Teaching and Learning Forum 96 [ Contents ]

The use of case studies to introduce computer technology to first year students in a Commerce Faculty

Cherry Randolph and Felicity Browne
Dept of Information Management and Marketing
The University of Western Australia


Introduction

Information Technology in general, and the use of personal computers in particular, is an integral part of the future professional life of Commerce graduates. It is essential that they develop an appreciation of the role of this technology and at least a modest facility with computers during their degree course. At this university, this is offered through a first year, one semester course followed by the option of a major in Information Management. Although the first year unit is an elective, it is strongly supported by the main accounting and economics lecturers, and approximately 70% of students choose it.

Course Objectives

The objectives as stated in the course outline are as follows:
"Students will gain an appreciation of how computers are used in society and specifically in business. They will be exposed to the most common software - wordprocessors and spreadsheets - through individual work with a self paced tutorial book. Learning will be through a combination of lecture, tutorial, labwork and private study"
The detailed objectives behind the course design can be summarised thus:
  1. To overcome feelings of inadequacy and develop confidence in the use of computers within a context of wide ranging abilities and exposure to computing. We find that:

    For many, facility with personal computers (IBM clones usually) represents the stereotypical computer professional. Other characteristics would include the ability to confound all listeners with their 'computerese' language. Thus their perception of inadequacy is based on a poor model of what computer technology in the business world really involves.

  2. To create an environment in which all students, from whatever previous experience, can develop basic skills. Depending on the quality and computer background of the students, this may range from formal instruction in these software packages through to advice on where to find a suitable tutorial workbook and study time allowance for self tuition. Certainly these are the minimum skills required of students in the rest of their university studies. We also believe that having acquired basic skills in word processing and spreadsheet manipulation, students then have the confidence to use other software packages without formal instruction.

  3. To provide an overview of how computers are used in the business world such that they will have an insight into the sorts of activities they will be using computers for when they are working. The difficulty with this objective are twofold. Firstly, students need an understanding of business and its problems. Secondly, this objective requires a considerable grasp of the potential of information technology and fluency with the terminology. Effectively, we require a willingness to accept what computers can do without really knowing how they do it. As an example, not many of us could explain the technology behind a CD-ROM and yet we can all understand that it provides an appropriate medium for census data.

  4. (Probably the most important) To encourage flexibility and receptive attitudes to changing technology on the grounds that whatever computer technology they learn about today will be obsolete in ten years time and even possibly before they finish their degree. What is important is not what they learn, but the process of learning.

  5. To encourage original thinking throughout the whole of their studies but especially in this new, vibrant field of computer technology. They need to be enthused by the opportunities arising every day and be prepared to review current practices and to embrace change. They need to be encouraged to enjoy using their enquiring minds.

  6. To insist on good communication skills, particularly written. This objective is not restricted to computer studies but spans all of their work. The introduction to wordprocessing presents a good opportunity to reinforce earlier lessons on how to present material to the best advantage.
These objectives are bounded by the realisation that this unit should not attempt to provide a potted computer science degree in a single semester.

Case study approach

One possible approach to promote these objectives, and in particular the need for flexibility and ability to deal with change, is the use of case studies. Arthur Stone Dewing (1931) is quoted as advocating the case method of teaching for the following reason:
"[Businesspeople must be able] to meet in action the problems arising out of new situations of an ever-changing environment. Education, accordingly, would consist of acquiring facility to act in the presence of new experience."
Although these words were written in 1931 they could well be referring to the world of constant technological change faced by today's future graduates.

Using cases helps the students get a flavour (though we should not fool ourselves that it is anything more than a flavour) of the myriad of applications of computer technology. They jump from casinos in Las Vegas to farms in Arizona within a single chapter of a textbook thus gaining vicarious experience in a way that the working business person has no opportunity to. Most of the writers of first year texts for commerce students have recognised this potential and have introduced "True experiences", case studies and short scenarios to try to enliven the material of each chapter. An example, from Laudon et al (1999) is given in Figure 1.

A Sample Case - Miller and Reynolds Linked by Paradox

What do Miller Beer cans and Reynolds Wrap have in common? They're both made from the same raw material - aluminium. In fact, Miller Brewing Company's Can Division gets its aluminum from Reynolds Metals Company, the maker of Reynolds Wrap. And recently, Miller and Reynolds have been using a system developed with Borland's new programmable relational DBMS software package, Paradox for Windows, to forge even closer links between the two companies.

Miller's goal was to reduce the stockpile of aluminum used at its can manufacturing plants and to better monitor the quality of the aluminum it received. Reynolds, eager to help satisfy an important customer, used Paradox for Windows to develop a database that would allow Miller perform tasks like tracking remote, in-transit, and in-house inventories, materials forecasting and ordering, and quality control monitoring. The actual link between Miller and Reynolds was created using electronic data interchange (EDI). The project was completed over six to seven months by Brent Kanady, team leader at Reynolds' Mills Products Division, Rick Losco, lead programmer, and two part-time programmers. Most of the development was done on Intel 486SX machines. Initially the machines were configured with 4 MB of RAM, but were expanded to 8 MB when 4 MB proved too slow. Nonetheless, the team felt that speed was a small price to pay for the power of the product.

