Precis: Online Case-based Discussions (Ertmer & Koehler, 2014)

This is an installment in a series of summaries of journal articles that I have been reading.

Ertmer, P. A., & Koehler, A. A. (2014). Online case-based discussions: examining coverage of the afforded problem space. Educational Technology Research and Development, 1–20.

CC Image courtesy of Markus Spiske /

Case based and problem based learning, “ has demonstrated multiple advantages…over traditional method of instruction,” (Ertmer & Koehler, 2014) including increasing student motivation, deeper learning of content, and application of skills.  While there is affordances of case based learning have been well researched, little has been explored about what happens in the learning process during a case based discussion.  The purpose of this qualitative study is to explore how students address the concepts in a case study and how the instructor’s facilitation affects the discussion.

The sample consisted of 16 graduate students and 2 instructors.  The students participated in 3 instructor-led case discussions and 3 student-led case discussions. The authors focused on the posts from the third case discussion, and they analyzed 167 student posts and 30 instructor posts. They coded the posts by pre-identified categories and sub-categories that represented the problem space of the individual case.  The problem space consisted of the key aspects of and appropriate solutions for the case.

In their analysis of the coding, the authors found that 86% of the pre-identified problem space was covered during the instruction.  In looking at the instructor posts, they found that most posts were crafted to support students in interpretation of the case and crafting appropriate solutions.  The authors concluded that instructor prompts were important to initiating the discussion in the right direction and deepening the discussion as it unfolded.  They identify two recommendations: the importance of starter prompts and mapping out the problem space for the case study to help guide the instructor’s facilitation.

As the authors note, the study involves a relatively small data set, which is a limitation.  Another limitation occurred when the authors chose to focus on frequency of coding to evaluate the coverage of the problem space.  This presumes that frequency of occurrence can represent quality or thoroughness of the topic coverage.

While this study identified the value of identifying the learning space and its categories as a tool to facilitate discussion, this data could have been analyzed in other ways to shed more light on case based discussions.  For example, social network analysis (SNA) could have been conducted to identify patterns within the interaction.  Xie, Yu, and Bradshaw (2014) used this approach to identify patterns in moderation in asynchronous online discussions.  The posts could have been coded to identify how peers were facilitating discussion.  For example when studying student interaction  in online instruction Xie and Ke (2010) coded for information sharing, egocentric elaboration, and allocentric elaboration among other categories.

Future research should look at case-based discussions in other disciplines (e.g. business, health) in which they are frequently used.  While this study identified the importance of instructor facilitation, future studies should explore the role of peer facilitation and interaction.  A final suggestion for future research involves the examination of the quality of case-based discussions.


Ertmer, P. A., & Koehler, A. A. (2014). Online case-based discussions: examining coverage of the afforded problem space. Educational Technology Research and Development, 1–20.

Xie, K., Yu, C., & Bradshaw, A. C. (2014). Impacts of role assignment and participation in asynchronous discussions in college-level online classes. The Internet and Higher Education, 20, 10–19. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2013.09.003

Xie, Y., Ke, F., & Sharma, P. (2010). The effects of peer-interaction styles in team blogs on students’ cognitive thinking and blog participation. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 42(4), 459–479. doi:10.2190/EC.42.4.f

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