Evaluation of Web–supported Case–based Learning Designs

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Evaluation of Web–supported Case–based Learning Designs

Problem-based Learning and Case-based Learning
Case-based Teaching and Learning
The Web and Case-based Teaching and Learning
Course 1: Focus on E-Interactions and Low Learner Control with Link to Assessment
Course 2: Focus on Rich Media, E-Interactions, and Flexible Learner Control Without Link to Assessment
Course 3: Focus on Visual Media, E-Interactions, and Low Learner Control with Link to Assessment

Carmel McNaught
Paul Lam

Problem-based Learning and Case-based Learning

Problem-based learning (PBL) encompasses a range of learning designs. A “weak” form of PBL involves the use of authentic cases as illustrative examples, while a “moderate” form—often termed case-based learning (CBL)—emphasizes the relevance of authentic multidimensional problems in higher education, especially in professional programs. A more “complete” form of PBL emphasizes not only the need for authenticity but also the need for students to articulate and define the problems in the context under consideration.

The focus of this chapter is the moderate form of PBL—that is, CBL, which requires learners not only to view the cases as examples but also to act upon the case situations, usually to find relevant information and look for possible solutions to problems. The active participation of students in constructing knowledge from the simulated experience is intended to lead to a more complete understanding of fundamental discipline concepts and how they can be related to relevant professional contexts. The work of Herrington and co-workers (e.g., Herrington & Oliver, 1999, 2000; Reeves et al., 2002) has provided convincing evidence that the use of authentic situations in problems supports the development of higher-order thinking skills.

A moderate form of PBL with ready-made case stories and comparatively well-defined problems may well be more appropriate to the higher education context of Hong Kong (and indeed other countries in southeast Asia as well), where most students have been taught through a traditional style of teaching and are not accustomed to analyzing situations and solving problems on their own or with peers. Our research with science students at two universities in Hong Kong confirms the need to scaffold students’ transition from being passive recipients of information who seek to understand the material by themselves to actively engaging with peers in solving problems (McNaught et al., 2005). For example, it is important to design group activities such that no direct conflict of opinion is likely to occur.

Case-based Teaching and Learning

A case-based approach to teaching and learning has two main aspects to its design: the cases themselves and the pedagogy of teaching with cases (McNaught et al., 2005). A case is a story, often told as a sequence of events in a particular place. Often, there are human actors woven into the case story (Shulman, 1992). Cases should provide clear contexts in which learners can construct meanings and concepts; Morrison (2001) calls this “actionable learning.” The context of a case is intended to enable students to put themselves in the role of an actor in the situation; in this way they are more likely to be engaged in the learning process and try to relate what they are learning to previous experiences. The pedagogy of case-based teaching involves framing suitable questions for students to consider, planning time allocation for group discussion so that students are exposed to several viewpoints and ideas, and ensuring that appropriate assessments are designed for both group and individual outcomes (McNaught et al., 2005). Considering pedagogy entails focusing on what the teacher does as a learning designer as well as what the student does in working with the cases. In the discussion that follows, we usually use the term case-based teaching and learning (CBT&L) to emphasize the dual aspect of planning for a case-based approach.

CBT&L can benefit students’ learning in multiple ways (Shulman, 1992). For example, cases may aid in teaching principles or concepts of a theoretical nature by showing the occasions when the theories are applicable; illustrate the precedents for practice, in abstract and context-dependent issues such as morals or ethics; train students in analytic strategies and skills; and increase students’ motivation for learning. In addition, teachers would also benefit from taking a case-based approach to their teaching, as they have a chance to reflect upon their students’ learning when they develop and introduce the cases in their classes (Harrington et al., 1996).

CBT&L is not new in higher education; an example was recorded in the teaching of law at the Harvard Law School in the late 19th century (Garvin, 2003). Since then, the method has progressively gained acceptance in the teaching and learning of many other fields: medicine, nursing, business, and social science disciplines such as public administration and management, journalism, and education (Lynn, 1998; Tippins et al., 2002). There are many successful stories of CBT&L implementation (e.g., Kinzie et al., 1998; Shulman, 1996; Richardson, 2000; Hazard, 1999). The courses examined in the present study were in the disciplines of finance, physiotherapy, and nursing.

