Sunday, February 06, 2011

Australia Forum

Model of the proposed Austrlaian Centre for Dialogue Building, design by Alicia BaylThe "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 Austrlaian National University's "Australian Centre for Dialogue Project". There is a Vision and Mission Statement (PDF) and a brief explanatory movie. I was asked to provide some input on how computer mediated communication could be used to encourage discussion. This blog post has my initial thoughts on the project.

The Australian facility would be modelled on the Morris J Wosk Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University. 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. This would be located in parkland, sited similarly to the House of World Cultures Berlin and the Zappeion Athens. The completion was won by Alicia Bayl. However, it appears that since then the project has been modified to incorporate online dialogue, linking multiple physical locations. This is a useful development.

The forum could take advantage of the expertise, technologies and infrastructure in place for "blended" learning (combining online learning and face-to-face classes). This would allow educational information systems and buildings to be used for the forum. It would also also combine the functions of teaching about the use of such forums into conducting them.

A few initial thoughts:


Senator Kate Lundy has run a series of "Public Sphere" events which use live face to events, blended with online forums, for developing public policy.

The first Public Sphere event "High Bandwidth for Australia" was hosted by the ANU Department of Computer Science in the computer equipped room N101 in the Computer Science.

In the past I have used Moodle (the same e-learning software as now used at ANU) for part of the online consultation mechanism. Following on from this I suggest using a "learning commons" as the physical venue for the forum. Having a physical venue helps bring focus to the discussion, which if entirely online can seem a little too "virtual".


From the Australia Forum project material it appears that the original idea was to have a purpose built building for the forum. That then changed to a virtual forum, due to the cost and complexity of a purpose built facility. I suggest a middle path: use a dual purpose facility, which could also function as a learning commons for an educational institution.

Most of the time the space would be used for teaching (including teaching about the forum) and only occasionally used for the "Australia Forum". The venue could be electronically linked to other such spaces, nationally and internationally, for a distributed discussion.

Using a learning commons as the basis for the forum building would also allow the latest technology and designs to be used. IT support and ideas on how to lay out physical spaces having made rapid advancement in the last few years. Part of this advancement was research sponsored by the Australian
Government on learning commons.

A "learning commons" is the trendy term for a building with a mix of open plan teaching areas and classrooms, equipped with extensive computer facilities. I will be speaking on "The dos and dont's in developing learning commons" at the 2nd Annual Learning Commons Development and Design Forum in Brisbane, 20 March 2011.

In 2008 ANU was considering a conference centre as part of the City West development. In response to a request for input, I suggested a triple purpose conference, training and decision support centre. The idea was that the centre would be used day to day for university teaching. Occasionally it would be reconfigured for commercial and academic conferences. In a national disaster, the centre would become a high-tech command and control facility for emergency operations.

As far as I am aware, it was decided not to proceed with the conference centre at City West. The University of Canberra opened a more modestly scaled Teaching and Learning Commons this month, on the mezzanine above their refurbished refectory. I attended the first event to use the facility.


The first use of the UoC teaching commons was for "Recent Changes Camp 2011: Canberra", an "un-conference".

An "un-conferecne" is similar to an academic symposium, but with more flexibility as to topic and discussion and with Internet support.

Several such events have been run at ANU. The ethos of these, along some of the support software and organisational techniques were applied to Senator Lundy's Public Sphere series. I suggest this could be explored further for the Australia Forum.


Modern educational techniques emphasise the use of discussion between the students. This is supported in Learning
Management Systems. In particular Martin Dougiamas built this into his Moodle software, now used by ANU. The ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science is now a leader in this field with its Engineering 'Hubs and Spokes' Project. I use Moodle with mentored and collaborative techniques for postgraduate courses at ANU.

As we prepare Australians for the dynamic opportunities and challenges ahead new forms of engagement will be needed. Australia’s best future will be shaped through dialogue – and through facilities and technologies that are enabling, democratic and globally connected.

Capital cities around the world are embracing the need in the 21st century need high quality secure venues catering for international dialogue, trade and significant national events. These are important elements of national infrastructure and the positioning of capitals. Centres of this nature are also the learning hubs of the future – pivotal places in terms of economic development and knowledge transfer from research institutions.

Our National Capital, Canberra, is the meeting place of the nation. It is also a rare centre of knowledge and research, with far reaching global relationships. Canberra is a capital with unparalleled assets and opportunities.

Now the need is clear – for a truly national meeting place in the Capital – one that will meet the future needs of Australia and Australians themselves, and realise the rich potential that exists.

That is the vision for the Australia Forum. ...

From: "Australia Forum", Canberra Business Council, 2010

ps: I viewed the explanatory video for the "Centre for Dialogue" with some amusement. The location proposed for the building is the same as one used in the Australian TV comedy "The Hollowmen". In series 2, episode 2, "Edifice Complex" a building is proposed at this location with no purpose other than to boost the ego of a Prime Minister. ;-)

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