01 Jun 2001


Virtual Plant Tours and Beer Game Dysfunction

Multimedia Cases Focus Classroom Discussion

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Professor Lynda Applegate’s Building E-Businesses course does more than just translate standard case material into an online format. She uses audio and video clips for storytelling, then offers eye-catching visuals and drill-down explanations for conceptual frameworks that previously might have required mini-lectures. Class time thus can be fully devoted to discussion, with this foundation allowing it to take on new depth. “We’re able to home in on what the ‘magic’ really is in the classroom,” says Applegate, noting that students seem both quicker to jump into the real issues of the case and more willing to admit what they don’t understand when they’ve had the opportunity to explore the material interactively online.

Sometimes using technology is the best way to prove a point, as the Technology and Operations Management (TOM) faculty has established with its popular “Beer Game” exercise, administered in the computer lab. A software program simulates a supply chain from retailer through wholesaler and distributor up to the beer factory. Students take roles as a participant in the chain, seeing only the orders they receive and placing their own orders accordingly. Instructors then share computer-generated results of the chaos and inefficiencies produced by inadequate information. “The level of dysfunction in such a simple supply chain is extraordinary,” says Assistant Professor Andrew McAfee. “If you just tell them, they won’t believe it, but when they experience it themselves, they take it with them forever.”

Another key benefit and increasingly popular teaching resource emerging from today’s technology is its ability to bring case protagonists into the classroom easily — through webcasts and videoconferences, classes may “join” protagonists on location. For example, last December, rather than busing students to an area factory, the TOM faculty brought the factory to the students, delivering a “virtual” plant tour led by one of the company’s managers and facilitated by an HBS research associate on-site. Students had the chance to ask questions directly as the tour unfolded, with the plant manager himself fielding some of the queries.

Boston’s unpredictable winters can also complicate travel and transport. But when a severe snowstorm brought the city to a halt last March, “students at home simply downloaded their Negotiation exam from the Course Platform,” explains Judy Stahl (MBA 1996), executive director of the HBS Information Technology Group. “After completing it, they then uploaded it to a secure site, all without having to come to campus.”

Defeating New England weather — now that’s a real triumph for technology.

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