Meet digital education transformation consultant, Mary-Lou O'Brien

September 21, 2020

Understanding the needs and goals of K-12 schools is incredibly important for any ed-tech company, which is why the Digistorm team will take any opportunity to learn from a leader in the education sector. In this interview, we talk to one such leader, Mary-Lou O'Brien.

Mary-Lou is the former Chief Digital Officer at Melbourne Girls Grammar School and this year founded her own consultancy, ML O'Brien Pty Ltd. A thought leader in the world of digital, Mary-Lou also writes extensively on her blog about important topics such as digital transformation and architecture, online and blended learning, women in tech, social media, future of work, creativity, cybersafety and personal branding.

In July, Mary-Lou was a guest speaker on our webinar, Thought Leadership in the Education Industry. After the webinar concluded, we wanted to follow up with her and ask some more questions about her experience over the past twenty years in the education industry. Without further ado, here is Mary-Lou!



Heather: The last time we talked, you were working for Melbourne Girls' Grammar School in the role of CDO. Where are you working now?

Mary-Lou: In January I finished up at MGGS and I launched my own consultancy, ML O'Brien Pty Ltd. It was perfect timing as by March I'd returned from my first role overseas and was back, just in time to support schools with their transition to remote learning. Given my experience with blended and online learning, combined with two decades of practical experience of school platforms and digital transformation projects, it has meant that the giant leap of faith I expected it to be was just a fairly smooth transition into the next chapter.

Heather: Part of your role is supporting educators and school staff through digital transformation. What's the most important factor in getting senior stakeholders on board?

Mary-Lou: I’ve always said that a big part of my role is to act as the interpreter, the agent or if required, the mediator between all stakeholders. So the most important factor is ensuring that all stakeholders are on the same page and talking the same language. This is made easier in schools that have strong Strategic Plans in place. An important aspect of this is building a level of trust — with trust from all stakeholders it becomes possible to get everyone on the same page. Being an outside consultant allows me to rise above the politics of the school community and focus on the solutions that are best suited for their particular environment.


Digital transformation

Heather: On your blog, you’ve cited research that the education sector is ‘at odds with innovative cultures’. Why do you think that is? 

Mary-Lou: Most of the education sector still operates in a system that was designed around compliance and conformity to prepare a future workforce that has mostly now been replaced by machines and robots. In this model, school leaders still operate in the command and control mindset of our industrial aged model of education and this just isn’t conducive to building an innovative culture. Currently, it’s our universities who have been impacted the most by the current pandemic and so as their sector fragments we will see them being far more innovative as they enter new markets, invest in emerging technologies, and build stronger links with industry. In response, K-12 will also need to shift to better support and prepare students for lifelong learning and the future of work.  

Innovation takes an element of risk, and school leaders of highly academically focused schools tend to be risk-averse as they feel they can’t expose themselves to a decline in academic outcomes. This is despite the fact that many schools that do take on the challenge and see it through, end up with stronger profiles, boosted enrolments and far better student outcomes overall. Schools are complex environments and changing an organisation’s culture takes a huge amount of courage and patience. All change management processes need to be grounded by a clear vision to ensure buy-in and that all stakeholders are on the same page and working towards the same goals.

Heather: When schools are looking to adopt a new digital partner or platform, what do you advise them to look for?

Mary-Lou: First and foremost I am looking for partners who are agile and responsive. When investigating a new product (software or hardware), a sales rep is normally the first port of call, however, if they don’t respond to an inquiry, or are complacent throughout the trial period, I quickly lose faith in how they will manage and support us in the future. When it comes to larger projects a lack of a SLA (service level agreement) is always a warning sign as I have to know we have an exit strategy in place should we need it. My approach is definitely a ‘fail fast, fail forward’ model of execution. I was extremely fortunate to spend ten years working in an environment where we were encouraged to take on new challenges, practice design thinking based on rapid prototyping and learning from our mistakes. This allowed for a period of significant innovation and at a fast rate too.

I’d met with many app developers over the years, but most were coming into the education sector thinking naively that they could charge Native app prices for what was a simple Web app. Having been a Small Business Management Lecturer in the past, I’ve always been a big believer in small businesses focussing on what they do best and being wary of diversifying away from their core offering. To me, it makes far more sense to partner and integrates with specialists, rather than trying to mimic and reinvent the wheel, and this approach often leads to a far better outcome for all concerned.

Heather: What do you think is technology’s place within education?

Mary-Lou: Technology simply needs to be embedded in everything we do, every process and in every classroom. At Melbourne Girls Grammar our technology agenda supported a paradigm shift in education, where the focus was on personalised learning, flexibility, choice, ongoing assessment, collaboration, student wellbeing and the global readiness of every student to succeed in work and life.

A transformative IT leader in Education needs to continually be driving business success and leveraging technology to support new learning pedagogies, implementing the science of learning and ensuring innovation across the environment. They should also provide thought leadership and advice to the Executive by understanding external developments, innovations and new trends ensuring the organisation is aware and responsive to new developments.


Just for fun

Heather: Okay, and just for fun... You’re stuck in an airport for 6 hours and you can’t leave. What do you do to keep busy? 

Mary-Lou: I could easily kill an hour shopping, and you’d probably find me in that one store that sells tech gadgets and after that, the designer fashion stores. I love that in the US airports you can pay for a day pass to most airport lounges, so that’s where I’d end up once I’d checked out all the shops. Over the years in the Admirals Club Lounge at LAX I’ve caught a lift with Kylie Minogue and sat at the bar with Jack Black so you’d find me propped up at the bar where I’d be either streaming a movie, listening to an audiobook, reading my Kindle or catching up on emails and hoping that some famous Australian, think: Hugh Jackman, Tim Minchin, Cate Blanchett, Martin Grant, Claudia Karvan, Paul Kelly or Baz Lurhmann are also delayed and planning to do the same!


If you'd like to learn more about Mary-Lou's work or how digital transformation can impact your school, visit her website for more information.