With education institutions spending more funds on technology, most notably on large-scale wiring infrastructure, networking, telecommunications and streaming video, experts are divided on the role of consultants. Why this uncertainty?

Business and industry have accepted for years the concept that consultants can improve efficiency and effectiveness. Educators, on the other hand, have taken the position that they have the expertise, or can get it for free from a local vendor. Accomplishing projects locally tends to carry a lot of weight in education, even when it's not efficient or cost-effective.

Sooner or later educational leaders may need to select a technology consultant, either directly or indirectly through a contract with an architectural firm. What role does the school wish a consultant to play? Will it be to confirm existing practices? Share best practices? Introduce new techniques and tools? Start from scratch? Most often, the role of a consultant is not defined clearly, undermining the consultant's effectiveness. The first step for administrators is to define carefully the work to be done.

How should educational leaders go about seeking expert help? What guidelines might help schools avoid a poor choice? How can schools ensure that consultants provide balanced, sensitive points of view that will result in constructive change?

Six pitfalls to avoid:

  • Don't buy into the notion that cheaper is better. Cost is a legitimate factor. Bear in mind the adage “you get what you pay for.” Choosing a well-qualified, independent consultant may require more investment upfront.

  • Avoid using vendors who lack educational savvy. They often want to extol what they sell, or are single-solution believers who promote a set of ideologies that can hurt over the long haul.

  • Steer clear of consultants who do not model a set of alternatives. Single-issue technology consultants are easy to smoke out. Simply review their previous projects to see if their solutions change from project to project. If they use the same solution time after time, beware.

  • Beware of consultants that are not totally independent. A consultant should provide expertise, but not a product. Make sure a consultant isn't tied to vendors or manufacturers. Consultants associated with vendors or manufacturers often cost less; they make their money through a percentage of the sales of the products they sell you. Vendor consultants typically fit the plan to their products, and the solution will be tied to their service.

  • Hire a consultant with a background in education. Education is a specialized field, and consultants need to know about what's going on in a classroom before they can design or specify technology needs.

  • Give them your support. Consultants are adamant on this point. Once you hire them, make sure they have access to all the information they need to do their job. Trust them, or don't involve them.

Some consultants will have knowledge and information a school might find hard to match. A consultant can be valuable in educating administrators to make informed choices.

C. WILLIAM DAY

Day is senior analyst at KBD Planning Group, Bloomington, Ind., a firm specialized in educational facilities and technology planning. He can be reached at bday@kbdplanning.com. www.kbdplanning.com