First Monday

Transparency as a catalyst for interaction and participation in open learning environments by Thomas P. Mackey

This paper argues that transparency promotes interactivity and participation in collaborative Web 2.0 learning environments. Teaching with transparency requires a learner–centered pedagogy for research, writing, and the production of new knowledge in open communities. Transparency is a catalyst for interaction and participation that supports open learning in multiple disciplines and institutional contexts. Transparent design influences the development of wikis, Open Educational Resources (OERs), and mobile applications. The wiki is a flexible, social, and easy to use technology for collaborative authorship and for sharing information. OERs are transparent educational materials for teaching and learning and mobile technologies expand the scope of when and how transparent learning takes place.


A model for transparent design
Literature review
Designing for transparency




Transparency promotes interactive, participatory, and reflective spaces for creating and communicating information in collaborative Web 2.0 environments. Transparent wikis advance the use of such varied resources as online course readings, digital library materials, user–generated content, and a full range of social media applications. Open Educational Resources (OERs) are reusable educational materials in multiple digital formats that support informal and formal learning in face–to–face, blended, and online settings. Mobile learning expands interactive and participatory education through a portable social network. The revolutions we have seen in Web 2.0, social media, and mobile applications enhance openness and collaboration. In turn, the process of designing for transparency requires a critical understanding of content creation and use, what constitutes an open online learning environment, and how to make these spaces meaningful in educational contexts.

Wikipedia is the most successful wiki project to date, but the potential for open learning extends beyond this one encyclopedia format to OERs, social media, and mobile learning. Although Wikipedia is a global information source based on collaborative writing and editing, the anonymity of authorship in this environment has raised questions about the extent to which this particular wiki is fully transparent (Santana and Wood, 2010). Wikipedia is generally used by students for background information on a research topic (Head and Eisenberg, 2010), and not as a medium for collaborative authorship and editing. Some instructors, however, have included Wikipedia writing into courses to improve student research skills and critical thinking abilities (Reilly, 2011). Considerable research has focused on the authenticity, reliability, and credibility of Wikipedia (Chesney, 2006; Giles, 2005; Lim, 2010; Luyt and Tan, 2010; Rand, 2010; Suh, et al., 2008). In addition, Wikipedia has been discussed as a transparent medium (Santana and Wood, 2010; Suh, et al., 2008), and a resource for open access (Willinsky, 2007). The primary emphasis in the literature on the authority of information, however, does not address transparency as an impetus for interaction and participation in open educational environments or as a transformative element in the learning process. While much of the literature related to Wikipedia often focuses on the challenges of authenticity and reliability, especially related to academic integrity issues, this perspective does not contribute to a coherent understanding of why or how openness allows people to work together in meaningful ways online.

Teachers and learners have access to many resources for active wiki development including PBworks, Wikia, and Wikispaces. Learning management systems (LMS) use wiki features for instructors to implement wiki assignments in blended and fully online courses. Increasingly, we see the availability of wiki tools in mobile applications such as Mobile Wikipedia. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO, 2011), “Open Educational Resources are teaching, learning or research materials that are in the public domain or released with an intellectual property license that allows for free use, adaptation, and distribution.” As an emerging trend in open learning OERs are supported by UNESCO, the Hewlett Foundation, and the OER Foundation as a method for extending educational opportunities worldwide. The work of the OER Foundation is demonstrated in WikiEducator, a collaborative online resource for teachers and scholars in a participatory Web 2.0 format. Further, the OER university is an emerging partnership among open universities for creating and sharing credible and assessable open learning resources globally. The future progress of OERs will depend on our understanding of the relationship between transparency and pedagogy in Web 2.0 and mobile environments.

As this article will demonstrate, transparency is critical to the design of dynamic open learning spaces to enhance the way learners interact and contribute online. Transparency encourages collaborative authoring with social media but this process involves learner centered pedagogy and strategic curricular design to be successful. The first main section of this essay, A model for transparent design, will adapt Yochai Benkler’s theory for analyzing communications systems to open learning. This section will describe Benkler’s layers (physical, content, and logical) as a transparent Venn diagram (Figure 1). Once this model for transparent design has been introduced, the Literature review will examine transparency through several subsections including Open learning, Systems transparency, Transparency and Web 2.0, Learning transparency, and Wiki transparency. The literature review will examine trends in open learning and show how transparency has changed over time from an emphasis on the individual and the interface to multiple users and social technologies. In addition, the literature review informs the next major section entitled Designing for transparency that defines eight essential elements of transparent design, including: flexibility, interactivity, fluidity, visualization, collaboration, production, publishing, and distribution. Specific examples and suggestions for teaching with each characteristic will be described. As the OER movement gains momentum as a global effort in open and distance learning, and as the wiki evolves into a resource for interaction and communication and not just an online encyclopedia for creating and searching content, issues surrounding open learning and technology are especially relevant.



