Online Learning via Real-Time Discussion of Web-Based Case Materials

Mable B. Kinzie <>
Valerie A. Larsen
Todd W. Kent
Department of Educational Studies
Curry School of Education
University of Virginia
405 Emmet Street
Charlottesville, VA 22903-2495, USA
Tel.: +1 804 924 7471
Fax: +1 804 924 0747


The Web as we know it today is dead. . . . Sure, there are links, but the links just lead to more dead information. It's a big information mausoleum. . . . The next big change is going to be finding ways to put qualities that we associate with MUDs today into Web pages so that you can interact with people (Saffo, as reported by Nee, 1996, pp. 33-34).

So observes futurist Paul Saffo on the inevitable changes in store for the World Wide Web (WWW) and its users. At the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, we are using Web and MOO (multiuser dimension [MUD], object-oriented) technologies together, attempting to exploit the unique characteristics of each medium in order to provide both stimulus materials and a real-time discussion environment online. This work is a part of the research and development program we are pursuing that revolves around case-based teaching and learning.

In this paper, we describe case methods and how they can be useful instructionally. We outline the various media that can be used for presentation and consideration of cases and summarize the case we developed to challenge novice instructional designers. Then we go on to outline the methods we used in this study. Finally, we present and discuss the qualitative outcomes of this research.

Case methods

Cases have been used extensively for professional preparation in law, medicine, and business, but are only now beginning to be widely employed in education (Merseth, 1991). Cases can involve a description of real events, as is common in business cases that describe the processes at work in an actual corporation, or they can present a fiction based upon real-life but constructed to provide specific experiences for students. Instructional cases can be used to encourage the development of professional thinking as individuals formulate reactions to case materials. Case methodology is especially effective if students are required to identify facts and issues, to view events from different perspectives, to apply current professional knowledge and research, and to predict consequences of various courses of action (McNergney, Herbert, and Ford, 1993). In this way, the use of case methods can help students to forge important connections between the academic and the experiential, between knowledge and practice (Cooper and McNergney, 1995). The effectiveness of case-based teaching is supported by Kleinfeld (1989, 1991), who has demonstrated that teaching with cases can help students to understand the meaning of events, increase their ability to frame educational problems, and improve their thinking regarding alternative courses of action.

We advocate consideration of cases by teams of students, due to the benefits realized through collaboration and because professional practice within instructional design most often requires individuals to function effectively and creatively as a problem-solving team. This strategy has proven effective within our previous team case events, where it was found that a case scenario provides a rare opportunity for professional collaboration for solving real-life problems (Kent, Herbert, and McNergney, 1995). Ellsworth (1994) explains that collaborating students take on a more active role in the learning process. They become problem-solvers, contributors, and discussants. In these collaborative learning situations, there may also be an increase in interest, focus, and synthesis (Ellsworth, 1994).

Case media

The first case format proposed to the education community, the print medium, continues to be the most popular form (Shulman, 1987). The Internet and telecommunication technologies, however, have provided new vehicles for delivering cases to learners. We have employed several of these technologies in order to provide Internet access to case documents and the ability to discuss the case with others who are online.

MUDs were initially an environment for games similar to Dungeons and Dragons. The experiences that users could have and the actions their characters could make were generally limited to those conforming to the rules of the game. MUDs evolved, and social interaction became more prevalent. MUD servers were adapted to allow the use of scripting languages, leading to the development of the MOO server by Pavel Curtis of Xerox PARC (Meyer, Blair, and Hader, 1995). A MOO's object-oriented nature allows some classes of users "access to the individual building blocks of the MOO" (Unsworth, in press) so that they can shape the environment and the online experience to suit their purposes. MOO environments are populated with text-based descriptions of objects that can be manipulated. For example, a MOO participant can "sit" in a virtual chair or read a virtual letter. As such, virtual rooms, objects, and exhibits are programmed so that people can interact with them.

MOOs have been used in a growing number of academic applications. The development of writing skills has been a popular use of the MOO environment at the university level, but other applications include the use of MOOs for the discussion and sharing of research information, as a forum for social research, and in the creation of unique social and cultural environments. In several instances, entire courses, ranging from freshman composition to computer programming, have been successfully conducted in MOO settings (Bennahum, 1994).

