A Case Study in Case Studies

Brigham Young's Idaho campus plans to use Harvard Business School's famous curricular method to reform its own curriculum.
March 22, 2007

Less than two years after Kim Clark’s career brought him to Rexburg, Idaho, the former Harvard Business School dean has brought a piece of Boston to his new institution. And with that piece, the president of Brigham Young University's Idaho campus is hoping to reform his new institution's curriculum.

Since January, BYU-Idaho has utilized a site license that allows students and faculty with a password to access Harvard Business School's electronic library, which is well known for including case studies involving business leaders and their companies. 

Roughly 30 institutions have licenses to look at the school's content, which includes, among other things, multimedia cases, tutorials, simulations, Harvard Business School press books and Harvard Business Review articles, according to Ellen J. Gandt, director of higher education marketing at Harvard Business School Publishing.

BYU-Idaho was among the first institutions to seek access to the full repository, and its interest shows the extent to which a college will go to acquire the tools necessary to spur changes to its curriculum. Since his arrival at BYU-Idaho in 2005 -- which until five years earlier had been a two-year institution known as Ricks College -- Clark has pushed for an increase in teaching methods that encourage critical thinking. (He was unavailable for comment on Wednesday.)

Robyn Bergstrom, associate dean of BYU-Idaho's College of Business and Communications, said the Harvard material will help the university fulfill Clark's directives to serve more students, decrease costs and improve quality of learning.  

“For us to have a site license and to have the same material as Harvard students do, that is a big deal," said Bergstrom, who spoke to several deans there about the benefits of using the electronic library. "There's something available for every college -- case studies that cover the entire spectrum." (The Harvard material is open to all BYU-Idaho schools.)

Craig Bell, chair of the business management department at BYU-Idaho, said access to the Harvard material will allow faculty to integrate the case-study method of learning, which relies on discussion of real-world scenarios, and potentially decrease the amount of time dedicated to lecture.

"We are moving more toward active learning and discussion in classrooms," Bell said. "We're finding that teachers reading from PowerPoint to students is ineffective, and that the quicker we can get away from that the better. The Harvard material allows us to give students the case study material on the Web, where they can get it on their own, and come to class ready to discuss the particulars."

Bell said the cost of textbooks is a burden on students, and that with 4,000 of them in the School of Business and Communication and 2,000 alone in the business management program, it was difficult to order enough material to satisfy the faculty. In some cases, faculty are now relying solely on the Harvard material -- as Bergstrom is in one of her classes -- and eliminating the use of textbooks. Students are charged in the range of $3 to $7 dollars per credit for a password to material in Harvard's collection.

"If you spread out the money we spend on the [Harvard] material over a lot of students, it doesn't amount to that much," Bell said. "Plus, you get better material -- cases and articles that you wouldn't find in a chapter of a textbook."

Bell said he expects the department to shift away from printed material, and for classes, which average about 50 students, to grow. He said with more emphasis on discussion, it makes sense for more opinions to be heard per section.

Bell said the case-study method shouldn't be limited to students in top graduate schools -- that freshmen and sophomores are capable of high-level discussions. He added that the Harvard content will supplement real-world projects already taking place in his department, including one in which students run their own companies.

BYU-Idaho officials, including Bell, traveled last year to Boston for instruction on how to best use the material and integrate it into the classroom. The site license agreement will be up for review and renewal at the end of June, Gandt said.


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