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Making cases work online

By Emma Simmons

Making cases work online In this article we explore teaching with cases online. We talk to pioneering faculty on programmes of all sizes and draw practical conclusions from their experiences and analysis of the pedagogy involved.

For business schools, the decision whether or not to offer programmes or courses online is proving to be a very difficult one, as we explored in a recent article (To MOOC or not to MOOC?). For those schools that use cases as one of the core pillars of their teaching, the decision is all the more challenging: if the school is known for case teaching, surely, for most, any online offering needs to reflect this – and be of at least the same standard?While case teaching faculty grapple with these problems, they may be holding back some schools from the growing imperative to offer some education online. But it can be done, and some instructors are successfully practising the case method online, while learning constantly from the experience.

The challenges

So how can cases work in the online space? How do they need to be adapted? How does the teaching differ? How is it be possible to translate fundamental pedagogical elements, such as a live class discussion, into an online format, and, if it can be done, how do the practical aspects of facilitating the ‘discussion’ work? How are participants assessed?

Choosing and preparing a case

Pankaj GhemawatAt IESE Business School, Professor Pankaj Ghemawat has run Globalization of Business Enterprise on the Coursera platform. He anticipated very large participant numbers for the MOOC-format course; in the event more than 22,000 enrolled and 14,000 accessed the programme. Ghemawat expected that they would come from every corner of the globe often where English was a second language, and he could not assume a high level of prior business knowledge. For these reasons, he prepared a special, highly condensed case: Totto (about a Colombian backpack manufacturer) comprises just two pages of text, and two of pared down, graphic exhibits. “My aim was to create something relatively simple that would enable students to be reasonably self-directed, especially when the discussion takes off,” he reports. Due to the unknown participant group, he provides additional ‘self-customisation’ options that allow students to work with materials closer to their academic level. “Additional readings were couched at what I think of as undergraduate level, with supplementary texts closer to the graduate/doctoral level,” he says.

At Boston University (BU), one of the top-ranked providers of distance business education programmes, Professor Barry Unger has been using cases as part of a rich online teaching mix for more than five years on the course The Innovation Process: Developing New Products and Services. With no existing online models of case-based discussion, Unger and his colleague Professor Stephen Leybourne, had to methodically consider exactly what happens in the crucible of the face-to-face case classroom with its rapid fire discussion and why it works, and to replicate this synchronous process in the slow motion and asynchronous online space.

The course was immediately well-received by students and Unger and Leybourne have not looked back. They have found it quite feasible to work with pre-existing cases, from sources such as The Case Centre, though they recommend that shorter rather than longer ones are selected. In fact, this follows the trend observed over the last few years towards using shorter cases in the classroom. They sometimes write guidance notes for students to point to the learning aspects they wish to emerge. Unger and Leybourne also prepare an array of additional materials including short videos on underlying theory, weekly, one-hour, synchronous 'live classrooms' in which students can see each other, course staff and any guest speakers, and a detailed syllabus document which sets the expectations of participants and facilitators alike.

Back to core principles

Bharat AnandA contrasting approach to using cases online comes from Harvard Business School (HBS), which launched its first major programme (CORe) on its new HBX online platform on 11 June 2014. Courses are also being launched for executives and, later in 2014, HBX Live, a virtual classroom that collapses geography allowing participants worldwide to interact directly with one another and a faculty member as they would in an HBS class. 

As the birthplace of the case method, the stakes must have seemed particularly high when the school first looked at the prospect of creating an online offering including cases. Professor Bharat N Anand, a central figure in the development of HBX, recalls when colleagues began to discuss the opportunities presented by the new online educational platforms, and how they provided the ultimate potential to ‘flip the classroom’, in which the online class becomes an active student process following prior study of a video or document posted by the instructor, rather than the class comprising the instructor ‘lecturing’. However, Anand and his colleagues reflected, and recognised that the case method itself had been flipping the classroom for more than 100 years at Harvard – and since then, elsewhere. A fresh perspective was called for.

Taking lessons from Anand’s own research around how print media worldwide has struggled to find a powerful and profitable online equivalent to newspapers by ‘simply’ putting them online, HBX put HBX screenshotthe new media itself centre stage, to approach the challenge in a ‘digital first’ way. “Trying to reproduce the ‘live’ case method online was not our objective: that would be very hard to do,” says Anand, “instead we decided to distil our case-based pedagogy down to its core principles and try and work from them to create their best digital expression.”

