First Monday

Reflective Collaborative Learning on the Web: Drawing on the Master Class

We draw on the music master class as an established face-to-face pedagogical model as one that supports reflective, collaborative learning practices. We then illustrate how this model is being reinterpreted and extended within the context of online learning communities exploring the skills of user interface design.


Example from an Intensive Face-to-Face Setting
Integrating Principles of Face-to-Face Learning into Online Environments
Implications for Design and Implementation


New technologies support new ways of learning. In distance education, the bulk of the emphasis has been on who, when and where we can teach, showing the opportunities that arise once the restriction of same-time same-place learning is removed. We believe it is at least as important to consider what and how we teach. Some methods and techniques that work well in a conventional classroom will not transfer directly to an equally effective distance learning experience. However, possibilities arise for new ways of teaching and ways of applying traditional methods in novel contexts.

Learning is a social and interpretive activity in which multiple members collaboratively construct explanations and understandings of materials, artifacts, and phenomena within their environment (Dewey 1966, c.1916). It is the result of active engagement in and with the world coupled with reflections upon the relationship between ideas, actions, and outcomes. As such, learning-as-interpretation is deeply embedded in all activity, and experiences are part of a socially embedded active and re-active process. Collaborative activity presents an opportunity for reflection and interpretation of events by providing a shared context for the interpretation of individual experience. Interpretations evolve around artifacts and narratives (Jordan, 1992; Orr, 1996), and experiences take on meaning within communities of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991). The availability of increasingly robust Web-based, networked technologies offers opportunities for creating and sustaining collaborative, reflective learning experiences for a distributed student body.

This paper explores a connection between an established form of intensive, face-to-face teaching, the master class employed in the Arts, and new possibilities for organizing online learning experiences for a distributed class, including classes teaching aspects of science or engineering. The format and pedagogical goals of a master class embody a set of principles compatible with Dewey's conceptualization of reflective learning. These classes take place within a community of practice that supports on-going collaborative learning that bridges the boundaries of the classroom. We draw on an example from a choral conducting master class as an illustration, then use this as a springboard to illustrate how these principles are being brought into virtual settings, using as an example an online distributed class on interface design. We further discuss how the virtual degree program to which this distributed class belongs supports certain educational experiences, and conclude with a discussion of the broader implications and opportunities for creating robust online venues for collaborative learning. Thus we are taking the organization of the traditional music masterclass as a means of addressing a pedagogical need for teaching interface design at a distance, rather than face-to-face in a laboratory context, as it would conventionally be taught.

Example from an Intensive Face-to-Face Setting

We consider first a face-to-face example of one form of pedagogy, the music master class. This form is driven by a cycle of performance, critique, and modification. Students come with a prepared piece - a flute concerto or song they have worked on privately - and perform it for an audience of teacher and peers. They receive feedback, incorporate what they can of that feedback in real-time, then receive further feedback on their modification. Everyone may offer suggestions, and all learn from the comments of a knowledgeable audience. Some master classes are one-shot episodes offered by experts in a field while others are an on-going part of a broader curriculum. In our specific example, graduate students in choral conducting participate in an on-going master class as a central part of their curriculum. At each class meeting, a student takes on the role of the conductor, receiving feedback from the teacher and their peers, who collectively form the choir. Consider the following interactions:

Master Class Example #1: Changing Gesture
The singers are out of sync and sing hesitantly
Teacher:Your cut-off in measure 6 didn't set up the next entrance. Try this.(demonstrates)
Conductor:Like this?(tries to copy him, but isn't successful)
Teacher:Let me show you again.(demonstrates)
Conductor:(tries again, unsuccessfully)
Singer #1:You could also do it this way.(demonstrates an alternative)
Teacher:(nods) That would work.
Singer #2:I've also done it like this.(demonstrates)
Teacher:(turns back to student)Now you have three ways to play around with.

Interactions such as these characterize the choral conducting master class, as the conductor responds to the aural feedback of the choir's singing and the verbal feedback of the instructor and peers. This setting embodies and fosters many of the principles of collaborative, reflective learning. The community of learners brings together multiple experiences, since students at the graduate level also conduct university, church, or community ensembles while enrolled in a degree program. The teacher may conduct an ensemble in which these same students sing. These experiences come in to play within the class setting, as not only the instructor but the conductor's peers draw on their own conducting and rehearsal practice to offer suggestions and make connections for the group as whole. The master class thus fosters the development of the individual and creates an opportunity for learning not only through active engagement with the instructor, but through peripheral participation and subsequent reflection (Ruhleder and Stoltzfus, in press).

