Professional Learning

The Journey to AOEU (Ep. 149)

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. Listen as AOEU Founder and President Jessica Balsley discusses the path to becoming a university, why she’s so excited to make this announcement, and how this new Master’s Degree can work for art teachers everywhere.  Full episode transcript below.  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.

Now as you may have picked up on in that new and improved podcast introduction, a little bit of change is in order. The Art of Education is now The Art of Education University. That is huge news. And to celebrate this fact, I’m going to talk to both Derek and Jessica Balsley. And we’re releasing two episodes today.

You know, I’m excited to have the founders, the President and the CEO of AOE, or AOEU, now. I’m excited to have them both step out from behind the scenes and kind of talk about how everything they’ve been doing for the past three years has kind of led up to this really exciting change, you know, to help this University actually happen.

So in this episode, I’m gonna talk to Jessica about some of the behind-the-scenes work that has happened. And how she’s taken AOE from the very beginning all the way up to now, University status, you know? And AOEU has spent the last three years becoming accredited as a 100% independent degree-granting university. And so what that means for you and for art teachers is basically there is a new Master’s Degree in art education available. It’s all online and it is open to teachers in all 50 states.

And just on a personal note, you know, I really wish this degree had been available for me when it was time for me to get my Master’s. Because to be frank, you know, I settled with my Master’s. I couldn’t find anything online back then. And, you know, that’s partly because I’m getting old. But also because there’s just not a lot. And there hasn’t been a lot available.

And I think that having an affordable degree that’s all online is just a Godsend for so many teachers because so many people do settle. You know, you end up going to the closest University to you. You pay more than you want to for classes that are kind of relevant, but not really. And you end up with a degree in, you know, in my case, secondary education. Or in a lot of people’s cases, like, you know, instructional strategies or curriculum or technology. Which is fine, you know? It’s all fine. But it’s not as relevant as it could be. And when we have this new degree available that specific to art teachers, it’s just for art education that’s all online, it improves so many things about that.

And so I want Jessica to talk a little bit more about kind of the journey to get here and what’s available now. Because, as I said, I think too many people have settled. And I hope you don’t have to do that because there’s now something better available. So let’s talk about what’s available. Let’s talk about how we got here. And how that better option is available now when we bring on Jessica and let her tell the story.

Alright, and Jessica Balsley, Founder, and President of The Art of Ed and now The Art of Ed University. Thanks for joining me. How are you?

Jessica: Hey, Tim. I’m doing great. Happy New Year.

Tim: Yes, Happy New Year. It’s good to talk to you. And lots of big and exciting things going on with The University, with the Master’s degree. But I guess my first question for you is, if we can take a walk down memory lane, can you just kind of take us back to when you first started offering courses through The Art of Ed? And kind of take us back to where this all started?

Jessica: Sure, absolutely. So I … You know, every good idea comes from a good old brainstorm in the car. So back when, you know … but back when we were first starting out, I was … Well, I was starting out as an art teacher. I was looking for a Master’s degree. And I just couldn’t find one that was relevant to art education. Now, keep in mind, this was five, 10 years ago. And so I just settled for a local program. And it was in general education, but I was determined to make it art ed specific. I took … I tried to look for as many electives to transfer as I could to make the degree more about art education. But I could not find those courses.

So I tried really hard. I found a few, but I wasn’t happy. And so that’s where this conversation in the car comes. My husband, Derek, Co-Founder and CEO of The Art of Education now, we were talking and we were driving. We were just saying like, “What could we do to help art teachers solve this problem? Individual courses that you could use for license renewal, transferring to programs, gain your PD hours. How can we create that? How could we make that happen?” And so that’s kind of where this seed of an idea was founded. And eight years later, that platform with AOE’s courses have served thousands of art teachers. And so I guess the need was definitely there. The need I saw. It’s kind of where it all began.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. And, you know, you’re definitely right in that you’re meeting the needs. And one thing that Derek talked about in our interview is just when I was taking courses or looking for a Master’s degree, there was nothing out there. And so I ended up with a Master’s in secondary ed. Something very general. And I wish that AOE had existed back then or I had known about it back then.