A model for transparent design

As part of his discussion of an information commons in The Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler described three essential layers for all communications systems: physical, content, and logical. According to Benkler, all three layers are constantly at play or as he suggested at battle in the information environment, especially related to shifting definitions of copyright, intellectual property, and proprietary interests [1]. Benkler argued that the three layers “are intended to map how different institutional components interact to affect the answer to the basic questions that define the normative characteristics of a communications system — who gets to say what, to whom, and who decides” [2]. Lawrence Lessig visualized the layers further in his description of one layer mapped over the other in all communications systems. He described the physical layer at the bottom of this framework, including the computers and network infrastructure of the communications system [3]. Today’s mobility expands this layer further with mobile devices such as smart phones, electronic books, digital tablets, and mobile media players. Lessig mapped the logical layer or what he described as “the code layer” over the technology infrastructure of the physical layer [4]. In Web 2.0 settings the logical or code layer is more transparent than ever since blogs, wikis, social media, and social networking resources allow for instant access to online and mobile tools for the creation and distribution of original information. Lessig discussed the third content layer as “the actual stuff that gets said or transmitted across the wires” [5]. For both Benkler and Lessig, these three main layers define how an information system works, and describe the tensions at play when trying to create an information commons, where content is freely produced and shared. Benkler argued that “at all these layers, a series of battles is being fought over the degree to which some minimal set of basic resources and capabilities necessary to use and participate in constructing the information environment will be available for use on a nonproprietary, nonmarket basis.” [6]. Lessig asserted that, “each of these layers in principle could be controlled or could be free” and to be aware of a range of possibilities that combine controlled and free layers for the most effective communications system [7]. The degree to which any information and communications system is transparent depends on the extent to which these three layers interrelate and are open to the user or participant, allowing for active engagement within an open community and the production and distribution of digital materials.

By envisioning the three components of this model as a transparent Venn diagram (Figure 1), rather than layers, we see the intersections of the physical, content, and logical components in communications systems. It is through these permeable connections in an open system that transparency promotes an interactive and participatory experience for the user. For instance, we see this model in action when participants access an open blog via a Web browser or wireless device (physical layer). The blogger adds text, links, or embedded video to a posting with a point and click graphical user interface (GUI) that generates Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML) in the background (code layer). User–generated content is created and posted instantly and followers of the blog respond with comments (content layer). The open blog promotes exchange and dialogue from users and followers through an ongoing intersection of these three transparent components. According to Benkler, “Through these twin characteristics — transparency and participation — the networked information economy also creates greater space for critical evaluation of cultural materials and tools. The practice of producing culture makes us all more sophisticated readers, viewers, and listeners, as well as more engaged makers” [8]. In this context Benkler described transparent design as an impetus for critical thinking and as a means for the production of cultural materials as active participants. Transparency is intertwined with participation in open systems that actively engage users. According to Benkler:

Greater transparency is also a necessary element in, and a consequence of, collaborative action, as various participants either explicitly, or through negotiating the divergence of their nonexplicit different perspectives, come to a clearer statement of their assumptions, so that these move from the background to the fore, and become more amenable to examination and revision. [9]

As contributors actively engage in open systems, the process of collaboration itself is further enhanced. The openness of the system allows for a free exchange of ideas that moves the areas of common agreement and difference of opinion among participants to the forefront. We have seen this dynamic at work in Web 2.0 and social media resources, such as blogs, wikis, and micro blogging, where users actively engage with others through shared platforms. This has led to the formation of like–minded online communities as well as contentious debate over a range of political, social, and popular culture issues. While transparent systems create opportunities for collaboration, the development of meaningful partnerships is not automatic and requires ongoing dialogue and learning about how to effectively engage. This has implications for educators as we incorporate Web 2.0 and social media into our learning environments and as we design curriculum with an emphasis on participation and collaboration.


Figure 1: Benkler's layers as a transparent Venn diagram
Figure 1: Benkler’s layers as a transparent Venn diagram.


Benkler’s analysis of communications systems provides a useful framework for a discussion of transparency as a catalyst for interaction and participation in open learning communities. The three layers he described as primary for all information and communications systems outline a basic framework for open learning. The intersections of the physical, content, and logical layers create open systems for individual and collaborative contributions. The physical and logical or code layers are always evolving in emerging learning environments where the technology infrastructure and coding practices are in constant flux and continue to advance rapidly. The content layer in transparent systems presents us with particular challenges because it shifts users from a reliance on individual ownership to collaborative authorship, which is not a routine process even in open spaces. The tools for collaboration are critically important but we also need to develop an open pedagogy that advances with the transparent systems. Content formats continue to change as well, moving beyond text to include digital images, audio, video, multimedia, and digital artifacts created or found in virtual worlds, such as Second Life. Interestingly, Web 2.0 has shifted access to these layers from computing or technology experts (programmers and Web developers) to users with immediate access to social Web sites and mobile devices for generating code and developing content instantly either individually or in collaboration with others.