Master Class Example #2: Recalling Shared Experience
The conductor works on a part of the music very slowly (out of the musical context); the singers have trouble finding the correct pitches
Conductor:OK, out of context it's getting harder, so let's do it in time now.
Singer #3:I ran into a problem like that yesterday, trying to do a part of a piece out of context, and everyone got more and more confused.
Conductor:That's right, but I wanted you to know where those chords are because they become anchors.(refers to key harmonic points in the music)
The conductor continues to rehearse for several minutes
Teacher:What you're doing is good, helping us hear the anchor chords, but there is something that would help at a place like this. Remember how we worked the other day, starting on the chord and going back one note ...

Key Elements of the Master Class

The following aspects of this form of pedagogy inform the ways in which we structure online learning experiences:

Focus on collaborative iteration.
Coursework is often product-driven, culminating in a final paper, presentation, or exam. Here, the focus is on the refinement of an intermediate product, and in particular on a collaborative refinement of that product which makes the next iteration an amalgamation of the experiences and perspectives of multiple participants.

Expectation of development.
Just as there is an expectation of joint shaping of the next step, so there is an expectation that the recipient of feedback will reflect upon it and try to incorporate it into future efforts. This reflection and long-term incorporation must take place outside of class, but is supported by participation in a local community of practice.

Mutual availability of feedback and change.
Unlike settings in which students rarely see each other's work, an open forum such as the master class makes each person's actions available to all other participants. Class participants learn both from their peers' successes and mistakes, with both aspects forming a resource for others to draw upon.

Multiple levels of contribution.
Topics for discussion seamlessly range from specific (change this) to general (here's a principle for something). All comments, however, are made with respect to the activities of a broader community of practice.

Context-based exemplars.
Abstract examples or guidelines are often difficult for novices to understand or engage with. In a practice-based environment, the instructor may both analyze what the student did and contrast it with the desired approach, converging on a better approach in real-time drawing on current, shared experience.

Both instructor and participants may refer to previous students' actions to identify or illustrate concepts under discussion. Thus all performances become resources for the learning of all students. Moreover, participation in the broader activities of a local community of practice make those experiences available for comment and contrast as well.

Finally, it is common practice for classes to be video taped so that participants can review and reflect upon the activity. This tape may also become the focal point for discussion with the instructor, enabling both parties to revisit in-class problems after some distance has been achieve.

These attributes make this form of pedagogy a powerful tool for developing individual talents while collectively exposing participants to a broad range of conducting problems and challenges within the domain. They support learning as a collaborative, reflective, practice-driven activity. In a successful master class, the combination of active and peripheral participation, coupled with participation in broader community activities, creates a rich venue for learning.

Integrating Principles of Face-to-Face Learning into Online Environments

This paper draws on LEEP, an Internet-based Master's degree program in Library and Information Science offered at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Coursework aims at the development of technical and conceptual skills through readings, homework, group projects, and lectures. The venues for distributed interaction are primarily textual, and include both synchronous and asynchronous forums. Instructors use asynchronous and synchronous media to support different forms of discussion. For instance, they post questions about assigned readings to a Web conference, with students posting responses and follow-ups. Instructors broadcast weekly lectures via an audio link by sitting at a computer and speaking into a microphone while presenting overheads through a Web-based interface. Students sit at their own computers watching the overheads on the screen and listening to the lecture through speakers. A concurrently-running chat room provides a forum for students to ask questions, comment, and talk with each other and with the instructor. Multiple chat rooms allow for small group discussions. Students can also "whisper," a function enabling private communication between individuals. Both online technologies and on-campus, face-to-face events help establish and sustain virtual relationships (Haythornthwaite, 1998; Haythornthwaite, 2000).

An Asynchronous Class about Interface Design

The class we use as an example offers an introduction to the process of interface design. The students have a strong interest in helping the users of information systems (paper or electronic) which makes them very interested in the process of improving usability. However, many of them lack technical skills, confidence and especially the experience of the engineering approach of iterative design and user testing (Neilsen, 1993). In a conventional on-campus class, the pedagogical issues would be addressed by individual and group projects in a laboratory style class where the instructor can move round the lab, showing the students how to address particular problems, offering individualized advice and drawing generic lessons from the different projects. Since the students are at a distance, we must think of other ways of addressing the problem. We can take advantage of the support for asynchronous work within the technologies available to allow a more considered approach involving iterative design, evaluation and redesign. Thus we can move from the 'problem' of the lack of same-time same-place interaction to the 'opportunity' of encouraging a process of continual improvement of a piece of work over an extended period, with time to reflect on the current progress and correct earlier errors.

