, when the imperative arose to deliver everything online within days. Linus Dahlander had already taught an online course, but rapid new and practical thinking was still required, especially to get the appropriate individual technology in place. “Regardless of whether you have taught remotely before, you need to make sure you have the right set-up to teach online from home,” he says. Like others we spoke to he recommends having at least one very large screen, so that you can see participants clearly, and, if possible, a second one for clearly visualising and manipulating the materials that will be ‘shared’ with students on platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. “Faculty must also consider how students will see them,” he advises. “Many students will be sitting in front of small laptop or mobile screens in normal domestic environments. You will probably need to invest in a special light and a studio-quality microphone, because the one in your computer will seldom be good enough,” he comments. “Both are relatively inexpensive and available online – if you can still get them right now! I also recommend investing in a writable iPad and ‘pen’ or similar so that you can spontaneously draw relevant graphics or charts, and broadcast them to the class in real time, as the need arises.”

David Dubois teaching remotely at homeOnce technically up and running, there are further important things instructors need to consider before they go live with lessons, especially if they are not used to the specific technologies, and platforms they are using. “Screen-sharing is beset with pitfalls, and not just operational ones,” comments David Dubois.  “Remember that some of your personal history can inadvertently be shared with your class. When preparing to begin the online class, I take time to focus on my technical infrastructure as well as my teaching plan for the session, just like I would when setting up a physical class. I systematically shut down all screens I was previously working on, delete my online history, and I reboot afresh in good time before the class goes live.” Dubois was not the only expert we spoke to who recommended, especially when working from home, using a separate internet browser with as broad a bandwidth as possible, exclusively for teaching. Other considerations include whether to stand or sit to teach and camera position, and the selection of backdrop; will you position a white board and use it as in a live classroom, or would a selected static background shot, or image offered by providers such as Zoom, make a more appropriate impression than a domestic office wall?

Importance of planning

Absolutely key to launching an online class is planning, especially when teaching with cases, not least because of the loss of live face-to-face immediacy, which in a classroom allows the teacher to react to student responses with agility or even to change direction. Srikant Datar feels that there is a natural temptation to try to teach in the same way online as in the classroom, but, in the long run, it will be necessary and beneficial to adapt a course by reimagining it for the new method of delivery. In the short term, such as in the current circumstances however, there are important things that need to be done differently from the start. “Clear challenges of online teaching include the lack of human contact, inability to read body language, the absence of the atmosphere and energy of an engaging in-person discussion, and the inability to see the board and the students at the same time,” he observes. “The key is to take advantage of the benefits of online learning while minimising the disadvantages. Doing online what one would do in class without rethinking the students’ online experience and the advantages of online learning diminishes that online experience,” he adds.

Word cloud of key words from this article“Case teaching online is all about fully rethinking its key moments and planning how to organise and embed live polling into a tight teaching plan to move the collective knowledge forward, assisted by tools such as live word clouds, keyword ranking or other live ratings,” says David Dubois. “Focus on student learning while maximising engagement. Ask yourself what key questions you would like the participants to answer during the class. I personally chunk every session in blocks of 15 minutes ending with a live question – on top of other forms of interactions. I heavily use online breakout room discussions and put together different groups each time to create a novelty factor for the students, which enables them to interact with more people than they would in a physical space. I also use WhatsApp or WeChat groups to facilitate sharing across the full class during breakout groups, which maintains the connectivity between classes and beyond.” Remote teaching also offers the opportunity to switch seamlessly to live online examples from company websites or social media pages which can give an online class a sense of immediacy and replace some of the lost spontaneity and unpredictability of a live classroom. “Students love it when you show them live examples, like  sharing a recent advert on your Facebook page, or analysing a company strategy with them through live analytics tools,” comments Dubois.