Transparency encourages self–directed learning and multiple methods for producing, publishing and distributing content to the Web and via mobile applications. The collaborative aspects of Web 2.0 resources such as blogs and wikis, in which many users contribute to or edit the same page or pages, creates instant peer–to–peer opportunities for authorship, content management, critical thinking, and the visualization of ideas. The peer review process for creating and editing learner–generated content is supported by the ability to link to and comment on shared online resources. Similarly, the emergence of OERs as cooperative materials for producing and sharing knowledge in open spaces for access to everyone requires a collective commitment to the development of dynamic digital resources. Transparency promotes sharing and producing documents online in a seamless way rather than focusing on the mechanics of Web design with HTML code and Web editors. We have seen a significant change from the static Web that required HTML coding to produce and publish information online, to Web 2.0 formats with GUIs for the creation and distribution of content. This change has enhanced transparency by opening the logical or coding layer to users through informal interfaces. As a result, transparency of the user interface has opened up course time, in class and online, for the exploration of disciplinary and interdisciplinary studies, as well as emerging technologies, rather than how to code a Web page. Transparency shifts priorities from technical skills development to critical thinking and collaborative active learning. In addition, transparent design provides opportunities for peer learning and engagement with a larger community beyond a course, while blurring the lines between teacher and learner. For instance, a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) allows several instructors from different institutions to engage with an expansive community beyond the course who may be students, professionals, faculty or lifelong learners from around the world (Cormier and Siemens, 2010). The MOOC is an open learning environment that combines multiple Web 2.0 technologies and encourages cooperative involvement among participants through curricular and systems transparency.

Now that a model for transparent design has been established based on Benkler’s layers, this next section will review the literature to summarize key developments in open learning and to see how the concept of transparency has evolved from individual to open and collaborative practices. This literature review also informs the section that follows, Designing for transparency, that defines eight characteristics of transparent design.



Literature review

A review of the literature provides a context for open learning and transparency. This discussion of openness in educational systems, from computers to social media, identifies eight common characteristics of transparent design. Each characteristic illustrates the intersection of Benkler’s layers or components (content, physical, and code) and demonstrates the ways transparency promotes interactivity and participation.

Open learning

Trends in open learning continue to advance, especially with the ongoing development of Web 2.0 and social media, which provide innovative and revolutionary methods for creating and sharing content. According to Paine (1988) open learning is defined “as both a process which focuses on access to educational opportunities and a philosophy which makes learning more client and student centred” [10]. This is a dual dynamic that addresses open access to education and a learner centered approach to teaching that could be applied to multiple formats, included face–to–face, blended and online. UNESCO (n.d.) defined open learning as “instructional systems in which many facets of the learning process are under the control of the learner.” In this description, the system is flexible and open enough to allow the learner to be at the center and to be able to make decisions about their own education. According to UNESCO, open learning “attempts to deliver learning opportunities where, when, and how the learner needs them,” which in today’s context must allow for learning in classrooms, online, and increasingly through mobile devices. Roger Lewis (2002) emphasized the importance of learner choice and the ability to gain knowledge in a variety of situations, unbound by time or place. He argued that: “choice could be over the context in which learners studied: time, place and pace of learning; or over matters closer to the curriculum itself, such as content, learning method or nature of assessment” (Lewis, 2002). By making these elements transparent, we open learning through the mode of delivery, the options available to students, and the integration of curriculum and assessment strategies.

Terry Anderson’s discussion of open education focused on the ways in which this approach to teaching, “addresses the needs of learners who for one reason or another do not fit the classic mould of higher education” [11]. This population includes adult learners who may be returning to college after years of work and family responsibilities, or it may include traditional age students who prefer an online delivery mode or the chance for independent study and reflection. Anderson also emphasized the need for open and online institutions to “provide a greater degree of flexibility for students” which allows for independence and choice in the learning experience [12]. In open learning, educators combine open access with learner choice about content, curriculum, and assessment. Transparent design fosters learning environments that are open, flexible, and adaptable to trends in new technologies.

Dave Cormier and George Siemens (2010) described the benefits of online open courses, arguing that, “open courses offer a new possible future for those of us in higher education — a value choice that promotes collaboration, responsibility, and a commitment to seeing that we can accomplish our goals together.” For Cormier and Siemens this work promotes innovation and takes place at many levels, opening up course content to large communities in MOOCs while encouraging contact with students and opportunities for interaction among peers with social media. According to Cormier and Siemens (2010), “openness in practice requires little additional investment, since it essentially concerns transparency of already planned course activities on the part of the educator”. Open education provides effective and innovative resources for learning while offering colleges and universities freely available alternatives to proprietary technologies.

The emergence of OERs as relevant and potentially transformative tools for learning depends upon the pedagogical and technological evolution of these resources. According to Candace Thille, “the next step in the revolutionary potential of the OER movement is in using technology to make instruction, as well as materials, accessible to the widest possible audience of learners and, at the same time, improve teaching and learning” [13]. This approach requires an active role for OERs in teaching practices rather than in the design of a passive repository of information to simply search and access content. Transparency promotes interactive and participatory learning by encouraging dialogue and the sharing of materials and practices, requiring us to examine what constitutes transparent design and how we think about learning in these contexts.

Systems transparency

Maass defined systems transparency as a response to the “extremely inflexible” aspect of computers that “force the human user to a strictly formal communicating behavior” [14]. Transparency enhances the agility of an interface and makes it easier for users to solve problems and to communicate [15]. Maass (1983) described communication between user and machine based on standardized and consistent conventions such as syntax, functions, processes, language, and commands. The author defined transparent systems as primarily between individual users and computers, not among multiple users in a networked collaborative environment. Factors such as usability, problem–solving, and communication are evident in wiki and OER spaces as well and impact the extent to which information is created and shared by individuals and teams.

