Moving the case method online

Close Up Of Student Using Digital Tablet In Lecture

Is teaching the case method online ever possible?

When I ask experienced online educators about online learning, their strongest recommendation is that instructors move away from selecting and packaging information for students, and allow them to build knowledge through digital networks both within and outside their course. The biggest challenge, they say, is finding the best ways to do this so that learners achieve the knowledge and skills they need.

It seems to me that this is a pretty convincing description of the case method. Yes, there is a (mostly) written, formal teaching case, but the case (and Teaching Note) are the stimulus for class discussion. I think this could be described as a form of networked, collaborative or social learning that includes learning inputs from inside and outside the course; academic guidance, course materials, and student experience, knowledge and personal networks of support and advice.

This suggests to me that the case method is ideally suited to online learning. It should, in fact, thrive in online environments. Yet there remains a stubborn resistance to the idea of wholeheartedly committing to using the case method online. This threatens the continuing relevance of the case method in a rapidly growing segment of management education. If the case method is to avoid becoming stranded, we need to develop approaches to using it online that are confident and embracing of the technology rather than tentative half-steps.

Online learning is not going to go away. It is here to stay and is growing rapidly. We have left behind concepts like “new technology”. New technology is now simply no more than the new norm.

So how do we find a way forward?

Earlier this year I took part in a conference session on teaching online. Each participant was asked to join a table discussion on a topic of personal interest. I joined a table group focusing on the case method.

I think it is fair to say that the attitudes expressed in that opening exchange as to whether the case method could ever be used effectively online ranged from discomfort and doubt to confidence and conviction. It was obvious that the range of responses reflected the participants’ own relative experience or inexperience in teaching online generally, and the degree to which they were attempting simply to do online what they did face-to-face, rather than any limitations inherent in the online environment.

Given the fast expansion of online, the greatest challenge for the case method lies in finding approaches that capture its essence rather than seek to mimic the classroom experience.

The Case Centre will continue to support new approaches to the case method, both face-to-face and online, by sharing the experience of our community and promoting the case method as a diverse and living methodology.

Our Connect online magazine has produced a two-part feature on approaches to teaching with cases online. You can read them here.

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Death by synonym


The case method, as we know it and support it at The Case Centre, is a broad church encompassing and encouraging diversity in case writing and in approaches to case discussion. This range and diversity of approach, setting and location, and protagonist, is at the heart of delivering our mission to advance the case method worldwide, sharing knowledge, wisdom and experience to inspire and transform business education across the globe.

And so we should be careful to avoid using that familiar shorthand “Harvard’s case study method” to refer to the case method in all its rich and diverse entirety.

Harvard’s approach, wonderful though it is, is one of the many varied and diverse approaches found and explored by practitioners of the case method around the world, reflecting their own cultures, attitudes and needs.

The phrase resurfaces in a recent Poets & Quants article Is It Time to Retire The Harvard Case Study? where yet again the case method comes under attack from critics for whom the Harvard template is synonymous with the case method.

The article is useful in drawing attention to some criticisms of the case study method, such as:

  • failing to understand the relationship between business and society
  • lacking in relevance and outdated
  • perpetuating rather than challenging existing managerialist power structures
  • excluding the voices of those who are poor, oppressed or discriminated against.

These criticisms must be addressed by all of us for whom the case method remains the most striking and impactful way of bringing meaningful experience of decision making into the classroom. Case authors should bear them in mind when researching and writing their next case.

But I think the picture is more complicated than the article has room to portray.

Some critics are too quick to use “Harvard” and “the case method” generically, while others use each as a stick with which to beat the other.

Just as Harvard cases are only part of the huge diversity of cases available and still being written, so, too, is the case only part of the totality of the case method. The case method is a combination of research, case writing and teaching.  It is only fully realised as a living synthesis of the case delivered, examined, explored through class discussion.

Teachers, too, have a responsibility to address these criticisms, and they can do that in how they require students to prepare for class and how the discussion is hosted and facilitated in class.

According to the article, some critics suggest that the case method emphasises teaching students about how one thinks rather than what one thinks, or that case scenarios or protagonists exclude a range of voices.

Why not challenge that when questioning the class and stimulating the case discussion?

Most of all, be vocal in talking about your own approaches to case writing and case teaching, as part of a broad and multifarious spectrum of academic opinion, identification and purpose that goes way beyond a genericised ‘Harvard case study method’.

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