Home / News / Online education: Is ‘effectiveness’ the question?

Online education: Is ‘effectiveness’ the question?

Michael Tomlin

Michael Tomlin

First you pitch an idea, then everyone wants proof it will work. And work better than the previous or existing practice. I’m glad as heck that government by the people wasn’t held to that standard during our Nation’s founding.

Today the issue is online education, and a simple proposal by Idaho’s state schools chief, Tom Luna. Have all high school kids take a couple of online classes per year.

Oh the people have wailed on this one. Yes they have a right to, but wow. You would think Luna had promised the machine would hug the child better than the parent. Or bus him or her to school and feed them the free lunch. Not so. It is a simple proposal, it will work, and it might actually save some money. Those are good things.

First, simple. Most Idaho school districts already have access to online classes and many use them regularly. The classes are taught by teachers, not the computer – a mystery solved there, and kids seem to do okay with them, given proper supervision and structure. No mystery there.

Now, saving some money. This can be a bit slippery as increased capacity for state online course suppliers can cost, as does in-class supervision on the receiving site, but distributed across the state it likely will reduce the number of classroom teachers needed, and money will be saved. Those are good things, especially in such a tight economy.

But will it work? Has it been shown to be effective? Those are silly questions really. Will the car replace the horse? Not for horse lovers, or riders, or ranchers, or high country hunters. Horses are here to stay. But so are cars. It is not an either-or. Both are “effective.”

My wife loves her Nook. It is an e-book reading thing. I’m a medium-tech guy but have no interest in a book reader. I love and collect books, the paper kind. I enjoy the touch and feel and heft and they harken to my childhood, a home full of books and reading parents. It’s a choice. My wife reads effectively with her Nook, and I with my book.

But a bigger point is that kids in school today need to learn how to learn online just as they do with personally attentive in-classroom teachers. Every kid leaving high school will enter the workforce at some time, and they will receive safety training, professional development, etc., via online means. Our schools should prepare them for that.

The only rub to me is how many online classes should a high schooler take? One? One per year? Twenty-five percent of total credits? All of these options are arbitrary, and cloud the big point – every kid should take one or more. That’s simple. It works, and it is irrelevant if it has ever worked before, or if it can be proven to be “effective.” Its effectiveness is by doing it. We call that change, and in this case it is good.

About Michael Tomlin


  1. Mr. Knowledge:

    My apologies. I see your point.

  2. Mr. Scott #20,

    Please do not bother us with logical thinking, this is Idaho, where we pick and choose facts to suit our political ideology.

    We like the federal government when it builds interstate highways and dams in our state, or when it bases lots of its very expensive military aircraft (paid for by the country, collectively) in our state. This is federal spending we like.

    And we don’t mind farming, ranching, or dairy subsidies either, and strangely you won’t hear any of our elected free market devotees arguing that the subsidies distort the market and that we need to do away with them.

    You will however hear them talk about that kind of thing plenty when federal spending originates from the democratic party.

    And, last, give me an amen, brother, as we all worship at the altar that is local control. We hate the Department of Education because it tells us what to do, and we blather on about local control, and then our legislature mulls over making every junior high kid in the state own a laptop and take online courses.

    You will, however, hear no cries of “tyranny” in a state where looking in the mirror has never held much appeal to people.

    Follow the money, the people who scream the loudest for charter schools are the ones who stand to benefit financially the most from it. And the ones who cry the most about federal mandates are the ones who have no trouble mandating at all on a local level.

    The tyranny in this state is one of small minds, penury, and aiming low.

    The fact that the legislature won’t even consider increasing financial penalties on criminals because that would be like a tax about says it all.