It should be noted that special communications challenges are introduced by the MOO environment. There is the limitation of communicating solely through typing and reading text, though this can be supplemented with the use of emoticons as in e-mail (such as :-) for smile) and the MOO function of "emoting" (such as "Mary gives Shawn a quizzical glance and shrugs"). But there are more significant challenges, which are nicely summarized by Unsworth (in press):

MOOs are naturally somewhat chaotic, since the program allows everyone in a room to speak and be heard in sequence, with no possibility of interrupting another speaker and with little in the way of etiquette that encourages orderly, single-topic, limited-participation conversations.

Initially, we were attracted to the use of MOO technology because of the potential for shaping an online case environment that could be interactively explored by teams of instructional design students. In a previous paper (Lindeman, et al., 1995), we describe the development of the case environment:

Our large meeting room was designed to convene all participants. Four breakout rooms adjoined, each with a complete set of case materials. Some of the case materials were documents that could be read; others were "videotapes" (text transcripts that scrolled slowly up the screen, as if replaying an interaction) of important meetings that could be played. Once in a breakout room, a team's discussions could not be heard by participants outside of the room.

Unfortunately, the case exhibits available in MOO were too difficult for novice MOO visitors to manipulate and productively review. Likewise, it appeared to be too much of a challenge to ask students to draft their case responses using MOO's relatively clumsy note editor (necessary if they were to share their responses with teammates online). In addition, because students had to learn about MOO and process the case in the same initial sitting, there were significant time and cognitive processing pressures. Despite these major difficulties, however, there was some real excitement about the social interaction and problem-solving discussion opportunities that MOO provided.

MOO is obviously not the only medium providing online discussion opportunities. Electronic mailing lists (such as have been used for both discussion and formative evaluation of text cases. Newsgroups are frequently used within education, but neither e-mail nor newsgroups are real-time events. It has been our feeling that there is something important to be gained from the synchronous nature of interaction within MOO-that the collaborative nature of "live" discussion and collaboration can be more closely simulated in MOO-while still bringing together geographically diverse individuals at minimal cost (at least in countries with affordable Internet access).

To retain an immediacy of interaction, we kept MOO as a discussion environment. To better deliver our case materials, we placed them on the World Wide Web. Because of its ability to transmit text, graphics, sound, and video clips, the World Wide Web offers substantial potential for the delivery of case materials.

The case

The instructional design case we used in this research presents an instructional design problem in a corporate training and development setting. The case is based on actual events that took place within a corporation; these events are presented via reconstructed meeting transcripts and a design diagram, supported by biographies of the individuals involved. (The case materials can be seen at

In responding to the case, we ask participants to address professional practice questions, which have been patterned after the professional knowledge model developed by McNergney and Medley (1984). We ask students to identify the important issues, specify relevant professional knowledge, consider courses of action, and think about potential consequences of various actions. A "forms" page within the Web materials provides the questions and a space for submission of each response.

As mentioned above, we have developed and used several versions of the online case environment: MOO-only and MOO plus Web-based case materials. For the research reported here, we used the latter model. In the next section, we will describe how the case materials were used and by whom.


We undertook this research to test our hypothesis that the MOO can be a useful environment for exploration, discussion, and learning. We used an intact class that met on-grounds at a major university. As we accumulate evidence in support of this type of distance learning, we will incorporate such experiences into courses for off-site, geographically-separated students.

We were interested in exploring team dynamics during the review of and response to an instructional case. What kinds of team leadership emerged? What types of team camaraderie developed? What frustrations, what satisfactions were expressed? These questions will be used to guide our inquiry.


Four teams of education graduate students (n = 17; 14 females and 3 males) participated in this study. These students were enrolled in an introductory course on instructional design. Their participation occurred three-fourths of the way through the course. Most of them (n = 14) were majors in instructional technology and so were familiar with the use of Web browsers, electronic communications (e-mail and newsgroups), and the use of word processing applications. The instructor and teaching assistant divided the class into four teams. In so doing, an attempt was made to distribute students so that different types of predominant characteristics (leadership, persistence, enthusiasm, technical expertise) were represented in each group. We assigned one member to serve as leader, one as recorder, and the remaining two or three as researchers, and gave them some suggestions as to how each might function within the team.


Participants used a virtual meeting space for the discussion of cases within IATH-MOO, a MOO provided by the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia. The "case room" was a gathering place for the entire class. The four breakout rooms attached to the case room enable private discussions among team members. The instructional design case is that described above. It was accessed via the WWW.