Anand and his colleagues reflected at length on the case discussion proces itelf, and why it is so powerful. They concluded that, at its core, success rested on two principles: first, ‘real world problem solving’ that occurs through the process of plunging participants ‘into the deep end’ of a dilemma and then getting them to ‘peel the onion’ to inductively derive the theories necessary to tackle the problem; and, second, 'active learning' in which participants are contributors to the learning experience itself, rather than mere recipients of it. Their thinking threw up some conclusions that may surprise. Most often, case discussion is cited as the core component through which learning emerges. However, Anand and his collaborators reframed and simplified its core function down to these two principles, that, in turn, had a greater chance of being emulated online than the face-to-face or synchronous aspects that are normally cited.

So, on HBX, learning will centre on ‘real world’ problems, but, led by the digital medium. Instead of a case to read, participants get a, for example, three minute video of a protagonist, who straightaway poses the problem(s) faced. “In the past, a video might be an accessory to a case,” says Anand, “but in this approach, the video becomes the case itself.”

Discussing the case online

The participant reaction to the HBX introductory ‘case’ video can be precipitated in many ways. The protagonist in the video may raise the problem following which there may be a series of questions, perhaps as polls or requests for a response. When participants contribute, they also see the last several posted responses and can then freely engage with each other. Together with comments, participants can see photos of those making them, reinforcing the feeling of a cohort or community. Indeed, HBX has also recreated an online equivalent of the ‘class cards’ normally used in live classes, in which participants can learn something about one another and help them feel more comfortable as a group. There are several other such features that are designed to make the platform more active and social. “We are trying to create an experience in which the participant cannot go for more than three or four minutes without being forced to engage with the material, or with others,” notes Anand. 

Mark Fenton O'CreevyAt the UK-based Open University, which has been providing distance learning to millions worldwide since 1969, Professor Mark Fenton O’Creevy is convinced that an online case discussion has the potential to be as, if not more, fruitful than in a class. “Typically,” he observes, “the unfolding online discussion is deeper and more reflective than its face-to-face equivalent. This can be achieved by building small groups to work together on multiple assignments, offering clear guidance about what is expected and carefully designing and staging the case discussion. While the classroom allows for more spontaneity, the online setting can allow for greater individual involvement especially from less assertive participants, and encourages – even requires – more careful design of the learning process.”

At BU, such careful design is evident in the online discussion phase. Like elsewhere, it takes place through the contribution of posts - but over a pre-determined period; not all participants will be online at the same time - and asynchronicity represents a basic challenge of managing teaching online. To assure full participation, Barry Unger and Steve Leybourne recommend setting benchmarks and deadlines; for example, they may set a minimum requirement to make six posts, the first by the end of day two of the course. According to Leybourne, this ‘forcing’ of the students to be proactive actually makes them raise their game, and ‘do something meaningful.’

Barry UngerThere has been some experimentation in post length to assure flow. “Posts need to be short,” says Unger, “and, like the case-taught module itself, highly structured. We need to teach participants from the outset, what constitutes a ‘good’ post; it has to be something that adds to the discussion and moves it forward, not just a rebuttal of the point(s) someone else may have made. We give guidance that any post needs to not just react, but also deconstruct and analyse the issues being discussed. Part of making a success of using cases online is teaching students how to become effective participants in the online environment.” Unger and Leybourne talk about establishing a ‘language of the course,’ to help students think about the cases, contribute and share.


Apart from the technical expertise required to tailor, build and maintain a technical discussion platform, most schools teaching with cases online employ a number of facilitators. At IESE, Pankaj Ghemawat reports that for his MOOC-style course, someone was monitoring online activity and participation pretty much around the clock. At BU, Unger stresses that facilitators have a broad, indeed central role, much more than grading or assessing, and are involved on a continuous basis throughout the duration of the module or course. Each facilitator will be responsible for a particular group of students (in BU’s case often around 15) who work together as a quasi ‘mini-class’, preparing assignments as directed and seeing each other's postings. “You can’t just allow things to evolve,” he claims. Facilitators monitor postings and activity, intercept the online flow where necessary, whether to summarise key points, Facilitatoror move the discussion on towards the next learning objective. They provide guidance to participants as individuals or as a group in the case of team assignments, or they might prompt an individual who has remained quiet for some time in the discussion.”

“We need to be assured of the quality of facilitators,” comments Leybourne, “as they are the ‘face’ of the course and the school for much of the time. We work with them for a couple of months before the course starts and intensely during it – it’s always much easier to work with people you know. Facilitators come from many backgrounds; some have PhDs, some are consultants and some academics. What unites them is a passion for the work, indeed, some have come through the course themselves and got involved in facilitation thereafter.”

