Rapidly transitioning to online learning: Part I

Thomas O'Donahoo

Co-founder & Co-CEO at Atomi


min read

Hi everyone, my name is Tom and I’m one of the Co-Founders of Atomi.

Firstly, this is a strange time. For one, I’m writing this from home. Like many, Atomi has suspended all school visits and air travel, all our employees are working from home and we’re doing whatever we can to protect the health and safety of our customers and our team.

Over the past few months or so we’ve been contacted by many schools that are trying to figure out what this recent lockdown situation means for them and how they should move forward.

Given that we work with schools to support their transition to digital learning, we’ve found ourselves in a unique position to help. So, the Atomi team and I wanted to take the opportunity to share as much as we can about what strategies work in a rapid transition to online learning.

Firstly—and I want to make this clear upfront— any school that is not already a customer of Atomi is able to receive free access to Atomi resources until the end of Term 3. For our Atomi customer schools, we are allowing complimentary upgrades during this period to support additional subjects and year groups. Especially in the senior years, continuity of learning is more important than budgets so we’re willing to do what we can to help. Email us at schools@getatomi.com if you’d like to take us up on that offer.

With that in mind, let’s talk about some of the common modes of online or remote instruction at a very high level. After that, we’ll dive into their rollout.

The two types of online learning programs

Asynchronous heavy

Most of the work is pre-set for students using an LMS or tasking app. This means students can complete tasks independently at their own time, pace and place.


  • An LMS or tasking software.
  • Teachers trained to use your LMS/tasking software effectively.
  • Digital assets and resources for teachers to use in lessons such as video, interactive tasks, and other online assets.
  • Adequate time for teachers to prepare pre-planned lessons.


  • The most flexible solution that can cater to diverse student technology needs and challenges.
  • Provides a strong learning path for self-motivated students.


  • This places a large burden on teachers to pre-plan great lessons and source assets in advance.
  • It is more reliant on student’s ability to carry out unsupervised work.

Synchronous heavy

Most of the teaching happens via real-time video conferencing.


  • Every student needs a device that can support your chosen video conferencing solution.
  • Every student needs a high-bandwidth internet connection at home.


  • It is the closest proxy to what’s currently happening in the classroom.
  • Teachers will be most familiar with this mode of instruction, if not the medium.
  • It makes it clear that students are actively engaged for at least some period of the day.


  • It’s incredibly hard to replicate the classroom experience in a video chat.
  • It raises the most technical issues.
  • Student’s home internet connections must work to a reliable standard.

Download and view the two types of online learning programs as a PDF.

These are just two ends of a spectrum, and the reality is that most online learning programs are a bit of both. Asynchronous heavy is undoubtedly the better long-run teaching method, however, it takes a lot more preparation to execute well. If your school lacks an existing online or blended learning program, your teachers likely won't have time to roll out an asynchronous heavy program from day one, and not all of your students will have the self-discipline to take full advantage of it. On the other hand, synchronous learning time keeps students connected and accountable. If you’re rapidly rolling out an online learning program, you should try to progressively swing towards more asynchronous heavy lessons as your students and teachers can support it.

This idea follows roughly the same logic of how blended learning programs are often rolled out in schools we work with. In the early stages, schools transition progressively from real-time synchronous learning in the classroom to a more blended learning style within and beyond the classroom. This transition happens progressively as teachers integrate those types of lessons into their programs, and their students begin to prove they can handle an increasing level of agency over their learning.

In this case, the big caveat is that your synchronous learning fallback is not face-to-face instruction, it’s a video call, which brings with it its own unique set of challenges, but the principle should still stand. You can rapidly implement a synchronous heavy online learning program, and swing towards a more asynchronous heavy learning program as quickly as you can reasonably support it.

The biggest drag on making this swing will be that creating great asynchronous lessons consumes a lot of a teacher’s time. If they’re teaching their full class timetable whilst managing the challenges of having to suddenly do it online under the auspices of a global pandemic, you’re going to be asking a lot.

To alleviate this burden:

  1. Collaborate. If you can divide the work of creating lessons amongst a team of teachers it’s a massive time-saver.
  2. Perfection is the enemy of progress. Even if you think your prepared online lesson isn’t nailing it yet, it’s often still better to push through than falling back to synchronous learning. As you go, with the collaboration from your colleagues, more prep time, more experience and feedback from your students, it’ll become much easier to produce great online experiences.
  3. Using third party content as a starting point can greatly accelerate your ability to create an async heavy program. Here at Atomi, we’ve got thousands of great video and text lessons as well as interactive quizzes specifically built for years 11 and 12. These can be a massive time-saver if you’re looking to rapidly resource an online learning program, but you can also source content anywhere from YouTube to the thousands of great providers out there. Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to.

If you’re a school exec, try to kill as much of the busy work for teachers as you can:

  1. Ask your IT team to proactively support teachers with the new wave of technical issues, such as issues joining a video chat, sharing common issues and solutions in advance.
  2. Set clear guidelines on how to deal with parents that are concerned.
  3. Ensure that you’re consistently updating your stakeholders on what the expectations are of them as processes and circumstances continue to change.

Managing students without access to technology at home

Depending on the circumstances of your school community, it might be difficult to manage the issues surrounding equitable access to online learning. Many students still don’t have either a reliable, high bandwidth internet connection at home or an adequate device to access it on. However, there are many easy steps to tackle the low-hanging fruit of this issue.

Mobile friendly

Many students might not have a laptop with access to high-speed broadband, or they might be sharing that device with others in their household. However, they may have access to a smartphone. Choosing technologies and resources that can be accessed via a smartphone can increase the rate of participation significantly.

Defer to asynchronous modes

Although some students may have access to an adequate device and a good connection, they might not have access to it all the time. By setting work in advance that students can access via an LMS, a task board like Trello, via a platform like Atomi or any other way, you’ll be better off than relying on a method that requires everything to work at a specific point in time. If students can download work to their device, or print it and take it home, you should be able to reach more students.


  1. Select the mix of synchronous and asynchronous methods that works for you now to get you going, and swing towards asynchronous as you build capacity.
  2. Collaborate, iterate and don’t reinvent the wheel to save time and rapidly develop great online lessons.
  3. If you need help or if you have specific questions reach out to our team at schools@getatomi.com

Next steps

It’s one thing to plan a great online learning program, but it’s equally important to communicate it effectively. In Part II we’ve prepared a template communication plan so you can make the transition as smooth as possible. Read Part II here!

Related posts from The Staffroom:

Rapidly transitioning to online learning: Part II

Maintaining continuity during the Coronavirus outbreak

Atomi Brainwaves: Transitioning to online learning in the face of COVID-19


Published on

July 13, 2021

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