Update: Reschooling Society and the Promise of ee-Learning: An Interview with Steve Eskow

By Chad Trevitte and Steve Eskow

[Note: The original article, “Reschooling Society and the Promise of ee-Learning: An Interview with Steve Eskow,” appeared in Innovate, August-September 2007. In this updated version, Steve responds to additional questions submitted by Jim Shimabukuro, ETCJ editor. The new material appears in bold italics. The bio at the beginning of the original article has been omitted in this update. For a glimpse of Steve’s current bio, click on his photo. -js]

[Note by Chad Trevitte:] As guest editor of this special issue of Innovate, Eskow granted me an insightful interview in which we discussed ee-learning, its relevance to various theories of learning, and the promise it holds for revitalizing educational practice in the academy.

Chad Trevitte [CT]: Perhaps the best place for us to begin is to discuss your understanding of ee-learning as a distinctive mode of pedagogy. How would you define the term?

Steve Eskow [SE]: The term is a hybrid one that brings together two kinds of e-learning. What I’ll call “e-learning1” is electronic learning, in which the new communication technologies such as the computer, cell phone, or television provide the scene of instruction. The computer can house and move anywhere all the older media — the book, for example — as well as all the media and methods associated with traditional pedagogy: the lecture, the recitation, the discussion, or the tutorial. MIT is putting its laboratories online and making them available to students around the world; the British Open University is making its courses available. And simulations and the new game pedagogies begin to bring new teaching methods to the instructional scene.

What I’ll call “e-learning2” is experiential learning, a pedagogy that uses the everyday world as the scene of instruction. There is of course a long history of attempts to bring hands-on experience into the classroom and campus, but this sort of pedagogy is much more likely to involve professional, practical, or real-world environments: offices, shopping centers, hospitals, churches, boats, mountains, or even the dinner table. In experiential learning, the distinctive attributes of an everyday scene — its activities and settings, its obligations and entitlements, its excitements and boredoms, its spaces and places and people and the problems they deal with — serve as the primary textbook for learning.

The argument is that ee-learning can bring the two scenes together in a single and powerful pedagogical practice. On the one hand, the student is situated in a scene in the everyday world, and that world, its people and its setting, becomes the textbook and teacher. On the other hand, the student uses a computer or other technology to be in easy and regular communication with other teachers and fellow students who are themselves situated in scenes of the everyday world. Students and teachers together read the textbook of their work or service or family structures, and they use information from the academic disciplines to find new meanings in those settings.

CT: This model of learning is innovative in many respects, but to what extent do you think that it is also faithful to the aims of education advocated by past scholars?

SE: As you know, Chad, there’s a long history of debate between those who think the university needs to have its conversations in a space set apart from the noise of the town — Michael Oakeshott (1989) argued this persuasively — and those like Pierre Bourdieu (2000) who think that “scholastic enclosure” is a problem that needs to be overcome. For Bourdieu, this “enclosure” creates an “intellectualocentric” distance between the campus and the community that neutralizes the impact of the disciplines on students and society (2000, 41-42).

Other educational leaders expressed similar concerns well before Bourdieu. Arthur Morgan, president of Antioch College and director of the TVA in the 1930s, compared university education to a pair of shears and argued it needed the two blades of practice and theory to have the proper cutting edge (1945, 25). Harold Taylor, president of Sarah Lawrence college and another one of my teachers, expressed the matter more vividly a few decades later: If you want to ride a horse, dance a jig, climb a mountain, build a boat, write a novel, study history, think intelligently, become educated, a certain amount of instruction in a class in the subject will be useful — perhaps for two or three sessions. After that you will need to get a horse, start dancing, climbing, building, writing, thinking and educating on your own. Otherwise you will not have learned what you need to know, that is, how in fact to do the thing you have set out to do. To learn something it is necessary to practice it. (1975, vii) The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who had fought his own battles to reform the British school system, articulated a similar position during his later tenure at Harvard: “First-hand knowledge is the ultimate basis of intellectual life. To a large extent book-learning conveys second-hand information, and as such can never rise to the importance of immediate practice. Our goal is to see the immediate events of our lives as instances of our general ideas” (1929, 61).

Whitehead and Morgan and Taylor and all of the others who argued for a university without walls did not have the tools for a pedagogy that would allow students to be scattered in space and time and yet in regular touch with each other, with faculty, and with intellectual resources. In ee-learning, we now have the pedagogical tools to help students connect the immediate events of their lives with the propositional and conceptual learning of the academy.

CT: Your comments also bring to mind the views of another thinker — John Dewey. This philosophical connection is explicitly made in the case of one of our current features in this issue (Riedel et al. 2007 ).

