Professional Learning

A Whole New Kind of University (Ep. 150)

The Art of Education is now the Art of Education University, and we are proud to be able to offer a Master’s Degree in Art Education. But, as always, AOEU is not just about a degree–it is about learning at every stage of your career. Listen as Tim talks to AOEU Founder and CEO Derek Balsley about the new Master’s degree being offered, what is developing in the world of higher education, and how The Art of Education University can change the thinking about what a university should be.  Full episode transcript below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education University, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

As you may have gathered in that first 10 seconds, we have made an exciting change. We are announcing and celebrating the fact that the Art of Education is now the Art of Education University. And because of that exciting announcement, I’m going to talk today to both Derek and Jessica Balsley. We are releasing two separate episodes, two interviews because I am eager for you to hear from each of the founders about what this transition means. And in this episode, we are going to get the rare appearance from Derek Balsley. That will be the first thing we discuss.

But Derek is the CEO of the Art of Ed, or the Art of Education University, rather. And I want him to come on and give everyone a big-picture overview of not only where AOE has been, but where we are right now, and maybe even where we’re headed, where we’re going in the future. And that could take a while, so let me go ahead and bring him on now so we can dive into the conversation.

All right, and now the founder and CEO of the Art of Ed, Mr. Derek Balsley. How are you today?

Derek: Hey, Tim. I’m doing great. Really a pleasure to be on with you today.

Tim: All right. Well, thank you. Before we get into the important stuff, I have a hard-hitting question for you. You’ve been my boss for four and a half years now. I’ve been doing this podcast for almost three, and you have not shown up here. And so my first question is, how is it that your flagship podcast from your company has been going for almost three years, and you’ve never made an appearance?

Derek: Isn’t that just terrible? Yeah. No, I apologize. I do think that’s sort of status quo for me, though. I think ever since AOE was started, since Jessica and I started it back in 2010, I’ve been serving as a back role type of position, behind-the-scenes if you will. And so yeah, I do a lot of work behind the scenes, but a lot of times, it isn’t in the public face. So I appreciate the opportunity, and I gotta say, it’s amazing that the podcast has been running for that long, first of all. And I pulled up the page before we started today, and I was like, we’re at 140 plus episodes at this point. So hats off to you. Congratulations. I know I probably speak for most of your listeners when I say what an amazing job you’ve done putting this podcast together, and we’re all thankful for it, so I appreciate it.

Tim: All right. Well, thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that. I guess we have a lot to talk about here over this episode with you, my interview with Jessica. But let’s kind of go back to the beginning. Can you talk about just how AOE originated, how you guys put it together and what you were trying to solve when you first started the company?

Derek: Yeah. That’s a great question. Absolutely. It’s interesting because you probably have a lot of different listeners, right? So you have some listeners that just discovered AOE this past school year. Then you have other listeners who have probably been around since day one. Like I said, in 2010, Jessica first started blogging. The company was founded in 2011, and really, the idea for AOE came from Jessica’s first year of teaching art. Jessica’s first year of teaching art, she had wanted to be an art teacher her whole life. She couldn’t have been more excited to start. And then very quickly, in the first year, immediately felt alone, immediately felt alone in her room, of course, but also alone in the school. And I think, like many of the art teachers listening, she was alone in her school. There were no other art teachers.

And so she sought out professional development in a wide variety of ways. And when we were driving in the car, she was sort of venting some of these frustrations to me, how frustrating it was that, for instance, the school professional development that was delivered by her principal, by the school district, was really just completely irrelevant to art education. She said she sat in the back of the room with the music teacher and the PE teacher and sort of felt like the island of misfit toys. And I think that’s something that a lot of our teachers can relate to, and then, the art ed magazines she felt were too philosophical and not really practical to everyday teaching.