The Web and Case-based Teaching and Learning

Over the last decade, increasing attention has been paid to the potential benefits that the use of web technologies might bring to teaching and learning in general, and to the particular areas of PBL and CBL (or CBT&L). Among the various aspects of PBL design—the form of resource materials, the activities in lectures and tutorials, overall strategies for course communication, guidelines for research tasks, guidelines for effective teamwork, the wording of assignments, and mechanisms for various forms of feedback—Oriogun’s team (2002) illustrated using three case studies how the Web can facilitate many of these PBL components. In Herrington and co-workers’ studies cited above, the presentation of, and engagement with, authentic examples (cases) relied on the use of multimedia and communication technologies.

The research into the use of web-supported CBT&L in universities is extensive in quantity but patchy in quality. There is clearly tension between ensuring that the technology works and focusing on learning outcomes. For example, Samaka (2003), in describing the building of an online discussion-based system to facilitate ePBL, reported the evaluation of the system only at the level of technical functioning, with no teaching and learning data. The same is found in many papers about technology-enhanced initiatives. While technical robustness is essential, it is our contention that we need to seek clear evidence of improved learning outcomes; evaluation of learners needs to be integral to the design of web-supported CBT&L. One excellent example of a comprehensive evaluation of CBT&L comes from a team at the University of Sheffield who used an action research approach with iterative evaluation-improvement cycles in their assessment of a case study approach adopted for a master’s program in health informatics (Levy et al., 2002). Their evaluation methods included the use of questionnaires, interviews, focus group discussions, and participant observation. In this study, we have also adopted multiple methods of evaluation.


The reality of CBT&L is complex, and the design of the whole course needs to be considered, including students’ prior experiences and the nature of other courses that the students are studying. In setting up this small comparative study of three case-based courses, we wanted to investigate some of the claims that are often made about CBT&L. It was our assumption that the statements below are somewhat naïve and should perhaps be challenged:

  1. The degree of authenticity of the cases requires that the media used be complex. This implies that video is intrinsically more effective than text or audio combined with pictures.
  2. Good web-enhanced CBL needs highly active online forums.
  3. Students need to develop independent learning skills, and hence very flexible learning designs are needed.
  4. Cases will intrinsically motivate students, and they will work well even if rewards in terms of marks are small.

We chose our three sample courses carefully to reflect diversity in aspects relating to the four statements above. The following were the dimensions we examined:

  1. Media: the type of media used to portray the cases
  2. E-interaction: the nature of web-supported interactions in the course
  3. Learner control: the degree of control students have over their learning activities (which has been noted by several writers as being a pertinent factor: Reeves, 1992; Bain et al., 1998)
  4. Motivation: how assessment is used as a motivating force (whether the motivation is intrinsic or extrinsic is also an often cited factor: Reeves, 1992; Reeves & Reeves, 1997; Bain et al., 1998)

The three courses were conducted at two Hong Kong universities over one term in year 2004-2005. In all the courses, students analyzed authentic professional scenarios with relevant professional problems. A summary of the courses and the different learning designs is presented in Table 5.1. Figure 5.1 is an indicative “sketch map” of the variations between the courses. The positioning of the cases along each dimension was based on our qualitative observations. The relative positions, and the resultant pattern, are more important than the

Table 5.1 Features of the three courses under study
 Course 1Course 2Course 3
Discipline areaInvestment bankingPhysiotherapy diagnosis and management of musculoskeletal disordersNursing therapeutics
Learning goal for using the casesLearning for understanding and application: students learn fundamental concepts and then apply them in other contexts Learning for decision making: students learn to make appropriate decisions before meeting real patientsLearning for decision making: students learn to make appropriate decisions in emergencies
Form of presentation of case materialText Video clips, supplemented by patients? test resultsText, pictures, and audio, supplemented by patients? test reports
Tasks students to do onlineGroups post their decisions on the case online, followed by peer critique and then revision of the original standpointOptional self-study: students make decisions in accompanying online exercises and get immediate automated feedbackOptional forum discussion
Tasks students to do in face-to-face classes   Students discuss cases in detail in tutorials
Type of mediaTextVideoPicture and audio
Nature of e-interactionsStudent-studentStudent-computerStudent-student
Degree of learner controlLow: support students with well-managed proceduresFlexible: provide enriched self-learning resourcesQuite low: support students with well-managed procedures and an optional forum
Focus of motivationLinked to assessmentOptionalPartly linked to assessment

absolute positions; we have tried to indicate the subjectivity of the position points by using “clouds” rather than geometric shapes.

