Getting the teaching toolmix right: How best to blend digital and non-digital resources to maximise student outcomes

Getting the teaching toolmix right: How best to blend digital and non-digital resources to maximise student outcomes

During the Victorian Global EdTech and Innovation Expo 2021, education experts Mary-Lou O’Brien and Gary Vella explored how to achieve the right balance of traditional and tech-based learning tools.

The afternoon session on Day 1 of the Victorian Global EdTech and Innovation Expo 2021 saw three education experts discuss how to enhance student outcomes with a mix of digital and non-digital resources in primary classrooms. 

They addressed how to promote collaboration in classrooms, the importance of a single point of entry for learning, how schools choose digital tools, the effect of technology on parents and more.

Tim Watts, Chief Revenue Officer at Compass Education, acted as moderator and was joined by two panellists:

  • Mary-Lou O’Brien, Digital Transformation Consultant, ML O’Brien Pty Ltd
  • Gary Vella, Assistant Principal, Coburg High School


How to leverage online resources to promote collaboration in classrooms

According to Gary Vella:

  • Even if you’re using the best technology in the world, you have to test whether students are engaging with it and actually collaborating. 
  • A physical classroom may seem superior to a remote one, but that isn’t always the case. Students in a physical classroom might be using apps that have nothing to do with schoolwork because the teacher can’t see their screens. In a remote classroom, the teacher can see each student working and collaborating with others in the remote learning app.
Having that data coming back to you as to who is doing what and when, and how often they’re actually engaged with [the technology], is so crucial.”
Gary Vella, Coburg High School

The importance of a single point of entry for learning

Mary-Lou O’Brien stresses the importance of having a single point of entry for learning (a learning management system or LMS) in every school because:

  • Students only have one username and password to remember.
  • Data is centralised and can be easily analysed and distributed.

Gary Vella agrees and adds that:

  • Multiple platforms can increase tech stress and anxiety for students, parents and staff.

How to effectively blend digital and non-digital resources

Gary Vella believes that a middle ground is best because:

  • Coburg High School originally moved to a digital-only environment without a library, whiteboards or photos on the walls. It was an extreme position, but it forced people to innovate.
  • Now, the school has moved back towards a blend of digital and non-digital. VCE exams are handwritten and students are expected to do some handwritten work in every lesson. Digital tools should be used if they transform a lesson, but otherwise the lesson can be done in a notebook.

How the toolmix differs in the younger versus older age groups

Gary Vella says that, surprisingly:

  • The technology is more advanced and the apps are better integrated in the younger years (7 through 10) than in the older years (11 and 12).
“The younger year levels get exposed to a plethora of engaging and transformative technologies, whereas towards the top end there’s far more bookwork and traditional learning. Teachers seem to find [technology] far more obtrusive at that top end.”
Gary Vella, Coburg High School
EduGrowth Day 1 PM Session at Victorian Global EdTech & Innovation Expo - Gary Vella speaking

The main considerations when choosing digital tools

In response to a question regarding how much she needs to consider students’ different learning styles – visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic – when selecting digital tools, Mary Lou O’Brien says:

  • While learning styles are a consideration, her main concern is how the tools will impact learning outcomes for all students.
  • A second consideration is student and staff experiences of the tools.
  • In her role as digital transformation consultant, she also needs to consider security, data retention and privacy. 
“When schools are looking at implementing software, it’s absolutely vital these days that they include either a business manager or an IT manager to be in on decision-making processes [about security, data retention and privacy].”
Mary-Lou O’Brien, ML O’Brien Pty Ltd

Gary Vella says that Coburg High School opts for tools that are:

  • Accessible: Do they mirror what children already know (such as a web browser) so they can use them without thinking too hard?
  • Intuitive: Will children be able to use them without any training for an easy and stress-free experience?

The impact of Victoria’s mobile phone ban in state schools

Gary Vella thinks the recent ban has been “fantastic” because:

  • Students had been using their phones for social purposes rather than educational purposes and many students were entering the workforce “unable to get off their phones”.
  • Banning phones has been a major step towards the better use of technology within schools.
“Kids [weren’t] looking up answers to complex equations or historical facts. It was mostly keeping up with parents, siblings and friends and obsessing around social circles.”
in and out is a new challenge for EdTech companies.”
Gary Vella, Coburg High School

Mary Lou O’Brien disagrees with the ban because she believes:

  • We need to focus on educating and preparing children to engage in and manage the world they live in where technology is ubiquitous.
  • Mobiles can be used as learning and communication tools in schools, but teachers need support in managing them and students need to learn how to manage their devices responsibly and safely.

How students are taught to be good digital citizens

Gary Vella explains that at Coburg High School, they achieve this in three ways:

  • Programs run by outside companies at every year level to teach students how to manage their digital diet and be good tech users.
  • Programs within the school curriculum to teach students how to use their phones and computers responsibly and safely.
  • Tech nights where families are invited to hear guest speakers address issues surrounding social media, pornography and screen time limits.

Mary Lou O’Brien says that at Melbourne Girls Grammar where she used to work as Chief Digital Officer, they had:

  • An in-house digital advisor who helped students with any questions or issues they had.
  • An online digital citizenship course for year seven and eight students. They earnt a badge for each component they completed over a two-year period.
“Having a young counsellor in the digital advisor role… was hugely beneficial for us. [The students] would sit in [her office] at lunchtime and talk to her quite openly about what was going on online for them. If she needed to, there was the school psychologist that she could refer them to.”
Mary Lou O’Brien, ML O’Brien Pty Ltd
VGEIE Day 1 PM Blog - Mary-Lou O'Brien speaking

How schools choose digital tools and the level of freedom they give to teachers

Gary Vella explains that at Coburg High School, they:

  • Choose digital tools that fill a need through an informal vetting process. 
  • Encourage some tools without restricting teachers. They’re free to use whichever tools they want because most are easy to use and won’t confuse students.

Mary Lou O’Brien filtered most of the tools herself at Melbourne Girls Grammar and says that:

  • Her main concern was mitigating the risk of security breaches.
  • She wanted to ensure teachers weren’t uploading student data into web-based applications.

How digital tools affect parents’ role in their children’s education

According to Gary Vella:

  • Parents haven’t been considered. Digital tools lock parents out because they can no longer get an idea of what their kids are working on or how they’re doing in each subject like they used to in physical diaries or on blogs.
  • Hopefully, this feature will be added in the future.

Mary Lou O’Brien points out that:

  • This feature may not be present in free LMS’s, but it is in paid ones.

How teachers learn to use technology

Gary Vella explains that teachers at Coburg High School learn to use digital tools in two ways:

  • Regular “How to Coburg” tech training sessions on Monday nights.
  • Additional “Techie Brekkies” for teachers who need extra support or want to learn additional functionalities.

Mary Lou O’Brien says that at Melbourne Girls Grammar, teachers learnt how to use technology through:

  • An initial training session with the e-learning team when they started at the school.
  • Ongoing training sessions throughout the year and access to resources including videos and PDFs that explained how to use the tools.