We recorded all discussion that took place within the MOO in log files. Participants were informed of this practice at several points prior to beginning the case activity. In addition, a notice to this extent appears when participants enter the MOO case room. This discussion dialogue forms the body of our qualitative data.


The class spent two sessions in the MOO. During both sessions, class members met in a computer lab, logged in to the MOO, and proceeded to communicate solely through their keyboards to their colleagues and instructors online. Each student had her or his own computer. They were asked not to communicate orally.

The first session, which lasted for one hour, was simply an introduction to the MOO. During this introductory session, oral communications between the instructor and students did occur, but were limited to addressing initial problems that several participants had with their MOO accounts or passwords. Students worked their way through a short tutorial that explained how to navigate and how to communicate with others. The students were then directed to start their Web browser and to move and resize their MOO and Web windows so that both could be seen on the screen. Once all students had both applications running, the class took an impromptu tour of the World Wide Web, discussing sites that embodied particularly effective graphical user interfaces (a focal point within our graduate program). This activity provided a structured experience in MOO communications and examination of Web exhibits.

Two weeks later, the second session was held, lasting one and one-half hours. Once all class members had virtually assembled in the MOO's case room, general directions for the case discussion were provided. Team assignments were announced, and teams were directed to specific breakout rooms with advice to establish a time schedule for examination of case documents on the Web and subsequent meetings for discussion in the breakout rooms. One of the instructors visited each breakout room once during the hour that followed, to indicate she was available to answer any questions students had. During the remaining time, one of the instructors waited in the case room, where several students came with questions and to which all students returned at completion of the case. With 15 minutes remaining, teams that had not reemerged in the case room were encouraged to submit what they had finished at that point. The last 10 minutes in the MOO were used to discuss the online experience.

Analysis techniques

All MOO discussions and case responses were entered into a database for qualitative analysis (Folio VIEWS, v. 3.1b; Folio Corporation, 1995). The data were then coded according to main categories corresponding to the research questions (the MOO experience, including satisfactions and frustrations; and emergent patterns of team leadership within the MOO). Once coded, data in each category were further examined in an attempt to understand the processes at work. A summary of these findings is presented in the next section of this paper.


Emergent team leadership patterns

The quality of each team's case response was undoubtedly a function of a number of factors, including the quality of the group discussion, the writing skill of the recorder, and the time available, among other things. Instead of focusing on which team's response was "best," we turned our attention to the functionality of the teams as they reviewed the case and discussed their response to it.

The four teams seemed to function in different ways, some more effectively than others. Several patterns of team functionality seemed to emerge: shared responsibilities for leadership and recording; leadership accompanied by group collaboration and concern; deference to leadership as an organizing strategy, coupled with mutual encouragement; and uncertainty and lack of confidence leading to anxiety. A more detailed description of these patterns is included in Appendix A for the interested reader.

The MOO experience

The effect of the MOO on the quality of interaction students experienced was a major topic of conversation after completion of the case discussions. The inability to make eye contact in the MOO and to read facial expressions was noted, but, surprisingly only once during the two sessions:

Facial expressions and body language can say so much. . . . It would be easy to take people's comments the wrong way if working on sensitive issues.

The lack of concern for this may be a result of the comfort and familiarity the group as a whole evidenced with text-based, computer-mediated communications. They rapidly began using the "emote" feature of the MOO to convey their feelings, as in this retort one team leader issued to a team member's ribbing:

[Leader] smiles and makes a note to take away Christmas Bonuses.

The comfort in communication was no doubt also influenced by the fact that group members already knew each other fairly well through numerous face-to-face interactions. This comfort level would probably not be found in initial MOO interactions between individuals who had never met or who had met only a few times online.

The rapid-fire nature of MOO communications was not something that our students were used to, however. This characteristic resulted in fascination for some, as expressed by this student:

It reminds me of live television production, everything happening at once. . . . I find that I write a bit, then stop to read a bunch of comments, then write, then stop again for a period of time. The rhythm is unusual. . . . I liked the multiple threads going at once, I felt like it gave me practice in swift thinking.

For others, the type of simultaneous "talking" that occurs led to frustration. Some felt that the need for rapid thought and quick typing and reading interfered with their participation:

Some of the frustration that students voiced was influenced by their anxiety about the time available for case review and discussion. Seven of the students observed that the experience could be improved by having participants review the case in advance of the MOO session, allowing more time during the online meeting for actual discussion.

