Higher-degree research being undertaken by Natalie Spence




Associate Professor Lina Markauskaite and Professor Peter Goodyear

Thesis title:

Designing for epistemic agency: how student groups construct knowledge and what helps them do it



Project description

How students work together and produce knowledge in a project - between starting an assessment task and the submission of a piece of shared work - is mostly hidden from those who set the task. How do students understand what is going on, where the task fits and what it is asking of them? When they choose how to use technologies and organise their work, what opportunities are consequently opened or closed? What do they do and what interim artefacts (diagrams, lists, sketches) do they create in that liminal space between start and finish? And can we better design to support their agency in working with knowledge?

Epistemic agency refers to the intentional measures taken to build or create knowledge-in collaboration with others in unique contexts, and centred around the use and creation of shared objects. This project followed seven small groups of university students as they collaborated on assessment tasks within tertiary courses. Using ethnographic methods, groups’ in-person and online collaboration was recorded, through video, audio, artefacts and text and screen capture. Participant interviews supplement researcher observation. In transcribing interactions, the tools they used, artefacts they created, the tone of speech, gesture and environment were noted. Using this detailed record of group projects, the narrative of each is constructed, aided by diagrams tracing the emergence of concepts and actions over time, in the development of each group’s collaborative product. Analysis will trace the effect emergent objects and associated practices have on epistemic agency and knowledge creation, with the aim of understanding how learning design can assist in this process.

Natalie Spence is working on her PhD part-time, after completing a Master of Learning Science and Technology, University of Sydney. She is a Senior Learning Designer who collaborates with university academics on technologies and design for learning, from single tasks through to program-level planning. The research topic originated from a desire for practical insights into how students work together.

Professional and community roles

  • Organising Committee, ASCILITE Conference, 2013


  • Spence, N. & Armand, L. (2013) "Can you believe what you read? Science in newspapers", In How to apply active learning techniques: learning through meaning (Eds S. Savanah and M. Parsell), pp 12-15. Learning Excellence and Development (LEAD) Guide, Faculty of Human Sciences, Macquarie University. ISBN 978-0-9871425-0-4.
  • Spence, N., De Marco, O., Groom, D., Parker, R., Ireland, M. & Wardle, M. (2012). A Brave New World: introducing the planets online. In M. Brown, M. Hartnett & T. Stewart (Eds.), Future challenges, sustainable futures. Proceedings from the ascilite conference, Wellington. 25-28 November, 2012. (pp. 867-871) (shortlisted for best short paper)

Conference presentation