How to empower citizens through virtual learning environments

From left to right:

Maria Alzira Pimenta
Sorocaba University

Sônia de Almeida Pimenta
Federal University of Paraíba

José Furtado
Institute for the Sustainable Development of Campinas

Mabel Petrucci
State University of Paraíba



Abstract – This article describes the research carried out within the Observatório Cidadão (Citizen Observation – CO) of Campinas, Brazil. The research looks at the potential of the CO to foster and encourage citizen action by identifying how Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) could be better used to promote emancipatory processes. The CO proposal is to build Digital Learning Objects (DLO) to be used with the assistance of instructors, promoting emancipation and empowerment within society. The expected result is to empower citizens to participate in intelligent discussions and be able to propose and decide on themes like city planning and solid waste policies.  

Throughout the 1990s, Brazil tried to “re-democratise” itself through new legal frameworks. Unfortunately there were no means to properly analyse whether these frameworks succeeded in reaching a satisfactory degree of democracy. For example, even after two decades after the end of the bipartisanship era, Brazilians face a great difficulty in dealing with a current scenario of 32 political parties whose ideological identity – at least when there is one – is hard to figure out/recognise.

Since representative democracy does not fully address the needs of the average citizen satisfactorily, others have stepped in. To keep society together, civic engagement and social control (strategies to monitor public authorities by civil society) are essential for the stability and improvement of Brazilian society. In fact, Brazil has seen several non-governmental organisations (NGO) emerge which are focused on citizen empowerment, dealing with public authorities and institutions.

Campinas Que Queremos (Campinas We Want) is one of several NGOs working in similar ways across a number of Brazilian cities. This NGO wants to encourage civil engagement in city planning, to critically monitor the implementation of the budget, to monitor indicators of quality of life and, last but not least, to work in different ways improving and creating new ways of citizenship education. This set of actions is called Observatório Cidadão (Citizen Observation – CO).

To empower citizens you need to train them. Emerging technologies in ICT is one tool in the toolbox. Let us have a closer look at Digital Learning Objects (DLOs) as a resource capable of promoting citizenship education (one of CO’s objectives). DLOs try to offer new formats and educational processes which, rather than adapt to the characteristics of a so-called knowledge society, could contribute to improve it. It does this through harnessing one of the characteristics of our emerging society: the huge amount of information available.

Citizenship education and ICT

Citizenship education may be the most important thing and the biggest challenge for those committed to build a fair and ethical society. This is an education concept that assumes a process of personal humanisation, socialisation and individualisation (Charlot 2000). The concept emphasises the need to develop self-sufficiency and critical thinking. This kind of thinking requires knowledge (often mistakenly mixed up with “information”, so easily available on the web). Guaranteed access to information is essential, but by itself is not enough. Information must be transformed into knowledge. We must distinguish knowledge from information and use the latter to build the former to empower citizens so that they are able to feel themselves socially included and actively participating in the control of government activities.

For example city growth and development requires an efficient and complex financial management system that present lots of embezzlement opportunities. Giving the average citizen tools to understand these weaknesses is a way to boost empowerment and subsequent social participation. This leads to an improved social control at various levels of government activities.

According to Castilho and Osorio (Pontual 2005: 63), citizenship education aims to foster the development of strategies that allow intervention in processes as a whole and in public agendas favouring the “training for citizen lobbying; the public interest actions and the generation of efficient and creative public movements able to work as networks of social players.” From our point of view, public interest combined with social networks enables the construction of an ethical and fair society.

Citizen Observation (CO) and Digital Learning Objects (DLOs)

The CO is an informal educational environment that offers a learning platform for a diverse range of social players. It is nonpartisan, secular and pluralistic. The CO is based on four pillars: Transparency of Public Management, Participation and Social Control, Citizenship Education, and Fair and Sustainable City.

This monitoring should improve transparency in the actions of the government and contribute to the full exercise of social control, creating conditions for promoting citizenship awareness. Two premises underline its actions: a) the average citizen is unaware of the functioning of the three branches of government (judicial, legislative and executive) making exercising citizenship rights difficult; b) economy, public health and education data available on official websites are incomprehensible to anyone who is not an expert, making its analysis and use difficult. The educational work of the CO aims to create information and knowledge out of this data broadening and deepening the discussion on topics relevant to all citizens.

One of the ways found to promote interactive learning in the CO was using Digital Learning Objects (DLOs). These are resources in online learning, inviting the visitor to investigate and explore the information available according to his/her interests.

These resources are called various things: digital online resources (Sá Filho and Machado 2003), digital learning resources (Jordão 2010), virtual learning objects (Antônio Jr. and Barros 2005) to name just a few examples. We adopted the term Digital Learning Objects (DLOs) defined by Wiley (2000) as: “digital entities deliverable over the Internet, meaning that any number of people can access and use them simultaneously.” These entities can include “multimedia content, instructional content, learning objectives, instructional software and software tools, and persons, organisations, or events referenced during technology supported learning.”