Jakob Nielsen (1992) argued that transparency is a relationship between “what you want to do and what you can do” rather than “transforming real world objects and operations to computer–oriented objects and actions”. He defined this process as a dialogue between user and interface in which the typical “computer–oriented concepts” disappear in the process and are not visible to the user (Nielsen, 1992). In his discussion of multimedia authoring, Nielsen argued for “having as transparent authoring tools as possible so that authors are allowed to focus on the task of communicating their domain knowledge to the readers” [16]. This view recognizes hypertext and multimedia environments as user–centered author spaces for communication. Transparency enhances this process, especially from a writer’s perspective because current Web 2.0 tools are generally user friendly. For example, wikis provide users with the ability to write text, create hypertext links, upload digital images, and add plug–ins. At the same time, however, Nielsen did not fully address the collaborative potential of the systems he described or the relationship between collaboration and transparency, which are essential considerations for open learning spaces.

Systems transparency has also been discussed in relation to 3D interfaces in which “transparency requires some compromise between obtaining visibility and maintaining context” [17]. According to Colin Ware, “in a data exploration interface, it is important that the mapping between the data and its visual representation be fluid and dynamic” [18]. He described the “perception of transparency” in relation to “overlapping data” and argued that, “transparency is perceived only when good continuity is present” [19]. Ware provided an example of transparency in his discussion of pop–up menus. He argued that, “one possible application of transparency in user interfaces is to make pop–up menus transparent so that they do not interfere with information located behind them” [20]. In this instance, the layering of one information source over the other would be improved upon by decreasing the visibility of the top layer to enhance the clarity of bottom layer, creating a merge of both sources of visual information. Wikis and OERs are highly visual and multi–layered documents that combine such elements as text, images, and links to internal or external resources. Open learning environments are effective when the visual aspects are well organized and clear, adding to the continuity of the user experience.

Much of the literature related to user–centered design described systems transparency as part of an interactive process that provides users with ease of access to visual and textual information through many different interface types. The body of work in this area is extensive and often referred to Rutkowksi (1982) who originally described transparency as a relationship between user and interface in which the tool itself becomes less apparent to the user, allowing for a greater emphasis on content or communication [21]. This approach is similarly applied to social media because these resources are open for individuals to produce, upload, and share content. For instance, the wiki, if designed well, is a fluid, ever–changing environment that is continuously altered through user development. The clarity of the medium allows for a constant flow of information that changes the visual aspect of the presentation space. At the same time, we must expand upon Rutkowski’s (1982) definition because Web 2.0 involves the interaction of multiple users in a collaborative network, not just individual contributions. In addition, social media expands our understanding of systems transparency beyond the experience of expert programmers and information technology professionals to novice users with minimal or no systems design experience.

Transparency and Web 2.0

O’Reilly (2005) defined Web 2.0 as a user–centered platform and transparency as a characteristic of the collaborative Web environment. He described peer–to–peer file sharing in which “every client is also a server; files are broken up into fragments that can be served from multiple locations, transparently harnessing the network of downloaders to provide both bandwidth and data to other users” (O’Reilly, 2005). In this context, the communication between user and computer extends to a collaborative group of contributors within a computer network. This is a significant shift from a primary emphasis on the user and the interface alone and reflects the influence of social communities in Web 2.0.

The Organisation for Economic Co–operation and Development (OECD) described the social aspects of transparent user–centered design in a range of Web 2.0 tools. For instance, the OECD states that “blogs, social networking sites, and virtual worlds can be used for engaging electors, exchanging views, provoking debate and sharing information on societal and political questions” [22]. Based on this perspective, transparent collaborative systems impact the openness of government, politics, and society. According to the OECD, as emerging de–centered technologies take shape: “the political debate, transparency and also certain ‘watchdog’ functions may be enhanced on their way to a more critical and self–reflective culture” [23]. We have seen this dynamic in WikiLeaks, an open wiki that has pushed the bounds of public access to information by publishing classified government documents, creating international debate and controversy over what type of information should be openly available online (Greenberg, 2010; Schmitt, 2010). Although serious questions have been raised about the origins of the information made available through WikiLeaks, the process of disclosure has sparked intense public debate and offered new insights on recent political and historical events. In addition, while the openness of social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook have been discussed as possible factors in democratic revolutions in the Middle East, this assumption has also been challenged (Morozov, 2011; Wilson Quarterly, 2011). Evgeny Morozov (2011), for example, has argued for a critical perspective on the role the Internet has played in social and political uprisings, asserting that leadership and constitutional reforms on the ground are more important than social media activity online [24].

In a 2008 survey of experts in the field, The Pew Internet and American Life Project addressed the issue of social and systems transparency, and suggested a somewhat divided vision related to these issues. The overall finding was that “the transparency of people and organizations will increase, but that will not necessarily yield more personal integrity, social tolerance, or forgiveness” [25]. The Pew study suggested that while the respondents expect social and systems transparency to continue over time, the possible influence this may have on users and society is uncertain. Still, within a Web framework, the openness of systems is related to the openness of society itself and how people use technology in communication with one another and as a collaborative practice. In a follow–up report, Marcell Bullinga predicted that “In the future, we will live in a transparent 3D mobile media cloud that surrounds us everywhere,” extending the reach of transparency beyond the Web to mobile devices and cloud computing [26].

