17 June, 2020
11:00 am - 12:00 pm

Making and sharing things – a focus on the objects students create and use in collaboration

Presenter: Natalie Spence, Senior Learning Designer, Faculty of Science and Engineering at Macquarie University

Where: Zoom https://macquarie.zoom.us/j/91598535290 (Meeting ID: 915 9853 5290)


How do university students create knowledge together? Collaborative projects are part of most tertiary undergraduate programs but in-depth studies of student work outside classrooms are rare. My interest is in shared epistemic agency—how knowledge is collaboratively created. There is, naturally, a social aspect—dialogue, team roles and relationships. There is also materiality to collaboration; the objects that students create and use as thinking tools and to organise work. Sociomaterial theories of knowledge creation, putting shared objects at the centre of social learning, underpinned my study. I followed seven groups of undergraduate students, as they worked together in education and engineering courses on ill-structured assessment tasks. I used ethnographic methods, including video- and audio-recordings, and capturing artefacts and online communications and work. I made detailed transcriptions and used discourse analysis of actions and objects as well as dialogue. I mapped projects through relational diagrams tracing actors, actions, conceptual development and objects over time. I compared cases across dimensions of knowledge creation and students’ assembled infrastructure.

Findings and outputs include:

  • Conceptualisation of a new type of epistemic object, the synthesising object, to bridge individual and shared knowledge creation.
  • An original method of visual analysis and representation of shared epistemic objects over multiple dimensions.
  • A model for epistemic agency in group tasks, outlining the interactions between what students bring to the task, the components of infrastructure supporting knowledge work, and design.
  • The importance of early stages of projects: students bring dispositions that help them  understand and frame epistemic work.
  • A set of design principles for shared epistemic agency, working collaboratively on knowledge in a specific context. A long-term strategy, targeted activities, deliberate practice and reflection are key.


Natalie Spence is a Senior Learning Designer with the Faculty of Science and Engineering and has been working in tertiary education for around 13 years. Her PhD thesis, ‘Designing for Epistemic Agency: How student groups create knowledge and what helps them do it,’ has recently been reviewed and accepted. Natalie is now considering how to combine research and research partnerships with an ongoing professional role. And anticipating ticking ‘Dr’ in forms.

Posted by Alana Mailey