Networking for Success: Robert Duke, CAE

By • August 31, 2020

Robert Duke, CAE
Robert Duke, CAE

If ever there was a moment for the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), this is it: A pandemic has forced school districts to quickly change how they deliver education. But thanks to the internet and affordable hardware, students can continue learning from their teachers through videoconferencing and an array of online learning tools. It’s up to CoSN’s membership, K-12 education technology (IT) leaders, to ensure the rollout of virtual schooling goes smoothly. As the premier professional association for school system technology leaders, CoSN is supporting its members through its own networked resources as they help teachers deliver education to millions of students in grades K-12.

This is Robert Duke, CAE’s moment too: the chief operating officer for CoSN took the job because he wanted to expand his skills after a distinguished career in education and technology associations. So far, he and his staff have successfully flipped their annual conference virtual and amplified numerous online courses and resources for members seeking guidance through these interesting times. We spoke with him about how he’s guiding membership operations and continuing to encourage professional development on the leading edge of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Association Adviser: How did you get into association management?

Robert Duke, CAE: [Laughs] The same way everyone else gets in: I fell into it. No one grows up saying they would like to be an association professional. After earning my degree I moved to Washington, D.C. When you’re looking for work in the D.C. area, you’re even more likely to fall into association work. I started with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities as a program manager before joining the Alliance for Higher Education as a program manager of finance and administration. The Alliance was a consortium of colleges in the Dallas, Texas, area that managed the TAGER network that was one of the first remote learning networks that facilitated primarily programming language training for technology companies. One of their biggest customers was Texas Instruments.

When my wife’s company moved her back to Washington, D.C., I found a position at the Competitive Telecommunications Association. This was during the telecom boom of the late 1990s, a great time to be in that industry, and I was the vice president who oversaw meetings, membership and administration. After working in similar positions at the Public Technology Institute and the International Association of Fire Chiefs, I saw an opportunity at the Consortium for School Networking for their COO position which focused on both education and technology, which is what my professional background had developed around, and I was looking for a way to broaden my professional skills.

AA: CoSN’s website states that the association “provides thought leadership resources, community, best practices and advocacy tools to help leaders succeed in the digital transformation.” The world has been through quite the fast-paced digital transformation lately with many schools moving to total digital learning this past spring and again this fall. How is CoSN supporting its members so they can best support their schools?

Consortium of School Networking logo

RD: What I like about CoSN is that its members are literally classified in many states as essential personnel in the pandemic.  School districts are very focused right now on remote learning and the challenges of deploying laptops to every last student in the district. Hopefully, we can seize upon that and keep the conversation going to promote the value of technology, and help students continue their learning outside of the physical school building. Our mission is to provide K-12 ed tech leaders with the tools they need to support learning in any situation. Right now, this is heavily weighted towards students taking classes online. It might look different in the future.

We still held our annual conference even though we had to flip it into a virtual event 10 days before the planned face-to-face event was supposed to take place in early March. We were in a position where we could not make the call to go virtual until it was illegal to have face-to-face events. Our staff had to adapt to working from home, which they’ve done well, while also taking on the extra work of designing and implementing the online event just two months after the planned in-person event. It was hosted exclusively on Zoom, and it went well. We had most of our original speakers and educational sessions because our staff pushed for the original schedule during our May virtual event.

AA: What was member feedback?

RD: They were pleased with the outcome. Our conference is known for being content-rich. In person, it’s impossible for most people to attend every session they’d like to hear because of so many concurrent topics happening.  With the virtual format, members liked being able to watch competing sessions – one live, one recorded. They can watch the recorded sessions through December. 31.

We had an exhibitor component. We gave them 60-second taped promotions dispersed throughout the conference. Our higher-level sponsors received exposure during special sessions one week later. If we have to do it again, I do not yet know what will it look like or if attendees will appreciate the virtual format as much the second time around. And this is true for every association managing a virtual event. We will definitely be modifying the original design of our virtual format to keep people engaged.

As for how CoSN is supporting members daily throughout the pandemic, we already had a lot of online resources available through our website, so we’re in a good position to address members’ professional knowledge needs. Members have been very busy as they lead their school districts’ switch to virtual learning. They’re securing laptops and other equipment for students and figuring out what online learning looks like for their district. We help with those issues by providing guidance about proper student data privacy, cybersecurity and helping districts fend off hackers breaching school systems, and issues surrounding digital equity. For example, how do you level the playing field among students who do not have internet access or a computer? How does an IT leader help disadvantaged students continue to learn at home? We’re helping members figure that out.

AA: There are many resources and tools for school IT professionals on CoSN’s COVID-19 microsite. Which tools have been the most-used?