  3. Boisewriter sounds a bit like the Doc, don’t you think?

  4. Daniel:

    I have an question, because I honestly don’t know. You raised a question about Charter Schools:

    “Why is it that when a charter school is performing badly, it must be shut down, but when a public school is doing badly, we must throw more money at it? ”

    My 30,000 ft view of Charter Schools were that they are private schools with public funding. Just a broad-based statement, don’t read too much into it. I assumed, they were a collection of individuals who had a thought & a plan on doing things better than a public school. So, then they go to the public school system & essentially ask, hey, if I can do it better than you, will you fund me? The PS says, hey, ok, but since I won’t be eliminating 100% of my costs, can you do it for 85% (or whatever) of funding? If the collective says, heck yes! Then off to the races we go.

    Let me give you a poor analogy. You own a car & drive to work. I come to you and say, Dan, how about I drive you to work for less than what you’re paying out of pocket now? You say, well heck yeah, of course!!!! The next day, my car breaks down. I come to you and say, hey Dan. I need a new transmission and it’ll cost $2,000, when can I pick up a check?

    So, a poor analogy, but, isn’t that kind of the deal? You said you’d reach minimum standards within the financial constraints we agreed upon. That was the deal & we established a framework of accountability. The PS system didn’t hold a gun to your head to start a Charter School, nope, quite the opposite – you approached the PS system with your “better idea” and now you want the PS system to pick up the pieces after your plan / scheme failed? I think not, Dan.

    There’s a difference in commitment and accountability between Charter Schools and Public Schools.

    I’m still laughing about the charter school in Hidden Springs that failed and then tried to stick the Public Schools with their bill. I mean, come on. So much for accountability, I guess.

    Anyway, I am sorry for presupposing an answer, but do you understand my point? If you and I entered into an agreement based upon specific deal points, is it appropriate for one of us to not fulfill our agreement and ask the other for more funding?

  5. Mr. B:

    To get one thing out of the way, I am not a teacher, nor have I ever been.

    I do have a 12 year old in junior high in Boise and would prefer that he be taught by a live teacher in every class.

    It is obvious we fundamentally disagree and I doubt very much that talking in person will change anything. I respect your points of view, and will even go so far as to admit that it is within realm of possibility that educational performance may improve under the Luna plan.

    I am skeptical, however, that the plan will work or is a good idea, and I oppose it as I am allowed to as a citizen.

    You are mistaken if you believe (please note the “if,” as I appreciate your concern that I have put words in your mouth) that I am “concerned” with “teacher job security” to the exclusion of all else. While I think on balance tenure is a good idea, it obviously protects poor teachers as well as good ones.

    How to fix that I guess I will confess to not knowing.

    Having grown up in this state I will not back down an inch from the contention that a not insignificant percentage of the people who run the political party that has run this state for decades don’t like unions and will not rest until they’ve obliterated them. This is not a shot at you, it is a shot at those in our government who claim that educational reform is about improving performance when in my view it is probably really about carrying out another agenda.

    It is apparent to me from your points that you are one who perhaps believes that government and public education should be run based on a “free market” model. Supporting my perception that this is your view is your statement that if kids must deal with competition in the job market once they get out of school, then their teachers can only teach that if they are forced to compete themselves. Supporting my perception of your view is supported as well by your comment that if I don’t believe this then maybe I “embrace socialism.”

    Assuming I am correct that this is your view, then philosophically we’re at loggerheads. I don’t think government is a business, nor should it be run like a business. I don’t think public education should be viewed as a business or run like a business.

    And holding that view doesn’t make me a “socialist.” It means I think that there is a public, governmental sphere in our state, and a private, business sphere.

    I guess I’m very curious as to whether you think we even ought to have public education? And, if you don’t, then why not.

  6. Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed.

    Mr. K.

    The reason I don’t respond to your “points” is that they are assumptions — and incorrect assumptions, at that. I offer a perspective, and you ascribe extra intentions and meanings that are not there. I don’t see a value in talking with someone online who won’t demonstrate a genuinely true desire to understand another person’s point of view. I’m not even asking for agreement. The painful slog of even getting to one point of understanding (let alone agreement) requires phenomenally more time than the return on the investment.

    As for your position, your statements in #10 imply you are more concerned with teacher jobs than student learning. Here’s a question offered in THE CARTEL: Why is it that when a charter school is performing badly, it must be shut down, but when a public school is doing badly, we must throw more money at it?

