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Next-Levelling Your Conference: Attendees as Co-Producers of Knowledge

What was your role during the last academic conference you attended? One common answer is “an attendee,” which means that you were there but doesn’t provide details regarding what you actually did. Another common answer is “a participant,” which is only a bit more telling because now it suggests that you were taking part in something. These common answers are widely used, but somehow they only convey that someone goes somewhere and does something. From these terms, we simply cannot deduce exactly what roles the conference organizers, speakers, facilitators, and attendees fulfill.

Higher education has been facing the same problem - the terms “teacher” and “student” imply that one teaches and the other studies. But this leaves the details of roles and expectations to each person’s interpretation. For this reason, there have been attempts to employ terms that are better at defining the nature of the relationship. Metaphors such as “client,” “customer,” “partner,” and “consumer” have been used. These metaphors imply different roles and expectations for every party in the educational system and also how they relate to each other.

These terms are equally applicable to academic conferences. A client means you pay the organizers for a professional service. A customer means the organizers have to please you to get your money. A partner means you partially bear the same set of responsibilities as the organizers. With these definitions in mind, think back again to your role at the last conference you were in: Were you a client? A customer? A partner? Or a consumer?

Drawing from my own past experiences, every one of these metaphors has rung true at one point or another. However, the most prominent one has been the consumer metaphor. In many of the past conferences I have attended, the corollaries of the consumer metaphor were clearly noticeable. Almost nothing was demanded of me except to pay the fee, sit down, and enjoy the “fun” talks while poorly evaluating the “unfun” talks. On many occasions, the speakers essentially said “This is the good stuff. Take it and use it.” Such talks felt like receiving a finished product rather than going through a learning process. And my role was reduced to that of an observer. I doubt my experience is exclusive.

Not so at AMEE 2017.

During AMEE 2017 I had a chance to attend two sessions that clearly broke away from the consumer metaphor and engaged me on a very different level. One was a plenary about learning from Finland’s educational success by Pasi Sahlberg, a prominent name in Finnish education; the other was a workshop about helping learners prepare for high-stake examinations facilitated by graduates from Maastricht University’s MHPE program. The major difference was that I was treated as a co-producer of learning rather than a passive consumer.

The concept of students as co-producers of learning has been articulately described by McCulloch and the major differences from the consumer concept are active participation, encouraging deep thinking and learning, and setting up the learning experience as a hardworking, ongoing process rather than an entertaining product that can be handed over.

The two sessions achieved this by doing two things. First, it was made clear that the speakers did not have a complete answer. It may seem unthinkable that any speaker in a conference would come without a “complete and correct solution” that can simply be taken and implemented. But having such an answer can hamper learning since it deemphasizes deep learning on the participants’ part and also encourages passivity. Instead, the speakers gave some core background knowledge to get us up to speed and some guidance as to how to implement the concept, and then I and the other attendees were left to complete the answer by ourselves.

For example, in Sahlberg’s plenary he constantly pushed us to think about implementation of the principles he presented. This was the difference between a speaker saying “This is what should be done. See if you can wiggle it a bit to fit with your situation,” versus “These are the principles and goals. Now you need to determine the process to attain the goals while adhering to the principles in your situation.” The former is like finding a good spot to place your newly bought chair, while the latter is like designing and assembling your new chair--certainly a more engaging and active process.

The second thing they did was ask us to create something they had not yet thought of themselves. The metaphor of co-producers implies that the relationship is not additive, but rather synergistic. This means that either party would achieve much less without the other. During the workshop by Maastricht University’s MHPE graduates, everything the facilitator did reflected the confidence that we could come up with something greater than what they already had. At no point in the workshop did they even subtly convey that we should have settled for the answers that were already available. They pushed, they encouraged, and they celebrated with us whenever we came up with a solution they had never thought of.

How will you achieve the principles of co-production of learning the next time you are a conference attendee or speaker? Comment on our blog to share your ideas!



Bailey, J. 2000. Students as clients in a professional/client relationship. Journal of Management Education 24, no. 3: 353–65.

Halbesleben, J., J. Becker, and M. Buckley. 2003. Considering the labor contributions of students: An alternative to the student-as-customer metaphor. Journal of Education for Business 78: 255–7.  

McCulloch, A. (2009). The student as co‐producer: learning from public administration about the student–university relationship. Studies in Higher Education, 34(2), 171-183.

Molesworth M., Scullion R., Nixon E. (Eds). (2011). The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer. Oxon: Routledge.



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Sunday, 17 January 2021