And then the third pain point, frustration, I think at that point was when she went to get her master’s degree. It was extremely difficult to find a relevant and affordable master’s degree specific to art education. And so she ended up actually getting her master’s in general education because it was the only viable option in our area. And so I think we started AOE with the idea of trying to solve these problems, trying to build an organization that really dismantles these frustrations, and so I’ve been working since that time on the sort of, again, the behind-the-scenes role.

My background is in business and marketing, and I spend a lot of my time on product design, to try and solve the content, the magazine problem. I spent a lot of time developing this podcast and developing the online Conference that we offer. And then on the professional development side, I spent what seems like years of my life trying to figure out what Art Ed PRO actually is, and you were involved in that.

Tim: Yeah.

Derek: And it’s a big challenge to create something that didn’t exist before, but that’s where I get a lot of my joy and a lot of my passion, is to try and figure out what these solutions actually look like, content-wise, but also in a really technical side.

The third problem, the one that we haven’t addressed yet, so like I said, we’ve spent a lot of time over the past eight, nine years at this point, which seems crazy, solving sort of the content-side, the magazine side, with our online magazine. It has over a million page views a month now at this point. And then the professional development side with PRO, but there’s one of those original problems that Jessica had that we still haven’t solved, and that is the affordable, relevant Master’s degree. And so that’s kind of why I’m here today is to break some news.

Tim: I know. I’m excited. I’ve been waiting to get to this. So let’s just put it out there. The big announcement, and I’ll just leave it to you. The floor is yours to tell us, I guess, where this came from and where we’re going here.

Derek: Thank you. Thank you. Clearly, it’s not just Jessica that had this original issue, and for the past, I suppose around five years, we’ve been getting a tremendous number of requests from art teachers all over the country, all over the world, actually, who are experiencing that same problem as Jessica. They can’t find a Master’s degree that’s super relevant to art education or if they do find one, it’s incredibly expensive, and we did a lot of research before we started the project, and a lot of the programs out there, most of them in fact, were 25,000 plus. Some of them 35,000 plus.

We set out to solve this problem, but the problem is much more difficult to solve than one might imagine, and so in 2015, we actually set out on a journey to turn AOE into a fully accredited graduate University. Recently, we hit some very major milestones towards this goal, which I’m pleased to share with you today.

So first, in June of 2018, the Art of Education was institutionally accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, the DEAC. The DEAC is a fantastic accreditor approved by the U.S. Department of Education and CHEA, which is a group that probably not everyone knows, but a really great accreditor. They focus on online learning, and we went through a very rigorous, long, in-depth process of accreditation through them, and we finally got it. I think it was a three-year process. I can’t fully get across the amount of time, energy, literal tears that it took to reach that goal, but yeah, in June, we actually were accredited, and so that was a huge accomplishment.

And then, the second accomplishment, in October of 2018, the Art of Education University received … Oh, by the way, we just changed our name to University. So the Art of Education was recognized by Iowa College Aid, and we changed our name to the Art of Education University. So what was AOE is now AOEU. So that sure makes us awful happy to be able to make that announcement.

And then finally, in October 2018, we received official authorization from the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, which is called NCSARA, and basically what this allows the Art of Education University is for us to operate in all 50 states. It’s actually 49 out of the 50 states. We had to seek California’s approval separately, but the Art of Education University is now going to be able to operate in all 50 states, so we can serve our teachers all over the world.

Tim: Yes. That’s so cool. And I kind of want to dive into a little bit of that. Just because the things you’re talking about with Jessica are relevant to so many art teachers, they’re relevant to me. I ended up with a master’s that was too expensive, that was not what I wanted, but it was the only option that was out there. And like you said, the online degrees … You know, the things I looked at, a couple of them were over $50,000 for a master’s, which is just unattainable for most teachers.

And I guess my question for you, and this may be kind of talking more about the inspiration, why you wanted to start that, but why do you think it is so hard for Jessica, for art teachers everywhere, to find a Master’s degree that actually fits what we need and what we want?