Other students keenly felt the absence of the traditional protocol observed during oral discussions-that of pursuing and resolving specific issues and themes before introducing new ones:

One student reflected that, with experience, the frustration would probably lessen. To effectively maintain and respond to several different threads of conversation may require, however, the ability for abstract cognition:

Several students noted that, while there might be other technologies (telephone conference call, for instance) better suited for discussion (at least the type that most people are used to), a MOO connection would likely be much more affordable, at least in more technologically developed countries. MOO also seemed to offer something not found in other Internet-based technologies:


As with our preceding inquiries in this area, we learned a fair amount from this study about the effect of the MOO environment on group discussions and how to prepare students for this experience. We feel that, particularly as compared to our "MOO-only" attempts (Lindeman, et al., 1995), employing the Web for review of case documents and a MOO environment for virtual interaction is a functional solution to the need for virtual team work (exploration, discussion, and learning).

The group participating in this study did not appear to be impaired by the text-based nature of the MOO's computer-mediated communications; most were already experienced in the use of electronic mail and newsgroups, so they readily adapted their use of emoticons and the MOO's emoting features. However, the way that interaction took place in MOO, with multiple threads of conversation occurring simultaneously, caused either fascination or frustration. At least one student commented, and we agree, that additional experience would lessen the frustrations and allow students to adapt to these patterns of interaction, which offer "immediate response to another's ideas." This is seconded by Gardner (1995), who suggests that prior to engaging in a collaborative project, students be introduced to MOO via staged practice sessions. While we employed one practice session and one case session, this is obviously insufficient to encourage functional comfort for all students. Further, there may be some abilities that are required (or at least skills cultivated) for what Unsworth (in press) calls the MOO's "conversational multitasking."

It was interesting to observe differing patterns of team leadership and functionality. One team shared leadership and recording tasks. A second team had a strong leader who nonetheless encouraged group collaboration and concern. In a third team, members attempted to bring order to their interactions by consistently deferring to their appointed leader, while a fourth team struggled without confident leadership. It is our sense that just as in face-to-face interactions, if these teams were allowed sufficient time together, they would develop better ways of communicating, guiding their efforts, and sharing the workload.

Based on these findings, we plan to more gradually introduce both case study techniques and the use of the MOO discussion environment to our students. In the future, we would also like to examine the differences between the depth/breadth of case discussions and the depth/breadth of the case responses that are submitted. Our preliminary observations suggest that there may be important differences, with case responses more shallow and limited than the preceding case discussions. We are quite satisfied, however, with the utility of MOO for discussion and the Web for presentation of case materials.

Recent developments in MOO technology have made it even easier to incorporate the functionality of both the MOO and WWW environments, through the implementation of Webbed MOOs (or WOOs). (See for example, ChibaMOO, available through With innovation such as this, it may be that, as Saffo has asserted, "The Web will evolve to a place where, instead of connecting people to information, it connects people to people in information-rich environments" (Nee, p. 34).


Bennahum, David (1994, May/June). "Fly Me to the MOO: Adventures in Textual Reality." Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life, 1, 22-36.

Cooper, J. M., and R. F. McNergney (1995). "Introduction: The Value of Cases in Teacher Education." In J. M. Cooper (Ed.), Teachers' Problem Solving: A Casebook of Award-Winning Teaching Cases. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1-10.

Ellsworth, J. (1994). Education on the Internet. Indianapolis: SAMS Publishing.

Folio Corporation. (1995). FolioVIEWS, v. 3.1b for the Macintosh.

Gardner, T. (1995). MOO Teacher's Tip Sheet. []

Kent, T. W., J. M. Herbert, and R. F. McNergney (1995). "Telecommunications in Teacher Education: Reflections on the First Virtual Team Case Competition." Journal of Information Technology for Teacher Education, 4(2), 137-148.

Kleinfeld, J. (1991). Changes in Problem Solving Abilities of Students Taught Through Case Methods. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA): Chicago.

Kleinfeld, J. (1989, March). Teaching "Taboo Topics:" The Special Virtues of the Case Method. Unpublished manuscript, College of Rural Alaska, University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

Lindeman, B., T. W. Kent, M. B. Kinzie, V. A. Larsen, L. H. Ashmore, and F. J. Becker (1995, October). Exploring Cases On-line with Virtual Environments. Paper presented at the Computer-Supporting Collaborative Learning (CSCL) conference, Indianapolis. []

McNergney, R. F., J. A. Herbert, and R. D. Ford (1993). Anatomy of a Team Case Competition. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA): Atlanta.