The design, development, and evaluation of these three courses were supported by the e3Learning (enrich, extend, evaluate learning) project (James et al., 2003). Overall, the e3Learning project has worked with teachers in three Hong Kong universities in the design, development, and evaluation of 70 course web sites since the beginning of 2003. The project operates with a process of pragmatic, individualized support and customized evaluation (McNaught & Lam, 2005a). The overall design of the evaluation is based on a reflection-improvement model in which the findings of the evaluation contribute to further improvements in each of the web-assisted courses under investigation. Our system (like all others) is not value-free and tends toward a naturalistic model (Guba & Lincoln, 1981; Alexander & Hedberg, 1994). This study is thus not a controlled comparison where similar data are collected in all cases. In each case, the evaluation data were related to what the course teacher or teachers wanted to find out (McNaught & Lam, 2005b). The “messiness” of naturalistic studies is apparent here in that we have excellent data for course 1, reasonable data for course 3, and rather sketchy ones for course 2. Evaluation data from multiple sources were collected. As shown in Figure 5.2, four sources of data were used in these three e3Learning evaluations: teacher reflection, student perceptions, student performance, and student actions (McNaught & Lam, 2005a). The actual evaluation designs and the strategies employed, however, differ from case to case owing to the constraints of the different classes. Table 5.2 illustrates the evaluation strategies used in the three courses.

In course 1, the methods used included collection of the teacher’s reflections through a series of discussions within the course team. Students’ data were also gathered and they were rich. To document the approaches to learning adopted by students by the end of the course, students were asked to fill in a study process questionnaire (SPQ). The revised two-factor questionnaire (Biggs et al., 2001) was used; in this version, the achieving scale of the first version (Biggs, 1987) is incorporated into the deep scale. The SPQ is a 20-item questionnaire which provides a measure of students’ approaches to learning on two levels, deep and surface. The revised SPQ was administered once at the beginning of the course and again at the end. Out of 83 students, 69 completed the questionnaire twice. After the completion of each case, students were also asked to write a short reflective journal on the benefits gained and difficulties encountered. Two additional written surveys were administered at the end of the course to collect students’ opinions on the two cases: 58 of the 83 students completed the case 1 survey, while 69 completed the case 2

Table 5.2 Evaluation strategies of the three courses
Course 1Course 2Course 3
Data sourceInvestment bankingPhysiotherapy diagnosis and management of musculoskeletal disordersNursing therapeutics
Teacher reflection on the experience (data on how the teacher feels)
  • Summaries of several discussions with course team
  • End-of-course teacher survey
Student perceptions of their experience (data on how students feel)
  • Beginning- and end-of-course study process questionnaire
  • Reflective journal
  • End-of-course survey
  • Focus group
  • End-of-course survey
  • Focus group
  • End-of-course survey
  • Focus group
Student performance in assessments (data on what students know)
  • Case reports
  • Examination results
Focus group
Student actions (data on what students do)
  • Forum logs
  • Forum logs

survey. A 45-minute focus group meeting was held with 11 randomly chosen students to discuss their feelings toward the learning innovation. Lastly, students’ performance data were collected, which were their written reports on the two cases and their results in the final examination.

The evaluation data of course 2 consisted of an end-of-course online student survey (28 out of 83 students replied) and three interviews with a focus group of five randomly selected students.

Course 3 was evaluated through an end-of-course online student survey (76 out of 89 students replied), a focus group meeting with five randomly selected students, analysis of forum postings, and the teacher’s reflection recorded in an end-of-course teacher survey.