Derek: Yeah. Great question. Before I answer that, I also want to say that because this was such a big accomplishment, I do want to take just 30 seconds here to thank so many of the people at AOE who made this happen, not least of all Jessica. Jessica poured her heart and soul into this. Some people may have been wondering, “Where’s Jessica been for the last couple of years?” Well, she’s had her head down, getting AOE accredited, so this is what she’s been doing. And in the middle there somewhere, we had another child, and so the amount of amazing work that Jessica’s done and so many other people at AOE, I’m just incredibly thankful for. So I hope that all the art teachers know out there that there’s a lot of people here at AOE that are fighting for them, fighting to try and get amazing professional development more accessible to art teachers.

And yeah, so I just wanted to get that across. So yeah, why did Jessica struggle to find a master’s degree? I think this is a complicated issue, and I think it all boils down to the way the current model of higher education is structured. Really, it’s similar to the reason that art teachers don’t get relevant professional development inside their schools, and that is that they’re a pretty small population inside the school. So if you think of it from the principal’s perspective, it’s hard to get extremely relevant, specific professional development for an art teacher when there’s only one in the school. Right?

And so when you have 30 classroom teachers and one art teacher, it’s hard for them to focus on that, and so that’s not an excuse, but it is the reality. And so I think with the way higher education is set up, it’s a very similar problem. If you look at it from the perspective of these traditional institutions, they’re structured very much based on geography, so the school puts a pin on the map. The college, the University, puts a pin on the map. They draw a circle around the pin, and they try to serve the students in that given geographic area.

But the sad truth is that for most geographic areas, there just aren’t enough art teachers, K-12 art teachers, in that area for them to justify all the time and investment, put in the curriculum design and instructional infrastructure needed to serve this relatively small population of learners. We thought a lot about this before we started our University because we didn’t want to end up in a similar place. And so we asked ourselves a bunch of questions to try and understand the problem and try and find a solution, try and find a way forward.

The first of those questions was what if a University wasn’t something you attended, graduated, and then abandoned, but instead a valuable learning institution you invested in for life? So why is it that these institutions of learning that we hold on such a high pedestal only participate in our lives for four years to get a bachelor’s degree, a couple years to get a master’s degree? Why is it that you’re only interacting with these institutions for maybe six years out of your professional life? When we know as professionals that we learn throughout an entire lifetime, and that much of that learning that we do after the college experience is the most valuable learning. And so we started questioning that on sort of a deep level.

Question number two … And feel free to interrupt me here, Tim, but question number two is what if universities didn’t try to offer programs for every student imaginable, but instead specialized in serving one specific type of student as deeply as possible? So why is that? Again, it’s based on geography. It’s based on trying to serve students in a specific area. Why is it that they offer a hundred different programs for a hundred different types of students? From the business world, I know that by focusing on one individual, one customer, one client, one product that you have focus, and when you have focus, you can serve much deeper and at a higher level. And so that’s a second key question that we asked ourselves.

And the third key question we asked ourselves is: What if universities not only offered traditional degrees but also provided a full spectrum of lifelong learning opportunities to reflect their students’ needs over their entire career? So what I mean by that is, it seems a bit arbitrary in some ways that these institutions of higher learning, these universities that we look up to when you say the word university, you think courses, classroom, degree. In reality, if these institutions are devoted to learning, they have to modernize and understand that learning happens in many different ways at many different times during our lifetime and looks differently.

So this podcast right now is a fantastic learning tool. There are people who have listened to a hundred plus of your episodes who have learned a tremendous amount while they’re driving on the way to work or while they’re cleaning their art room. And so these types of learning, whether it’s a Conference or a podcast or a subscription system like PRO. There are many different ways to learn, and we think that a university should perhaps be involved in more than just courses and degrees.

Tim: Yeah. I think that’s a really good point, and I think it’s something that we don’t think about so much as art teachers. We are still in that mindset of the official learning we do is through a university. But we don’t stop to think of all the smaller pieces that go into that, like the PD, like podcasts, like things that you’re reading online.