SE: Yes: Dewey and James, all the pragmatists — as well as Emerson with his “American Scholar” address (1837) — were and are important influences. Dewey thought school leaders could bring experience into the classroom. Ivan Illich, priest and rebel, did not think that schools could be reformed in this way; instead, he claimed that they were intrinsically hostile to experience. In his view schools were by design and practice the agents of a consumer society that only served to commodify learning by accustoming students to think of knowledge as something that came in labeled packages, so that the role of teachers was simply to select the learning packages, administer them to students, and grade the results of the treatment. His proposal, then, in Deschooling Society (1970) was that school should be “disestablished” and that compulsory schooling should be replaced by informal ways of linking people who wanted or needed to learn something to those who could help them learn it.

There are, then, those reformers who think that the forms and forces that Illich railed against can be changed, and who believe that the teacher should bring real-world experience into our schools and colleges: The Dewey of Democracy and Education (1916) and Experience and Education (1938) would represent such a belief. And there are those like Illich who see the school as hostile to experience: stripping the world of its textures and colors; turning practice into curriculum; substituting drills, schedules, and examinations for play, work, and service.

In my judgment, the reformist agenda of Dewey — which emphasizes “reschooling” rather than “deschooling” — is certainly a more appropriate context for understanding the promise and potential of ee-learning. That is, ee-learning assumes that the new communication technologies enable us to connect the disciplines of the world and the disciplines of the academy, that these disciplines are compatible and mutually reinforcing, and that education is enhanced when the first-hand learning of the world and the second-hand learning of the academy come together.

Jim Shimabukuro: Steve, can you give us an ee-learning example of a college freshman who is doing, say, English and math in the real world and applying it in an online educational setting? What role will the instructors play? How will the students be “graded’?

SE: Jim, the “real world” — the “e1” of ee-learning — “real” work — a job — or “real” service — tutoring children or serving the indigent in a soup kitchen.

Your question then becomes, will the English teacher be able and willing to create an English course that asks students to read materials that might illuminate work and service, and write about what they are experiencing?

If the math teacher has been teaching Calculus 1, or trigonometry, and resists searching for ways that the world of numbers can connect with work or service . . . I don’t have a ready answer, and I look to others for guidance.

CT: So if you regard ee-learning as a means of educational reform in the spirit of Dewey, then you would also see it as providing a better means of preparing students for their lives as professionals and as informed citizens.

SE: Yes. Jane Addams, one of those who influenced Dewey, established the early adult education programs at Hull House with just this goal in mind. In her comments about this project, she borrowed Tolstoy’s phrase “the snare of preparation” to diagnose the problems she saw in her own early education: “It was not until years afterward that I came upon Tolstoy’s phrase ‘the snare of preparation,’ which he insists we spread before the feet of young people, hopelessly entangling them in a curious inactivity at the very period of life when they are longing to construct the world anew and to conform it to their own ideals” (1912, 74). I believe ee-education holds much the same promise of avoiding this trap in higher education.

JS: Can you expand on this idea — perhaps with a brief example — of how ee-education will provide escape from the snare of preparation?

SE: The freshman involved in ee-learning won’t be asked to wait for four years to see how English 101 connects with the complexities of job and politics and service, but will be engaged in them immediately, and the disciplines will be linked to those existential encounters with the world for all those years of study.

I’m looking now at a book in my bookcase titled Binge: Campus Life in an Age of Disconnection and Excess (Seaman 2005) — an account, I would argue, of how college students resist the snare of preparation and search for excitements and meaning outside of the classroom. “Disconnection” is another word for the separation of life and learning that Addams described.

CT: While Addams’s Hull House provided an alternative model of continuing education, it was still a bricks-and-mortar institution. Yet as you suggested earlier, an ee-learning approach involves the premise that such physical structures are not necessary for effective learning. What are your further thoughts about these conflicting paradigms? .

SE: First, regardless of where one stands in this debate, it seems fair enough to presume that many educators out there would agree with Addams’s rationale: They do not want their students to be living in a bubble — a Foucauldian heterotopia shielded from the learnings that come from the mundane world. Is the college, then, a bubble that shields the students from such everyday encounters? How one defines the bubble depends significantly on one’s pedagogical approach. To illustrate, let me cite two articles that appeared last year in the popular press. The first, published in the Los Angeles Times (Silverstein 2006), relates the experience of a computer science instructor at UC Berkeley who used online technology to provide students access to his lecture notes, audio and video recordings of his lectures, and online discussions of course content. Having incorporated these resources, he discovered that among the 200 students enrolled in the course, only 20 showed up for some classes. In his comments to the reporter, the instructor referred to the experience as “demoralizing,” and he concluded: “Getting students out of their media bubble to be here is getting progressively harder” (A1).