    If student learning is the real objective of education, one would think that an educator (perhaps such as yourself?) would be concerned with achieving that objective.

    In the real world, competition exists, and we should be preparing our students to function in competition — unless of course you embrace socialism. If teachers don’t understand how to function in competition, then how can they teach it? If the response is they don’t have to be able to apply it (3rd level, cognitive domain) to teach it, only understand it (2nd level), then the same logic should apply to Superintendent Luna. Luna serves as an executive, and in the business world, an executive needs a very different set of responsibilities and skills than those in management (principals) and those at the front lines (teachers). [see chapter two of my book, Creating Passion-Driven Teams] Leaders, by the very nature of their jobs, must see things at a different altitude.

    Idaho is on the cutting edge of making a huge step forward in how we will be teaching students in the 21st century —and beyond. Some people just would rather protect their jobs than move forward with this inevitable change … just like the canal workers who resisted when railroads began replacing canals for transportation of goods in the 1820’s and 1830’s. The function of education remains the same, but the methods of achieving the objective are changing.

    Mr. K., there was no avoiding your “substantive” points by “expertly” changing the topic. My decision to continue the conversation after your full viewing of the movie was set forth at the start of this. It simply does no good to keep on bantering with someone who will not come to a common frame of reference, let alone someone who throws out insinuations as if they were facts, and then doesn’t even want to know how those positions might have been minsconstrued.

    If anonymity is important to you, then I offer for you to call me. My number is easy to find. In fact, this newspaper carries my syndicated column, and even lists my phone number. You are guaranteed a respectful conversation during which I will respectfully restate your position until you affirm that I understand your position. I only ask the same in return — and we can hopefully agree that “understanding” does not mean the same thing as “agreement.” We may not agree, but the conversation (at least from my end) will be respectful.

    As for the original content of Michael Tomlin’s post, I fully support e-learning in the schools. I have 22 years of experience (and 2.95) degrees in education, training, and development, most of which has been in the business sector, but some in the public schools. I assume, from your words, that you are in education, too, but since you haven’t outright stated that, I won’t say for sure. But if you are, you (should) know the value of clear learning objectives created with specific verbs taken from Bloom’s Taxonomy. And if that’s the case, then you (should) know that quality e-learning can be created to engage students to TRULY learn (transfer of / acquisition of knowledge). If you are in education, then you are probably aware that not every topic can be taught via e-learning. But many can … and if we’re going move our kids “from school to work,” then they sure as hell need to be acquainted with e-learning.

    This is getting at the core of Michael Tomlin’s post … not teacher job security.

    To your concern about teacher job security, I restate the earlier question: “Why is it that if a charter school does poorly it gets closed, but if a public school does poorly, it simply needs more help and we’re supposed to throw more money at it?”

    To close, if you wish to remain anonymous, then an anonymous phone call to me will continue the conversation. If that’s something you won’t do, well, that says a lot. I’ll waste no more time having my position misconstrued behind a long, drawn-out veil of online anonymity. The door and invitation remain open, by my time is important to me. You can remain anonymous over the phone.

  7. Mr. B, #15:

    While Mr. Knowledge appreciates the invite, he is (as you can probably tell by the screen name) someone who appreciates his own anonymity.

    Mr. Knowledge also feels as if you adroitly avoided responding to most of his substantive points, and expertly changed the subject to whether or not Mr. Knowledge had watched the movie you recommended viewing excerpts of on YouTube.

    Certainly you can tell us whether this unbiased “THE CARTEL” flick tells us anything about Idaho. If it does then tell us, rather than continue to say “watch the movie.”

  8. Thanks for the comment, I know that it definitely inspires my students to want to do more!

  9. Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed.

    LOL… if you say so, Mr. K.
    Coffee invitation still stands, after you watch the movie.

  10. You done nice work on your blog keep it up.
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  11. And so ends the debate, fizzled out into silence, my valid points left unaddressed.

