A is for Asynchronous


April 17, 2020

Chris O'Brien

Managing Director of Schools


“And isn’t it ironic? Don’t ya think?” - Alanis Morrisette

A decade after those lyrics rang out over the airways, we find ourselves in a state of urgent educational irony and the clock is running on us all to adapt. Educators need to learn and learn quickly. The stakes have never been higher for schools in urban neighborhoods to get distance learning done right - and done right now.

Teachers across the country - and here at Breakthrough Public Schools - have now become the students. We all have had to learn - how to teach - all over again. Our educators have had to go back to the chalkboard to re-draw up what school looks like when there are no smartboards, whiteboards, paper, books, desks or even walls. Our traditional and familiar tools have been replaced by new ones like Google Classroom, Nearpod and Flipgrid.

Distance Learning at Breakthrough Public Schools

The need to learn how to “do school virtually” is hyper-critical for us to accomplish our mission at Breakthrough. We serve 3,400 scholars in urban Cleveland - roughly 85% being students of color living in poverty. Our goal is to prepare each of our scholars for success in high school, college and life. We already fight against a broken system to equip our scholars to beat the discouraging statistics for college completion for black and brown kids in America. The COVID-19 pandemic presents another barrier that we must navigate so that our kids can access their education.  There are already growing reports of how the virus is disproportionately affecting African-American families in our country. These are systemic, national issues that pose even further challenges that need national attention, but are beyond our immediate control. The highest leverage thing we can do for our scholars in Cleveland is innovate new solutions to address the issue of access to high quality online instruction in neighborhoods that have been marginalized.


In a flash, our schools and our lives were turned upside down. We found ourselves out of sync, struggling to adjust to life and school at home. Our challenge was to design an effective way to allow our families to get back in sync with school.

As educators, it is our responsibility to establish a new sense of order to this chaos so that the children we serve will continue to learn and grow. We needed to design a new system that would specifically work for the families we serve. The system needed to be user friendly and flexible. Our distance learning plan needed to be able to “plug and play” into the lives of our families.

Enter a new word and a new world: asynchronous learning.

Asynchronous learning is the idea that students can access all of their educational materials all at different times. Although students can access instructional videos and interact with their teacher/peers, it is not happening at given dates and times. It is essentially on demand instruction which, in it of itself, is fitting for the times, Rather than forcing all of our students having to sign on simultaneously to receive their reading and math instruction, their lessons are stored in the cloud and able to be accessed at any time of day. Students log into Google Classroom and all their lessons - reading, math and even PE - are right there waiting for them.

Now, parents have the flexibility to insert school into their lives when it makes the most sense for them. And if you need the kids to stop to eat lunch, help with chores or play a game with the family? No problem - your lesson is waiting for you when you come back.

It’s like educational UberEats.

Since the lessons are all pre-loaded and ready to be consumed, you can order up math or reading whenever there is an appetite for learning.  It’s delivery - instructional delivery.

This asynchronous approach, combined with the ingenuity and willingness of our teachers to connect with our students via phone calls, Instagram videos, Flipgrid discussions, GoogleMeet meetings makes Breakthrough Public Schools a place dedicated to making good on our promise to our families to educate their child - whatever it takes.


So, we must learn how to do this and how to do this well. For the past month and for the foreseeable future, we will lean into learning on how to instruct beyond our brick and mortar buildings.  In just a few short weeks, we have already learned an incredible amount on how to flip our traditional schools into high quality, online learning institutions.

The secret is success in accelerating the learning curve has been professional collaboration. Tech savvy teachers have been teaching other teachers, administrators and support staff how to move to remote instruction. Tech teams are building infrastructure and making access easier for families. We mobilized to distribute 2,500 devices to families in need that did not have them. We distributed hotspots as well so students could access the materials online. Resources are quickly being shared and replicated. Educators are dividing up the work among each other, connecting virtually and freely sharing lesson plan ideas for all to use. The level of commitment and collaboration has been awe-inspiring. And while we know we will make mistakes in our implementation and need to adapt our plan, we are confident that we will make those changes effectively through our collective know-how and urgency. Our goals are ambitious. We are striving to get as many students as actively engaged as possible in online learning. Our success will be defined by it.

At a time where the country is being urged to socially distance themselves from each other, Breakthrough Public Schools have found the best way to solve this educational crisis is to come together - asynchronously.

Isn’t that ironic?

Chris O'Brien is the Managing Director of Schools at Breakthrough Public Schools in Cleveland, Ohio. Breakthrough Public Schools is the highest-performing network of free, public charter schools in Cleveland, Ohio. Our mission is to develop a growing network of distinctive school options that prepare Cleveland area students for success in life. Connect or give feedback at cobrien@breakthroughschools.org