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Teaching and Learning Forum 2005 [ Refereed papers ]
Outcomes for learning from the implementation of a virtual case study in information technology

Tony Jewels
School of Information Systems
Queensland University of Technology

Rozz Albon
Department of Education
Curtin University of Technology

The Faculty of Information Technology of one university is using an integrated virtual case method approach in an attempt to link theoretical constructs of IT project management with a real world, practical implementation example. The idea of using a single virtual case study approach was based on the need to provide students about to graduate, who may never have had experience of real projects, the opportunity to 'feel' some of the emotions that they would soon experience in real life. This approach attempted to provide an experience of the frustrations and elations that are part of most project environments, an appreciation of the real difficulties faced by project team members, and an understanding of the real purposes for applying the theoretical constructs covered in the unit. In turn this approach created deep learning opportunities to managing complex interactions. Over five offerings of the unit, the teaching team has attempted to identify the involvement of students in the case study, in order to determine firstly how the level of involvement might be increased, and secondly whether this involvement actually relates to better learning outcomes.


The reliability of information technology (IT) project delivery is one of the four levels at which Thorp & DMR's Center for Strategic Leadership, (1999) suggests the reality of IT has not lived up to its promise, with further evidence of poor IT project success being provided by many researchers, (Dhillon & Backhouse, 1996; Lin & Pervan, 2000). Prior to the introduction of one university's new IT project management (ITPM) unit, there was already general agreement that most IT graduates would be involved in projects from the time they entered the IT employment market, and that their understanding of a project environment would influence how effectively they might contribute within their own project teams.

To help educate potential IT project managers, it was therefore believed important to develop an ITPM unit, carefully structured to provide students with what were believed to be the most appropriate skills and relevant knowledge to take them into the workforce; one that specifically provided an understanding of factors likely to contribute to project success and factors likely to contribute to project failure.

The initial issue facing the unit designers was to create a pedagogy that would best provide students with the skills necessary to contribute efficiently and effectively in the environments in which they were soon likely to be working. The structural design of the unit also needed to match the faculty's desired graduate capabilities with expectations from industry, obtained from a survey of the latest published literature and from industry practitioners.

The case method approach considered here as a virtual environment, appeared to contribute to an appropriate pedagogy that could embed each of the topics to be covered into a single and understandable outcome, enabling students to develop realistic solutions by 'pulling apart complex situations' and 'keeping class discussion grounded upon stubborn facts faced in real life situations', in order to understand the 'crucial nature of accurate diagnosis both specifically and generally', (Lawrence, cited in Erskine, Leenders, & Mauffette-Leenders, 1981, p11). In project management based research conducted in the mid 90's, Hicks, (1996) citing Kolb, (1984) & Zuber-Skerritt, (1990) had claimed that,

...experiential learning, action learning and action research are built on the recognition that learning by experiencing and reflecting on that experience can be most effective in helping students and practitioners acquire professional knowledge and skills (p28).
Using this approach, Hicks believes helps individuals become reflective practitioners who take responsibility for their own learning and performance over a lifetime. The validity of cases used in this way is confirmed by Barnes, Christensen, & Hansen, (1994) who suggest that:
"Effective cases portray real people in moments of decision, faced with a need to take action and accept its consequences" (p285), " ... as a 'second-best' alternative to apprenticeship, good cases permit a 'long look over the shoulder of a practitioner at work'", (p287).
Cases describe real-world problems that Mostert & Sudzina, (1996) suggest can be too complex to approach experimentally listing a number of arguments for their use, including the fact that they: The academic staff member appointed to develop the ITPM unit and coordinate its delivery had been an IT practitioner with extensive experience of IT project management practices and held project management certified membership of his national computer society. It was opportune that as part of his own post graduate studies, this individual had already written an IT case study from the experiences of his 20 months involvement in an international project, providing an example of the special mode of evidence collection that Yin, (1994) calls 'participant-observation'.

In following a process that requires students to not only fully understand but also to apply the principles behind the various concepts being taught, the case study is introduced as a form of 'virtual environment' in which students are able to embed themselves. Although still not equivalent to physically being a member of a team in a real project, this 'deep immersion' into an actual case, attempts to provide an experience of the frustrations and elations that are part of most project environments, an appreciation of the real difficulties faced by project team members, and an understanding of the real purposes for using the theoretical constructs covered in the unit.