RD: People are accessing resources that fall into three major categories:

Cybersecurity—With a sudden increase in the number of devices being distributed to students and an increase in remote access, districts are concerned about the security of these devices and their networks.

Student Data Privacy – With an increase in the use of remote learning students are spending more time online. Districts are concerned about the security of video conferencing platforms and security of data that is shared in those platforms.

Digital Equity — How does everyone have the same opportunity to learn remotely when there are disparities in internet access between students?

AA: Tell us about your IT Leader Back-to-School Report. Is this an annual survey/report, or was it done in light of the pandemic?

RD: It’s an annual survey focused on how people are adapting to new technologies and demands of managing technology for the K-12 environment. Separately, our IT leadership survey is much larger and covers all kinds of IT issues. The survey tracks the items such as bandwidth deployment, technology staffing and training needs. We’ve been conducting this survey for quite a few years.

AA: What kinds of challenges do they most often face?

RD: The chief technology officer position has changed a lot over the years. This is why we launched a certification program [Certified Education Technology Leader®] in 2012: We recognized that IT leaders are no longer the people who crawl under tables and  plug in machines. Some tech leaders in larger school districts manage more than 100 people in their IT department. Their departments are growing as technology becomes more central to student learning. Technology is now a critical function within school districts. As a result, IT must be represented at the highest levels and including in the overall district planning process. This means IT leaders need training that focuses on leadership, and not just serve as subject matter experts.

AA: How did you create the CETL® certification?

RD: A group of volunteers defined the job of a typical chief technology officer. From there, we developed a curriculum that would help candidates attain all elements of that model job description. The curriculum focuses on 10 skill areas in three broader divisions: leadership and vision, educational environment, and managing technology. The CETL exam is designed to test knowledge of the curriculum. So far, CoSN has certified more than 600 education tech leaders.

AA: You serve on ASAE’s Certified Association Executive exam committee. What’s the worth of earning the CAE credential?

RD: I’ve experienced both sides of that equation. I’ve served on the committee that develops the exam questions and taught portions of the financial boot camp CAE courses. I believe the CAE credential effectively prepares association professionals to become association CEOs, regardless of their personal aspirations. The framework of the CAE credential is based on the job description for a CEO of a mid-sized association. You learn everything you need to know to survive in that job. That’s the lens you want to wear while studying and the filter through which you should answer.

The hallmark of a Certified Association Professional is a common way of thinking about association management. CoSN has staff of 14, and four are and as an organization we recognize the value of professional certifications. Those four people on our staff can be counted on to know what the best practices are and how to find the answers to sticky questions. It is the same with the Certified Meeting Planner which highlights their dedication to the business.

I have personally benefited from the credential in my job search. It’s like a badge that says: I know what I need to know to run an association.

AA: What are the first steps someone wanting to become a CAE should take?

RD: Take advantage of ASAE’s classes. Explore the ASAE Annual Meeting. Talk with others who have sat for the CAE exam.

AA: Has the pandemic changed the way CoSN plans to support its members in the long-term?

RD: I don’t think the pandemic will dramatically alter the way we support members in the long term, but in the short term we’ve introduced more virtual learning opportunities, which was a path we were already on anyway because we know there are many members who don’t have the travel and professional development funds to attend our annual conference. We wanted to serve those segments better, so we budgeted, starting in June 2019, to host more virtual events than in previous years.

Going forward, I think we’ll see a lot more virtual events at all associations, including CoSN. The pandemic has made us realized that people can work and attend virtual events from home, but I don’t think face-to-face is going away. People crave that interaction, especially exhibitors. There will be a place for both.

AA: What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow and develop as a leader? What are you doing to ensure CoSN members continue to grow and develop as leaders in their roles?

RD: I usually attend the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition, but I also like meeting people face to face. I’ve missed that this year. Talking to peers about how they do things is one way I grow. I try to attend webinars to fill in areas where I don’t feel my skills are as strong, and I build capacity that way.

Regarding our staff, I try to encourage them to look at their skill set and determine what training they can participate in to round out their skills. For our members, CoSN’s CETL® certification is guided by a framework of best practices called the Framework of Essential Skills. The best thing we can do for members and their professional development is to continue to build our training opportunities around that framework. Eventually, we hope to have courses that tie to each area of the framework. It will take a lot more of our resources, but we want to ensure CoSN’s professional development offerings are well-rounded.

AA: In terms of your job, what keeps you up at night?

RD: I sleep pretty well! Nothing worries me too much. But if you’re an association leader, you have to look at where we’ve landed in 2020, and how it will impact the future. We’re all making adjustments for what our industry will look like beyond the pandemic.