Accessibility, durability, modularity and reusability are characteristics of a DLO. Of these, reusability is the most important (Sá Filho and Machado 2003; Jordão 2010). This allows DLOs to be applied in different contexts/objectives and combined with various objects “to create rich and flexible learning environments” (Antônio Jr. and Barros 2005).

The construction and use of DLOs in various forms and for different educational objectives links with what Levy (2000) called collective intelligence. Instead of being controlled, human knowledge should integrate with human activities and, especially, should be equally socialised. This may seem difficult to achieve at first, but becomes less utopian when considering the interactive potential made possible by ICT.

Investigating online

To understand how to offer citizenship education online and to identify how ICT can be used to promote citizen emancipation and empowerment, we used virtual environments for our empirical research. We formulated a poll targeting an audience that is somewhat familiar with social networks and virtual environments. The universe of respondents was wide and diverse. In the end our sample included 40 respondents.

These are three examples based on our definition of a DLO:

  1. The documentary O Valor da Água (The value of water – programme 16), produced by TV PCJ and maintained by Agência das Bacias dos Rios Piracicaba, Capivari e Jundiaí (Watershed Consortium of the Piracicaba, Capivari and Jundiai Rivers). This 14-minute video explains how the water intake and supply system work. This DLO uses graphical computing resources, integrating satellite images, graphics, diagrams, speech and texts (Figure 1).

    Figure 1 – DLO 1

  2. Na boca do povo (In the mouth of the people) is a oneminute film directed by Kawe de Sá and Bruno Medaber with the theme “Public Information: the right of all. No excuses, no secrets”. With only a few images and sounds, the almost silent movie can convey an important message about the problems and issues related to social participation (Figure 2).

    Figure 2 – DLO 2

  3. Some slides produced by the CO staff, Campinas Que Queremos (Campinas That We Want), addressing issues related to the socioeconomic and political situation, brings out some reviews and questions about the struggle against corruption, social control and the water supply crisis (Figure 3).

    Figure 3 – DLO 3

Users were presented with these three examples when fi rst accessing the survey. To take the survey you had to click on the first link. This gave access to the other two. Finally the users had to fill out an online questionnaire about Citizenship Education.


1) Which one do you like best (considering appearance, content, duration, etc)?
Despite the longer running time, the documentary O Valor da Água was the winner, followed closely by the one-minute film Na Boca do Povo. Showing a considerably lower score, the slides produced by Campinas que Queremos team ranked last, as shown in Figure 4 and Figure 5. Although the documentary and animation ranked very closely, they are quite different in their running time: while the former ran for almost fifteen minutes, the latter is just one minute. Both use audiovisual language; but while the documentary uses direct language, the animation requires some interpretative skills. The first one informs while the other deals with life values. The questionnaire allowed for comments, and some people criticised the DLO format, in particular some technical issues that affected the image quality and the negative influence of the pace of modern life that diverts our attention.

2) What duration is more convenient?
The vast majority suggested less than 5 minutes (with expressive number of votes of less than 10 minutes according to Figure 6). Nowadays, people have access to much more readily available information than one is able to absorb. In addition, the continuous and intense flow of information we experience by instant messaging has conditioned our way of seeing and being in the world. In this case, it means people seek short messages, on average five minutes. One respondent noted the need to consider the relationship between the length and the media.

3) Which format is best suited to citizenship education?
Despite its length, the documentary was the winner by a small margin over the animation. Both DLOs obtained a higher preference than the slide format. These results, although differing from the results of question 2 (favoured duration less than 5 minutes), is understandable when we take into consideration the significant amount of information the documentary brings – one of the characteristics identified as relevant in DLOs (as you can see in the following question).

4) What characteristics are relevant to a DLO?
The results reveal that respondents demand information. This demand is a qualifi ed one because respondents think a DLO must also include inquiry, dynamism and simplicity. These features reinforce the DLO as a tool able to contribute to education in general and to promote, in a simple and dynamic way, social interactions based on information. To tackle complex issues, some knowledge about the information is necessary, as well as an ability to master language and the values that shape them. The DLO features identifi ed by survey respondents are not only those that lead to citizen satisfaction but also to their social engagement. In the context of citizenship education, the content (information) is essential for the development of critical questioning when using a simple and accessible language adapted to diff erent realities (Figure 7).

5) Regarding citizenship education, which topics do you consider to be the most important? (options: voting system, political organisation, tax and taxation, corruption and social control, sustainability, rights and duties of citizens, public spending control, transparency, etc.).
The answers show that the subject “political organisation” is the most important. This is no coincidence. Understanding the political organisation should drive all other suggested topics. Indeed, voting systems, taxation, social control and adequate sustainability are constructed only through a political system consistent with citizens’ interests. The responses reveal that people ask for more information on this topic (Figure 8). 

