Designing for Dialogue

How do we design buildings and on-line systems for people to talk, learn and make decisions together?

Tom Worthington FACS HLM

IT Consultant and Adjunct Lecturer, Australian National University

For BarCamp Canberra 2011, ANU, 19 March 2011

Tom Worthington, argues that the same buildings discussion.and on-line systems used for education can also be used for wider public discussions.

Tom Worthington

ACS presentation on the USS Blue Ridge Joint Operations Control Center (JOCC) in use on the USS Blue Ridge

Not your usual workplace: USS Blue Ridge.

One of the more unusual learning facilities I have used is the Joint Command and Control Centre (JOCC) aboard the USS Blue Ridge, flagship of the 7th Fleet. The JOCC has a briefing area with a map table at one end and a video projector. This provides a similar environment to a small tutorial room. At the other end of the same open space were desktop computers and telephones. The walls, and ceiling are painted grey steel, with all equipment fixed in place.


Tom Worthington is an IT consultant and has been an expert witness in several court cases involving international patent, computer, web and Internet issues, as well as advising governments and companies on computer problems. He is a Adjunct Senior Lecturer in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University. In 1999 he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Computer Society for his contribution to the development of public Internet policy and in 2010 received an education award for teaching Green ICT on-line.

In addition, Tom has an interest in architecture, environmental design, energy and water saving technology. He is the founding chair of the ACS Green ICT Group, and has been as a guest lecturer on the effects of ICT on architecture at the New Bauhaus Dessau and on smart apartment design at the University of Canberra.

One of the more unusual learning facilities Tom has used is the Joint Command and Control Centre aboard the USS Blue Ridge, flagship of the 7Th Fleet.

Tom is a past president, Fellow and Honorary Life Member of the Australian Computer Society, a voting member of the Association for Computing Machinery and a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Ancient Educational Architecture

Ancient theatre at DelphiAncient Gymnasium at Delphi, GreeceWriting with stylus and folding wax tablet. painter, Douris, ca 500 BC
  1. Ancient Gymnasium at Delphi
  2. Writing Tablets

Modern equivalents:

  1. Asia Pacific Hall Centre for Dialogue, SFU
  2. Purple Pickle Cafe, Sports Building, ANU
Asia Pacific Hall of the Morris J Wosk Centre for Dialogue, Simon Fraser UniversityPurple Pickle Cafe, Sports Building, ANU

In 2008 I visited Delphi in Greece. Ancient amphitheatres such as the theatre at Delphi have the same shape and proportions as modern university lecture theatre and discussion forums, such as the Asia Pacific Hall of the Morris J Wosk Centre for Dialogue, Simon Fraser University, or the Harvard style rooms at ANU which Bar Camp is being held in. The curved stepped design of these rooms is required to allow a large number of participants to not only see a speaker at the centre, but also each other.

At a less well known location about 1 km down hill from the Theatre of Delphi, is the gymnasium. This has a flat exercise area, some old olive trees, and what was a covered walkway(stoa) carved into the hillside. This was where the ancient philosophers did their teaching, sitting in the stoa, discussing the students going past. On returning to the Australian National University (ANU) I noticed the opposite my office at ANU there is a modern gymnasium, with a covered walkway outside and a Cafe. The lecturers meet to discuss educational issues here much as they would have done in ancient Greece, watching the students go past. This area performs a function as important as the formal lecture theatres, providing a place for informal interaction.

While information technology has advanced in the last two thousand years, the physical and mental abilities of teachers and students have not changed greatly. Ancient wax tablets are about the same size and shape as modern tablet computers, as the hands and eyes of the ancient users are much the same as those of today. Similarly the shapes of rooms are not so different.

In designing buildings for education, it should be remembered that the primary need is to provide spaces for people to interact in. The equipment and services in the building are there to help people interact with each other. The technology is there to assist human interaction, be it face to face or computer mediated.

Modern lecture theatres can have sound reinforcement to allow a voice to carry further. Large visual displays can display the course materials further. However, if the students can't see each other and the lecturer can't see them, there will be little sense of being part of a joint activity. This applies to both physical and on-line learning environments. Modern materials, such as glass, can allow students to feel part of a larger body while having a quieter and secure place to study. Electronic displays can enhance the experience.

Learning Commons Designs

Artists Rendering of the New Gungahlin LibraryGungahlin Library Plan

The University of Canberra opened a new Teaching and Learning Commons in 2011, just above the refurbished refectory. The learning space is a mezzanine, allowing the students to look down at what is happening in the refectory. A walkway and bridge allow access to rooms placed around the periphery of the building. The floor is divided into sections, each for a different style of learning with a different level of formality. At one end the "Teaching Commons" has has a glass wall with its own doorways, an open area, with a kitchen and the several breakout rooms. This allows a class to have an area to themselves and then to use several breakout rooms.

