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Multimedia brings case studies to life

Two years ago, Associate Professor Jodi Sandfort had an "aha" moment. She saw the ease with which students used technology in their everyday lives and realized that integrating technology into her curriculum would help students learn by speaking to them in a language they understand.

Written case studies long have been used to illustrate practical applications of academic principles by using real-life situations to demonstrate theoretical principles. But what if you could see the people involved or hear their story in their own words? What if you could see the outcome of your decisions immediately?

Aided by the Humphrey School's information technology team and a grant from the University's Digital Media Center, Sandfort set out to leverage the power of technology to turn written case studies into interactive, multimedia experiences for students.

"By providing information in multimedia formats, students experience the problem and potential solutions unfolding in ways that much more closely approximate the complexities of practice," says Sandfort. "It's as if they are really there, in the situation."

The goal of the enhanced case studies is to help students learn the role of nonprofit organizations, define and analyze difficult problems, understand the ramifications of policy decisions, and use accessible analytical tools to arrive at solutions.

In Sandfort's first case, students are presented with information about a complex public policy problem: predatory lending practices. Some national tax preparers subvert earned income tax credits into "refund anticipation" loans. These tax credits are meant to compensate low-wage workers, but end up costing them much more in high interest rates.

Students assume the role of the executive director of a small nonprofit firm that provides free tax preparation to low-income citizens. They navigate their way through the process of solving the problem, considering potential avenues to expand their services.

The students make these leadership decisions based on multimedia tools-video interviews with key stakeholders, audio segments with photographs, and reports around relevant topics. All of these tools help them understand the assets and limitations of the organization and choose possible solutions to maximize the impact it could have.

When it comes time to implement their decisions, each student's individual outcome is documented as part of a final report that he or she evaluates with the instructor.

"The tools also require that students articulate why they made the decisions they did about how to proceed," Sandfort says. "This forces them to make their 'hunches' more explicit and ground them in analysis."

Although still in nascent phases, Sandfort already is evaluating the multimedia case study's effectiveness. "We are focused on evaluating student learning outcomes with this tool," she says. "Not just compared to traditional, written case studies, but also the possibility that this will change the way students learn."

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