The coursework consists of various design activities including the development of Web pages on a chosen theme (often related to their paid employment) in small groups. The group needs to coordinate their design work, taking into account that group members may be distributed across the U.S., some may be living in other countries, and most have full time jobs as well as other time commitments. Each group member will have a range of skills and prior experience that can add to the group's effectiveness provided that they are able to exploit it. One particularly significant factor is their paid work experience, which can provide insights into different kinds of user need and organizational requirements.

The first draft of each group's Web page is posted to a Web-based computer conference and all students are required to comment on the designs, addressing issues of usability and how this may be improved, preferably at low cost. The instructor also adds comments, and comments on the comments of the students. For instance, consider the following set of comments posted in response to one group's Web design. Each represents an individual post to the class Web conference, listed in temporal order for the convenience of presentation:

Online Class Example #1: The Bullet point debate
Posted by:Content
Student #1The only thing that concerned me was the use of several font types. I remember reading somewhere that you should never use more than three font types on a page. I counted four (not that I am saying - YOU HAVE USED ONE MORE THAN ALLOWED!) but the one that drew my attention to this fact is the one used for "Questions" that has so many different fonts in one line. It hurt my eyes to look at. With the drastic colors I could barely bring myself to read it.
Designer:The typeface for "Banned Books" and "Questions & Notes" is called "ransom", and is made to look like each letter is cut out from a newspaper like a ransom note (all-in-all, we only used 2 fonts on that page - arial & ransom). We liked how it looked for "Banned Books", but I agree with you, it's a bit much to see it used for "Questions & Notes" as well. We were just going for continuity. We'll try switching to "arial" and see if that's a little easier on the eye.
Student #2:Suggestions -
Red for the header and links is a bit hard on the eye.
Topic headings should not be the same color as the links at the top of the page because they aren't links.
Break up your text with more text or bullet points.
Student #3:I second previous suggestions to present your analysis with more white space, bullets and a different color for visited links. Because your links stay red, I keep losing my place and rereading what I've already read.
Student #4:I like the style of your narrative, and didn't really mind that it wasn't bulletted for easier reading.
Student #5:Well, I suppose I'm becoming an advocate for bullet points. Or maybe I'm just obsessed with navigation bars. I printed out your page and read it offline, the full paragraph/narrative style was actually pleasing at first. But I must admit that when I went back to the computer, I got a little lost trying to track down all of your links.
Student #6:I loved the narrative quality to this site - the way the authors talked us through the processes of site selection, the change of opinions over sites, the before and after ... It would certainly be possible to enumerate the points a little more, thus making the page more 'list-like' (as with bullets or something) and scannable. However, I thought that the order and text flow was very nice, as was your whole design in general.
Teacher:A classic example of the difficulties of designing for at least two different kinds of use. If only all users were the same and did the same thing all the time life would be so much easier ...

The designs are incrementally revised in the light of this ongoing feedback. However, the groups are required to keep copies of the earlier versions of their designs and construct a brief narrative describing how and why their design has evolved (a form of design rationale), as well as responding to the comments of their peers. As intended, many of the suggestions are mutually contradictory, even though quite plausible. This is due to the multi-factoral nature of design. For example, one comment may be about a way of making the home page easier to use for the initial visitor, while another contradictory suggestion is aimed at helping the returning visitor. Part of the aim of the course is to help students realize how to address multiple goals and to make trade-off decisions.

Key Elements of the Online Class

Unlike the conducting master class, the focus is not on live performance (although design under tight time constraints is important). Hence an asynchronous approach is appropriate. In this way, the use of Web pages for the design makes it easy to interweave text and URLs into a discussion. For example, a student may make a suggestion about a design improvement and include an active link to an external Web page that illustrates the point. Nevertheless, drawing on the above framework, we see that this virtual classroom incorporates many of the aspects of a master class:

Focus on collaborative iteration.
Rather than privileging one voice, student and instructor comments jointly help teams improve their Web designs over time through both incremental change (tweaking) and radical redesign. Students can see how their suggestions to a group lead to future redesigns, emphasizing the importance and significance of their contributions as more that gaining a 'class participation' mark.