The second most voted theme was rights and duties of citizens. In our opinion, this theme is essential and highly connected with the previous one, hence it should be on the political agenda. It is necessary that people feel informed and think about their rights and duties, which explains the high importance given to it by our respondents.

We emphasise that CO, as a set of actions for citizenship education, has sought to contribute to the development of the identity of citizens and to the commitment to the social control of public management. Therefore, the development and use of DLOs is one of our strategies to insert CO in the knowledge society. We believe that making qualified information available will provide the average citizen with knowledge, as mentioned by Levy (1993: 40): “[...] retain what was learned. The interactive multimedia, due to its non-linear pattern, enables an exploratory attitude towards the material to be assimilated. Therefore it is a well-adapted tool to an active pedagogy.”

One example of this active and participatory activity can be found in the comment of one respondent: “Regardless of the type of equipment used in the learning process, the most important thing is that people learn the content and discuss with others the ideas and suggestions that may arise.” (Respondent 36)

The use of DLOs has also proved to be an effective strategy when socialising information and knowledge. It helps raise awareness of urgent issues (corruption and misuse of public funds, among others) and it encourages citizens toward social engagement.

We would like to emphasise three aspects of this survey. First, the procedures adopted are transparent, from data collection to socialisation of results, since each stage is available at the CO website, our fan pages and other web locations. We believe ICT offers tools that foster the empowerment and development of knowledge.

Second, the team can assess the effectiveness of DLOs that were developed. The amount of choices reveal that we need to define new strategies to achieve our goals. Moreover, we found that our practice is an example of reusability since we also provide DLO material that was not developed by us.

Third, the results of our research offer important insights for the development of other DLOs since they are based on the receiver perspective (in format, length, theme and desired characteristics) both to the CO team and others interested in this subject.

According to Davies (2006) “global citizenship is based on rights, accountability and action”. Therefore, it is necessary that people have access to educational processes which clearly define not only how the world works, but also their role in it, with rights and duties. This knowledge, although cultural, technological, political and economic, needs to be our guide when building a more just and sustainable society. It is education developing active citizens in their local community which allows us to extend the reflection to levels exceeding our locality and reaching the global society. New technologies used in citizenship education, as in Citizen Observation, can contribute in the effort to build global citizenship.

Finally, we understand that knowledge and understanding are essential cognitive processes to build active citizenship. These skills make up the autonomous and critical thinking necessary to unfold a collaborative attitude necessary to transform mere indignation into strength, motivation and organised action to strive for better times and conditions for the whole society.


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Davies, L. (2006): Global citizenship: abstraction or framework for action? Educational Review, v 58(1), p. 5–25. DOI: 10.1080/00131910500352523

Jordão, T. C. (2010): Recursos digitais de aprendizagem. Revista Tecnologias na Educação ano1, no. 1. ISSN: 1984-4751. Retrieved from

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About the authors

Maria Alzira de Almeida Pimenta has experience in basic education as a teacher and as a director and coordinator of adult education. She is professor of the Education Post-graduate Programme at the University of Sorocaba, Director at the Sustainable Campinas Institute and voluntary collaborator of Citizen Observation Campinas Que Queremos. She does research on evaluation and ethics.

Contact Cidade Universitária
Rod. Raposo Tavares, km, 92.5,
Sorocaba-SP, 18023-000

Sônia de Almeida Pimenta has a PhD in Education and is a teacher at the Federal University of Paraíba, Brazil. She has worked as coordinator of the Teacher Education Programme in Portuguese, in East Timor. She has experience in public health and education, technology in education, distance education, assessment, teaching and learning.

Rua Recife, Lotes 1–7 – Jardim Bela Vista, 
Rio das Ostras – RJ, CEP 28895–532 

José Furtado has an MSc in Engineering, works as a consultant in sustainability and corporate social responsibility, and is the coordinator of Citizen Observation. He is interested in community development, social control, transparency and in ways to improve citizen participation in public policy definition.

Rua Benedita Franco Gomes, 56 
Fundos, Campinas – SP – 13077-066 

Mabel Ribeiro Petrucci Padilha has a Master of Education and is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Minho – Portugal. She has experience in education, with an emphasis on educational processes mediated by Digital Technologies of Information and Communication, Cultural Studies and Education. She is Professor of the National Programme for Education of Teacher Education Basic, in João Pessoa, Paraíba, Brazil.

Universidade Estadual Vale do Acaraú – Unavida
Rua Flávio Ribeiro Coutinho 50 – João Pessoa
Paraíba, Brazil

Adult Education and Development


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