Course 1: Focus on E-Interactions and Low Learner Control with Link to Assessment

This experience is reported in detail in Mohan and Lam (2005). This web-supported CBT&L course took place with 83 associate degree students enrolled for an elective course in investment banking, which was taught in a traditional face-to-face mode. A trial case was launched in week 4 as non-assessed coursework, which lasted for three weeks. A second case (a story about Hong Kong Disneyland seeking bank financing) was launched in week 9 as assessed coursework, which lasted for four weeks. Based on student feedback from the trial case, the time limit for doing case 2 was extended from three weeks to four weeks.

The cases themselves were text based, but students were required to conduct very extensive discussion online. The teacher set up a well-defined but complicated procedure for web-based discussion of cases that involved peer critique, role play of the various characters mentioned in the cases, and revision of work based on peer feedback. The process had two distinct characteristics: engaging students in peer groups and splitting complex learning tasks into stages. The model required students to work through four stages: warming up, digging in, working out, and evaluation/assessment. Students worked both within and between groups.

One objective of using the Web was to facilitate the smooth running of this multiple-stage activity. In this controlled mode of activity design, students were required to post online their group opinions, their critique of peers’ work, and their replies or revisions based on peer feedback at various stages according to a predefined set of deadlines. The teacher could easily monitor students’ compliance to the schedule through the time stamps of the students’ forum postings and the forum activity logs.

Supporting Knowledge Construction through Student-Student E-Interactions

Students generally found the case activities, which involved analysis of the cases in stages and online discussion with peers, very beneficial to learning. The evaluation results generally show students’ acceptance of the online case activities. There is some evidence that the students’ ability to understand, analyze, and apply knowledge grew.

For example, the students tended to agree with the survey question that “The cases have helped me to better understand many key concepts and/or terms in this course” (case 1, mean score ± standard deviation on a Likert scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being strongly agree: 3.6 ± 0.9; case 2: 3.9 ± 0.8). They also agreed that the case activities had helped them learn how to analyze real-life situations using the theories and/or concepts learned in the course (case 1: 3.1 ± 0.7; case 2: 3.7 ± 0.8) and to apply the knowledge acquired (case 1: 3.2 ± 0.7; case 2: 3.7 ± 0.9).

In the focus group, students looked at the student discussions, reviewing their classmates’ work and responding to others’ comments and challenges. They enjoyed and learned from the process of giving and receiving feedback. Some students thought that the essence of the activity was to judge others’ work and defend their own and, through doing so, improve their analytical and reasoning power—which was seen to be of great value in their future jobs.

The SPQ approaches-to-learning scales have two components: motive and strategy; there are thus four scores: deep motive (DM), deep strategy (DS), surface motive (SM), and surface strategy (SS). Overall deep approach (DA) and surface approach (SA) scores are just the sum of the component scores: DA = DM + DS and SA = SM + SS. On paired t test analysis, although none of the differences between the pre- and post-course scores were statistically significant at the 5 percent level, there was an encouraging trend toward an increase in both DM and DS scores and a decrease in both SM and SS scores.

The students’ reflective journals spoke very highly of the learning experience, as some of the comments show:

It is a good practice that helps earn the knowledge and research all by ourselves. Compared to spoon-fed teaching, this exercise cultivates our efforts to learn and gives us the ability to evaluate suitable materials...even though it is time consuming I really enjoyed it.

Doing L4U really helped me have a deeper understanding of the topic of project financing.

L4U gave me a chance to learn by myself rather than the traditional learning method which only emphasize memorizing... after doing the Disney case my learning skills has greatly improved.

I learnt that making assumptions and creating supporting materials are very important because if you miss that information others will challenge what you say. So from now on...I will provide that information as to persuade others.