Learning objectives

The growth and acceptance of project management has encompassed virtually every industry in the world, but the application of project management techniques varies according to the type of industry in which they are being used, (Kerzner, 1987). Even though the principles and practices of project management have been developed by the engineering profession, Kapur, (1999) suggests that IT projects are more difficult to manage than engineering projects. Differences in project managing Information Systems/Information Technology (IS/IT) development as distinct from other types of engineering are illustrated by Sommerville, (1995) who describes the differences in terms of, Rapid technological changes in computers and communications outdate previous experience and hence lessons learned from past experience may not be transferable. In appreciating the true nature of the IT project manager's role it is worthwhile to investigate some of the definitions provided by the literature. Achieving project success appears to be at the heart of what is considered to be the role of the project manager. The project manager is described by Nicholas, (2001) as the single person who is accountable for the project and who is totally dedicated to achieving its goals, with Cadle & Yeates, (2001) suggesting that
As a project manager, you are determined to succeed and to bring your project to a successful conclusion - on time, within budget and to the customer's satisfaction ( p356).
It is suggested by Mulally, (2002) that distinguishing the particular skills of a project manager typically revolves around some variation of: 'excellent communication skills,' 'ability to connect with people at all levels of the organization' and '[ability] to collaborate to develop effective solutions'. The so called 'hard' skills such as methodologies, processes and tools, that Mulally believes to be the emphasis of many project management training approaches today, do not contribute to success as significantly as the so called 'soft skills'.
... while communication and people skills are acknowledged as being important, they are typically written off as 'too fuzzy', 'too hard to teach for' or 'something that can't be developed; people have them or they don't.'" (Mulally, 2002, p1).
Although it would have been considerably easier to have focussed on teaching the individual components, it was ultimately decided that the objective of the unit was to teach students how to increase the likelihood of IT project management success by providing an understanding of The unit therefore attempts to teach the fundamental lessons that modern IT project managers require a range of multi-disciplinary skill-sets in order to increase the likelihood of project success and that the absence or misapplication of any one of the knowledge areas described by the PMI, (2000) The objectives of the ITPM offering clearly demand an understanding of ideas and meanings rather than merely learning the techniques used to achieve success in IT project management. An approach to teaching that recognised and encouraged a 'deep approach' rather than the alternative 'surface approach' to learning was therefore considered more desirable (Marton & Saljš, 1976; Biggs, 1987; Entwistle, 1988; Ramsden, 1992; Marton, Hounsell, & Entwistle, 1997). It was hoped that 'deep immersion' or 'embeddedness' in the case, would provide students with the opportunity to understand the totality of the system and the interrelationships between the individual constructs.

The case study, herein termed Dag-Brücken ASRS or DB-ASRS, is an account of a robotic high rise storage warehouse project, which is made 'real' by showing videos of the project at various stages of completion, by demonstrating the application software using a real-time simulator, and by employing as a guest lecturer one of the engineer's who worked on the project. Using a systems approach based pedagogy, this integrated virtual case study method provides a rich and contextually appropriate environment in which students can better understand how combinations of project management issues, applied holistically, can influence project success.

Two different types of student case study are described by Summers & Smith, (2003, p61).

The choice of weekly 'case incidents' referred to by Wright, (1996) is used to illustrate single concepts or issues, which have been the subject of that week's lecture. Each week a case incident with questions is issued to students, to be completed for group discussion and handing in for marking at the following week's one hour tutorial session, an example of which is reproduced:

People within projects: The Dag-Brücken ASRS case study provides the background to this tutorial. In chapter 2 of the DB ASRS case study, people involved in the project are described. The managing director (MD), described by one developer as a 'truly brilliant electrical engineering designer' had, together with his management team, already made some fundamental decisions regarding the direction that the IT development was going to take eg FoxPro, C++, Windows NT. 1. Without discussing the appropriateness of the choice made, why do you believe a decision was taken to select a development platform and environment prior to involving any specialist IT personnel? 2. What do you believe was the rationale behind the decision to segregate the PC team from the PLC team? 3. Based on the ASRS case study explain the statement by Maslow, (1965), "For a man with a hammer, every problem is a nail".

The use of such case incidents was a specific attempt to make complex problems manageable by students, by concentrating on only one issue at a time, yet involving predominantly divergent rather than convergent problems, (Schumacher, 1977). It concomitantly extended the deep learning approach by requiring students to 'dig' around in the divergent problem and thus construct their own conception of the possible problems and solutions. A selection of the same tutorial questions was duplicated in the final exam, though here with an expectation that the answers would not be specific to one particular topic but synthesised with other relevant topics covered in the unit. Ultimately, this example of the application of multiple concepts to solve divergent problems was believed to offer a better way of determining learning outcomes than the original approach of simply attempting to decide whether students had engaged in deep or surface learning approaches.