    A disappointed world demands answers!

  12. Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed.

    [ re-read post 7 here ]

  13. Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed.


  14. Responding to Dr. B, #7, you suggested in your first post to watch what was on YouTube, so I did, in addition to reading a number of reviews of the film. Because of the invite I didn’t think you’d go hard on me for not watching the entire thing.

    That being said, I won’t withdraw a jot of what I wrote about what – given the title of the movie and the snippets I saw of it – the purpose of it does not appear to be to view both sides of an issue. It’s to rip public education and the people who are part of it.

    I disagree that I put any words in your mouth. When you write (paraphrasing) “watch this movie, it will show you what’s going on behind the scenes in education,” I think I’m justified in saying that it really probably doesn’t give us the whole picture. And, in particular, it doesn’t really tell us much about what is going on in Idaho, because it’s not about Idaho.

    I’d love to have coffee but am too busy working on my movie about online education companies that donate money to politicians who will fire teachers and redirect tax dollars to use their services instead. It’s called “Bloodsuckers: How Online Education is Sucking us Dry.”

    The real purpose of education “reform” in Idaho is little more than to bust the teacher’s union. Look at the bill. A fraction of it is devoted to the online course v. teacher debate. It is devoted to atomizing teachers so they don’t have any negotiating power and introducing “free market” principles to public education.

    Which in my personal view is questionable, because the problem with the “performance” view of public education is it completely excuses parents and our culture from the equation. And, those same parents you complained about earlier, who go to the principal and complain about a teacher who is too difficult on a student, will get to have input into whether a teacher stays or goes at a school. Or pursue a vendetta against a teacher/coach because coach didn’t pick someone’s kid for the varsity football team.

    Leading me to my last point, which is that the most likely explanation for the post-secondary performance issues we have in this state is largely cultural. I think too many parents don’t care about education, don’t care about college, and take minor to non-existent roles in educating their children.

    And our public schools superintendent, who doesn’t even have a degree in education, is going to give us a system where it is the teachers who will get all the blame.

  15. I read the Independent School District of Boise City, Analysis of Idaho Department of Education
    Public Schools Budget and Reform Proposal dated January 21, 2011 (http://tinyurl.com/6athgld) and here are a few items they noted. That sure doesn’t sound like success to me, but I’m am no expert.

    Idaho’s current status with respect to such readiness is:
    · 49th in the nation in college entry
    · 50th in the nation in retention from freshman to sophomore year
    · 44th in the nation in 6-year college graduation rate

    The effect of such a change upon class size in the Boise District will be as follows:
    Grades 2010-11 Avg Class Size 2012-13 Avg Class Size
    4-6 26.8 – 29.6
    7-9 24.3 – 28.1
    10-12 24.7 – 28.8

    Considerable research exists supporting the relationship between lower class sizes and
    improved academic achievement at middle and upper grades (see
    http://www.classsizematters.org/ for information on class size in middle and upper

  16. Boys, boys, I guess I’m in this one. Let’s go back, Mr, K., and read what Doc wrote. It is a very important position to understand that our Founders had no proof that government run by us – the common people – would work. And to use your term, it didn’t make sense, since the common people were not and still are not ready to “rule.” But they did it anyway…and thankfully.

    Cable TV didn’t make sense – who in their right minds would pay for what they were getting for free.

    No, Doc is right on this one. Online classes are not new, they are not a fad, they are used in many industries for training, including for the preparation of teachers. Kids today need to know how to learn online, and if it saves a buck so much the better.

  17. Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed

    So you haven’t watched the whole movie.

    Well,actually, Mr. Knowledge, based on your first post, you and I actually agree on several points. But other than being offended by your first response to me that put words in my mouth and ascribed intentions to my heart that do not exist, I won’t respond other than to say that I’ll be willing to discuss this further after you have opened your mind enough to watch the movie in its entirety. At that point, you would at least be informed, whether you agree with it or not. Feel free to contact me after that … I’m listed, and I’ll even buy the coffee.