In a social media environment user–centered design expands the scope of a single user and machine to a collaborative space for the participatory exchange of ideas. Transparency enhances the usability of technology, while opening dialogue among a wider group with impact on politics and public discourse. At the same time we need to be careful to avoid uncritical assumptions about the direct relationship between these technological factors and social change.

Learning transparency

Transparency promotes the way information is constructed or reviewed and also includes the ways in which learning is transformed in this process. According to George Siemens (2009), “when someone decides to share their thoughts and ideas in a transparent manner, they become a teacher to those who are observing”. Siemens defined a key shift in the traditional roles between teacher and learner through an active learning pedagogy. He argued that, “Social technology — such as Twitter, blogs, Facebook — opens the door to sharing the process of learning, not only the final product” (Siemens, 2009). In these environments, the social dimension of each interface is transparent, extending beyond any traditional learning space and allowing for dialogue among peers, and between the teacher and learner in new ways. Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, micro blogs such as Twitter, wikis and social media expand learning spaces beyond the confines of traditional classrooms and the LMS. Open learning creates a community of peers and places the learner in contact with experts in the field who blog or tweet about scholarly or topical issues. The learner is also free to share observations and to contribute based on an ongoing dialogue with others and through independent or collaborative research online. The instructor is an active agent in this process, facilitating an interactive conversation through transparent technologies that encourage dialogue at multiple levels, among peers, between teacher and learner, and with external audiences or communities.

Wiki transparency

As a flexible open editing format for collaborative authorship, the wiki has been described as a transparent Web 2.0 medium. Braun and Schmidt analyzed the social dimension of Wikipedia within the context of “knowledge maturing theory” and argued, “transparency also helps to socialize new community members by showing them how collaboration actually works and which form of behavior is acceptable” [27]. They concluded that “instruments should not be the result of technical design, but rather of social negotiation” and that collaboration should not be held back by technology [28]. Suh, et al. examined Wikipedia from the perspective of information reliability and found that “improving social transparency can increase the ability of readers to use the histories of writers to judge the quality of the content, and also possibly encourage writers to be more responsible” [29]. They proposed a visualization tool in WikiDashboard that tracks editing changes in Wikipedia and enhanced participation through an improvement in accountability and trust [30].

Transparency has been identified as a characteristic of course wikis in multiple disciplines. For example, in reflecting on a Web–based course environment that includes a wiki component, Miettinen, et al. (2005) argued that, “transparency implies that the community members should be able to see the activities taking place in the system, benefit from the activities, and participate in meaningful ways” [31]. They found that the wiki promotes collaborative writing and annotation in a computer science course taught online. Carr, et al. described the use of a wiki for collaborative writing in an undergraduate political science course in South Africa. They argued that, “the use of a wiki for collaborative writing can provide the transparency of process required to support the negotiation of meaning in shaping an emerging text” [32]. The authors found that wiki transparency provided opportunities for instructors to provide early feedback to students but that some students resisted sharing drafts of their writing [33].

Lundin (2008) examined the use of wikis to support writing instruction within an integrated social framework she described as “networked pedagogy”. She argued that “wiki use could encourage change in our approaches to writing,” especially through writing with new media and “deep collaboration” as a shared, social practice [34]. Clougherty and Wells concluded that the wiki “is essentially a communication tool” that increased “student performance skills, such as critical thinking and peer review” in a graduate–level chemistry course that employed problem–based learning (PBL) assignments [35]. In this course context, the openness of the wiki format allowed students to participate in the peer review process over time and to identify plagiarism in team projects [36]. Mackey and McLaughlin (2008) described the implementation of a collaborative wiki project in a first–year honors course about social and community informatics that integrated information literacy, service learning, and oral discourse. Within this context, students used the wiki to share reflections about experiential learning and to prepare for in–class presentations, although it was difficult to reach common agreement about how to use the wiki for collaborative writing and editing.

Students working in wikis create content in a transparent medium that reveals the writing and design processes. The wiki is an open visual space for collaboration and peer review that promotes co–authorship at multiple levels, from coding, to text, to design. Transparency allows authors to embed external resources within the same page or site and to expand social networks. It supports individual and collaborative authorship and promotes the production of original content by student authors. Wiki users are challenged to think beyond the mechanics of Web design to consider relationships among course content, production, layout and design, integrated resources, as well as the presentation of these materials in class and online. At the same time, wikis require students to learn about successful collaborative practices for content creation and to understand the proper attribution of sources in the development of original research pages and projects. The transparency of the medium makes it more challenging for students to differentiate reliable sources of information and to know when and how to attribute in this open context, although this factor also presents an opportunity for learner centered editing and peer review. Further, while students actively engage in social media and social networking environments, the co–creation of knowledge in educational contexts requires an understanding of effective collaborative practices and successful team–based outcomes.



Designing for transparency

In an effort to better understand transparency and its relationship to open learning, we need to identify the common elements of transparent design and how to best utilize these characteristics in open education. This summary is based on a review of the literature and includes a definition of each term with specific illustrative examples (see Table 1). While each example is used here to demonstrate one specific feature, transparent systems integrate several or all of the characteristics in a unified design, reflecting the ongoing intersection of Benkler’s layers at the physical, logical, and content levels (Figure 1). Through the combination of each layer or component, transparency is enhanced promoting interactivity and participation in open communities.


