Teaching with cases online - practical and
pedagogical considerations

By Emma Simmons

Teaching with cases onlineIn part one of this feature series, we explored the growing trend towards online courses and programmes, in particular those that teach with cases. With our global panel of experts, we look closer here at some of the pedagogical issues and learning design challenges involved in making online case teaching an effective reality.

As ever more schools offer courses and programmes in the online space, those who have yet to take that step may find it hard to assess the level of resource and insight that is required to create them. Using cases outside a live class could seem impossible to some faculty - either to imagine or to tackle. Finding staff or external suppliers who have the expertise to develop online programmes represents a challenge in itself because faculty will rarely have all the necessary design and technology skills themselves. “A typical team developing an online course may include specialist learning designers and editors, Aarthi Sridharana video producer, an IT expert and a project manager, all working in close collaboration with faculty,” explains Aarthi Sridharan of Lee Kong Chian School of Business, Singapore Management University (SMU). In most cases, these resources will be addressed at a school level; such specialists also need to be able to relate to the content of a course with an appropriate level of knowledge and understanding, and to be capable of delivering complex pedagogical content of high quality - the image of a school and its teaching prowess are ultimately at stake. To use cases online, learning designers also need to understand the case method.

The Open University (OU) has been offering ‘distance learning’ for more than 50 years. According to Mark Fenton-O’Creevy, the OU's pedagogical philosophy has not changed with the move to online course delivery, which is how the vast majority of its degrees are now provided. “At the OU we have always believed that good and complete learning design, delivering content that is rich in activity and interaction both between students, and with faculty supervisors and facilitators, leads to good online learning, and this remains our default position,” he says. “But, the biggest mistake you can make is just to do online what you do face-to-face without establishing the needs of the target students.”

David WoodThe majority of schools offering online courses do so alongside their conventional, core, campus classes. At Ivey Business School, the Pre-Ivey Preparatory Knowledge Program (PKP) is offered online to prepare students for their campus course. David Wood believes that it is essential to examine carefully what you are actually trying to do in teaching before you attempt to put anything online. “Technology is an enabler,” he observes, “It doesn’t replace everything and is best used where it can enhance the classroom or learning experience.” He advises: “If something can be done better online, then do it online, but reserve the more advanced learning objectives for the live case classroom.”

Getting cases online

Having decided to use cases in an online course, how do you go about deciding on the right case to use, and what adaptations are required to make it work? Some schools and faculty regularly create new cases for the online medium. At Harvard Business School (HBS), Patrick Mullane reports: “Every concept, analytical tool, and framework required for the particular course has been embedded in a series of actual case studies that we have developed specifically for our pioneering business essentials and readiness online program, CORe”.

When schools do not have case writing expertise in-house, or face limitations in resources, especially where large student cohorts such as undergraduates are concerned, their central challenge becomes how to select and adapt existing available cases. To make a case suitable for online teaching, it must be flexible enough to weave into the online teaching framework while assuring opportunities to achieve the right learning outcomes. But just as in campus classrooms, students tend to demand to be taught with up-to-date cases; several of our panel of experts had experienced the frustration of knowing of an older or ‘classic’ case that would deliver the learning objectives better online, but felt unable to use it for this reason.

Bill HefleyHaving made a case selection, how do you approach adapting it for use in the online programme? According to Bill Hefley of the Naveen Jindal School of Management, University of Texas at Dallas, “The key is to match the learning design to the modality. The challenge of student engagement online is much greater than in class, so, one way I approach case learning is to create more questions for them to work with. Whereas in class I might prepare four or five, I will post eight or 10 online, which also allows my students some autonomy to pick the questions that interest them. I often use discussion boards, and, to make sure students engage, the technology dictates that they have to post an answer to a question before they can discuss there.”