In the second article, from The New York Times (Gordon 2006), we have a very different view. Here we have an account of an interdisciplinary course at Trinity College in which the professor sought to expose his students to their surrounding community off campus. In this course, entitled “Invisible Cities,” students were assigned the task of creating Google mashups to map out a range of distinctive social environments in Hartford and visiting these environments in person to explore them in greater detail. Eventually the students also shared the results of their projects with local agencies in order to illustrate the potential use of this technology for community improvement efforts. In her comments about the course, one student comments: “It really helped me to realize how we live in a bubble, especially at Trinity. . . . In this class, we step outside of our bubble and get off campus” (A25).

Comparing the two sets of practices involved in these cases is instructive. On the one hand, the Berkeley professor took his kit of classroom pedagogies — the lecture, the recitation, the discussion, the exam — and put them online. He created, then, the classic distance learning or e-learning mode. With the ability to structure the learning encounters around the other routines of work and play, the campus and the classroom become dispensable. Yet the instructor, or his department, or perhaps the ethos of the university, insists that the classroom is central to the educational experience. The instructor is forced to compel reluctant students to attend his live classes. The Trinity College professor, on the other hand, uses his classroom, the online milieu and resources, and the real world as an ensemble of related pedagogies. They discuss disciplinary theory as well as their findings from the online and everyday worlds in the classroom; they use the online resources to locate learning resources; and they visit the agencies, meeting with practitioners and clients. Each element has its role and function in the pedagogy, and they are mutually enhancing.

We can take the Trinity model a step further. The faculty member can be in Boston, or Brooklyn, or Bombay.

The students can be scattered in time and space. The disciplinary learnings of the classroom can take place in the virtual lecture halls, classrooms, seminar rooms, libraries, and offices created by the computer. We take one step beyond the Trinity experience, and we are completely out of the bubble and into ee-learning.

CT: The Trinity College example is a compelling one. It seems that the key factor in any case would be whether the two environments of ee-learning — the electronic learning environment and the specific environment of real-world practice — are compatible with one another, and in turn compatible with the pedagogical goals of the course.

SE: When considering online learning environments, the question of compatibility is always influenced by one’s prior pedagogical investments — which tools and techniques from the classroom do we keep, and which new possibilities emerge in the new environment? For example, one strong argument that those who favor scholastic enclosure and its “intellectualocentric” distance from the world make is that the richness of the classroom — the impact of the face-to-face environment, the spoken connection with teachers and students able to enrich communication with visual and oral cues — cannot be duplicated online. This position may often go hand-in-hand with the view that the university’s special calling is to foster the growth of propositional and conceptual knowledge within the academic disciplines — indeed, that only these structures can be defined as knowledge. For the sake of convenience, we might term these scholars “conceptualists”; for them, the standard for compatibility in online learning environments is most likely to remain based on the self-contained traditional classroom, where students refine their knowledge at a remove from the messier world of everyday experience.

One counterargument to this view is that the face-to-face milieu does not necessarily allow for reflective thought. When the teacher asks a question, the student is unable to say, “That is most interesting, I would like to think about that for an hour, perhaps consult a book, before I answer.” That time for reflection can be achieved online if the online environment is asynchronous. Even on conceptualist grounds, then, the privileging of direct interpersonal contact in the classroom cannot be maintained. A much more radical critique of this valuing of speech over writing has also been provided by Derrida (1976) and the deconstructionists, who refer to it in terms of “phonocentrism,” “logocentrism,” and a dubious “metaphysics of presence.” This valuing of face-to-face classroom instruction is turned on its head in a more pragmatic way by the experientialists, who explore the impact of situation on learning. They argue that what is learned in the settings and encounters of the world — the factory, the farm, the hospital, the office, the agency — has a richness that cannot be wholly captured or simulated in a lecture, textbook, computer screen, or video game; in a war game, the video warrior is not in harm’s way. These scholars are more inclined to propose that the privileging of self-contained, face-to-face communication must be overcome if learning is to become more than what can happen within a room, virtual or otherwise. If online technology is used, the standard in this case demands that such technology should not become the primary learning environment, but should rather allow students to navigate their way through the world of everyday experience they confront.

JS: Please expand on this idea. What would you consider appropriate content for the online medium? That is, if we accept the notion that the medium is the message, then how does it transform the reality that it presents to us?

SE: Sociology 1 would ask the students to connect the concepts in the text to the work or service the student is doing: English 101 might be organized around a reading list that featured literature in which the joys and sorrows of work were central.