Table 1: Characteristics of transparent design.
CharacteristicDefinitionOpen environment
FlexibilityTransparency is based on flexible and easy to use systems that encourage user–centered activity and play, promoting learners as active researchers and producers of original content. Open learning takes place in action and on the fly in easily adaptable spaces.


OpenCourseWare Consortium


InteractivityTransparent systems are highly interactive, enhancing communication and collaboration among users, building cooperation among participants and the sharing of information and ideas. In open learning spaces interactivity enhances learner choice and the ability to freely dialogue with peers, the instructor, and through a learning community that extends beyond the traditional course structure.

African Virtual University OER

African Virtual University via Twitter

Wikia Community Central


FluidityIn a transparent system the interface is less obvious to users, allowing for a free flow of ideas among learners, enhancing the ability to interact with peers and create learning objects in an environment where the system itself does not get in the way of teamwork, writing, research, production, and design. Open learning is enhanced through a fluid dialogue among users and the ability to produce materials and to easily move content in a seamless interface.

OER Commons

OER Commons Wiki

PLENK 2010


Change MOOC

VisualizationTransparent systems are highly visual, mapping multiple layers of data, merging texts with images, advancing user–centered actions through tool bars with visual icons, or touch screen functionality. Visualization in open learning environments encourages users to easily manipulate a range of media in individualized spaces including images, texts, and found resources.

OpenCourseWare Consortium on YouTube

OpenLearn on YouTube

Open Learning Network on YouTube

CollaborationTransparent systems blur the lines between individual and community, encouraging teamwork and collaboration, extending learning beyond the classroom and online courses or blending the two, while promoting open content and social contexts for learning. Collaboration is central to all open learning settings, creating a common framework for knowing and avoiding exclusively one–way delivery modes.

Teacher Collaboration via WikiEducator

OER university

OER Foundation

ProductionTransparency provides opportunities for learners to interact with open applications to produce original content in varying formats (text, image, audio, and media). These materials are identified with meta information, including tags, histories, author information, dates, links, and bibliographic entries. Open learning is enhanced through user–generated content that is easy to create, access, identify, attribute, interpret, and manage.

Microbe Wiki


VoiceThread 4 Education wiki

Publishing and distributionTransparent systems advance open publishing and distribution in a range of media formats. Publication in this context is individual or peer reviewed, edited, or open for editing. Distribution takes place on the Web, in searchable and non–proprietary formats. Information flows across interoperable systems and is portable to browsers and mobile devices alike. Open learning is supported through the production and distribution of original and hybrid forms of information (such as mash–ups) by users, advancing learning at any location, on the move, in a community of shared practice.

Creative Commons

Athabasca University Press

Athabasca University Library Digitization Portal

Mobile Wikipedia



Based on these common elements of transparent design, open learning is advanced in flexible community spaces that promote shared resources and co–authorship at many levels, from text, to image, to multimedia. For instance, OpenLearn from The Open University provides an open resource for learning with flexible educational components about a full range of topics, enhanced with text, image, videos, and open discussions. These materials are available for students and lifelong learners or for instructors to adapt in new settings. By contrast, the Open CourseWare Consortium extends beyond one particular institution and offers a global resource of freely available educational materials from an extensive listing of global universities. A flexible and user–friendly search function allows educators and students to access open learning materials from such initiatives as the MIT Open Courseware project. These resources are available for individual or collaborative study and are easily adaptable to multiple institutional contexts. Wikia is a practical wiki site for the creation of wiki communities in such broad categories as entertainment, gaming, and lifestyle interests. Participants make the choice to join existing wiki communities or to create new ones. This level of flexibility promotes active learning online and encourages the development of open wiki spaces based on common interests and enjoyment.


As a key component of transparent design, interactivity is evident in open learning environments such as the African Virtual University (AVU) OER which offers open course materials in three languages. Topics include biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, and information and communications technology (ICT) and the materials are openly licensed through the Creative Commons. The OER@AVU Web site includes interactive features such as searching, and sharing through social media resources including Twitter, Facebook, and Google, as well as links to complementary video resources at YouTube. In addition, all of the open learning materials include interactive discussions boards. The OER@AVU supports the mission of the African Virtual University “To facilitate the use of effective Open, Distance and eLearning in African institutions of tertiary education” and complements another initiative sponsored by the AVU, the Virtual Campus for Development & Peace. Another example of interactivity in transparent design includes Wikia Commnity Central for open dialogue among Wikia community members and for sharing technical information and resources. In addition, Wikiuniversity is sponsored by the Wikimedia Foundation and offers over 16,000 resources for learning that continues to expand. As an open wiki focused on learning materials, Wikiversity provides such interactive features as browsing by category, joining community discussions, viewing the source and history of pages, as well as editing and producing content. In all three examples, the openness of the systems encourages interactivity and participation among users. This allows for dialogue to take place beyond traditional courses, expanding the scope of learning about a range of topics and issues through shared experience at a distance.