For instance, one of the most important features that the project team found in Paradox for Windows was its ability to efficiently create screens and modify forms. They were able to produce query screens that let users move through relevant data without having to actually use Paradox's query language. Paradox also included point-and-click relational table linking.

Today, the database is providing Miller with a system that lets it more closely monitor orders for raw materials and conduct an expanded quality management program. Plans also include moving the database to the shop floor so that managers can input and view data on aluminum shipments directly.

Figure 1: A sample case - Miller and Reynolds linked by paradox

Without real effort on the part of the student, these provide no more than a brief interlude amongst the real business of 'learning' the textbook material so that it can be regurgitated in the examination. Even those authors who include discussion questions with each case fail to stimulate deep thought unless the course structure insists on participation in discussion of the case and develops the skills to analyse the content. On the whole, the questions require nothing beyond extracting the answer from the case description in a sort of comprehension test. They do encourage the students to read carefully and reread to find the answer but do not promote thought.

It is, therefore, important that the cases are not only read and considered but also discussed. Discussion not only creates an active learning environment (Christensen, 1987), but also provides an opportunity for students to try out their newly acquired facility with the language of computers in a 'safe' situation. This has a tremendous impact on their confidence and feelings of inadequacy, but requires great skill, from the discussion leader, at the start.

The case study approach outlined in Appendix 1 was used with a class of 300 first year accounting and economics students. They were told from the beginning of the course that tutorials would focus on developing case study techniques and that 60% of the final examination would involve case study analysis. At the beginning of semester, they were introduced to this framework for analysis and encouraged to use it for their weekly preparation.

It was expected that the framework supplied would be sufficient guidance to stimulate analytical thinking and questioning. It became clear, however, that many students were not able to take the conceptual leap from reporting what they had read to forming original conclusions. The approach was then simplified to the following key questions and these were emphasised strongly in tutorials:

During semester about half of the class developed the required approach while the rest consistently underestimated the effort demanded of them. We suspect that the second group worked on the assumption that the half page length cases could be read in 10 minutes just before the tutorial. A further problem emerged when it was realised that even students who were preparing the cases were writing little down. A few key words in the margin of the book was typical. This was not satisfactorily solved but does need to be addressed since it is all too easy to think that you have understood and can analyse a situation until you come to put pen to paper.

Conclusions

It is easy to take for granted the ability to think about, to analyse and to apply the factual material provided to students. The use of case studies to enhance and enliven the intellectual content of an introduction to computer technology unit is valid and effective BUT students need a tight framework to work within and considerable pressure applied to use it. A formal methodology for case study analysis should promote creative enquiry and thought and save students from a sea of confusion. This paper proposes one approach. Further development is necessary to find ways to encourage active involvement and to communicate the importance of preparing a written analysis.

References

Christensen, C. Roland (1987). Teaching and the Case Method. Harvard Business School, Boston, Mass.

Dewing, Arthur Stone (1931). An Introduction to the Use of Cases. In Cecil E. Fraser (ed), The Case Method of Instruction, p23. New York: McGraw-Hill. Referred to in C. Roland Christensen (1987), Teaching and the Case Method. Harvard Business School, Boston, Mass.

Laudon, K. C., Traver, C. G. and Laudon, J. P. (1994). Information Technology and Society. Wadsworth, Belmont, California, p372.

Lovelock, C. H. and Weinberg, C. B. (1993). Analyzing and Learning From Cases. In Marketing Challenges: Cases and Exercises. McGraw Hill.

O'Brien, James A. (1993). Management Information Systems: A Managerial End User Perspective. Irwin, Boston,MA.

Reynolds, J. I. )1992). Case Method In Management Development: Guide for Effective Use. Management Development Series No 17, ILO, Geneva.

Winterburn, Roy, (1987). Case Study Method in Management Development: A Practical Guide and Reading List. Commonwealth Secretariat, London.


Appendix 1. A General Framework for Analysing Cases

1.2.3.4.5.6.
Initial
reading
Identify the
key issues
Detailed
analysis
Identify
alternatives
Evaluate
alternatives
Justify
solution
Overview Key facts - separate the symptoms from problems and opportunities Critical analysis- look beyond the facts What would you advise - address the identified problems Develop a critical approach to your alternatives Reasons for final recommend-
ation

  1. Initial reading - (without notes)

  2. A second more careful reading with notes identifying

  3. A detailed analysis of the material

  4. Summary of alternative solutions

  5. Evaluation of alternative solutions

  6. Rationale for selecting the solution


Please cite as: Randolph, C. and Browne, F. (1996). The use of case studies to introduce computer technology to first year students in a Commerce Faculty. In Abbott, J. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Teaching and Learning Within and Across Disciplines, p141-146. Proceedings of the 5th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1996. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1996/randolph.html


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