An action learning approach is used within and between each of five iterations of ITPM, providing valuable data with which to enhance a pedagogy not commonly used for teaching information technology subjects. The teaching team undertakes a review of the unit each semester as part of its own applied quality improvement process. Data is collected formally by use of the university's standard programmes for collecting student feedback, referred to as student evaluation of unit (SEU) and student evaluation of teaching (SET), and by conducting regular teaching team meetings and weekend retreats. Informally, data is collected from student consultation sessions, tutorial discussions and unsolicited personal feedback from students. An analysis of student responses from the final tutorial topic, related to project post implementation reviews (PIR), forms the basis of our interpretation of individual learning outcomes.

The final tutorial questions take the following form:

This week's tutorial is based around the ITPM unit that you have been studying this semester. Treating the last 13 weeks as a project which you are now reviewing, answer the following evaluation questions using the techniques and processes explained in the PIR lecture. 1. Describe what this subject has been about. 2. What have you learnt about project management? 3. In what way did the Dag-Brücken case study contribute to your understanding of this subject?

Using the responses to the first two questions, students are classified as having taken a deep, surface, or strategic (mixed) approach to learning. Students are classified as taking a deep approach if they refer to issues of taking responsibility for a project or the role of the project manager in achieving project success. Students are classified as taking a surface approach if they make only specific references to individual processes and classified as taking a strategic approach if they make reference to both types of issue while also identifying how the systems approach is demonstrated in the case study.

The ITPM unit is concurrently offered to undergraduates as part of the Bachelor of Information Technology and to postgraduates as part of the Master of Information Technology. Both cohorts include full and part time students and, aligned with the university's IT offerings in general, there is a higher male enrolment.

Delivering the unit


One semester before the ITPM unit was offered, the virtual case study (referred to as the DB-ASRS case) was introduced in an existing IT Management (ITM) unit as a pilot. It was used as background for an assignment that required students to identify the mistakes made by the vendor organisation and to suggest processes that might have been put in place to avoid those mistakes. Student feedback was so positive it was decided to reuse the case for the new ITPM unit. Many of the new ITPM students who had just undertaken the previous semester's ITM unit clearly indicated that they had 'had enough' of the DB-ASRS case after being involved with it in consecutive semesters. This suggests that even though Rees & Porter, (2002) state that one of the benefits of using cases is 'repeat use', it does not imply that cases should be repeated for the same students. Yet interestingly, possibly serendipitously, was that ultimately these repeat students performed particularly well in the new unit, suggesting that the level of involvement (embeddedness) in the case might have affected performance. Indeed, given the complexity of interactions within the virtual case study, the revisiting of the unit from a different perspective appeared to have been benefited by this familiarity. It was possible that student's prior knowledge enabled greater depth and clarity to be achieved leading to a more holistic understanding of the case study.

First offering

Although for the first offering both the formal student evaluations and direct student feedback indicated a high degree of satisfaction with the unit, research undertaken by Jewels & Bruce, (2003), summarised in Table 1, appeared to confirm Entwistle's, (1988) findings that, " ... few students were able to carry through all the component processes demanded by a fully deep approach which would have resulted in a deep level of understanding", (p28). Table 1. Summary of Responses Undergraduate / Postgraduate Surface Approach Deep Approach Strategic Approach Surface use of Case Deep use of Case U/G n = 19 14 5 0 18 1 P/G n = 23 10 10 3 21 2 Totals n = 42 24 15 3 39 3 Percentages 57.14% 35.71% 7.14% 92.86% 7.14% Though the original 5000 word case had indeed 'pulled apart the complex situations' and 'kept class discussion grounded upon stubborn facts faced in real life situations', it had apparently failed to 'put it together again before the situations [could] be understood', (Lawrence cited in Erskine, Leenders, & Mauffette-Leenders, (1981, p11)). The somewhat disappointing results from the majority of students in the initial ITPM offering prompted the teaching team to take a closer look at how the virtual case study was being integrated into the unit and whether the case itself was appropriate for its purpose.