Fostering engagement online

“Successful teaching online is about understanding what is different about the teaching and learning when participants are not face-to-face, such as shorter attention spans and rethinking how to personalise learning,” observes Annie Peshkam. “When we focus on getting the cognitive learning right online, we also need to remember the socio-emotional learning, particularly because faculty and students are no longer physically together, so it helps to offer a way to connect all those present right from the start of the class. Some faculty might start the session with a personal anecdote or collective meditation, or invite comment-sharing by the students on how they are feeling about the class on a live screen share.”

Lots of profile pictures onlineFor Linus Dahlander, the biggest challenge has been how to make his online sessions engaging for students and as interactive as possible. “I prepare materials such as exercises related to class and put them on our student teaching hub,” he explains. “That way they are available to participants to work on before and after class and I can use the online time to be as much about the students themselves as I can. In online case classes I randomly allocate tasks and use cold calling just as I would in a campus class. Having said that, reading the students’ faces and keeping the dialogue going is one of the greatest challenges online and I need to have planned and prepared my teaching more than for a live classroom session,” he adds.

The way in which a class ends can also play a role in how it is received by students and whether learning has been successful, especially for more reserved participants. Live online or phone app polling was highlighted by several we spoke to as being especially useful in the faculty toolkit, both to assess group learning at key points during a class and to collect feedback at the end. “After a real classroom session, it is quite usual for faculty to be approached by individuals or small student groups,” says Jeroen van den Berg. “This can be really useful in dealing with matters arising, so after an online class it is helpful to offer a Q&A session and/or one-to-one online student consultations.” Others we spoke to provide individual email follow-up to students. Van den Berg highlights the facility that records whole sessions on platforms such as Zoom. “Case evaluation and assessment often include marks for participation and team presentations and the fact that you can automatically keep a copy of the class is really useful, even down to details like having the list in the participant box for groups, things which are really time efficient tools for faculty,” he comments. When recording and keeping copies of online classes, schools should ensure that the appropriate permissions and online safeguards are in place, much as they would need to be for a recorded campus session, to protect both their faculty and the participants.

Synchronicity and satisfaction

Student watching a video on their laptop of a teacher teachingThe above discussion has focused mainly on getting synchronous classes up and running online. Some we spoke to felt that in the immediate situation, precipitated by the pandemic, this turned out to be easier and faster than preparing and uploading materials of adequate quality for asynchronous classes. They also felt that these may become more viable again in future, when there is less time pressure and faculty can develop their content in collaboration with learning designers and technical staff. Asynchronous approaches do have an important pedagogical role to play and can facilitate learning for those students who may find it hard to join synchronous classes because of their time zone or personal circumstances. “Asynchronous teaching tools can be powerful, especially in technical subjects,” says Srikant Datar. They allow for one-to-one teaching-learning, which is not possible in a traditional class, where some students invariably get left behind. Students can pause, rewind and spend the time they need to learn at their own pace and in their own learning style.” However, Datar advises that the pedagogical approach must be the same for both modalities. “How students engage and learn must be placed at the centre of the process; it is not as simple as recording a faculty lecture and having students view it. The asynchronous learning model at Harvard Business School Online uses the case method with students discussing cases and preassigned questions among themselves without a professor leading the discussion. Student satisfaction with this innovative approach to online asynchronous teaching is actually very high,” he reports.

So what have been the overall satisfaction levels of students in these pioneering weeks of getting classes online? Apparently, they have broadly been remarkably high, with some schools reporting equal satisfaction levels to those previously recorded for equivalent on-campus classes. Managing student participation levels has posed challenges in some instances and several schools have put internal feedback systems in place to harness pedagogical and practical learning for faculty and the school. While the current global crisis has compelled teachers and their students everywhere to adjust to a rapid ‘new normal’ online, it could be the traditional classroom and campus that will need to come up with fresh pedagogical ideas and new added value to tempt them back when that time eventually comes. All those we spoke to agreed that, on balance, this experience has represented an exciting opportunity for schools, faculty and students, and that the learning from it, and the investments made, will be carried forward in the form of more blended programmes and more creative uses of online technologies and opportunities in campus classrooms and case sessions of the future.

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