Final examination questions were classified according to the level of cognitive reasoning using Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives, which specifies six levels of reasoning (Bloom, 1956; revised by Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001; Krathwohl, 2002). For the purpose of this study, a modified three-level category was used (level 1, knowing and comprehending; level 2, applying and analysis; level 3, synthesizing and evaluating). The overall mean score in the examination was 49.6 percent. The mean scores for the three levels reveal that students performed not so well in the first level (mean score 47.1 percent), relatively well in the second level (49.8 percent), and much better in the third level (55 percent). While not statistically significant, these differences suggest that the case activity might have played a role in developing students’ ability to handle tasks that demand higher cognitive reasoning skills. Further, in response to an open-ended question asked in the examination—“What is the single most important thing you learnt from this course?”—about 10 percent of all students cited the case activity as the most important.

Despite the data indicating a generally favorable outcome for this CBT&L design, challenges were also noted. The teacher considered that the students were genuinely interested in the case activities, but he felt that they did not show significant gain in knowledge (reflected in the examination performance noted above and also in the rather weak factual base of students’ case reports) nor significant changes in their attitude toward learning (as reflected by their SPQ scores). The teacher recognized that the cases were challenging tasks for students (given that student-student interaction was a new mode of learning). Therefore, it is probably premature to expect students to show greater improvement after working on two cases over a span of seven weeks.

Increased workload and group conflict also presented some difficulty to the students. Working on the first case was not considered very enjoyable (for the question “I enjoyed working on the L4U cases very much,” the mean score was 2.3 ± 0.9), but their feelings toward the second case improved (mean score 3.1 ± 1.1), perhaps when they were more familiar with the model. In the reflective journal, several students remarked that, although cases were time-consuming, they gained from them. Overall, the learning benefits seemed to outweigh the time invested by students.

Supporting a Complex Activity Design with Tightly Controlled Multiple Stages

The teacher stated that the web system did “a superb job in supporting the learning process.” In view of the complexity of the activity design, it would have been very difficult to carry out the activities on schedule without the file storage, threaded forum, and activity logging tools of the Web.

Students also appreciated the e-platform. Among the 45 remarks collected in response to an open-ended question of the end-of-course survey asking students to name the features they liked most in the course, 6 of them chose the discussion forum: “The forum, because we can talk what we want.”

Despite the confirmed contribution of the Web to the management of case activities, there were concerns. For example, students found the workload very heavy even with the aid of web resources and tools. “It is very exhausting having to share responsibility with group members when they feel everything can be done online + automatically” and “The process is too long and the schedule is too tight.” In fact, 11 out of the 56 responses collected in the end-of-course survey on an open-ended question about what aspects the students disliked in the case activities cited the heavy workload.

Course 2: Focus on Rich Media, E-Interactions, and Flexible Learner Control Without Link to Assessment

The main objective of course 2 was to use video on the Web to enhance the authenticity of the case study in order to aid understanding of how the concepts and theories learned in the course apply to clinical situations. Two teachers of an undergraduate physiotherapy course videotaped a real patient (with back problem) during consultation as a case for online self-study. The patient was taped at various stages—first visit, second visit, and so on—and students were asked to view these videos online outside class time. They were prompted to make decisions at two critical points in the videos on, for example, what tests should be recommended at this stage, how to interpret test results, and how to decide on treatment. The online system provided immediate automated feedback to the students’ input. The patient’s test results were given at certain points. Figure 5.3 is a screen capture of the videotaped case.

The learning design was intended to (1) improve students’ clinical reasoning skills through the introduction of a real case presented in an authentic and context-rich format; (2) enhance students’ understanding through student-computer interaction with preset questions at various decision points of the case; and (3) extend students’ learning to after-class hours by positioning the case as additional self-study material.

Enhancing Students’ Decision-making Ability through a Videotaped Real Case

In the end-of-course student survey, a large majority of the students (over 96 percent choosing “agree” and “strongly agree” on a five-point scale) felt that the case was a good supplementary source of information which provided them with the opportunity to understand the theories and concepts in the course. It is interesting to note, however, that a slightly smaller majority of students felt that the case supported them in actually applying the theories and concepts of the course. The survey findings are supported by comments made in the focus group meeting.

All the students who were interviewed in the focus group meeting had worked with the case materials. Some of them had completed both exercises in the video and found them particularly useful for revision purposes. About an hour was required for completing one exercise. All interviewees found that working through the online multimedia case exercises benefited them in ways that textbook accounts and practical sessions in class could not achieve. Some of them contrasted online case studies with learning through textbooks and practice in class. Textbooks were thought to be boring and lacking in realism. Learning through practice with classmates had its shortcomings too, as it was inadequate in helping students gain confidence in dealing with real patients.