Derek: And yet, you do that very well in your own classroom, right? So in your own classroom, you’re constantly asking yourself, “What is the best way to get this information across to the student?” Maybe I lecture now. Maybe they take it home and watch it on a video. Maybe there’s a game that’s involved. And so we’re constantly trying to rethink how we get this information across, but at sort of the higher education level, it’s we’re in a course. Here’s the syllabus. We’re going to deliver it. Okay, you graduate. And so I think, the summation of those three questions and our answers to those questions is we’re trying to be a different type of institution. We’re trying to go beyond the traditional university and become what we’re calling, right now at least, we’re calling a university for life.

So when we talk to our future students, we say we don’t want to be your university. We want to be your university for life. It’s not just about this course and this degree. These are very important, and these are integral parts of your growth. But they’re not the only parts. And so yeah, I think this university life idea is kind of a big thing for us going forward.

Tim: Yeah. And I think that’s probably worth discussing more because I feel like AOE or now AOEU is set up really well to do that, just because we’ve established so many things with the articles, the resources, the videos, the podcasts, Conferences, and PRO if you want more. And now this is kind of that next step, and so we kind of run that whole spectrum. So I guess can you talk a little bit more about that approach and about the idea of life-long learning and everything that we have to offer?

Derek: The term university life I think is sort of a summation of those three questions and our answers to those three questions. It’s a re-imagining of the traditional geographic model, so instead of focusing on one specific type of student … Or excuse me. Instead of focusing on many students, we focus on one very specific type of student. Instead of the traditional short time-frame model, we’re focused on serving our students over an entire lifetime or an entire career. And the ways in which that is delivered over an entire lifetime or over an entire career may look very different than the traditional courses and degree model. Instead, it may look like … We as an institution are willing to explore and provide all sorts of avenues towards lifelong learning.

It might look like a course. It might look like a degree. But it might also look like a podcast. It might also look like a daily article on the website. It might also look like an amazing online Conference you attend with your peers. It might also be a professional subscription that your school district purchases on behalf of all the art teachers in the district. And so I think the university for life model is saying, “We’re not here just for this important part of your life. We’re here for the entire part. We’re here to help you learn throughout your career and meet you where you’re at as a learner.”

We didn’t want those things to take a back seat, so when we said … Since 2010, we’ve been publishing articles. And since 2011, we’ve been offering courses. Since 2012, we’ve been … I can’t remember when the Conference started, but for many years, we’ve had an online conference. We don’t want those things to take a back seat to our work in the traditional university world and the traditional academics world. And so we see the academics as important. We see the courses and the degree as important. But equally important are these other components, and I think that’s a big part of what makes AOEU special and different.

Tim: Yeah. And I think that validates a lot of the things we talk about as teachers, just with differentiation and allowing kids to learn what they need, what they’re interested in when they’re ready to do it. And there’s no reason, I guess, that with professional development or with our professional learning that we can’t do the same thing. So from a teacher’s perspective, we know why we want to do things like that with our kids, but can you sort of speak to more on the professional side? Why is personalization and why is choosing what you want to learn professionally so important?

Derek: Well, first of all, I think I need to break another little bit of news here. We’ve been addressing the fact that AOE is now AOEU, and is now a university, and with that comes the solution to the third problem, which is a Master’s degree. And so I don’t want to take Jessica’s thunder because she’s going to be recording another episode with you specifically on the master’s degree, and I’m here and honored to tell your audience right now that we are in fact releasing a master’s degree in January. We had three goals. To make it as affordable as possible, as convenient as possible for working teachers, and as relevant as possible for K-12 art teachers. And I think we accomplished all three of those goals.