Revision of the case

Using any single case study in this manner requires that the case itself be rigorous enough to support the desired learning outcomes. Although there were considered to be significant advantages in using a self developed case study, with Barnes et al., (1994, p285) suggesting that the potential benefits of writing your own case study and subsequently using it in case method instruction provides an increased sensitivity to all teaching documents, it was still considered necessary to investigate what qualities are actually required from such cases, and to compare with those of DB-ASRS case used in the unit. The teaching team was conscious of what Sauer & Willcocks, (1999) suggest is the lack of availability of appropriate IS case and their belief that while a case's life span varies, many lose their freshness quickly, particularly in a fast moving area like IS/IT. An original hypothesis was developed by the current teaching team members to evaluate the suitability of a teaching case for a particular unit, (Jewels, Jones, & Ford, 2003). Case suitability = fn ( · (generic qualities of the case), · (applicability to individual subject matter to be covered), (applicability to the expected general learning outcome) ) 1. Generic Qualities These were qualities that refer to the nature of the case and include issues such as having 2. Applicability to Individual Subject Matter This factor related to how well the case applied to each of the individual topic areas that were being discussed, 3. Applicability to the Expected General Learning Outcome

Reflections and modifications

It was realised that the case would need to be rewritten to better meet all its desired learning objectives. Concurrent with the second offering of the unit, a revised 11000 word case was written. Supplemented with a 5000 word teaching note addendum, it was ultimately published as a teaching case, (Jewels, 2003).

Second offering

Given the changes to the case, there was an expectation of an increase in the number of students who exhibited characteristics of a deep learning approach, indicating an understanding of the holistic nature of project management, as distinct from a surface learning approach indicating a concentration on individual subject matter, (Entwistle, 1988). Incidents of the 'strategic' approach to learning, also referred to as the 'achieving' approach, (Biggs, 1987), in which the predominant motivation for learning is the achievement of high grades and competition with others, appeared to have increased and possibly replaced surface learning. However, in an analysis undertaken by Jewels & Ford (2004) the incidents of deep learning were shown not to have significantly increased although there was evidence that the case did aid understanding, did provide increased enthusiasm and that it was probably very helpful to most students.

A high incidence of strategic learning did however prompt the teaching team to consider whether the 'deep learners' were being sufficiently rewarded for their involvement in the case. Though two of the four assessment items reflected student's embeddedness in the case, the overall assessment contained 45% of marks that might not be linked to embeddedness at all. It was generally agreed that a review of the characteristics of the unit assessment for future offerings be undertaken. An examination of the learning achieved through surface and deep approaches was to be undertaken to clarify better the role of assessment in the learning process and ensure all assessments converged as deep learning.

Third Offering

The results from the second offering indicated that most students had benefited from the integrated virtual case study approach, with students saying, overwhelmingly, that the case aided understanding and with many students seeming very enthusiastic. It was decided to attempt to more deeply embed students in the case by using even more examples from the case study in both the weekly tutorial questions and as reference points in lectures. It was explicitly stated that this embeddedness was desired with statements such as,
Students need to smell the pollution of Taoyuan, (the scene of the project), before fully understanding the environment in which project management decisions were taking place.
There were however, in this particular offering, two entirely distinct points of view exhibited by students.

Engaging with the case enabled some students to see the totality of the project, for which they were being rewarded with higher marks for some assessments (as distinct from overall grades). What was not expected, though and perhaps it should have been, given the intention of the teaching team to expose students to the complexity of emotions when managing projects was that some students appeared to became so embedded in the case that they showed signs of sadness and even depression when they realized that they had just been involved in a project failure. Responses such as the following were common:

"[The] Dag-Brucken case study gave a good insight about a real time project. At some stage of the case study I could feel as if the project was actually happening and we were the project managers in it."
It was necessary to remind students that they were not in any way personally responsible for the failure but that they could certainly learn from what had been someone else's mistakes. Yet the teaching team still remained concerned that their approach had resulted in extraordinary discomfort for some students.

Although this approach appeared to engage more students, there were still some students who refused to become too involved in its content and process. The role of the IT project manager demands multiple views of a project environment, balancing often conflicting demands and constraints of both internal and external stakeholders. The requirement for project management students to address problems from this system perspective rather than as a series of separate issues, required a significant commitment and break from traditional learning methods for the many who may, up to this point in their courses, have only been involved in solving uni-dimensional problems. This discomfort manifested itself in a formal complaint being lodged by a group of students relating to the methods of assessment being applied in the unit. It was obvious that even though the popularity of the unit overall continued to grow and formal SET and SEU feedback were the highest recorded for this unit, the teaching approach being applied was certainly not being readily accepted by everyone. Figure 1: Enrollments over five offerings No conclusions could be drawn as to whether any assessment will be received well by all students in any unit, given the differences in learning styles, and approaches to learning such as mastery or performance motivation, (Woolfolk, 2003), but it was deemed important that for the next iteration an even closer investigation of our assessment methods should be undertaken. It was somewhat fortuitous that the teaching team was offered the opportunity to formally engage in a pilot project for criterion referenced assessment (CRA) over the following two semesters.

