Will this be on the exam Ms? The tension between use- and exchange value in higher education and its realtion to forms of learning.

Forskningsoutput: Working paper


This paper explores discourses in higher education viewing two pairs of concepts, on the one hand, the concepts of use- vs. exchange value and on the other, the concepts of deep vs. surface learning. Drawing on Yrjö Engeströms’ position of use- vs. exchange value, and his elaboration on the activity system, we assert that any component in an activity system combines two inherent forces which compete yet presuppose one other. It is this dialectical relationship which makes systems dynamic and thus change over time.

The paper is based on an empirical study using data from a distance- and net based course in general pedagogy at a Swedish university.

In the context of higher education, the tension between use- and exchange value is present on a daily basis in the life and work of instructors and students. A student has to pay attention to rules and regulations that form the structure of the educational institution. For example, the Swedish educational system requires that a student maintain a certain number of credits per semester in order to qualify for a study loan. On the other hand, the university’s state funding is based on how many students pass their exams. For the student, the credit requirement often leads to a strategic approach to learning governed by a wish to pass the test as the major goal. For the instructor, the funding rule compels her to organize the interpreted curriculum so that the content of the course becomes achievable within the course time limit and the level of achievement is measurable. Thus, the student and the instructor have a shared interest. We define these interests as the exchange value of education. However, both the instructor and the student have an interest in reaching a goal beyond the immediate satisfaction of obtained credits. This goal is about developing competence, capabilities, skills and insights held as important in higher education. We define these goals as use value of education.

At a first glance one would tend to relate the exchange value of education with what has been defined as the surface approach to learning (Marton & Booth, 1997). The surface approach to learning focuses on what can be called the sign, for example, a text itself (ibid). This implies that memorization, replication and rote learning become the main approaches to learning. A student’s attitude rests on the belief that knowledge is to be declared as rather fixed answers and tested in terms of right and wrong. This is in contrast to the belief that knowledge is constructed through an understanding of complex phenomenon and concepts involving the act of relating previous knowledge and experiences with new knowledge.

On the other hand, the concept of the deep approach to learning could easily be related to the use value of education since this approach focuses on what which is signified, for example, the meaning of a text. The deep approach to learning also focuses on using organizing principles to integrate ideas (Marton & Booth, 1997). Hence, this approach leads to a more durable and complex set of competencies, skills, and insights. However, under present conditions this approach might require a longer process, which might not be available within the existing institutional structures. Thus, we assert that, there are a bound to be consequences for higher education in terms of the quality of learning.

In this paper, though, we are interested in understanding the dialectical relationship between use- and exchange value and the link to learning. Thus, we want to go beyond the immediate perception of the relationship between exchange value and surface learning, on the one hand, and use value and deep level learning, on the other. In this paper we ask the following two questions. What are the signs of use- and exchange value in communication between students and instructors in higher education? How are manifestations of use- and exchange value approached by students and instructors in higher education aiming at a deep approach to leaning? Thus, the purpose of the paper is to contribute to an understanding of the dialectical tension in the object of the activity of higher education and its relationship to forms of learning. With forms of learning we here refer to surface- and deep approaches to learning but we might also include expansive learning though that is not the main focus of this study.

On an applied level, higher education institutions aiming at deep approach to learning and durable and complex competencies, skills, and insights should benefit from this study.


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StatusUnpublished - 2008