Nydia MacGregorNydia MacGregor at the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University, often breaks a case down into ‘scenes’, which frequently entails her re-ordering the case narrative for its online reincarnation, around the individual learning points she has identified. “Students are offered questions,” she reports, “and they then have the facility to work in their own order. This flexible and highly effective ‘chunking’ approach supports engagement, but it does require a particular kind of case and a lot of preparatory work by the faculty member,” she adds.

Aarthi Sridharan observes: “As in a live class, students usually need to first read the case. Online offers additional opportunities such as including a video in which case writers themselves provide valuable insights.” But, at some point in a case class learning has to widen from the individual to the group, and this is no different online. A multitude of interactive and immersive activities such as polls or worksheets can be provided for students. The central feature of case pedagogy - the discussion - must also be addressed by the learning design, whether in a fully online format, or a blended format when the discussion itself may take place ‘live’ in real time after private student study online. “Faculty may provide recorded ‘feedback’ contributions and build in a chat feature, which may be moderated live, or with a time delay, depending on the synchronicity, which can both harness individual learning and be for the benefit of the whole group. In a blended format, we try to fully exploit digital benefits so that individual learning is amplified before the group learning takes place,” Aarthi adds.

René MoolenaarSmaller group work is often an important feature of case pedagogy, and ‘organising’ participants on an online course is a challenge, which is heightened on asynchronous courses. Those we spoke to approached this in various ways. University of Sussex Business School often ‘buddies up’ and then ‘re-buddies up’ differing pairs of students on a course, which delivers multiple benefits for their learning. “Buddies can share contrasting perspectives from their cultural and professional backgrounds,” explains René Moolenaar. “Having a buddy also tends to stimulate participation in discussion boards, Facebook/Skype or whatever vehicle is used, and they can both act as a peer ‘reviewer’ of each other’s mini assessments. I actually often mark the ‘peer feedback’ rather than the original student’s answer because this can really pinpoint the learning achieved by both participants - you need to know your stuff before you can give feedback and this encourages students to get on top of the theory,” he suggests.

Many schools put students into sub-groups, just as they would for a live class, but it is then left to the participants to organise their actual group work. “Grouping gives students additional relevant practice for the real world of work, a core objective of the case method,” says Nydia MacGregor. “Online, managing asynchronicity is especially instructive for participants when different time zones are involved. Even with a largely US-based cohort, students may need to coordinate up to six time zones in order to work together.”

Patrick MullaneIndeed, planning for asynchronous online case learning does require reimagining class dynamics. “Getting case learning online in an asynchronous format is not easy for faculty in many respects,” says Patrick Mullane. “Just preparing for those all important ‘aha’ moments requires thinking through and preparing for how participants are likely to react to content. Meanwhile, a major challenge for the students can be getting used to not fully ‘seeing’ their co-learning classmates. At HBS, we acted on the latter challenge by building tools for course participants to communicate with each other so that the ‘conversation’ they are accessing/participating in at any point will relate through their ‘clicks’ to the learning point they are on at the time, and thus provide pathways to ‘answers’ in the way that it would in a live case class.”

Monitoring student learning

Big brother monitoring dataOne of the most important aspects of online learning design is enabling the monitoring of student performance by educators, and achieving this poses many challenges in both synchronous and asynchronous course delivery. Schools take various approaches as to who does this monitoring, and it will inevitably have resource implications: sometimes faculty do all the monitoring, while elsewhere, learning facilitators such as research associates perform this function and some schools sub-contract the responsibility. According to David Lefevre, “Some very large programmes have to rely on adjunct tutors to help with monitoring, but here at Imperial College Business School, we always use our own in-house research staff. Where possible, we try to partner senior and junior staff; often senior faculty will take the flagship online sessions while day-to-day interventions are carried out by researchers.”

Especially where faculty aspire to carry out all the monitoring and moderation, there are implications for class size. At Ivey Business School David Wood observes: “It is really important to spot any individual or group learning issues early so that you can amend your case teaching plan. We restrict online classes to a certain size so that faculty themselves can monitor what is going on. Some faculty have found that around 45 students works well.”