McNergney, R. F., and D. M. Medley (1984). "Teacher Evaluation." In J. Cooper (Ed.), Developing Skills for Instructional Supervision. New York: Longman, 147-178.

Merseth, K. K. (1991, January). The Case for Cases in Teacher Education. Paper presented at the annual meeting for the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) and the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education (AACTE): Washington, D.C.

Meyer, T., D. Blair, and S. Hader (1995, December). "A MOO-Based Collaborative Hypermedia System for WWW." ISDN and Networking. [Article also available at]

Nee, E. (1996). "Paul Saffo: An Interview." Upside, 8(3), 26-39.

Shulman, Lee S. (1987). "Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform." Harvard Educational Review, 57, 1-22.

Unsworth, J. (in press). "Living Inside the (Operating) System: Community in Virtual Reality." In Computer Networking and Scholarship in the 21st-Century University. SUNY Press.

[Draft available at]


Expanded Description of Emergent Team Leadership Patterns

As indicated in the text, the four teams seemed to function in different ways, some more effectively than others. Different patterns of team functionality seemed to emerge for each team.

Shared responsibilities for leadership and recording. The leader of the Green Team did not hesitate to express her uncertainty about the best methods for pursuit of the case, but her style encouraged other team members to collaborate in leading the group:

Okay, group at the case and meet back here at 2:37--10 minutes [researcher]
That's g as your fearless leader (without a clue) let's meet at 2:35, okay?
I'd like to look at the case for a sec to see how extensive it is before we decide on a time [recorder]
What if we look ood with me, I'm off to the case [leader]

After the review of case documents, this leader did not wait for all team members to rejoin the group for discussion, leading to some confusion. The disjointed discussion rapidly became more focused when all members joined the team. As the discussion progressed, this leader was able to think creatively about lessening the load on the recorder, even assuming some of the recording work herself without losing track of team progress:

I'm trying.. (huffing and puffing) [recorder]
Maybe we should each take a question so that [recorder] isn't overworked [leader]
Yay! [recorder]
Okay, I'll try to compile a response to question two from your ideas. You three can move to #3 and I'll catch up soon. Who's recording for #3? [leader]

This sharing in the leadership and workload was evidenced by all team members and was recognized as the recorder publicly thanked her teammates when the entire group reconvened in the case room.

Leadership followed by group collaboration and concern. In the Red Team, the leader immediately made sure her team was present and set an initial time limit. One of the team researchers suggested time synchronization, after which they turned their attention to case review. As the agreed-upon time elapsed, the leader checked to see if her team needed more time. The recorder directed others to be sure to review the questions they were charged to answer. Another of the researchers kept an eye on the time throughout, but the leader moderated the effects of repeated time warnings with assurances that the team was doing well and not to "stress." A mutual concern and collaboration was maintained until the end, with the leader and others making sure the recorder felt supported and the process for response development clearly understood by all. The leader closed the discussion period by thanking her team and making a final review of the team responses before the recorder submitted them. She publicly congratulated her team's recorder in front of everyone, when the teams reconvened in the case room.

Deference to leadership as an organizing strategy. The Blue Team's leadership was characterized by good-natured banter and encouragement. The leader welcomed the team members to their breakout room and went in search of lost members. It was interesting to note that one of the team members appeared to be competent and quite capable of adding to the team direction herself, but she apparently felt that protocol required her to "check in" with the leader before performing relatively minor actions. Another member picked this behavior up later on, and a pattern emerged that ultimately helped to organize this team's behavior somewhat. It also, however, appeared to rob the group of active leadership contributions by other teams members-their discussions were a bit less focused than the Green or Red Teams. This was a demonstrably supportive group, with team members rallying around the recorder to encourage her efforts. With this encouragement, the recorder was helped through her initial frustrations in managing both MOO discussion and the response creation. Of all team recorders, she seemed to become the most active in the team discussions.

Uncertainty and lack of confidence leading to anxiety. The Yellow Team was led by an individual who was not only uncertain about the best methods for the team to employ, but also lacked confidence. This combination resulted in some of her leadership being expressed in misdirection (e.g., sending her team to the wrong breakout room for discussion; suggesting that they divide up the case for review after the team had already reviewed the case, etc.) and anxiety-creation (repeatedly calling attention to the time, asking for progress reports from the recorder). Nonetheless, this team was able to address the case questions and submit a response, though their experience appeared to be less satisfying than that of other teams.