Product – co-production vs commodification as a site of learning

Education – as vending machine – Photo by Darren Halstead on Unsplash

Yesterday, I spent much of my time in meetings: one appraisal, one research-related, one project-related, and one a planning meeting. Coincidently, each of those four meetings required me to remind myself that an education is not, “A thing that can be amassed and measured, the possession of which is a measure of the productivity of the individual within the society.” (Illich, 1978) I must be clear, my colleagues did not necessarily share such a view either, but topics such as learning gain, impact, employability, strategic priorities, and so forth can be tricky for any of us to navigate in education where, as professionals, we are accountable.

The idea of education as ‘product’ is central to two conflicting ideas: commodification and co-production.


Commodification in education describes beliefs and practices that present learning as an outcome of systemic delivery. It is a convenient idea of education because it lends itself to quantification. Product, as commodity, feels definite and tangible. In this analogy, educations is perceived as a vending machine, and the student is the consumer expecting their education to be delivered efficiently to their satisfaction. There is a sense of certainty that the machine can deliver standard packages which can be easily quality assured. It doesn’t work like that.

Illich describes how a commodified notion of schooling, “draws society into the trap of thinking that knowledge is hygienic, pure, respectable, deodorized, produced by human heads and amassed in stock.” It conspires in a conceit “…that learning and the growth of cognitive capacity, require a process of consumption of services presented in an industrial, a planned, a professional form; …that learning is a thing rather than an activity.” While the training paradygm understands learning as a commodity in which decontextualised skills are delivered consistently time after time, that type of learning has little in common with the conceptual learning we deal with in higher education. Here learning inhabits an individualised and changing boundary space between what is known and what can be discovered, especially where that learning happens with the support of others as in Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (1978). Instead, learning is vibrant, unstable, challenging and interpreted.

Illich (1973) argues for ‘a life of action over a life of consumption’.


That brings us to co-production; a collective conceit that product is stable, but something worth making together nevertheless. Of course, the essential learning value is not in the product itself, but in the act of producing learning together. Co-production, like art, is best understood as an endeavour and performance; a joint stimulus that we can all enjoy and, in the case of education, learn from.

According to Cahn’s (2000) principles, co-production is based on a social commitment to valuing all human capacity, honouring all contributions, and generating reciprocity. It involves partners, co-workers and co-producers as the act co-operatively to achieve intended outcomes. It recognises, not only the adage of many hands make light work, but many minds improve the quality of that work, and for mutual benefit. Those benefits are wide-ranging and include shifting mindsets from dependency and passivity to agency, empowerment and contribution. Its social context develops confidence, well-being and a sense of shared responsibility. It is networked in nature, having both individual and social value at the same time while being implicitly inclusive.

As I explore the ideas of ‘studio’ and active learning, co-production is an inherently social and co-operative learning strategy focused on knowledge production by promoting deep learning through active engagement.


‘Product’ is such a tangible thing. So is ‘plan’. In another meeting this week, on student personal and professional develop planning, I was asked if we would be able to count up the student plans as a way to measure the success of the initiative we were discussing. The valuable outcome in this work is the habit of planning I tried to explain – that’s a lifelong endeavour. Success will be measurable as they lower the graduate into their grave! But can we wait that long?! Well, I didn’t add that – it would have been facetious – but it does serve to explain the general dilemma, that higher education is about developing learning as a social habit and yet the OfS skews us towards trying to measure the immeasurable.


Cahn, E. (2000). No more throwaway people: the co-production imperative. Washington: Essential Books.
Illich, I. (1973). Deschooling Society, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Illich, I. (1978). Toward a history of needs. New York: Random House.
infed website. ‘Ivan Illich: deschooling, conviviality and lifelong learning’. Online.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
This entry was posted in Active Learning, Co-operative pedagogy, Employability, Learner Engagement, Studio and Studio-based Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Product – co-production vs commodification as a site of learning

  1. Pingback: Competition and co-operation in the #activelearning classroom | Tactile

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s