When the experientialists argue that what is learned in the settings of the everyday world has a richness that cannot be captured or simulated in a lecture, textbook, screen, or game, they are convincing — that is, they convince me! But I am also convinced of the great power of the propositional and conceptual learning of the academic disciplines, their ability to fix learning in durable and transferable structures of knowledge.

CT: If these different perspectives already inform discussions about online learning environments, how do you see ee-learning in this context?

SE: I argue that bringing these two streams of pedagogy together in a single enterprise creates the possibility of a new institution that engages the strengths and offsets the weaknesses of both positions. The experientialists have compelling claims, but if they are adopted too rigidly they lead to a wholesale abandonment of formalized education. Conversely, the conceptualists have their own compelling claims, but if they are adopted too rigidly they lead to the very sort of “bubble” that we need to avoid in our pedagogy.

The key goal is to ensure that learning environments accommodate everyday experience as well as reflective thought on the part of students, and ee-learning offers a vital means of achieving this goal.

JS: Please expand on this, perhaps with an example. How will this play out in the online learning environment?

SE: The students engaged in ee-learning are scattered in time and space: there need be no building for them to assemble. They engage with each other, and with the faculty, online: they become a community of conversation through the opportunities for collaboration offered by the computer and the cell phone.

They might all take Anthropology 1, be introduced through online lecture and discussion to the basic tools of ethnography, and be required to do an ethnographic study of their work or service environment.

Young people who have come to school buildings for 12 years are ready to move out of those environments and into the other places of the world, ready to become apprentices, to test themselves in work and service, and to use what happens to them in these engagements as texts for sharing and study with other students and teachers. In the university I envision, the students become members of two learning communities: the community of practice, where they gather procedural and process knowledge, and the academic community, where they connect their reflections on these experiences to the disciplines. Along the lines suggested by Riedel et al. (2007), I believe that the term “scholar-practitioner” can name a new partnership for education.

JS: Please expand on this idea.This sounds like a traditional F2F classroom approach that incorporates experiential learning. Is it? Also, how does online tech fit into this?

SE: This is indeed in most ways a quite conventional model of education. What is new is that creating the “academic community” no longer requires — indeed, rejects — what Bourdieu called “the scholastic enclosure”: the set-apart and artificial world of “the campus.”

The new communication technologies make it possible for Jim and Steve, who have never been face-to-face, and Claude Almansi and Harry Keller and John Adsit and Jan Schwartz and Stefanie Panke [all are ETCJ writers and editors] and so many others to become a community of study and collaboration. It is this power that we want to harness for our students.

In the case of both faculty and students, the practitioner of the everyday world and the scholar of the academy join together in one role — that of the scholar-practitioner — in the new ee-university.

My coinages, “ee-learning” and “ee-university,” will not survive; they are more advertising than academy.

JS: What would you use today, in place of “ee-“?

SE: For now, “ee-learning” and “ee-university” are the best I can do!

They are intended as pointers to the possibility of a new university that brings together the pedagogical powers of experience in the everyday world and the connective powers of the new communication technologies. The development of this new university is already underway as teachers and practitioners approach it pragmatically. My hope is that naming it will speed its coming and encourage others to develop its theory and practice.

CT: Thank you, Steve, for your thoughts about ee-learning and its role in the future of higher education. Your comments will provide a helpful foundation for readers as they explore this issue of Innovate, and we very much appreciate your contributions as guest editor.


Addams, J. 1912/1961. Twenty years at Hull House. New York: The New American Library.

Bourdieu, P. 2000. Pascalian meditations. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Derrida, J. 1976/1998. Of grammatology. Tr. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Corrected edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Dewey, J. 1916/1944. Democracy and education. Repr. New York: The Free Press.

Dewey, J. 1938/1997. Experience and education. Repr. New York: Touchstone.

Emerson, R. W. 1837/1983. The American scholar. In Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays and lectures, ed. J. Porte, 53-71. New York: Library of America.

Gordon, J. 2006. Mapping the invisible city outside their walls. The New York Times, May 3. A25. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/03/nyregion/03hartford.html?ex=1184212800&en=a856652bd7918f13&ei=5070 (accessed July 10, 2007). [Editor’s note: Access to this article requires online subscription.] Illich, I. 1970. Deschooling society. New York: Harper and Row.

Morgan, A. 1945. The idea of a rural university. Sevagram: Hindustani Talimi Singh.

Oakeshott, M. 1989. The voice of liberal learning: Michael Oakeshott on education. Ed. T. Fuller. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Riedel, E, L. Endicott, A. Wasescha, and B. Goldston. 2007. Continuous, interactive, and online: A framework for experiential learning with working adults. Innovate 3 (6). http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=352&action=article (accessed July 10, 2007).