Fourth and fifth offerings

At a teaching team weekend retreat undertaken just prior to the 4th offering for the purpose of reflecting on what had occurred in the previous year, several questions arose that required further research for the coming semester:
  1. Is there in fact a strong relationship between how 'embedded' an undergraduate is in a case and their results?
  2. Can better, more general, methods be found for determining how 'embedded' in a case a student is?
  3. What makes some students become more 'embedded' in a case than others?
  4. How can more students be encouraged to become 'embedded' in a case?
  5. Should there be different outcomes for students for specifically taking a deep or strategic learning approach?
With a specific focus on CRA these two offerings have provided students with more detailed guidelines on what is expected of them. An initial concern with the introduction of CRA was that students would merely have to follow a set of predetermined guidelines without having to 'think for themselves'. The first assignment in the fourth offering did not allay our fears when, as part of the assignment question, we included the statement: In your response you may like to include such issues as, and any other issues that you feel might be important.

Many students elected to answer the whole assignment based on these suggestions, ignoring the intent of the assignment, which was to explain why it was necessary for project managers to have more than technical skills. It appeared students took these suggestions as the criterion from which they would be judged and focussed on only answering these aspects. The second, more comprehensive assignment did not provide students in advance with a marking criteria (or any further suggestions), but the markers did use a marking criteria sheet which was returned to students with their assignments. There was however an increase in the number of students requesting either an explanation for their marks or simply for assignment remarks. The team was left to consider whether the approach in assessment one created an expectation in line with CRA and a possible decrease in deep learning. For the fourth iteration there was again widespread satisfaction with the unit with typical comments such as

...this case study contributed a lot in the understanding of this subject. I understood the basic theory which was taught in the lecture well because this was all practically visible in the case study...
Such views were formally confirmed by even higher SET and SEU responses, but there was, much to the disappointment of the teaching team, still no increase in the number of students who had exhibited deep learning characteristics. It was concluded that a balance between the guidelines of CRA and deep learning was possible and so was implemented in the fifth offering.

The responses from the fifth offering based on the integration of CRA and deep learning have not be received and the second assignment not marked, yet for the first assignment in which a marking guide was provided in advance, the standard of work appeared to be generally lower than for previous offerings. Although a full marking matrix was provided for assignment two there was a marked increase in the numbers of students requiring further explanations of precisely what was required in the assignment. It does appear that providing students with specific marking criteria may not have resulted in any noticeable increase in the numbers of incidents of identified deep or strategic learning. In fact it may be a decrease - an outcome to be investigated by the teaching team.

Interpretation and conclusion

The logic behind the assumption that embeddedness in the case is indicated by the student's identified learning style may be flawed. It was obvious that some students, by their remarks and subsequent behaviour, had in fact bonded with the case; they felt that they had been part of the project, and personally involved in its demise with some students seemingly frustrated and disappointed when they realised that they were unable to change the project outcome. The question of whether students had been 'deeply immersed' in the case would appear however not to be simple. The question of accommodating all students' learning styles and learning approaches is yet to be debated. Alternative methods for interpreting student 'embeddedness' in the case, and even the need to measure 'embeddedness' at all, may need to be examined for future offerings. It appeared that many students in the final two iterations were more interested in simply matching the marking criteria that was given to them rather than in fully understanding the lessons that the unit was attempting to teach. Providing students with specific marking criteria may therefore be counter-productive in reaching this unit's desired learning outcomes, and will be the subject of additional research.

The unit is still a popular choice for students even though it is, in the main, only an elective in most courses. There has, as yet, never been a tutor who has willingly given up their tutorial allocation, as there is agreement that the unit is "fun" to teach. The repeatability of the case ensures that tutors are increasingly discovering nuances in the case, allowing them to adopt and share different approaches in their tutorial sessions and providing deeper meanings to issues as they become ever more familiar with the case.

The transition between the learning institution and the workforce is of particular importance for IS professionals as even though graduates may enter the workforce with up to date knowledge of the various components that they will be using, their value to employers will initially depend on how appropriately they are able to manage the complex interactions between technical, human and socio-political issues. Units of this type are designed to facilitate this transition and it is hoped that the effort involved will ultimately be justified by providing graduates that are able to more quickly adapt to the immediate demands of an IT workforce.


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Authors: Tony Jewels, School of Information Systems, Queensland University of Technology. Email: t.jewels@qut.edu.au

Rozz Albon, Department of Education, Curtin University of Technology. Email: R.Albon@curtin.edu.au

Please cite as: Jewels, T. and Albon, R. (2005). Outcomes for learning from the implementation of a virtual case study in information technology. In The Reflective Practitioner. Proceedings of the 14th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 3-4 February 2005. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2005/refereed/jewels.html

Copyright 2005 Tony Jewels and Rozz Albon. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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