But I guess I wanted to ask you … You know, that’s the case for a lot of people and they’ve found our courses. A lot of people have taken the course … But, you know, how do you transition? Like, how do you go from just offering courses to becoming a full-fledged University? Like, you know, how did that idea start? And why did you want to do it?

Jessica: Well, it’s a great question. And I will just offer up that, you know, starting a University is not something that you do every day. And so it’s a big decision. It’s a big move. It’s not something I ever thought I would do in my career. But this idea to become a University and offered a full-accredited Master’s degree has really been with us from the beginning from that car ride, from that idea.

Because we saw the need for the individual courses, but it was also … The true problem was there wasn’t a full Master’s degree. But we weren’t in the position at that point to go ahead and create a full degree. It really wasn’t until about three years ago that this became a feasible idea. Meaning we had the infrastructure, we had the history, we had the team in place to say, “Let’s do this. Let’s go for it.”

And so this idea was really spurred from just the questions we kept getting from our teachers wanting to … “These courses are great. I wish they could roll up into a full degree.” And so that is what spurred us. Saying, “Let’s do this a hundred percent independently. Let’s give art teachers that full experience so we can hand them that diploma at the end.” And so, you know, from the beginning it was there, but it was really solidified and the process did take about three years.

Tim: That answer actually gives me like my next three questions I want to ask you about. But first one, like, how do you just go about becoming a University? Like, I know when you talk about having the infrastructure in place and having the staff you need. And like, once AOE’s big enough you can do that. But I assume you can’t just like hop on the internet and Google “how to become a University.” But can you talk about I guess the process of becoming a University and just everything that’s involved with that?

Jessica: Sure, absolutely. So AOE, we talk a lot about lifelong learning and how we foster that. And I think for our team and myself, this process has been a lifelong learning opportunity of a lifetime. So a lot of new learning, but also making us better. So the process of becoming a University starts with the process of accreditation, which is the … a multi-year, multi-level process to vet that your institution is up to par with comparable institutions and the industry standard. That’s what accreditation does. And the U.S. Department of Education accredits or backs the best accreditors.

So ours is approved or backed by the U.S. Department of Education. So there’s a set of standards that you have to go through. In addition to that, you have to get approval with your home state entity and other permissions to allow you to offer the degree with reciprocities in all 50 states. Which we have attained all of those things. So it was a multi-level, multi-tier process. A lot of paperwork, site visits. Just looking at every single thing we do and making it top notch. Making it better. And I think, you know, it really did make us better. All the little pieces that we had to improve upon and adding rigor to our courses has made us holistically better in a kind of a really fast trajectory.

And I will say, it was probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. Is from grassroots log through rallying our team every step of the way to becoming that accredited degree-granting University. So I couldn’t have never guessed how much time, manpower, dollars it would take to get this up and running. But that’s why you don’t do it every day. That’s why no one has created a University to serve K12 art teachers exclusively before. I mean, that is our only audience. It’s a University for art teachers by art teachers. They deserve this and I just … It’s really exciting and that’s why it doesn’t happen every day. It’s hard, but it’s worth it. So that’s kind of in short our last three years behind the scenes.

Tim: Yeah, yeah. For sure. And, well, I just kind of want to ask you that, too. Like, this has been kind of a whirlwind over the past few years. But, you know, it’s been this roller coaster of ups and downs. So can you just talk a little bit about I guess the highs and the lows of the process and what you’ve gone through over the past three years?

Jessica: Sure, sure. Lots of those, highs and lows. And the thing was, you really couldn’t share up until now with the public. Because certainly, you need to get all those approvals first and get all the team in place. So the fact that it was kind of all behind the scenes was one of the harder parts. But as far as the highs go, you know, each approval letter we got got us one step closer. We got approval and then we’re on to step two. And step three of the process. And then we went to the state.

And then we … I mean, it was just so multi-tiered that I sketched out on my whiteboard … It said, “A Road to Becoming a University.” And it was all the steps, like a map on my whiteboard. And I would just check off each step of the process. It took a lot of grit. Took a lot of saying, “This will not happen overnight. And that is okay. But how can we check off each individual piece that leads to the whole one step at a time?” And really just eye on the prize, eye on the goal, to be able to release this degree.