Seaman, B. 2005. Binge: Campus life in an age of disconnection and excess. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons.

Silverstein, S. 2006. The I-Pod took my seat. The Los Angeles Times, January 17. A1. http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/latimes/access/970269781.html?dids=970269781:970269781&FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:FT&(accessed July 10, 2007). [Editor’s note: Access to this article requires online subscription.]

Taylor, H. 1975. Foreword. In Awarding college credit for non-college learning, ed. P. Meyer, vii-viii. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.

Whitehead, A. N. 1963/1929. Technical education and its relation to science and literature. In The aims of education, 52-69. New York: New American Library.


Note: This article was originally published in Innovate (http://www.innovateonline.info/) as: Trevitte, C., and S. Eskow. 2007. Reschooling Society and the Promise of ee-Learning: An Interview with Steve Eskow. Innovate 3 (6).

Click to access Reschooling_Society_and_the_Promise_of_ee-Learning-__An_Interview_with_Steve_Eskow.pdf

(accessed November 3, 2010). The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher, The Fischler School of Education and Human Services at Nova Southeastern University.

2 Responses

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with the need to blend academic instruction with experiential instruction, and I further agree that online learning is the best way we can make this happen, because it frees us from restrictions of place. There are a number of obstacles to this happening, especially at the high school level, and I would like to emphasize just a few:

    1) The need to plan for the least common denominator. At the high school level, we cannot create a course that cannot be taken by everyone. We cannot require software or bandwidth not reasonably available to everyone. We cannot usually require travel.that the poorest students cannot afford.

    2) The need to conform to public school supervision and scheduling requirements. Having students leave the school building without direct supervision is an absolute taboo. You have to be able to have all these experiences in a classroom and completed in 45 minutes so that students can get on to the next class.

    We are able to do the pilot project blending scuba and online science because we are doing it in an innovative private school with a fairly wealthy clientele, a school that will allow students to take off for a few days in mid-semester to go diving.

    At the college level, a school near me now, Colorado College, can do something like this because of its unique schedule. Because students only take one class at a time, professors can do whatever they want with a student’s day. An archeology class can be scheduled at a Mayan ruin.

    • That’s helpful, John.

      Some comments and questions:

      “JA: 1) The need to plan for the least common denominator. At the high school level, we cannot create a course that cannot be taken by everyone. We cannot require software or bandwidth not reasonably available to everyone. We cannot usually require travel.that the poorest students cannot afford.”

      SE: A virtual high school can be offered as elective opportunity open to all, can it not? A number of states already have such a virtual high school opportunity, e.g. Florida.

      The poorest student lives in a home that is in a community that offers rich opportunities for experience and study: there is a school in that community, and churches and mosques and synagogues, and grocery stores and street lights and gangs and dangers: a universe of opportunities for looking at the commonplace through the lenses of the disciplines.

      I hope that imaginative academics can figure out ways to get poor students access to a computer or a cell phone and online time.

      “JA: 2) The need to conform to public school supervision and scheduling requirements. Having students leave the school building without direct supervision is an absolute taboo. You have to be able to have all these experiences in a classroom and completed in 45 minutes so that students can get on to the next class.”

      There is evidence to support the conclusion that academics committed to new directions are able to get permission to offer academic programs that do not involve coming to those buildings at all.

      “JA:We are able to do the pilot project blending scuba and online science because we are doing it in an innovative private school with a fairly wealthy clientele, a school that will allow students to take off for a few days in mid-semester to go diving.”

      I, for one, would like to hear public school academics on this matter of getting permission to depart from the routine.

      “JA: At the college level, a school near me now, Colorado College, can do something like this because of its unique schedule. Because students only take one class at a time, professors can do whatever they want with a student’s day. An archeology class can be scheduled at a Mayan ruin.”

      There is no intrinsic reason why ee-learning needs to be confined to the Colorado College schedule.

      The notion of “scheduling” a class at a Mayan ruin or other exotic locale is not at all necessary, or , in my view, appropriate.

      Any experience, however commonplace and pedestrian, can be profitably explored through the academic disciplines. Indeed, it is the everyday encounters that need the light of the disciplines most, not the exotic and the ancient.

      If the student is employed as a cashier at the local supermarket, or delivers clothes for a local dry cleaner, those experiences can be illuminated by the teachers of sociology and literature.

      That is: the local community of the poor student has ruins enough for study and analysis: he or she does not need Mayan ruins for incitement to thought, but needs to be shown how sociology and science connect to the ruins of his or her hometown.

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