Business class to conduct real-time case study

By Patrick J. Callahan

In what Management professor James Theroux calls a case of “reality programming meets business education,” students at the Isenberg School of Management will take part in a real-time case study of a Framingham-based high-technology company this fall. The company, Theroux says, is on the cutting edge of technology and will give students a view into the “invisible” and astonishingly complex world of the computer chip.

For Theroux, the Flavin Family Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Isenberg School, this is his second time teaching a real-time class to graduate and undergraduate students, and he has already garnered national attention for the innovative style of teaching.

The course will follow the development of DAFCA Inc., a company whose product speeds up the development time of the most advanced computer chips. DAFCA’s software product, to be introduced next year, will save chip designers and manufacturers time and a lot of money, he says, because it locates “bugs” in the design much faster than has been possible in the past.

And because the course is Web-based, it is also being offered at two Boston-area business schools, Babson College and Olin College of Engineering, and Clark University in Worcester, Theroux says. “We place the material on a Web site and the other schools sign up to use it,” he says.

The real-time aspect of the course comes from several sources. There is a case writer stationed full-time at the company who will file weekly reports on what the firm and its executives are doing and thinking. Based on this, Theroux will write a case study problem-of-the-week for his students. The students will then take the material from a password-protected Web site designed for the course. The case writer is also going to write a more informal Weblog about his observations at DAFCA, offering a slightly different set of insights for the students, Theroux says.

“My hope is that by the end of the semester, the students will have the experience of working for this company,” Theroux says. Because the overall system is interactive, students will be able to offer advice as well as just observe what is happening inside DAFCA. “The case company believes that the case is a two-way street. Students benefit from the experience and the company benefits from the consulting relationship.”

This is the second time Theroux has offered a real-time case-study course. In 2001 his students studied the development of Optasite Inc., a cell phone infrastructure company. The concept has already racked up recognition and awards. The Decision Sciences Institute chose the real-time case as one of the “Three Best Innovations” for 2002; the U.S. Association of Small Businesses and Entrepreneurship named the real-time case study as the Pedagogical Innovation of the Year in 2002; and the Sloan Consortium, a leader in the study and dissemination of best practices in online education, selected the real-time case for “Best Practice for Student Satisfaction in 2002.” The U.S. Distance Learning Association, one of the three largest organizations focused on the development and improvement of online learning, named the real-time case study for the Excellence in Distance Teaching Award in 2003.

Theroux says while the concept is popular with students, it’s very difficult to gather and process the information so quickly. But that is key to the challenge and key to making the real-time course work for his students. Theroux says the course offers his students a unique opportunity. “We’re providing a case in real-time. It’s an in-depth, whole-semester look at a single company,” he says.