The fluidity of a user interface relates to the flexibility of the system but this characteristic also reinforces the blurring of traditional boundaries among educational resources. For instance, the OER Commons is sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME) and provides a usable site for accessing and sharing a range of educational materials for K–12 and college settings. The OER Commons allows search by grade level and subject areas, which include the arts, business, humanities, mathematics and statistics, science and technology and the social sciences. A search by topic leads to open materials from such institutions as the Library of Congress, National Endowment for the Arts, or the MIT OpenCourseWare initiative. Participants are presented with the option to access these materials and to even share through Twitter, Facebook, and e–mail. By extension, the OER Commons has a wiki community in a MediaWiki format that provides additional resources for participants including projects and workshops, tutorials, and a space for sharing OER documents. The OER Commons is further enhanced through such features as social tagging of key terms, recommended resources, bookmarking, and advanced searching options. All of these resources are flexible and interactive while creating an adaptable interface for users to contribute and share original materials in dialogue with one another. Recent trends in MOOCs exemplify a similar combination of transparent characteristics. For instance, the Personal Learning Environments Network and Knowledge 2010 (PLENK, 2010) was collaboratively facilitated by a team of instructors and included a multi–modal approach to technology that featured wikis, blogs, micro blogging, online discussions, and Web conferencing via Elluminate. The eduMOOC and ChangeMOOC are similarly collaborative in instructional design and offer multiple open technology formats, expanding the scope of educational resources to an expansive community of learners that extends beyond any particular course or institutional context. OERs and MOOCs are driven by transparent design to technology infrastructure and learning, opening up resources and promoting dialogue among participants. These formats present challenges of scale due to the large learning communities in OERs and MOOCs, but openness advances the potential for interactivity and participation, while extending the learning experience beyond a specific course or program.


The learning environments examined so far illustrate visualization in transparent systems, especially the OER Commons, which is a practical space for accessing and sharing textual and visual information. The importance of visualization is emphasized further in videos made available through YouTube or embedded in course–specific Web sites and open learning resources. For instance, the Open Courseware (OCW) Consortium features a YouTube channel with workshops, webinars, and podcasts from consortium members on topics such as metadata, Moodle, and institutional collaboration. This channel includes social networking tools such as subscription feeds, links to “friends” of the channel, announcements, interactive discussion board, search, and the ability to alternate the visual display between “player view” and “grid view.” Open Learn and the Open Learning Network feature similar YouTube channels with the same visual style and functionality. EdLab from Teacher’s College at Columbia University developed, an interactive Web site for creating asynchronous group conversations based on time–coded video segments. promotes conversation and collaboration through the cooperative sharing of visual information. Instructors upload videos for comment by students and shape the conversation with questions and comments at precise sections of the visual materials. All participants engage in a dialogue about the video or upload their own segments to start a new conversation. Visual transparency allows for immediate and open access to online videos and to integrated social networking tools that generate interactivity and participation.


All of the examples discussed so far include a collaborative dimension that is promoted through the transparency of the interface. WikiEducator features a Teacher Collaboration Portal that provides a shared space for international teaching partnerships and dialogue. This wiki features links to Web chat, mailing lists, Google Groups, Community Portal, a Directory of Open Source Courses, Workshops, and New Learning Resources listed by country. This entire wiki space is dedicated to promoting collaboration among teachers and to providing resources for collaborative teaching opportunities. The OER university has emerged from the OER Foundation as “a virtual collaboration of like–minded institutions committed to creating flexible pathways for OER learners to gain formal academic credit.” The anchor partners for this enterprise include Athabasca University, SUNY Empire State College, OER Foundation, Otago Polytechnic, and the University of Southern Queensland. This initiative fosters institutional collaboration “to provide free learning to all students worldwide using OER learning materials with pathways to gain credible qualifications from recognised education institutions.” The OER university site is emerging with links to all anchor partner sites, resources, FAQ, OERU Planning Discussions, and related blogs. The OERU site reflects the goals of the project to open educational opportunities through institutional collaboration and the transparency of process, systems, and learning resources.


MicrobeWiki demonstrates how transparency promotes collaboration and the production of new knowledge among students at multiple colleges and universities. This open space provides a free resource for students to author original wiki pages about microbes and microbiology. This site features an open template for students to use in the development of their own research pages. The wiki also links to official course pages by participating professors, college Web sites, and open materials related to course readings. The site includes questions generated by students, a Taxonomy Index with “curated pages” that “are reviewed and updated by microbiologists at Kenyon College.” Most importantly, this wiki features student pages and projects developed for course assignments or as independent contributions that are not monitored by editors or instructors. As the Web expanded to include resources beyond text, educators gained a full range of multimedia assets to build dynamic open learning environments. A Wikispaces site developed by Alan Levine called CogDogRoo provides extensive links to media resources for creating slide shows, videos, animation, maps, multimedia timelines, audio files, and presentations. This wiki offers instructors and students with media resources for the development of original digital projects, as well as discussion boards, information about tagging, wiki history, and links to related blogs and micro blogging sites. The VoiceThread 4 Education wiki is also available via Wikispaces and provides a transparent wiki for educators to share resources and experiences about Voicethread, a collaborative multimedia tool for creating asynchronous conversations. Although VoiceThread is not entirely free and open, it does offer a novel approach to engaging students with visual, audio, and textual information in a collaborative Web–based format.