Expectation of development.
The first posting or presentation of one's work is not the last - contributors of comments expect them to be reflected in future versions, or at least expect the developers to consider and reject them with good reason.

Mutual availability of feedback and change.
Not only does everyone see participants' Web site designs when they are posted, but all are privy to everyone's comments and responses as they unfold over the course of the class. The instructor may make comments to one group, but emphasize that the issue (e.g. that one has to cope with contradictory design goals) applies to many other groups and cases.

Multiple levels of contribution.
Suggestions focus on both specific elements (such as the names of buttons) and broader principles (such as improving navigability). Suggestions may also be from the perspective of an understanding of design (citing an earlier class reading about minimizing font use) or the reactions of an end user (personal preferences, reactions, and experiences with using the site such as printing it to read later).

Context-based exemplars.
Discussion of theory is driven by concrete exemplars to which everyone has the same access. The existence of several examples of ongoing design permits a discussion of abstract concepts of the design process to be more easily distinguished from the unique aspects of any particular design challenge.

Both instructor and students may refer to any student Web page and any of the Web conference postings when making comments and comparisons. Indeed, any page on the Web as a whole may be cited as an illustration of good or bad practice. Since both the design and the discussion of the design are available for examination, it is easier to talk about both the design and the design process.

Comments and postings remain available and become archived, making it possible to revisit them when making revisions. This means that it is possible to directly compare multiple design options that have been tried in order to assess whether the proposed improvement, when realized, did in fact turn out to be useful.

One key result is that students can get a better sense of the messiness of design. Students unfamiliar with the process are inclined to believe that brilliant ideas spring fully formed out of the minds of good designers, and because they are unable to achieve this, they have no skill in design. This is the kind of thinking that a conventional apprenticeship learning environment would work against through peripheral participation. In its absence, therefore, we need other mechanisms like the one described above to make practice publicly accessible.

By making the process public, students realize that their very provisional rough ideas are entirely normal, and that the iterative, collaborative development process can work for them. Concepts such as the inevitability of trade-offs, and multiple conflicting goals become much clearer when put into practice. They can see the rough draft that they just posted evolving in light of the comments received on their design. And, perhaps more importantly, they can see the same happening with others' designs over time, emphasizing that the iterative nature of this work is to be expected, and that no one posts the perfect design the first time around. Rather, the process is key as the integration of multiple ideas leads to a stronger collaboratively-achieved design.

The asynchronous nature of this exercise makes it possible to link discussion back to prior readings, and for discussion of subsequent readings to point to examples directly experienced in the design exercise. The fact that other groups' designs have been publicly discussed increases the number of examples that students have immediate experience of. This again is a useful pedagogic device.

We can consider much of pedagogy as a way of attempting to accelerate the kind of learning that arises naturally from the accumulation of direct experience and its analysis, something that is very powerful but unfortunately rather slow. The public experience of multiple attempts, as in the conducting master class, also serves to reassure students that all the others are struggling as well. This analysis has many parallels with the work on teleapprenticeships (Levin & Waugh, 1998) vicarious learning (McKendree et al., 1998), and the ways in which online learning communities foster and sustain long-term collaborative learning (Bruckman, 1998; O'Day et al., 1998).

Implications for Design and Implementation

The master class approach raises many interesting issues for the design of technologies to support the process. Asynchronous technologies such as Web-based computer conferences are not merely an efficient way of disseminating the product of individual and group work, but are used make the process of the construction of that work more visible. By requiring students to preserve and make available earlier versions, we obtain a visible history that can serve as a means of reification in subsequent discussions of the design process. The relative ease of electronic copying makes this much easier than in a paper-based context. Nevertheless, tools derived from work on version control in software engineering could be developed to ease the inevitable confusions that can arise for student designers attempting to juggle the display of multiple iterations of an evolving design. Such tools should help both students and instructor to track how a design has evolved over time.

Similarly, just as video recording and playback is sometimes used in live master classes to further the reflection process, we can begin to consider technologies to enhance this process in the distance learning context. Since so much of text-based interactions and ancillary materials are already stored and available, it would be useful to have mechanisms for the instructor to be able to search more effectively for useful cases. We especially need to develop efficient responsive mechanisms that enable instructors to draw on this body of materials both when working in an asynchronous mode and when interacting in a real-time online classroom context or in private remote consultation with individual or teams.