Regarding the personalization and choosing what you want to learn, why personalization, why learning and choosing what you want to learn is so important, I think for me growing up … I suppose many people can relate to this, but I wasn’t the best of students, and there were times where … I think the times where I did the best was when I was genuinely interested in the topic and I chose on my own to dive deeper regardless of an assignment or a test that was given to me by the teacher, and I think as an adult learner, for most people, this has become even more crystal clear. The things that we learn the most about, the things that we can become experts on, are because we are inspired, we are passionate about learning more about that topic.

And so you pick up a book not because somebody told you to, but because you want to. You do an internet search because you want to because you’re curious as an adult. And I think the beauty of PRO for those of your audience who use PRO, they understand this really well, which is the beauty of PRO is that you can dive into a very specific topic based on your very specific interests on a very specific day. You wake up and you say, “Ah, I wish … I’m having trouble firing this kiln. I really could use some help here.” You go into PRO, you search John Post kiln Learning Packs and boom. You’re in.

And so school districts all over the country are purchasing PRO for their teachers, but what we wanted to do is to use a platform like PRO to amplify the traditional master’s degree experience. And so if you think about delivering higher education courses online, you have a variety of students who jump into those courses, right? So you have people who are somewhat experts already, and they’re sort of beyond a significant portion of the course material. And then you have people who are lagging behind and really it’s too complicated for them to jump in on the first assignment in some cases. And so you have students at differing levels beginning the same course, and so what we wanted to do was to utilize the PRO platform that we’re putting so much effort and investment into to amplify the master’s degree experience, the course experience.

And so the way we found to do this is, we’re actually going to give anybody who’s active… an active student within the master’s program, so they’ve applied, they’ve been accepted, they are enrolled … Anybody who’s an active student in the program is actually going to get complimentary access to Art Ed PRO throughout the duration of their degree.

Tim: That is awesome.

Derek: It is really cool, right? And so the amount of content, the quality, and depth of that content are really tremendous, and it really amplifies a traditional course. And so if you imagine students who are behind in certain topics when they begin a class, they can use PRO to catch up. They can use PRO to build a foundation of knowledge to help them get more out of the class itself. And then for the advanced students, if they want to go beyond the course and dive a bit deeper, they can find packs that are really specific and niche and narrow in very deep topics and really dive deep and get more out of the class than they ever could have otherwise.

Tim: Yeah. I like how that’s kind of put together, and I think that is a really cool offering for people. Because just from teaching some of those courses myself, as you said, there are some people who know a lot of the content already just from their teaching experience, but there is more out there. And there are other people who maybe are first or second-year teachers who are really struggling with a lot of that, and so I think that additional, that supplemental learning is something that is going to be huge. And so I think that’s really impressive.

But I guess I just have one last question for you, just something-

Derek: Oh, already? I’m having so much fun, Tim. I don’t want to go just yet.

Tim: I feel like this is the longest podcast we’ve done in quite a while, so I’m going to kick you out soon.

No, but one thing I was just thinking about as you were talking … with what we’re doing versus what traditional universities are doing, do you think that there might be a change where traditional universities go more toward this university for life model? Like can they do that? Should they do that? Will they do that?

Derek: That is a fascinating and very deep question, so … There is a tremendous amount of upheaval in higher education right now, as I’m sure you’re aware and many of the teachers out there are aware. Things are changing quickly, and the field of higher education is trying to adapt to it. I think degrees, there’s a lot of critiques that degrees are too expensive. Big employers like Google aren’t valuing degrees like they used to, and so a lot of small private school are shrinking, closing lots of programs, laying off instructors. And I think there are a variety of solutions, and I don’t want to pretend like I’m the world’s expert at this, but there are a lot of different solutions that are being investigated.

So MOOCs, massive open online courses, are one of the methods that traditional institutions have thought that could be a way to reach a new audience. Micro-credentials. Badging. This is another approach that’s being taken to try and fix the system, or try and find a new way forward. OPMs is another one. OPMs are essentially private companies that help traditional institutions get online. It’s a huge cultural shift. If you think about an institution that’s been around for 100 years, 200 years, they’re trying to transition into this online world, and it’s a huge cultural shift, and they can’t oftentimes make it themselves, and so they’re hiring these other companies to help them get there and giving up large swaths of revenue as a result.

