Teaching with cases online - the current landscape

By Emma Simmons

Preparing students to learn with casesIn a two-part feature series, we explore teaching with cases online, with the help of faculty and learning technology experts from around the world.

In the first article, we survey the current landscape, share recent individual experiences, and raise some of the broader issues of going online with case teaching.

In the second article, to be published in November, we drill down into the specific pedagogical and technological challenges and opportunities presented by teaching with cases online.


Five years ago, Connect looked at how individuals and business schools around the world were beginning to experiment with teaching with cases online. A year later we investigated Harvard Business School’s new flagship HBX CORe online teaching initiative and the development of its synchronous digital learning platform HBX Live.

Felix Oberholzer-Gee teaching in the HBS Online Live studioIn the intervening years, HBS Online has become central to the School’s offering and has seen remarkable development with 12 online programs launched, an astonishing 50,000 learners from 79 countries educated, and more than 400 live sessions conducted, with the help of 77 HBS faculty. Extending its experience and expertise, HBS Online has collaborated with 62 colleges and more than 350 corporations in delivering online course content.

Patrick Mullane reports: "We are currently constructing two new synchronous virtual classrooms on campus. The online format is working well across many different kinds of hybrid and distance programs. While there are constant challenges in translating pedagogical content and securing a rich and high level learning experience online, as a medium, digital was built for story telling - think no further than film and TV - so, it remains a very exciting opportunity, especially for case teaching."

Why go online?

It is not just at Harvard Business School that the scope and impact of online teaching continues to grow, and over the last five years ever more institutions have launched online courses and programmes. According to the most recent results of the Babson Survey Research Group, distance student enrolments in the US alone have increased for the 14th consecutive year, and more than 30% of all US educated students now take at least one distance course. The trend towards online delivery is clear, so precisely why and how are ever more schools now using the medium for teaching - including with cases?

Mark Fenton O'CreevyAt the world’s pioneering, large scale, distance learning provider, The Open University (established in 1969, long before the digital world of today), Mark Fenton O’Creevy explains how it has consistently been the needs of students, who for whatever reason cannot attend campus programmes, that has been the rationale and inspiration for distance courses. He recalls developing the first online module using a case 17 years ago, designed to facilitate learning by participants anywhere in the world, and he reflects how the pedagogical insights he gained then remain with him today. Overall, perceptions have evolved positively: "In the early days, the feeling was that an online course might be a ‘poor cousin’," he recalls. "We now understand that this is not at all the case and that a well constructed online course can result in a higher level, more reflective student output. As regards cases in particular, on a fundamental level, online students really do have to read the case or they cannot participate in compulsory activities such as discussion boards, which will be seen and monitored by both instructors and their learning group; additionally, quieter students ‘speak up’ online, whereas in class they often remain silent."

David WoodIvey Business School, with its core commitment to case teaching, has had an online MBA course for four years. "Our perspective has always been that the use of technology and effective online tools must be to support the classroom," says David Wood. "We launched our online Preparatory Knowledge Program (PKP) for MBA students without a business undergraduate degree," he reports. "While it is not designed to replace the live classroom experience, online has the potential to open up the case method to more people, and based on our student satisfaction feedback, it can also make the case classroom experience more rewarding because students come to class feeling better prepared after online learning."

Influence of MOOCs

By 2012, the phenomenon of the MOOC, first introduced in 2006, had emerged as a popular and established form of free, open access online learning, and while they continue to exist and fulfil a useful purpose for many learners, their profile has weakened. Provided by specially created companies and consortia including traditional educational institutions, many individual schools felt compelled to develop MOOCs to extend their reach and visibility to a wider participant group they might not otherwise be able to access. So, have the experiences gained through MOOCs informed how schools develop and offer online courses today?

Patrick MullaneAccording to Patrick Mullane, "there is no doubt that MOOCs helped develop awareness of online learning among schools and wider audiences, but they have disappointed in some of their original ambitions for completion and engagement." For David Wood: "MOOCs gave us an insight into what is possible online, but many emerged to simply distribute knowledge. They therefore reminded us why we are committed to the case method of learning with its interactive and immersive pedagogy."

