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The B-School Case Study Gets a Digital Makeover

New York University management professor Glenn Okun throws a 500-page, spiral-bound book of Xeroxed course materials onto his desk. The thick tome contains nearly 20 business case studies and represents just half the reading his students will plow through this fall—fairly typical of MBA courses.

"Leafing through one of these is like leafing through the equivalent of the Manhattan Yellow Pages," he says.

Next, Okun unsheathes the alternative: an iPad (AAPL) edition of the same course materials—a feature NYU introduced last year. In each digital case study, students can highlight material in fluorescent colors and take notes. A tap on the screen allows them to skip to an exhibit at the end of a document, and then follow the menu back to where they left off reading—with no virtual or actual page-leafing required. All the features work offline.

"Now," Okun asks, "which would you prefer?"

Case studies are the lifeblood of a business school’s curriculum. Each describes a company or economic scenario that actually happened. Students decide what they would have done had they been making decisions.

As case studies migrate to tablet form, they have the potential to undergo some of the greatest transformations in the way students interact with the material since the case method was introduced at Harvard Business School in 1924. Over the ensuing 87 years, the case study has undergone some changes but remains much as it was at its inception—a straightforward narrative of business success or failure. Tablet technology may make the case study more of an interactive experience.

HBS, Ivey Converting Cases to Tablet

Harvard Business School, the largest publisher of case studies in North America, is in the process of converting 3,500 of its files to tablet-enhanced formats during this school year and expects to finish converting its library of 17,000 titles by 2013. The University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School of Business, the second-largest publisher, made over 500 of its cases available via Apple’s iBookstore at the end of June.

When Harvard is finished, purists will be able to access the digital documents in their original layout. Professors would be able to bring them to life as they see fit by embedding chief executive officer videos, audio files, and a number of additional assets within the text, which Harvard would provide—or instructors might select on their own.

The tablet medium also seems ideal for simulated cases, says Glenn Rowe, a professor at the Ivey school and author of nearly 40 case studies. In role-playing exercises, prices and other variables can change on the fly. Students may also be smacked with unexpected events, such as their biggest competitor slashing prices, or by their receiving a higher-than-expected counterbid after a merger proposal. Students choose what they would do, and the simulation immediately tells them the consequence of that action.

"I think it will get to the point where [academics] write a case study that is designed for a tablet experience," says Maureen Betses, vice-president of higher education at Harvard Business Publishing.

Still, most cases are already available as PDFs. When Harvard’s tablet case library goes live, the enhanced documents will also be accessible on a laptop. So why is there so much excitement over tablets?

Tablets Invite Exploration

For one thing, tablets are easier to carry than reams of photocopies assembled for classes such as Okun’s. At business school, case-study reading often trumps textbook reading, and administrators see MBA candidates preferring the tablet and other mobile devices over laptops for digital delivery. Students are also more inclined to use tablets for supplemental reading. (Assuming prices are the same, 86 percent of college students say they prefer a hard copy textbook to an e-textbook, according to the market research firm Student Monitor.)

"But for ancillary materials—all of the research and items that go with the textbook—students prefer digital," says J. Bruce Hildebrand, executive director of higher education for the Association of American Publishers.

In two years at Harvard, where case studies account for about 70 percent of instruction, MBA candidates may be asked to read more than 500 case studies.

When Stern put its course materials on the iPad in 2010, the school offered an app that allows students to download all course materials to a file management system. The digital version of the course materials costs students about 15 percent less than the hard copy. The app was so popular that in its second iteration, professors started suggesting ways they might repackage materials to take advantage of the medium, says Stern’s chief information officer, Anand Padmanabhan.

Business schools also see enormous potential for part-time MBA, executive MBA, and non-degree executive education courses, whose students tend to have full-time jobs and travel frequently. This year, the University of Utah’s Eccles School of Business gave their EMBA students free iPads. After launching a Kindle (AMZN) pilot program on its campus to lukewarm reviews last year, the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, the third-largest publisher of case studies in North America, decided that it would limit tablet enhancements in the near future mostly to documents that can be used for executive education.

Tablets Are Socially Acceptable

Aside from travel convenience, the medium has greater social acceptance for working professionals, says Aaron Hall, a 2012 EMBA candidate at the Eccles school and chief operating officer of sales-and-marketing firm MarketStar. Hall recalls this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where he had to meet with employees and be accessible to clients on the trade room floor. He had a case study to read, but an open laptop would have been rude and standoffish, he says.

Darden’s Kindle experiment proved that classroom e-reader projects are still a work in progress. Although students could take notes, highlight, and use a dictionary function, some said they were frustrated by the Kindle’s file management system and by an inability to easily skip back and forth between text and exhibits at the end. That’s a far bigger problem when dealing with dozens of case studies—which have numerous exhibits—than with a handful of text books.

The iPad poses problems, too. Students and professors who have used it for case studies say the device isn’t great for exercises that require hard data analysis or spreadsheets. And if business schools introduce apps, as Stern did, they must provide tech support, which may intimidate schools that lack sufficient resources.

Harvard Business Publishing’s Betses also notes that her team won’t be creating note-taking tools for students to use within their tablet-enhanced documents. For that, she says users may have to use a third-party app.

Regardless of how interactive case studies may become, what won’t change are the analytical and critical thinking skills they impart, Rowe says.

"I’m not really concerned if cases are consumed by tablet or hard copy," he says. "When students get in the classroom, the ‘Aha’ moments occur to most of them in the thrust of debate and discussion."

Zlomek is a reporter for Bloomberg News in New York.

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