I think all these models, there are pieces of them that can be useful, and all of these models also have their failings. MOOCs, I think, were just massively open, massively over-rated. Massive open online courses are massively overrated. But I think the university for life model that we’re establishing here is kind of on the cutting edge in terms of a way for schools to move online in an authentic way. So if you think about small private schools, for instance, they’re trying to move online. But what separates their degree from the next degree, from the school that was maybe 60 miles away that offers a very similar finance offering. And so it’s difficult for them to say what makes them special once they move off-campus, and once they move away from those traditional differentiators.

And so I think the university for life model allows you to say, we’re going to put our flag in the ground here, with this student. These are the students that we’re most passionate about. These are the students that we can add the most value to, and value beyond simply courses and degrees, but value throughout their entire career, in learning platforms, learning methods, that we don’t fully understand today and we will never be finished building. I think that that model is pretty exciting. And when you compare it head-to-head versus some of these other approaches, MOOCs, micro-credentials, OPMs, it really has a lot of benefits. And a lot of the things that these schools are struggling with, student acquisition costs and retention and things like that, I think when you’re providing more value over a longer period of time to a more narrow group of students, I think you can improve those key metrics really quickly.

I do think it has larger implications than just the Art of Education University. And we’re excited to be trying it out, proving it out, trying to provide as much value as we can to art teachers, trying to change lives, trying to connect art teachers with master’s degrees and other types of learning that are truly transformational, that can help art teachers become the best art teacher they can be, and we’re excited to be playing our small role in that story.

Tim: Yeah. That’s really well said. And I think that is the big thing that we’ve always tried to do with AOE and now with AOEU is just like you always say, meet art teachers where they are, provide them with what they need. And I hope that we’ve always been able to do that with articles and podcasts and courses, and now we’re taking that to the next level. So I think that’s a worthwhile goal. Derek, I appreciate you sharing all of your thoughts from just where the original goal came from with this, through the whole process, through where we’re going with the future.

So if there’s anything else that you want to share, that would be awesome, but if not, can we just agree that you’ll come on again before another three years passes?

Derek: Three years? I think I can commit to that. Yeah. Yeah. I think I can commit to that.

You know, I think you’re right. I think maybe the summarizing comment here is that this new university, while it may seem like a big change, it may seem … And it is, it is. It’s a huge change. But it’s not a change away from what AOE was. It’s an amplification of what AOE was. And we want the university to strengthen all of the traditional things that AOE has represented. We hope the university makes our articles better, our podcasts better, our conferences better, our professional development solutions better. We think it’s going to amplify everything that we’re doing.

So I don’t want everybody to think that something’s going to change or go away, because I think it’s all just going to get stronger.

Tim: Wow. That is a lot to sift through, but it is a really interesting story, and I hope it gives you some insight into everything that has gone on behind the scenes over the past few years with the Art of Education. And I hope it also makes you think a little bit, I guess, about what your professional learning can look like and what it should look like. And as you are processing all of that, as you are thinking about all of that, make sure you check out the Art of Education University website. It kind of encompasses and shows everything that we just talked about. You can check out the new master’s degree if that interests you, for sure. And even if that’s not in the cards for you, maybe it’s not what you need, maybe it’s not the right time for you, but you know that there are so many other offerings and opportunities available. I mean, we just spent the last half an hour, 40 minutes talking about all of them.

I hope you can find what you need for your own professional development, and I hope you can do it soon.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University, with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Make sure you check out the other episode where we release today my interview with AOEU president Jessica Balsley, on the journey to becoming AOE University. I hope you get a chance to hear from both AOE founders this week. I hope you get a chance to check out the website, and we will talk to you again soon. Thank you, as always, for listening.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.