Although the demands on his time are considerable, and some of his classes large - up to nearly 60 students on one occasion - Bill Hefley does all the monitoring of students on his online courses. “I find it really important to see what the students are doing,” he says. “While they always have the option to email me, to simplify the process, I’ve developed a system of a one-to-one online journal for each student. I introduce it in the first course module and then use the journal to communicate with them individually. I invite the students to first introduce themselves in their journal and outline their expectations, and later they may receive tailored assignments and comments, and are asked to indicate how they feel they are doing as they go along. The journal is also where they can provide and evolve thoughts on their final project.” 

Ethical considerations

While monitoring is necessary from a teaching and learning point of view, it is also helpful in student satisfaction evaluation, which is of particular interest both to schools offering parallel campus and online courses, and when planning changes to programmes. But there is inevitably an ethical dimension to student monitoring that should not be overlooked. Technology enables educators to potentially see and monitor exactly how much time has been spent on a course. One faculty expert recounted how online monitoring had revealed minimal participation by a student who, in all conscience, could not finally be awarded sufficient marks to pass the course.

Mark Fenton O'CreevyWith its long experience of distance learning, the OU has invested in monitoring and analytics. “Learning from student behaviour online is invaluable for future learning design,” says Mark Fenton-O’Creevy. “For example, we observed early on that students would often switch to reading transcripts of videos rather than watch the ‘talking heads’. This led us to re-think how to make videos more compelling and what their best use might be - essentially doing what text can’t. We also use monitoring to get early warning if students might be failing so that we can trigger interventions,” he reports. “However, we have to ensure student data is being handled correctly and the OU has a strict written policy on the ethical use of all student data accessed through monitoring for teaching purposes.” 

Student care

Student supportOnline learning design should also remember the needs of students ‘in the round’. On campus, learning does not happen in a vacuum and offers a multitude of additional support around classes ranging from face-to-face teacher interaction, to accessing campus infrastructure and peer activities, to personal and career counselling.

“It may seem like a simple detail,” says René Moolenaar, “but when I present my first ‘live’ online module, I make sure I am in front of a picture of the campus to help students to feel that they are actually being welcomed to the university, and those distant students that will never visit really appreciate this. I also try to ensure that the end of each online module is not too abrupt, so I build in the opportunity for them to reflect on their learning journey throughout the module and to feed back their observations to me.” He adds, “I have learned a lot from some very deep reflections that I have received, in particular about how juggling ‘real life’ family and work with distance study can be a demanding - sometimes overwhelming challenge, and we have therefore created the role of a ‘student success adviser’ who is available to online participants for issues of wellbeing if they would rather not go to the course tutor with a concern.”


So are there any guiding principles that can inform a school or faculty as they move to put courses, including with cases, online? Our conversations revealed that although many technologies and platforms are now available, the area is still relatively new in terms of pedagogy and everyone is still learning what works best and what doesn’t appear to work so well. We found that many schools are collaborating nationally and internationally, sharing their learning and technological solutions, some of which they have evolved themselves.

David LefevreWe give the last word to David Lefevre: “The essential question needs to be how you can develop online learning well,” he suggests. “High quality presentation and impactful pedagogy are best achieved by working together across multi-disciplinary and multi-level teams, while pulling in the expertise of external resources and drawing on the experience of colleagues at other schools. Just as in the case method, a successful group process means developing these things together: building the necessary technology at each school while continuing to learn from others; and the good news is, it is getting better everywhere!”

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Learning with Cases: An Interactive Study Guide

Learning with cases can be a challenging experience for students. 

Our new interactive study guide will take your students through the process, providing practical tips, tricks and tools. Your students will learn how to:

  • analyse a case quickly and thoroughly using our practical Case Analysis Framework
  • prepare efficiently for class
  • participate in a case discussion
  • plan for assessment through cases.