Clearly the most direct application of the master class approach in distance learning would be by use of synchronous technologies to allow instructor and students to see each other's 'performances'. We have focused instead on a case of asynchronous learning to emphasize that key aspects of the master class approach can be adapted to that format as well. Additionally, we wish to emphasize its applicability to conceptual learning of a subject that has a strong engineering flavor, not only to the traditional case of real-time performance and development of artistic skills.

Currently, "live" LEEP classes are still very instructor-focused by virtue of the available technologies. The instructor broadcasts to the class by speaking into a microphone in her location while students listening to the broadcast in their own remote locations via their computer speakers, interacting with the instructor and other students via a chat room). In one example, for instance, everyone called up the same Web page in their browser. The instructor gave a verbal commentary (think aloud protocol) of his reasoning as he tried to use the Web site to find answers to certain questions. The students could follow along, exploring the site themselves and asking questions about his choices. More sophisticated technologies, however, would help move this format closer to a true "master class" model of equal participation and on-going collaborative learning.

Any master class, real or virtual, requires a strong, mutually supportive atmosphere if students are to feel confident enough to benefit from the process. Making one's preliminary and intermediate efforts public requires trust in the reactions of the rest of the learning community, instructor and other students. In the case of distributed, Internet-based learning, this requires considerable background effort not just by the instructor but also the entire team involved in the whole distance learning experience. While an individual instructor still sets the tone of a class, the broader LEEP infrastructure and approach to pedagogy supports those who wish to use this online environment as a way to open up the classroom and create opportunities for collaborative learning (Estabrook, 1999).

LEEP technologies are configured to afford open access to all materials for all participants, and to all forums for discussion. Instructors and staff must work to create a supportive atmosphere to the participants who are widely separated and lack the shared experiences of students living in the same college community and holding on-campus assistantships (Ruhleder, 1999). This work includes the provision of active technological, pedagogical, and even emotional support (Preece, 1998) for students who may feel geographically and socially isolated in their studies. These students may find studying from home difficult, where other claims on their time are always more visible than when they are seated in a classroom, and other forms of engagement are required of them (Estabrook, 1999).

We believe that continued development and implementation of technologies that are grounded in the "master class" view outlined above are essential if we are to exploit the opportunities of distributed education. Specially-designed technologies can continue to support increasingly robust forms of interaction. More importantly, however, if developed with the appropriate pedagogical models in mind, they will not only provide a means for engagement, but will couple this with the ability to link to early interactions, to draw in materials, and to reflect on and learn from this shared, distributed experience. As such, these technologies serve not merely as a communication device to attempt to widen the bandwidth challenge of distance education and work, nor as automated components designed to interact with learners in specific ways. Instead, they are to be used to create a robust and supportive learning environment driven by a collection of human user with a shared set of learning goals in mind (Lajoie and Derry, 1993).


Interest around distance education ranges from administrative concern over the delivery of a virtual "product" in a cost effective manner, to deep questions about building on the affordances of a broad range of new technologies. We are concerned about the latter and, in particular, in drawing on both face-to-face and distance settings in our own practice-driven reflective activity. Our goal is to develop the potential for computer supported learning to integrate the successes of face-to-face settings while elaborating on their best aspects in ways specifically suited to distributed environments.

For instance, unlike a regular face to face class, an online class gets a record of its activity for free. This opens up new possibilities for a reification of the learning process. Reproducibility makes it much easier to discuss what has been done in the past, allowing students to re-read and refer to earlier discussions. This reification provides one avenue for discovering relevant and authentic examples of an abstract concept under discussion. This affords students the ability to not only contribute to the learning of the group, but to develop a sense of their own learning progress. In conventional classes such environments must be actively constructed.

Electronic settings are often already set up to exploit this and other features. Their incorporation, however, needs to be driven by the development of collaborative distance pedagogy based on our established understanding of successful pedagogical approaches. Drawing on a diverse range of current successful pedagogies, including and beyond the master class format outlined above, can serve as a useful starting point for the design of new educational approaches and the technologies that can support them.


This paper is partially draw from work supported by NSF Grant IRI-9712421 and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

About the Authors

Karen Ruhleder is Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Michael Twidale is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


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Editorial history

Paper received 4 April 2000; accepted 16 April 2000.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Reflective Collaborative Learning on the Web: Drawing on the Master Class by Karen Ruhleder and Michael Twidale
First Monday, volume 5, number 5 (May 2000)