Maintaining Rigor, Spontaneity in Asynchronous Online Case Studies

Faculty members in the business department at Brigham Young University-Idaho were skeptical about the prospect of creating a totally asynchronous online business management program. The use of case studies was the biggest sticking point. Case studies are an integral component of the business management curriculum. They require students to think critically, answer questions spontaneously, engage in class discussion, and provide and receive feedback. How might this work in an asynchronous online environment?

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Faculty members in the business department at Brigham Young University-Idaho were skeptical about the prospect of creating a totally asynchronous online business management program. The use of case studies was the biggest sticking point. Case studies are an integral component of the business management curriculum. They require students to think critically, answer questions spontaneously, engage in class discussion, and provide and receive feedback. How might this work in an asynchronous online environment?

The decision to create an online business management program came from the administration. The idea of creating this and other online programs was to expand the university's student body regardless of location. And the requirement for synchronous sessions was viewed as a factor that would limit the program's scalability.

A search of other business programs yielded no promising practices. Other programs use the case method, but students are typically required to participate synchronously, if not face-to-face. 

Instructional designer Brigham Taylor was asked by his supervisor Jim Croasmun to work closely with the business faculty to find an acceptable solution. Taylor studied what occurred in the classroom, talked with the professors, and came up with the following elements that needed to be included in an effective online case study: 

From speaking with faculty members and observing the case study method in the classroom, Taylor came to understand the dynamic—students are “put on the spot and have to demonstrate their critical-thinking ability and decision-making skills, and the teacher facilitates the discussion in a natural progression,” Taylor says. “They're getting peer feedback. They're getting that dynamic class discussion. And they're getting instructor feedback and guidance throughout the whole [session]. And at the very end, they've got a reflection period, identifying the key takeaway.”

Incorporating these elements in an online environment was quite a challenge. “We really didn't know which direction to go in. One of the key things I saw was the spontaneity: how are we going to capture that spontaneity going forward in the online environment? We wanted to steer away from having students type their responses in a five-by-two text box in a discussion board,” Taylor says.

Several months of brainstorming meetings and emails between the instructional designers and the faculty failed to yield a workable solution. “For a while we had essentially an unstoppable offense versus an unmovable defense, so we weren't going anywhere,” says Croasmun.

And then Taylor met a representative from YouSeeU (www.youseeu.com) at a Sloan-C conference. One of the company's products featured a question-and-answer or oral exam function in which a student clicks on a link that causes a question to appear on screen. Then the student's webcam and microphone are automatically activated. The student gives a spontaneous response, which is then automatically uploaded to the YouSeeU server. “When I saw that, I was intrigued and thought that's exactly what we need,” Taylor says.

The company was very interested in the case study instructional design challenge and agreed to create a product specifically for this purpose. (The result was a product called Steamboat. For information, see www.youseeu.com/info/steamboat.)

In the case method, students do the following: 

This case study method is currently used in three of the program's courses. One features 24 cases in a 14-week semester. Incorporating this many cases into a single online course was a challenge, but the faculty felt all were necessary for students to meet the learning objectives. Students engage in two case studies per week that do not overlap. One case runs Monday through Wednesday, and the second runs Thursday through Saturday.

In addition to being an intense experience for students, this approach takes a large commitment from the instructor. There are many videos to keep track of, but the tool helps them keep the videos organized by case.

Feedback from students and instructors has been positive. Students enjoy the opportunity to see each other's videos. Once-skeptical and even resistant faculty members have embraced this approach. “One professor who was the most adamantly against putting the program online said [in effect], ‘I think this is actually more effective than my on-campus class because every student has to answer every single question,'” Taylor says.

The videos also help the faculty members grade student performance on the cases. “It's much easier to get a sense of whether a student gets it, not just one question, but the whole case. You can justify their grades that way,” Croasmun says.

Asked what they took from this experience, Croasmun replied: “All courses are ‘in beta' whether teaching face-to-face or online. And so with that in mind, I think there's always a solution out there to any instructional problem that you have. That was just reiterated watching Brig and his team work on this. Of all the courses I've been involved with or overseen, probably 130, I think this one had the biggest problems for us. And it was just really interesting to see. If you poke it long enough, pretty soon it's going to give up and pretty soon you'll have a solution.”

Taylor replied: “It may take a lot of work but there are solutions popping up every day, and there are partners out there who are willing to help, such as YouSeeU and Harvard Business Publishing. There's a great brain trust of people out there who want to succeed. And when you have willing parties involved, it makes it all that much easier.”