An Adaptation of the Case Study Method Applied to Information Systems and Technologies

Article excerpt

This teaching innovation began with the search for a method of teaching a capstone experience (senior project) class in information systems. The goals of a capstone experience class for students include: 1) creation of a final project significant enough to demonstrate their technical skills; 2) provide a group (team) experience that will prepare them for work in the IS field; and 3) enable students to integrate materials from all areas of the IS major subjects (software development, telecommunications, database design and development, systems analysis).

Existing IS curricula do an excellent job of preparing students to apply specialized technical skills. The business advisory council for the IS&T department valued the technical classroom background but wanted students with problem-solving abilities, ability to work in teams, a "big picture" focus, and superior communication skills. The ideal capstone experience would be to provide a simulated experience of a business problem for students that integrates the knowledge from basic coursework, requires an understanding or ability to discover the cross impacts of technologies and business, includes the life cycle of a system, and allows students to work as a team. Could a complex case study provide the necessary skills?

Case studies provide an opportunity to discover in the details of a business decision, the roots of a profitable decision or the reasons for failure. Discussions concerning the circumstances of a business case study can provide students with opportunities to work in a group, use their business skills to interpret the facts of the case, and introduce students to the complexity of decision-making in the business world. These benefits have been difficult to apply to the discipline of information systems. The retrospective nature of case studies do not often lend themselves to presentation in a field such as information systems characterized by rapidly changing methods and tools. Additionally, there is a scarcity of case studies that emphasize the technical details that would be relevant for students in information systems. Instead, case studies have favored more generic business problems and descriptions that all business majors can use and discuss. A search of the literature for a case study large and substantial enough to occupy students for a significant amount of time yielded no suitable candidates.

The living case

The case designed for the senior project class consisted of a Request for Proposal (RFP) sent by a fictional automobile insurance company that requested responses from consulting firms in order to assist them in solving a potential Year 2K computer problem. The fictional company, Low Ball Auto Insurance, had delayed in checking their desktop applications to ensure Year 2K compliance.

Particularly at risk were the thousands of spreadsheets in multiple versions of Lotus 1-2-3 and MS Excel that drove the financial and accounting activities of the corporate headquarters. The RFP covered the description of the business, the significance of the problem, the technical issues such as the network design, servers, and distribution tools available, as well as the rules for responding. The case study was written as an RFP to provide students the opportunity of working with a routine part of the IT process (bidding out services) and to provide a high-level description of the cross-impacts of the various components (i.e., the network design's impact on potential software distribution) that would test the student's understanding of how an infrastructure can impact business operations. High-level technical diagrams were included with descriptions of the tools, hardware, and staff available to implement any proposed solution. Students were to provide the following deliverables within a written response to the REP: Company background and financials (fabricated); Resumes for team members; Technical approach of the proposed solution; Project plan for the duration of the project; Costs of the project. …