What also makes the space interesting is that the University of Canberra Teaching and Learning Centre is co-located in the space. In a way the physical space is a physical manifestation of the style of education being advocated.

Recent Changes Camp 2011: Canberra was one of the first events to use the new facility in January 2011. One room, described as "The HotHouse" was used for brainstorming. This has all the walls are painted with gloss white whiteboard paint (IdeaPaint brand), allowing them to be written on from floor to ceiling.

Short throw Epson projectors fixed to the ceiling provide a 2 metre picture on the whiteboard wall surfaces. wall sockets provide for a laptop to be used as the source of the image, or a PC in a central cabinet can be used via a plugged in keyboard.

Circulation areas of the University of Canberra Teaching and Learning Centre have wall mounted flat screen displays. By default these are used for digital signage, displaying announcements of events. However, the screens have the same auxiliary input and PC facilities of the projection screens and can be used for presentations. During Recent Changes Camp 2011: Canberra a laptop was used to provide a group document preparation display. Participants were able to input text using their own net-book, laptop or tablet computer and then add this via the center WiFi to update the wall screen.

The new $72.4 million Gungahlin College in Canberra would provide a good example of a facility which could be upgraded at low cost for emergency use. The College will accommodate 900 upper secondary students and include a CIT learning centre (for vocational TAFE education). The college library will be available to the community, providing the local public library, with learning rooms for adults and children.

Designs such as the University of Canberra opened a new Teaching and Learning Commons and new $72.4 million Gungahlin College can be used for buildings providing a venue for discussion of issues of public importance, as was done in the ancient world. At the same time the on-line systems developed for education can also be used for dialogue.

Forums for Education, Dialogue, Deliberation and Decision Making

Model of the proposed Austrlaian Centre for Dialogue Building, design by Alicia BaylRoyal Roads University Learning and Innovation Centre

Propose a learning and dialogue centre for Canberra, also called a "Library".

Royal Roads University (Canada), is constructing a Learning and Innovation Centre building. One floor will be a "Centre for Dialogue" for community discussions. This is intended to carry out a similar function to that of the Wosk Centre at Simon Fraser University. However unlike the Wosk centre, which is essentially a conference centre with very specialised discussion rooms for face to face interaction, the LIC building will be primarily a teaching centre for traditional lectures and computer meditated communication, with dialogue as a secondary role. This will allow the facility to be used much more intensively and thus provide the community with a better return on its investment.

The "Australia Forum", is a proposal from the Canberra Business Council for a venue in Canberra for meetings, dialogue, cultural events and occasions of national importance. There is a Scoping Study available for the project. This complements the Australian National University's "Australian Centre for Dialogue Project". There is a Vision and Mission Statement (PDF) and a brief explanatory movie. The Australian facility would be modelled on the Wosk Centre. In 2007 an architectural competition was held for the design of a proposed $26M (later $30M) "Centre for Dialogue", to be a building built in Canberra.

The Australia Forum is proposed to be a new propose built building, located in parkland, in the parliamentary triangle, adjacent to the National Library of Australia. This would provide similar national symbolism to the House of World Cultures Berlin and the Zappeion Athens.

However, I suggest a better model for national dialogue is the would be a library and learning centre. As I tell my e-document students, the Library of Alexandria was founded around 290 BC, destroyed by fire around 48 BC and opened again for business in 2002AD, with an on-line catalogue. Dr. Ismail Serageldin, Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina has described how library staff joined hands with members of the public to protect the library during recent protests. Dr. Serageldin also described how the library spread "the values of democracy, freedom of expression, tolerance, diversity and pluralism" and so helped bring democracy to his country:

As demonstrations continue despite the delegation of presidential powers to the Vice-President, the Library continues to be protected by the people. Alexandria saw massive demonstrations throughout the city (see video). Young students from the university designed and made a huge National Flag, and put it on the steps of the Library (see images) which elicited cheers from passing demonstrators as the director waved to the crowds (see image)....

From: "Under the protection of the People", Bibliotheca Alexandrina, February 2011

More Information

Slides for these notes are also available.

Copyright © 2011 (Version 1, 19 March 2011) Tom Worthington

Creative Commons License
Designing for Dialogue: How do we design buildings and on-line systems or people to talk, learn and make decisions together? by Tom Worthington is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Australia License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

Web page by