So the other high for me was just watching our team rally together for the betterment of the mission of AOE. It was always about the mission. It was about our goal to add this next level of learning for our current art teachers that we serve. And that was just exciting to design this program and put together something I wish I could have attended with a team of amazing people. So those were some of the highs of the process. And it was a lot of fun and challenging. But I think when you’re out of your comfort zone, when you’re doing really challenging things, you’re at your best. Because you are pushing and I just think it adds this level of drive to any project with you. And it’s a reminder to never stay stagnant. To try to keep pushing even when it’s hard.

So with that, the lows. So it was a lot of waiting. So I think, you know, in today’s day and age, everything’s instant. Everything’s instant gratification. “I want this tomorrow. I want this today.” And in this process, you just knew it will take you two or three years. And so waiting for the next step, waiting for the next paperwork to come back was very excruciating. And then the constant kind of proving ourselves. And I think that’s something that is important. We had to really prove that we were up to par of all the existing institutions out there and we did it. And I think we’re going to have pieces that are even far and above because of our mission, because of our practical nature of what we do.

So overall, the highs outweigh the lows. But ultimately, this has just made us a stronger, better institution. And I’m feeling excited because this degree will be such a high-quality, rigorous experience without sacrificing that practical, relevant kind of AOE way that everyone who’s worked with us in the past has come to know.

Tim: Yeah. And I think that’s what I’m excited about, too. You know, just the idea that this degree is out there. That it’s relevant. That it’s available for everybody. So I guess, can you talk more about the degree? Just kind of what the goals are with offering it? What teachers can expect if they’re to sign up for the Master’s degree?

Jessica: Absolutely. So, we’ll definitely link everyone to our admissions page so that you can learn more if you want all the details. But I’ll give you some of my highlights or some of my favorite parts of the degree. First of all, we really wanted to be as flexible as humanly possible. So the thing that turned me off from some programs was this idea that you had to start on this date with this cohort. These classes happen on these dates regardless of what you had going on in your life. So the program is flexible down to when you start. It’s rolling enrollment. So you can start on the first of any month after you’re accepted. You can take courses when it works for you as long as you finish in five years.

So some people may do summer heavy, and just knock out courses in the summer and complete it in four or three years. Other people want to go fast track, and they can double up on classes and finish in 18 months. It really depends on you and your life situation. And I think that that to me is the hallmark of the program. Just that flexibility in every sense of the way of the program. Even with the courses you choose. So the elective courses, half our courses are electives. And you can choose things that interest you or that are applicable. Whether you’re second year, you’re elementary. So the flexibility is one.

Jessica: The other is just the relevancy of it. So just like everything that AOE’s done … Has put out before, if you’ve taken a course with us before, these are the same courses with some additional courses for the program. And they’re just designed to be practical. So there’s something that you can take into your classroom tomorrow. There’s some … Everything is for art teachers. It’s not make a connection. So that has not changed with the program.

And then it’s the affordability. So when I was going to get my Master’s degree, I remember, you know, 30,000 dollar degrees. And I just didn’t know with a teacher’s budget how I was going to make that work. I would have to take out more loans. I would have to take forever to complete the degree. So I went with kind of the cheapest local option. And it was just … It was fine, but I know the price is a factor for working teachers. And we wanted to create a degree that was affordable, but still a degree in art education that was really, really rigorous and relevant.

So the entire degree is $13,314 plus your books and materials. And you can pay as you go. So chipping away at that over the course of a few years is manageable on an art teacher budget. And that’s just … Everybody deserves a high-quality education regardless of their budget. And I think that is one of our big goals with this as well that was missing I think from the industry at large.

So those are kind of my three favorite things.

Tim: That’s an awesome way to look at that. And I think that’s a really worthwhile goal. I know for so many people, the affordability is an issue. And you like look at some of these programs, there’s just some sticker shock as far as how much it’s going to cost. And so a lot of times you end up settling. I know I’ve talked to so many teachers who are in degree programs that they don’t want just like you were, you know? Just because it’s local, it’s cheap. And, you know, hopefully, we can give people a better option for that.

