Oct 31 2006

Advisory Council

Administrators often need help making informed technology decisions. In a growing number of districts, IT advisory councils are coming to their aid.

Melissa B. Tamberg

AS U.S. SCHOOL DISTRICTS BECOME increasingly reliant on information technology, administrators often feel the pressure to keep up with the unrelenting pace of technological change. To deal with this challenge, some administrators are turning to IT advisory councils to provide the information, expertise and guidance their districts need.

“An IT advisory council is an opportunity to get highly qualified people directly involved in decision-making and the process of informing [districts] about technology issues,” says Mark Gura, head of the Outreach Program at Fordham University’s Regional Educational Technology Center in New York City and former director of the Office of Instructional Technology for the New York City Board of Education. By tapping the community for tech-savvy professionals, school districts can get feedback and guidance on critical technology issues.

“They [the ITadvisory council] will tell us if we’re going in the right direction,” explains Craig Williams, CIO of Naperville Community Unit School District 203. Based in Naperville, Ill., the district serves about 19,000 students in 21 schools.

The school board created Naperville’s IT advisory council seven years ago. It consists of two district employees and six members from outside the district, including technology executives and professionals from a major U.S. cell phone manufacturer, a tech purchasing executive who works for a leading health insurance provider and an IT professional from a government nuclear research facility.

“They give advice and help us know if we’re on the right track,” Williams says. “It’s like having a built-in gauge of the way we are doing things.”

Being able to tap the advisory council for informed and unvarnished opinions on everything that’s related to technology has been a boon to the Naperville school district, Williams says. One of the greatest benefits has been the opportunity to get an outside perspective on technology.

“They give us a whole different perspective,” he says, “and they don’t necessarily tell us what we want to hear.”

Been There, Done That

Often, council members have already encountered—and solved—technology problems in their organizations that school districts currently face.

“We’ve had instances where we have been able to say, ‘We’ve been doing this for two or three years now … and if I could do it over again, I would do such-and-such,’” says Don Carlsen, an IT advisory council member who is also the director of technology for the city of Naperville.

One such instance was when the district was considering changing its Web site to a content-managed format that could be updated and managed by employees.

“We were able to join them and talk about the things we did a year or two ago,” Carlsen says of fellow council members. “It’s great to learn from each other, and talk about problems and pitfalls.”

The members’ knowledge and expertise in the private sector may also encourage administrators to think outside of the box. “School districts are typically more conservative, often because of tax issues,” Carlsen explains, “but they sometimes need to be more cutting-edge.”

“They can give advice and help us know what to do,” adds CIO Williams. “Someone will say, ‘We’re a multibillion dollar corporation, and here’s how we do things.’ Or another member will say, ‘We have thousands of users, and here’s what works for us.’”

Currently, the council is advising the district on the best ways to support students who, in growing numbers, are bringing their own IT devices to school.

Serendipitous Savings

When leaders from community agencies forge relationships and keep one another informed of current issues, unexpected benefits can be realized. At one meeting of the Naperville School District’s advisory council, for example, members focused on strategic planning for telephony and future Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) integration.

Carlsen realized that the school district and the city were seeking the same services, so they cooperatively negotiated with the local telephone company for a joint contract. That resulted in savings to the district of $600,000 during the first year of the contract, and of more than a million dollars over three years. “We’re planning to leverage that into even more savings in the future,” he says.

Fordham’s Gura points to another way advisory councils can help school districts operate more cost-effectively. One of the New York City committees he participated in suggested a change in the way school-based computer equipment was purchased by the city’s schools. Rather than allowing people to order whatever product they wanted from whatever vendor they chose, the new process narrowed the choice to one principal vendor and a reduced scope of equipment.

Ultimately, whether school districts seek applicable business models, IT recommendations or the advice of experienced professionals on critical issues, they can reap significant benefits from IT advisory councils. They are effective sounding boards and can provide essential advice to help school districts save time and money, while providing a better learning environment for students.

Melissa B. Tamberg is a technology-focused freelance writer based in San Diego.

Creating a Winning Advisory Council

A well-balanced, well-informed IT advisory council can make a world of difference in technology planning and management—but only if the group dynamic and mix of members is right.

Don Carlsen, an IT advisory council member for the Naperville Community Unit School District 203 in Illinois, recommends diversity in the council. “It’s great to get a lot of different backgrounds,” he says.

Be sure to balance the panel, adds Mark Gura, a man who had a lot of experience with IT advisory councils as the former director of the Office of Instructional Technology for the New York City Board of Education.

Now the head of the Outreach Program at Fordham University’s Regional Educational Technology Center in New York City and co-author of Recapturing Technology for Education, Gura cautions school districts to be conscious of the motivation of individuals being considered for the council to ensure that they don’t have their own personal or organizational agenda.

Another potential danger, he suggests, is that district officials might be intimidated by the technology leaders whose counsel they seek. “It can be hard to stare down a vice president of a major corporation,” Gura points out, “so look for a healthy balance.”

It’s essential to ensure that one member doesn’t dominate the group and that all participants feel comfortable and empowered, adds Craig Williams, CIO of the Naperville School District. “The great group dynamics on our council have made for very fruitful conversations,” he says.

Though it’s important to have council members who represent different perspectives, Williams warns against overloading the panel with vendors.

Tech-savvy parents, on the other hand, can bring an especially advantageous point of view, he says, since they have a personal stake in the technology issues and decisions.

It’s also important to familiarize council members with the school district’s policies and procedures, according to Fordham’s Gura. “They need to have an understanding of how the school system works, as far as legal and other issues are concerned,” he says.