The role of the course leader

Michael LenoxSo, what is the role of the course leader in this new space? While he or she cannot be involved in the online action 24/7, they inevitably have over-arching responsibility for the pedagogy and the success of the course. They will typically dip in and out to monitor and are in constant communication with facilitators. Some programmes include video or audio clips of the course leader at key points, mimicking a classroom moment. Professor Michael Lenox at the Darden School of Business has positive experience of using cases in the MOOC space with his course Foundations of Business Strategy, which attracted 90,000 participants the first time it was run on the Coursera platform. He suggests some ‘letting go’ is inevitably required by faculty on such vast programmes: “Don’t go in thinking you can ‘control’ everything participants are doing online; it is more important that the students themselves engage.”

Barry Unger notes, “We still view the online case discussion as primarily instructor and facilitator directed and use other components of the course to provide opportunities for self directed and group activity. As before, we try to be ‘good’ face-to-face discussion leaders, ‘prodding’ the discussion to keep it productive and moving, often by introducing new questions and areas to explore”

On HBX, CORe, which initially has a carefully selected and limited number of participants, faculty interventions occur at various pre-specified points, perhaps when things need to be summarised, moved on, or into a new direction. There is also an allowance for more unstructured online interaction to take place. The ‘cold call’, first made famous by HBS, in which the class teacher may suddenly pose a question to an arbitrarily selected participant, has also been reconceived for the digital platform. “A pop-up screen may suddenly appear which participants are asked to respond to, in order to keep the active element central in the learning process,” reports Bharat Anand.

Assessment and grading

Stephen LeybourneWithout knowing students face-to-face, it is vital to ensure consistent standards of assessment and grading. At BU, facilitators have initial responsibility for grading the participants in their groups. The system is complex and carefully constructed. According to Steve Leybourne, “Generally, the grading will have multiple components, comprising discussions, individual and maybe group papers, group projects, and a ‘proctored’ (invigilated) final test. Some faculty also post weekly quizzes, mini-tests or ’games’. For multiple choice questions, the system grades automatically, and for papers, essay-style questions, and projects, the facilitator does most of the grading, referring ‘marginal’ or specific papers, etc. to the course leader as required.”

One of the most important responsibilities of online course leading faculty is to be a moderator of grades, at BU, ensuring uniformity across as many as 8-10 facilitators on larger courses. Barry Unger adds: “We are very conscious that it would be wrong for a student to earn a different grade depending on which facilitator was grading his or her work, and we have quite sophisticated spreadsheet-based tools to monitor grading week-by-week, and to highlight any major variations in grading distribution between groups early in the process, so that they can be adjusted to align with the ‘norm’.”

Course leaders also need to decide how much grading of online activity will be worth. For HBX, current thinking will allocaate a portion of the final assessment to online participation, just like in the live classroom. This will include an element of ‘enhanced participation’ designed to encourage interaction, engagement, and help for others on the online platform. The final exam for HBX CORe will occur in one of 5,000 physical testing centres available worldwide, in an effort to increase the integrity of the assessment and certification. At BU, a total 30% of the grade (5% each over six weeks) is based on the discussion, using criteria that emphasise concept-based analysis and deconstruction, and making specific actionable recommendations. The remainder is split between various paper submissions and a final exam.

Online vs off-line

To go online with case education, significant resources are required in terms of technological investment and to fund and train facilitators. But, much of the discussion about getting cases used online has centred on whether or not it is ‘better’ than face-to-face. While online allows new things to be done, it loses the ‘magic’ of the case classroom, for example. Also, how can people be sure that students are not just copying answers from Wikipedia? According to Barry Unger, the key is in the pedagogy: “Teaching with cases online has to be underlined by the same Socratic method that is fundamental to the conventional case classroom,” he says, “teaching by asking – not telling, and learning by doing and experiencing. Online vs off-lineOur students need to learn to do true analysis and be able to deconstruct issues into conceptual frameworks, just like they would have to in a conventional class. We have to help them to do this.”

Taking some of the heat out of the online vs. campus argument, Mark Fenton O’Creevy at the OU cites a 2010 meta-analysis1 by the US department of Education, where multiple studies compared outcomes for online and face-to-face versions of the same course. “There was a small but significant difference in student performance overall,” he reports. “The online students did better; however, those who studied using a blended combination of online and face-to-face did best of all!”

At HBS, Bharat Anand suggests, “Predicting whether online learning will be ‘better than’ or displace in-class learning is not really a productive question to ask. There are, and will always be, examples of both good and poor online and in-class experiences. In addition, we chose not to rush online with a generic MOOC-like approach, but to consider ‘what is right for us?’ You might say that in order to go forward we looked back. This is the essence of strategy: identifying how you are distinctive in some way and progressing from that point.” He observes, “Only time will tell whether we - or others - have succeeded. In the meantime, I am sure, we will all keep learning as we try to get the overall balance of pedagogies right to maximise our participants’ potential for learning.” Anand’s words appear surely sound advice for any courageous schools taking their first steps into online case education.

1 Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2010). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies

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