Making the case for cases

This is not a post about ‘cases’ as luggage for transporting personal effects or containers for holding or conveying physical objects (1). It is about ‘cases’ as events or situations ‘that have happened’ or are ‘the subject of question or enquiry’ (2).

The use of case studies as a vehicle for promoting learning is well established in many academic disciplines. A good teaching case provides  “… an account of real events that seem to include enough intriguing decision points and provocative undercurrents to make a discussion group want to think and argue about them.” (3).

In research too, the case-based approach is well established as an investigative and reporting technique. One proponent suggests that they are useful to understand “…. a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context, especially when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly defined” (4).

In the context of e-learning and learning design, much is published from a ‘research into practice’ perspective. However, as a dissemination vehicle, the use of the case genre in e-learning perhaps is not as widespread compared with its use in teaching or with other forms of publication.

True, we can find case examples in published articles, such as the BDRA paper (Nie et al) at the recent EDEN conference describing the use of Second Life in courses in three different disciplines. And agencies such as JISC, HE Academy and Skills for Business have been active in encouraging the production of e-learning case studies.

The essence of a case is that it should provide an opportunity for learning from experience, whether that experience is good or bad, successful or not. It provides a way of capturing lessons from practice and sharing that as a narrative. A simple way of conceptualising a case is as a series of ‘problem – solution – benefit – lessons’ statements. If a more detailed approach is called for, the JISC CAMEL project case study template provides a useful checklist of questions .

So, in addition to the usual academic work of writing short papers, journal articles, project reports etc, the advantages of the humble case study as a genre for publication and dissemination should not be overlooked.

Roger Dence / 13th July 2009

(1) Derived via Old Norman French casse from the Latin capěre = to take (Chambers 20th Century Dictionary)

(2) Derived via Old French cas from the Latin caděre = to fall (Chambers 20th Century Dictionary)

(3) Hansen A (1987) quoted in Leenders M R and Erskine J A (1989) Case research, the case writing process, 3rd edition, School of Business Administration, The University of Western Ontario, London, Canada.

(4) Yin R K. (2003) Case study research: design and methods. 3rd edition: Sage Publications.

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