  18. Mr. D. Bobinski, M.Ed.,

    I have watched mostly large blocks of the film on YouTube. From what I’ve seen, and what I’ve read about the film, it is primarily about New Jersey and states other than the one we live in.

    Please enlighten me as to any Idaho specific segments of the movie. I’m not aware of any.

    Movies with titles like this pretty much say it all for me. So, the entire public school system in the United States is a “cartel?” The pejorative title alone should tell any thinking individual that neutrality is not going to be the picture’s strong suit.

    i don’t care what side of the political spectrum you’re on, right or left, there are movies made by those on both sides of the political divide that are basically agitprop, whether it is Michael Moore on the left or the loonies on the right who made the Hillary Clinton movie.

    So, in conclusion, I guess what I’m saying is I disagree with trying to work people up with a movie that isn’t even about Idaho’s public school system to sour them on the legitimate positions of public school teachers and administrators in Idaho.

    And, I disagree in general with movies like this that try to work people up, whatever their perspective. I am not surprised that there’s plenty with public schools that doesn’t work, especially in big city America and places like New Jersey.

    That’s hardly a reason to jettison them nationwide, or create a voucher system so that we can become an even more fractious society than we already are.

  19. Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed.

    Mr. Knowledge,

    Have you watched the entire CARTEL movie?

  20. In response to post #3:

    1. Citing statistics that, in your view, seem to indicate we are just doing fine, makes me wonder why it makes any sense to cut the number of teaching positions under Luna’s proposed plan. If it’s not broke . . .

    2. The Cartel is a movie about NEW JERSEY’s educational system that attempts to extrapolate nationally. It’s a piece of propaganda built around focusing on one particularly dysfunctional state in the union. So, saying that the movie will show us “what’s going on behind the scenes in education” is ridiculous. You’re really saying it shows what is going on behind the scenes in Idaho? It doesn’t.

    3. Comparing the e-training of adults in the business world to the public education of children is not a valid comparison. While kids obviously use computers all the time, and while our schools already use computers as educational tools, there is no evidence that replacing human teachers with laptops and on-line courses works.

    4. I will give you one thing, which is that I couldn’t agree more that one of the bigger problems with education in our country is cultural. Too many parents don’t value education and don’t value the role of teachers, hence the whining and complaining about low grades and workload. And, I think in general that a large segment of our population devalues education because it is viewed as elitist and conflicts with the religious and political views of many. None of these things are the fault of the public school system.

    5. Study after study shows that one of the keys to education is early education, e.g., in pre-school and kindergarten, which – truth be told – with many kids would break the educational link with parents who don’t value education enough. But, not in Idaho, where we so zealously protect the rights of dumb parents to keep from educating their kids for as long as possible.

  21. Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed.

    I can’t help but say “duh — it works.” Education is a large, slow-moving animal, burdened by top-heavy bureacracies. Crunch the numbers of how much schools receive for each student and multiply that times the number of students in that school. With local control wrested away and everything “managed from afar,” parents no longer are aware of what’s being spent where.

    As for Idaho students, yep, we’re #50 in spending per student. But our scores are AT or ABOVE the national average in almost every category. I say that says a LOT about how well our Idaho teachers actually TEACH, compared to many other states, some of which spend almost twice as much per student.

    But I’m still appalled at how much LESS we teach in this country than we did 80 years ago — with MUCH MUCH less money per student back then (PHENOMENALLY less, even adjusted for inflation). If you doubt me, you need only turn to the Washington Post, where they recently linked to an Elementary Diploma test required of all 8th graders in West Virgina in 1931 before they would be permitted to enter high school. You can find that test here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/education/v/tests.pdf

    Can you imagine a similar test, written for students in Idaho, being given to our 8th graders today? How about our high school grads? How about our college grads? It’s offensive to hear people crying for “more money” when our schools did so much more with so much less 80 years ago. The key to successful education is and will always be “expection.” Students will do what is expected of them. Little more.