The students considered the step-by-step structure and clear procedural approach of the online case to be valuable. Online case studies were compared with the ways in which techniques were taught in class: Students explained that they were not clear how the many techniques and clinical tests which student therapists are required to learn should be applied or how they are interrelated.

However, watching a step-by-step account of a real consultation process on video helped them learn how to think in sequence—for instance, how questioning the patient could assist in deciding when and how a test should be applied, or perhaps modified, when making a diagnosis.

Notwithstanding the benefits, one huge challenge was the immense amount of development time and effort needed to create such resources. As a result, only one case was uploaded to the web site in the first phase of the project. All students commented that more online case studies should be made available to cover all the techniques in the syllabus. A case study that followed the recovery process of a patient with highlights of pertinent points was requested. One student suggested a case showing the initial deterioration of a patient’s condition.

Suggestions were also received concerning possible enhancements to the online case resources, such as “a clear explanation of the degree of force that should be applied onto the patient since they cannot see it from the video” and “written comments may also be added alongside the video show.”

Enhancing Understanding of Issues through Student-Computer Interaction

Students were pleased with the model on which the case was built. The use of video clips interspersed with short questions was thought to be an effective method to help students reflect on their learning. Students who completed the case did not find the exercises too long. They all appreciated the exercises and the automated feedback support and reported that they answered the questions with considerable care.

A suggestion for improvement of the student-computer interaction was to raise the level of difficulty of the questions.

Enriching Self-learning Experiences with Flexible Learning Resources

Initially, it had appeared that the students were self-motivated to study the online case, but it turned out that the motivation could have come from an expectation that the case material might be included in the examination. The students who were interviewed had worked with the clinical reasoning case and found the exercises particularly useful for revision. In addition, the site logs recorded that the case was accessed 298 times by 83 students over the course with 228 of the visits being in week 11, right before the final examination. Thus, while no marks were actually allocated for engaging with the case, the perceived link to assessment seemed to have been a strong motivation. There was little evidence that students studied the case for its intrinsic interest or purely for the pursuit of knowledge.

Course 3: Focus on Visual Media, E-Interactions, and Low Learner Control with Link to Assessment

For this undergraduate nursing course, three multimedia-enriched cases were posted online. The cases concerned (1) an accident which had just occurred, (2) accident patients on the way to the hospital, and (3) accident patients admitted to the hospital following diagnostic testing. The cases showed photographs taken at the scenes, accompanied by audio effects to heighten the sense of realism. They were also supplemented by the patients’ test results at certain points. Students were asked to discuss what they should do if they were the nurses or doctors in these different situations. The discussions were conducted both online and in tutorials. The course required students to complete these three cases as part of their course grades.

In the first phase of the activity, students were given a few weeks to discuss two of the three cases online and in tutorial sessions. A few weeks following the discussions, students had to submit individual reports with their thoughts and solutions for the two cases. In the second phase, students formed groups to work on the third case. The groups’ case reports were uploaded to the course forum for open discussion and critique among the groups.

The Web was used for case-based teaching with the objectives of (1) raising students’ interest through the use of pictures and sound, (2) enhancing understanding through student-student interaction via online discussion, and (3) facilitating the administration of case-based tasks using the delivery and forum functions of the Web.

Raising Interest with Visually Enriched Case Materials

Students in the focus group meeting agreed that the Flash-like presentation of the online cases was attractive, but they did not directly relate this factor to an increased motivation to view the cases. They found the visually rich presentation of the cases interesting, more realistic, and “high-tech,” and on the whole thought this format was superior to plain text. The pictures and the Flash-like animation may not be essential for explaining a case story but were considered very useful for showing procedures visually and in sequence. However, the motivation for accessing the materials was apparently that they were required course components.

Students also commented that the quality of the case content mattered more when judging the usefulness of a case. That would explain why they, when asked for suggestions to improve the cases, did not mention visual impact but instead proposed where and how more background information could be added.