But I guess just one last question for you. Just, you know, you’re done with this gigantic three-year process of becoming a University. I feel like this is all you’ve worked on. But, I also know that you have personally … Like, you never take a break from anything. So let me ask you, like, what’s next? What else is on the horizon for you? For AOEU? Like, what are we looking at in the future?

Jessica: Well, for me, for the institution, I think our biggest goal is to just launch this degree program and make sure that our students have the best possible experience, our first students. And just make sure that everything is as we designed and just enjoy leading amazing art teachers through this process. And I think we’re set up really well to do that.

So I think that’s just … My most exciting thing for me is just to watch that first group of students go through this process. So I … You know, handing out that first diploma. Helping people realize that they can achieve their professional goals in a way that works for them. And then, just watch more art teachers fulfill … Help us fulfill our mission by genuinely becoming better, more competent teachers.

So, you know, I was talking to one of our applicants and it was … You know, her goal was … In another program, her goal was to get a pay increase. But with our program, her goal was to become a better art teacher. And I think at its core, like I’m just excited for more art teachers to feel better about what they’re doing in the classroom because of the experience they’ve had with the degree. So watching that will be fun. Not sitting back, but watching as we do that.

And then another piece for me in my role at AOE and what I do now … Because I’ve done everything here. I’ve taught the courses, wrote the articles, hosted the Conference … Is really just helping support our team. We have a team of 44 and growing at The Art of Education. And finding amazing art teachers who want to work with us and help and grow our team and motivate them to be able to help more art teachers. So that is one of my biggest goals also going into this year and next.

And it’s fun and it’s exciting and it’s just a different way to impact the industry through our team through art teachers through the hundreds and thousands of students that will ultimately be impacted by having a stronger art teacher leading their classroom. And a really … I can see us going … Now that we’re a University, I can see us adding more degrees. More higher degrees. Different types of degrees. Or just strengthening the offerings we already have. Because as you know, the mission is to help art teachers at every stage of their career.

And so, you know, what you need in the middle of your career is a little different than what you need at the end or the beginning. So I want to keep filling in those gaps so that no matter where a teacher’s at, where you’re at in your life and career, we have something to provide you to help you grow as an art teacher. So we have a lot of work to … A lot to do. The Master’s degree is a wonderful start and I think it’s going to make a huge impact on the industry of the first University for art teachers. But we have a lot … Our mission is not complete.

So there’s a lot of more holes to fill and a lot of great things to put out there. And we’re just kind of getting started. I feel like it’s a new rebirth eight years after starting. So I’m excited. I still got energy left, Tim.

Tim: Good. I’m glad to hear that. No, it is really exciting. And yeah, I just … I appreciate that perspective where, you know, a lot of people would say, “Oh, good. This is finally done.” But you’re looking at it as a new start and as a new opportunity. And I think … Yeah, like I said, we can all appreciate that.

So, even though there’s still a lot to do, I do want to say congratulations on getting this launched, on getting the Master’s degree out there for people. It’s a huge accomplishment. And I appreciate you coming on to talk about it. So thanks.

Jessica: Well, thank you, Tim. We’re just … We’re thrilled to be able to offer this. It’s a goal of a lifetime. And so I hope that everyone out there who’s interested or knows someone who might be, just check it out and give it a chance because we’re just so proud of what we’re putting out and excited to see what the future holds. So thanks for having me on.

Tim: Alright. Thank you to Jessica for coming on and for giving us the background of how AOEU came about. You know, it’s crazy to think just how much work has gone into this process. You know, I’ve seen everything develop behind the scenes and it’s exciting to be able to put it out there into the world. Because I’m excited for where we are right now and I think a lot of art teachers are gonna be excited as well. And it’s especially encouraging to think about the future. About the possibilities that are out there for art teachers.

You know, as Jessica said, it’s about making art teachers everywhere more knowledgeable and more confident in what they do. And I hope you can be a part of that.

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 we released today, my interview with AOEU CEO Derek Balsley on how this can be a whole new type of University. I hope you get a change to hear from both AOE founders this week and check out everything new on the AOE website. We’ll talk to you again soon.

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.