A case of teaching case teaching

I am rather passionate about case teaching. Not only does it provide a much richer learning experience for the student, especially within fields that involved in analyzing complex human situations, but it much more interesting for me as a teacher to do case discussions t hat it is to lecture. Not that I don’t enjoy lecturing – do it all the time – but after a while you start to feel like a DVD player on repeat, wondering how much the students get out of listening to you in person rather than seeing a video. In the give-and-take of the case classroom, you learn new things all the time, and so do the students. For example, by about the 15th time I taught a short case about outsourcing, a student came up with a solution neither I nor anyone else had thought about until then. And just a few weeks ago, in China, a mathematically inclined student surprised me with a new solution to a rather long-winded example I use to demonstrate certain aspects of telecommunications competition.

I share that passion with my friend and colleague Bill Schiano, and together we have worked for years on how to do case teaching in situations where you do not have the rich infrastructure, streamlined processes and shared culture of the Harvard Business School – including, in a modest way, trying to influence our colleagues to adopt the method, our students to accept it, and the administration and management of our respective schools to create the infrastructure and processes necessary for it.

In a few weeks (March 16-17, to be precise) we will get an opportunity to further spread the good word, by teaching the course The Art and Craft of Participant-Centered Learning, at the Harvard Business School. We will teach it together with Professor Jim Heskett, a true master of case teaching. The course is over two days – and as of today (March 2) there are still a few places available, details to be found here. (Note that the course is only open to teachers at degree-granting institutions.)

I am quite looking forward to the experience. I have taught classes on case teaching before, but not in this environment and to such an eclectic group (about 50 teachers from many universities and countries.) It feels like giving something back to the institution that taught me, but also as a rather enjoyable challenge, and quite an honor.

It is a sad fact in academia today that good teaching is under-rewarded, at least officially. I think this is a stage we are going through – and that good teaching, specifically discussion facilitation, will be much more important as the competitive climate between business schools hardens (as it will). Lectures and factual information can be delivered over the Internet, in the form of videos, animations, or voice-assisted slide shows. As information can be distributed more and more cost-free, the local lecturer stands in danger of being disrupted – rather than listen to some random teacher on a subject, why not see a video of the best in the field.

The complex interaction of the discussion class room can, as of yet, not be done remotely – at least not with the quality and intensity a co-located discussion warrants. Local institutions of learning, to maintain their competitive place and current pricing, will have to master discussion facilitation and participant-centered learning. Students will demand it, not just in business, but in an increasing number of fields – medicine and social services, public leadership and administration, military, political science, to a certain extent engineering and natural sciences. The case method may be the most explicit of form of participant-centered learning, with its tailored cases and specially built classrooms – but I firmly believe this method will spread out as a way for teachers – even the more average of us – to add value in a unique and enjoyable way way.

4 thoughts on “A case of teaching case teaching

  1. David Croson (@ProfDC)

    Austin and Heskett made a big impact on my teaching style. I don’t write many cases anymore, but I certainly use them extensively in class — and prescribe them as background documents to students pursuing entrepreneurial ideas. ‘

    Case-method teaching has made the transition to online education remarkably smoothly, in my opinion. I remember rejoicing when the technology became good enough to see the look of surprise on a student’s face when he/she got cold-called by a professor 3000 miles away!

    1. Espen Post author

      Hi Dave,
      Yes, I agree you can teach cases over the Internet – but the technology introduces a additional layer which makes it more difficult to handle for already stressed teachers. Bill and I actually taught a course together, from 98 to 2001, I think (something like that) where we had students on both sides of the Atlantic, forming entrepreneural groups, the whole thing ending up in a simulated VC conference where the groups would present business plans. It was great fun, and the technology worked, but not well enough that it wasn’t a distraction. We used purpose-built classrooms and videoconferencing. I have since been in innumerable Webex/AdobeConnect/Lyncs/Skype meetings – what technology have you used?

  2. Joakim

    I was a student in a VC-based course at UiA. The technology was good, we got access to world-class experts who would be unlikely to ever teach in Kristiansand if they had to show up in person – but it was nowhere near as fluid as it would have been with everyone physically in the same room. Some clarifications were not made, some questions not asked. The net result of the course was probably no better than it would have been with an “average” local academic.

    I remain an optimist regarding the concept. I believe the technology is sufficiently developed and that our main obstacle was simply lack of training/experience in having VC-based discussions. Had we started with VC-based education in secondary school instead of grad school I think we could have had fluent discussions by the time we were at a level that the world-class experts find interesting to teach.

  3. Pingback: Reflections on teaching case teaching | Applied Abstractions

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