    Our education system becomes gutted when little Suzy and little Johnny tell mommy and daddy that their teacher was mean to them (i.e, expected them to actually turn in homework), and then mommy and daddy complain to the principal, who simply tells the teacher to go easier on Suzie and Johnny. Or, mommy and daddy come in for a ‘conference’ with the teacher and threaten to cause trouble if the teacher doesn’t lighten up on their kids. Don’t tell me it doesn’t happen. I have too many relatives working in the public schools, and I hear about it firsthand.

    Think about your own education. Didn’t you learn the most from the teachers & professors that expected more from you?

    As for “does it work,” again, I say “duh, it works.” Businesses are moving to e-learning wherever possible because of the cost savings, and they wouldn’t be doing it if they weren’t getting results. One training director overseeing a $20 million annual training budget told me it cost his company $100 per hour per student for standard classroom training, but only $35 per hour per student for e-learning. And yes, he sees results or he wouldn’t use it. Even at 1/3 the price, there would be no savings if there were no results.

    Granted, plenty of poorly developed online learning is out there, but plenty of high quality courses exist, too. So long as courses are carefully selected and managed, with clearly stated learning objectives that meet our needs, and the coursework leads the learner to meet the objectives, there is no reason our online-addicted kids can’t use that method of delivery to acquire knowledge. Frankly, even my relatives in education who don’t like Tom Luna think he’s “finally onto something.”

    By the way, if you want to see what’s going on behind the scenes in education, go see THE CARTEL tonight (Thursday, Jan 27, 6:00 PM) at the Egyptian Theater in Boise. You will be SHOCKED at the waste and appalled at what you learn. If that’s not possible, check it out online. You WILL be amazed.

  22. The premise of this article is ridiculous – I guess it’s akin to let’s never look at what we’ve learned, no that would be foolish. On a wider view, I understand the point and it’s validity – in some context, but where information exists, it should be examined or we are destined to repeat what has failed. If you don’t believe that, I have a theory, you give me all your money and you’ll feel much better. Please don’t critically examine that theory though, just assume it is true. I can guarantee you 50% of the people involved in that transaction will be pleased.

    WE ARE #50 OF 52 IN EDUCATION FUNDING! Now, we should all know that there is no linear relationship between per capita student funding and performance. But, wait a minute…. have we tested that theory? Obviously we’ve tested being virtually last of the United States in per capita student funding. Hey, based on your proposition, it is just as valid to test the flip side of funding, right? I mean, we haven’t ever tested the other extreme.

    Hey, now I get it. I like your theory in fact. Yeah. Hey, let’s do that. Let’s see if adequately funding education will work. I can’t believe we’ve never thought of that before.

    Thanks, Michael. This has been another fantastic read. See, another win-win.

  23. Mike,

    I’ll do my best not to sound too harsh about this, but, how on earth can you be critical of people in this state who ask for proof (also known as facts) that forcing local school districts to make their students take online courses makes educational sense?

    Forgive me, but I’d like the people who run our educational system and our legislators to make policy based on facts, not on speculation. (It would also be nice if these decision makers didn’t allow themselves to be influenced by the online school industry that is hard at work convincing state legislatures all over the country to funnel tax dollars to them and away from paying real live teachers to teach.)

    And how can you say that “it will work” after you’ve basically admitted that there’s no proof it will?

    We have pinched pennies on education in this state for decades and where it has gotten us is statistically near the bottom of most educational standards. We are, I believe, 49th in the nation for kids going to college. We are 50th in retention of college students from freshman to sophomore year.

    But, because I guess the point of the article is “who cares about facts,” lets just keep on doing what we’ve done and expect a different outcome.

    You have to spend money to make money.

    We have beautiful new state of the art capitol facilities that we spent tens of millions of dollars on without the blink of an eye. Yet we can’t find the money to keep our teachers, provide adequate facilities to our students, or pay for band, art, and a variety of athletic programs.

    Pennywise, but a pound foolish. So goes this fine state.