Indeed, it seems that insights gained from the shortcomings of MOOCs inform today’s development of online pedagogy taking place on campuses across the world. Imperial College Business School offers an online MBA, ranked second in the world by one organisation. David Lefevre who heads up its flagship EdTech department explains: "Online management education is not just the course or the knowledge. Many MOOCs tended to simply put a lecture online. What makes the experience of a business degree unique is so much more, including mentoring, group learning - including using cases, real life work relevance and coaching, all important to participants, because so many come to their management courses with a view to change and enhance their career path and options." Mark Fenton O’Creevy remarks: "Much hype surrounded MOOCs, and they were potentially opening up  learning to those who could not otherwise access it, but these are precisely the people who need the most support on their study journey and, by their very nature, MOOCs are support light."

Setting targets

Nydia MacGregorThe Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University had not offered its own MOOCs when the decision was taken to add an online MBA to its management education portfolio. Nydia MacGregor recalls: "Developing the online programme which was launched two years ago represented a real new venture for our faculty and a huge learning curve for us, demanding high levels of pedagogical creativity and dedication. Our aim was that the new two-year online programme would follow a syllabus - including cases - comparable to our evening, campus-based, MBA. We set ourselves the ambitious target that learning outcomes would also be identical." The programme at the Silicon Valley-based school has four start points per year, so eight cohorts are already engaged at different stages of it.

At a similar juncture, the University of Sussex had entered into collaboration with Pearson Education to develop online learning programmes. Vice Chancellor Adam Tickell said:  "We have responded to the growing demand from students around the world ... for more flexible ways of studying. The world is changing fast ..." At the University of Sussex Business School, René Moolenaar participated in the development of the initial MSc in International Marketing which launched in September 2018. He recalls: "It was an amazing experience to start afresh with a blank sheet of paper. We realised we needed to understand the distance learning experience and rapidly recognised ongoing student engagement as the major challenge, especially when real life demands such as parallel job or family issues kick in for learners. We set ourselves the task to do everything possible to facilitate ongoing engagement and one tool was to use elements of case teaching, with cases re-chunked, strategically positioned, and enhanced with audio visual elements to stimulate the discussion and engagement."

Formats and approaches

David LefevreWhatever motivation or rationale schools or individual faculty have had for developing and offering online courses or whole programmes, they encompass a range of pedagogies and 'classrooms' including: fully online, blended, hybrid, synchronous and asynchronous. Those we spoke to felt that with the appropriate setting of learning objectives, understanding of the participant groups, adaptation of the 'right' materials and delivery to the medium, it is possible to use cases in any of these formats. According to David Lefevre: "Here at Imperial, all our online courses include a combination of synchronous and asynchronous elements and some face-to-face components. All students are having a blended study experience which incorporates different modes of learning. Our task is to try to choose and advise on the method of study that best suits the particular learning objective." Mark Fenton O’Creevy agrees: "Online learning depends crucially on good learning design. It is really important to think what different channels are good for: for example synchronous teaching is powerful for immediacy and decision making, whereas asynchronous teaching often works better for a reflective task and outcome." David Wood adds: "Things students need to practice such as tools and concepts work very well online; their application and developing the skills to exercise judgement in a real setting are still optimally developed in the live case class."

Bill HefleyAt the Naveen Jindal School of Management, University of Texas at Dallas, Bill Hefley uses cases in all the aforementioned formats while also teaching his regular campus based flipped and face-to-face case classes - always adapting the same course content. Bill reports how, before the sophisticated back up resources and learning technologies available to faculty today, he created the instructional design systems for his pioneering online courses himself, evolving a three-part approach to guide him: "I 'B-E-G' to do cases," he says, "which enables me to adapt them to whichever teaching format - online or live - I am working with. Firstly, I Break out of the box by adapting a case, for example by reconfiguring its questions or creating new ones," - he reminds us that posted answers to standard case questions can be very easily found online by students. "Secondly, I Engage with the needs of the particular student group - for example, I find that asynchronous online students need more questions to work and select from. Then I Ground the material for the particular students - into the rest of their programme (especially important when there is no live faculty student contact), or by using a hook or device they, specifically, will easily be able to relate to."