Enhancing Understanding of Issues through Combined Online and Face-to-Face Discussions

Active discussion was conducted online during the course, with students identifying the learning issues, questioning about the cases, quoting related information, voicing opinions, commenting on others’ views, and replying to feedback. Students reported keen discussion in the forum. Many of them would look at the postings more than once a week during the most active period of the forum. They admitted that they posted messages because marks were allocated for online participation. However, once they were accustomed to visiting the forum, they found it quite useful. They also appreciated that the teacher often read and responded to their postings.

The online case discussion activity was valued highly by the students. The majority of them (64 percent) found the content of the cases helpful, and 73 percent felt that they had learned from the case activity. Many students (61 percent) thought that the Web was effective for exchanging information and maintained that it was very convenient to use the Web for discussion. With respect to the quality of critiques, 55 percent of the students thought their peers gave high-quality critiques, and 80 percent believed that the Web facilitated feedback. The majority of students (68 percent) agreed that they could get good ideas or comments from their peers, and 75 percent believed that the feedback could teach them something.

The same appreciation of the forum discussion was expressed in the focus group meeting. Students in general related well to the online discussion. They found the detailed discussions helpful in clarifying ideas and providing relevant information for their written papers. They learned much from reading and responding to others’ opinions. The forum also provided a convenient platform for collective research, with students sharing information they found from various resources.

All students agreed that they had few opportunities to express their ideas in tutorial classes because of the limited class time (two hours) and the relatively large class size. The online discussion thus provided them more opportunities. All in all, the students affirmed the appropriateness of conducting discussion online.

A major challenge was the differentiation of roles between online and face-to-face discussion. There was some overlap between the discussions conducted online and in tutorials. Two solutions were suggested: (1) tutorial discussion be conducted first, followed by forum discussion to elaborate points made in class; or (2) the opposite arrangement with online discussion preceding the tutorial, but redundancy must be avoided with the tutorial focusing on new perspectives. Both online and face-to-face discussions were considered important in performance assessment.

The usability of the forum was, nevertheless, a concern. Students wanted better organization of the discussion topics. Most of them could not read all the postings and resorted to reading a few topics that were of interest to them. Instead of having one forum, they proposed that several forums should be created for the different scenarios in each case.

Enabling Smooth Running of Case-based Activities through Controlled Delivery Online

The course teacher was pleased with the new pedagogical possibilities afforded by the Web. The subtasks of the case activity could be sequenced in a neat order with the file and message storage capability of the Web, without which this type of interaction-rich case-based activity cannot be easily conducted.

The students, however, complained about the workload posed by the activity. Furthermore, although as a whole they found the forum user-friendly and facilitated discussion, they reported that it was difficult to identify new messages and new information of interest.


Learning benefits were confirmed in the three web-supported case-based courses discussed in this chapter, but not without reservation. In all cases, problems and difficulties were encountered. Table 5.3 summarizes the key lessons learned from the study.

On the one hand, the experiences of the three courses provide some clear evidence of the value of web-based support for CBT&L. The use of multimedia makes online cases realistic and rich in information, which fulfills one of the key goals of case-based teaching: allowing students to learn how to apply knowledge through experiences with simulated decision-making processes. Interactions also appear to be enhanced by the Web. These interactions can be between students and computer or between students (and between teachers and students, although this type of interaction is not a focus of this chapter). Lastly, the Web can support the administration of case-based activities, which are often complex in design and multistage in processes, with students working in groups and playing various roles.