Publishing and distribution

Transparent design has revolutionized our understanding of publishing and distribution as an open process that extends beyond text and print to include wikis, blogs, social media, and e–books. Peer review in these contexts has transformed from hierarchical experts to a network of social and scholarly peers in open communities. These changes have raised questions about quality and definitions of intellectual property, as well as our relationship to content in a digital age. At the same time, this redefinition of publishing has expanded the modes of delivery and opened new audiences for educational materials. This has been demonstrated in OERs developed for international audiences and the Creative Commons, which provides an open resource for licensing works in a range of media formats. Creative Commons also encourages sharing, remixing, reusing, and searching digital content by providing the “legal and technical infrastructure that maximizes digital creativity, sharing, and innovation.” Athabasca University Press has been successful in offering both free e–book downloads and print books for sale via the same Web site. AU Press also links to open access journals from the same site and library materials for Athabasca University courses at the Library Digitization Portal. The proliferation of mobile apps, such as Mobile Wikipedia demonstrates innovative portable means for producing and sharing information. Transparency enhances the publication and distribution of digital materials as users produce and share information in open learning environments and through social media resources such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Social bookmarking provides another tool for collecting and sharing links to educational materials.




As Benkler suggested, we deepen our understanding of transparency and the extent to which any technology or communications system is open by examining a “three–layered representation of the basic functions involved in mediated human communications,” that includes the physical layer, the content layer, and the logical layer [37]. This layering concept has been examined in this article as a transparent Venn diagram (Figure 1) that illustrates the intersections among all three layers. According to Benkler, ”A mediated human communication must use all three layers, and each layer therefore represents a resource or a pathway that the communication must use or traverse in order to reach its intended destination” [38]. All of the technologies discussed here, including wikis, OERs, and mobile applications have transformed physical infrastructure, challenged our understanding of content creation, and altered the logic of underlying coding systems or processes. These are transparent systems that require open networks, open approaches to creating new knowledge, and open applications for producing and sharing digital information. Transparent systems also challenge us to develop open approaches to learning that take advantage of the eight characteristics of transparent design.

As we have seen in several specific examples, openness has advanced user interaction and involvement in wikis, OERs, and mobile learning environments. For instance, in wikis, transparency reveals author identification and page progress and provides a linking capability that allows authors to embed external resources within the same visual and virtual space. Participants link to dynamic resources such as podcasts, graphics, slide shows, and social media while making their own original contributions through open publishing. Collaboration is ongoing in this context and is continually revealed in an interactive and fluid dialogue. OERs are educational materials in digital formats for a global audience and lifelong learners seeking informal knowledge or a formal higher education. As OERs advance as an international movement for instructors and learners to share, participate, and contribute, educators and policy–makers are combining efforts to meet the global demand for open content, open access, and open technologies. The emergence of mobile learning, with the capability for text messaging, interactive apps, and portable social networking, offers much potential as the next area of study related to open education and transparency. To what extent will mobility expand the scope of transparency or transform our understanding of nomadic open environments?




In closing, transparency supports open learning, promoting the creation and sharing of individual and collaborative content while fostering communication and cooperation. Transparency has been examined in relation to computer systems for some time, with a particular emphasis on the connection between individual users and stand alone interfaces. Definitions of transparency have evolved over time to include the social dimension of Web 2.0 environments, as well as government and pedagogical contexts. The term itself is now a part of our popular culture lexicon and often relates to the extent to which government, business, educational administration, and media are open in communications, deliberations, and processes.

Given the potential for collaboration in wikis, OERs, and via mobile, and the ability to integrate open editing and Web production into a range of courses and open learning initiatives, it is critical for us to develop a learner–centered approach that considers the social contexts of technology within networked spaces. Wikis and OERs share some characteristics with other Web formats, such as online encyclopedias, Web sites, and LMS environments. But the unique elements of transparent design advance the pedagogical potential of these media formats and allow us to avoid simply replicating one technological approach in a new setting. For example, wikis are not passive spaces for uploading standard content. The open editing feature of wikis challenges users to rethink the writing process itself as more than a collection of individual documents and to consider how team authorship influences knowledge and peer review. In addition, OERs should be viewed as more than digital materials contained in a static repository and should instead be developed as dynamic and collaborative information for teaching and learning. Transparent systems support the design of participatory open learning in disciplinary and interdisciplinary contexts. Teachers and learners are challenged to think beyond the mechanics of Web design, and to work outside the confines of the LMS to take part in an open discourse. This work expands the scope of authorship and editing in these spaces, as a shared enterprise that fosters a deeper understanding of intellectual property and the collaborative production of new knowledge. Transparency reshapes the learning experience itself, enhancing peer interaction, encouraging dialogue between teacher and learner, and making visible the outcomes of these communications. End of article


About the author

Thomas P. Mackey, Ph.D., is Interim Dean at the Center for Distance Learning, Empire State College, State University of New York. He is the editor of four books, with Trudi E. Jacobson, for Neal–Schuman Publishers, Inc., including Teaching information literacy online (2011) and several research articles, for instance, “Reframing information literacy as a metaliteracy” in College & Research Libraries (January 2011, volume 72, number 1, pp. 62–78).
E–mail: Tom [dot] Mackey [at] esc [dot] edu



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Editorial history

Received 13 December 2010; revised 5 August 2011; accepted 10 August 2011.

Creative Commons License
“Transparency as a catalyst for interaction and participation in open learning environments” by Thomas P. Mackey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Transparency as a catalyst for interaction and participation in open learning environments
by Thomas P. Mackey.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 10 - 3 October 2011