The latest Babson Learning Survey also highlighted 'the challenges for institutions in realizing the long-term strategic value of online learning while addressing concerns such as [student] retention rates and acceptance by faculty.' Clearly, significant investment of financial and human resources are required to create a sustained, high level online offering, and leadership and support for the online ambition is needed from the very top of a school.

Aarthi SridharanAt the Lee Kong Chian School of Business, Singapore Management University(SMU) Aarthi Sridharan is engaged in realising SMU’s online/blended course delivery today. She looks back to the inception of the vision for its eight online courses launched in 2018: "Development does not come cheap," she reminds us. "Not just accessing the technology, but internal costs can be very high, so it was crucial that right at the start we had a committed and invested sponsor in the top management of the school who would drive the project and its promotion."

Faculty face a multitude of challenges in moving to online delivery. Developing the course to a required standard of a high profile institution is even more time and energy intensive than preparing for a standard class. Many case faculty derive their core enjoyment of teaching from the spontaneity and unpredictability of a live class and they feel this is lost, except perhaps in a synchronous online classroom. Others feel that they are simply too detached from their students without the face-to-face interaction; one person we spoke to mentioned a colleague felt "alienated" by the experience, so it is not for everyone. Even for those who do feel motivated to take the step to teach online, the process can be uncomfortable. Case discussion is already challenging to moderate with large live classes and this is multiplied online, especially in asynchronous settings requiring instructor moderation. Multiple time zones pose their own challenges, not to mention the assessment of students you have never actually 'met'. A fundamental recalibration of teaching expectations is required.

In spite of these difficulties, Nydia MacGregor is optimistic so far: "Not only have we found that our online learning outcomes are on a very similar level to those of our equivalent on-campus programmes but student satisfaction levels are also very similar and sometimes higher. I have been incredibly motivated and impressed by the creativity and engagement of my colleagues developing and delivering our online programmes to date; the medium means that they often can’t gauge how they are doing as educators during the actual course process, which some find disconcerting in comparison to live teaching, when you can feel how you are doing, but the outcomes suggest they are doing very well."

René MoolenaarStudents, too, have high expectations of their online course experience. René Moolenaar recognises the imperative for quality: "It is not just important that we create online learning experiences that are pedagogically effective, but the fact is courses need to look and feel good to students and the technology performance needs to be high level. Everything from a well designed and functioning discussion board to a case subject interview needs to appear professional to the user." Bill Hefley has noticed a rise in student expectations: "Today I need to deliver online content to a higher production value than in the past and that includes using up-to-date instructional materials such as cases wherever pedagogically effective, otherwise students can be quick to complain - for example, today’s cohorts already consider subjects from the 'dot.com' era to be 'out-of-date'," he says.


So what advice can be given to those instructors or institutions that stand before their first steps into online case course development? "Our experience to date at Ivey has made me a great believer in starting small, learning from your own and the experience of others and feeding it back into the process," says David Wood. "It is going to take more resources than you can ever imagine to get it right, and finding good internal and external partners to work with on the technology and the learning design is essential. Learning technology is always more expensive than you presume, so be aware that going online is not going to be a way to save money."

Patrick Mullane is preparing to share some of the experiences gained through HBS Online with a wider public: "At most institutions there will be a 'capacity gap' in many areas of resources and expertise as they start to pursue their online ambitions, so the immediate challenge they face, after having given full consideration as to why they want to go online, will be how to fill those gaps."

Aarthi Sridharan reminds us that the process is not a static one: "We are constantly experimenting with the technological and pedagogical possibilities of online course delivery and growing our ambition for what can be achieved," she says. "It really pays off to collaborate and share experiences and expertise both internally and externally with like minded colleagues and institutions worldwide." We will explore some of the ways this is being realised in relation to the case method across both technology and learning design in the next article.

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