On the other hand, some anticipated benefits of the Web for CBT&L are not clearly shown by the data. The visually attractive cases were expected to motivate students to study the materials, but no strong evidence for this has been found. Instead, students’

Table 5.3 Main lessons learned concerning web-supported case-based teaching and learning
FactorLessons learned
Type of media
  • A tremendous amount of time and effort is needed to develop case resources (case 2).
  • Instructional design skills are needed to develop good cases (case 2).
  • The case presentation medium is not the key factor motivating students to study the case (case 3).
Nature of e-interactions
  • It is difficult to show the learning effects of online student discussion in a short course (case 1).
  • Students perceive increased workload with the online discussion activity (cases 1 and 3).
  • There is a need to design effective student—computer interaction with questions of an appropriate level of difficulty (case 2).
  • Online and face-to-face discussions should play different roles, and their roles should be clearly explained to students (case 3).
Degree of learner control
  • Students are sensitive about the workload associated with case-based learning, so they may resent being asked to develop their own learning methods and strategies (all cases).
  • The present formats of online larning systems are not ideal, even when they are designed with tight and well-organized procedures, and hence there is a need to continuously improve usability (cases 1 and 3).
  • With optional activities, it is difficult to ensure student engagement unless the materials are perceived to be associated with assessment (case 2)
Intrinsic or extrinsic motivation
  • Assessment is a key motivator, regardless of whether grades are assigned to some or all of the case activities (all cases).

motivation seems to be controlled more by extrinsic factors such as course requirements. Likewise, the argument that flexible content delivery via the Web would facilitate self-study has not been substantiated. The Web can support either a free and flexible learning environment or a highly controlled sequence of learning activities. The evidence so far tends to show that self-study is not the norm, unless students see a direct association between the online materials and preparation for examinations, as case 2 shows.

When building web-based case materials, care must be taken to balance the desired learning outcomes, the complexity of the materials, and the resources available to build them. One lesson learned from the three courses is that web-based cases require long development time and great skill in designing and writing good cases. It would not be worthwhile implementing a large case development project merely to create attractive cases in the hope of encouraging students to study them in their spare time. These cases need to be designed with the intention of bringing about significant learning outcomes. No matter what the intention is, careful consideration of the magnitude and scope of development is needed.

When introducing web-based interactions to case-based pedagogy, students’ workload is a concern. The process may be streamlined to exclude minor activities. For student-computer interaction, appropriate feedback at the decision-making points of the case study should be incorporated. All these require educational design skills. Thus, the role of the teacher as learning designer is a critical factor in both online and offline CBT&L.

This study covered only three courses that employed a case-based approach. The findings can best be described as indicative. However, considered together with other studies in this book and elsewhere, we can begin to see the potentials and problems of web-supported case-based designs.

We end with our responses, summarized in Table 5.4, to the four statements about CBT&L noted earlier. The essence of these responses is that conducive learning environments can be created with CBT&L and can be enhanced with the use of web technology. But in all learning designs, the whole context of students’ learning experience needs to be considered. As we invest more time and effort in web-supported CBT&L, we need to constantly assess the appropriateness of our design decisions and thoroughly evaluate the outcomes of the case-based courses we develop.

Table 5.4 Responses to common claims about case-based teaching and learning (CBT&L)
The degree of authenticity of the cases requires that the media used be complex. This implies that video is intrinsically more effective than text or audio combined with pictures.It is clear in this study that the medium of presentation is not in itself valued highly by students. Students do not want “edutainment”, but stories and tasks that assist them in learning.
Good web-enhanced case-based learning needs highly active online forums.Good web-enhanced CBT&L requires good strategies for feedback on learning. This can be in the form of highly active discussion forums or high-quality automatically generated computer feedback. Further, there is a role for face-to-face interaction and feedback as well
Students need to develop independent learning skills, and hence very flexible learning designs are needed.Independent learning skills are important. But the students in our study appreciated clear directions. This is likely to be due to a concern about time and workload and to the relative newness of CBT&L in Hong Kong. The context of students' learning experience needs to be considered.
Cases will intrinsically motivate students, and they will work well even if rewards in terms of marks are small.This is not true in Hong Kong, where assessment is central to most students’ decision on whether to engage in a given learning task. Cases not only need to be engaging but, in formal education, they have to be linked to external rewards.


We wish to thank Joseph Bernard Mohan, City University of Hong Kong, and Amy Siu-ngor Fu, Arran Leung, Thomas Ki-tai Wong, and Edmond Tai-fai Tong, all from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, for their assistance and support in the preparation of this chapter. The e3Learning project is funded by a Teaching Development Grant from the Hong Kong University Grants Committee.


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