Luther Alumni Magazine

Putting the art in education

No ground was broken, no brick was laid.

Jessica (Schwab) ’07 and Derek Balsley ’05 built an online master’s degree in art education.
Jessica (Schwab) ’07 and Derek Balsley ’05 built an online master’s degree in art education.

But this fall, Jessica (Schwab) ’07 and Derek Balsley ’05 “opened the doors” to the Art of Education University, the first secular graduate university to be accredited in the state of Iowa in more than 50 years. “It’s an entirely new kind of university,” says Derek. “It’s 100 percent online, and it’s hyper-vertical, meaning it services one type of student—the art educator—over a lifetime.”

It also fills a void that has long frustrated art educators, says Jessica, recounting the limited professional-development options available to her when she began teaching art in the Ankeny (Iowa) Community School District in 2008.

Screenshot from the Art of Education's website

“I felt like I was stuck on the Island of Misfit Toys during professional-development days,” she says. “The school district offered virtually no specialized education to help art educators develop their skills.”

Her frustration only mounted when she searched (without success) for a university with a master’s degree program tailored to art educators. Derek, a born entrepreneur, immediately saw an opportunity to act. “I distinctly remember a car ride during which she was voicing her concerns,” he recalls, “and my response was, what are we going to do about it?”

The seed planted, Jessica enrolled at Viterbo University in 2009 and decided to use her master’s degree studies to research how content-specific professional development (or lack thereof) impacts teacher morale. Her first project entailed creating a website, the Art of Education, that offered a blog where she could share ideas to inspire art educators. By 2013, the venture had blossomed into an impressive e-learning platform providing a range of art-education options—from e-classes and podcasts to emails and online conferences.

Screenshot from the Art of Education's website

In October, after a rigorous four-year process, the Art of Education earned its accreditation. “We now offer a master’s degree in art education,” says Jessica, beaming. “It’s the exact degree, in fact, that I wanted to earn when I began looking for master’s programs.”

It was 2012 when the dynamic couple decided that if they were going to make a go of the Art of Education, it would be in their hometown of Osage, Iowa. While Derek spent his days doing marketing for Fox River Mills (and his nights doing marketing and technical support for their fledgling business), Jessica stayed at home with their daughter, Nora, now 7, and continued to develop online content. (The couple also have a daughter Cosette, age 2.) In 2013 Derek joined the business full-time, and in 2015 they opened an office on Main Street that provides both meeting space for visitors and workspace for their local employees (just seven of the more than 40 individuals who work for the Art of Education either full- or part-time).

Screenshot from the Art of Education's website

Both tout the role their Luther educations have played in the success of their startup. “My liberal arts background has proved invaluable, because being well-rounded is a huge asset to any entrepreneur,” says Derek. Jessica says the passion for lifelong learning she developed at Luther has proved equally valuable: “I learned the importance of embracing different paths or directions in life.”

Today, the Art of Education has 1 million homepage views per month, 70,000 email subscribers, 5,000 annual conference participants, 1,500 students, and thousands of art teachers in hundreds of school districts who continue to develop their skills through a video-subscription service.

The couple admit it’s been a lot of work thus far, but also agree that the process has been smoother than it might otherwise have been because of one more thing they learned at Luther: the value of teamwork. “We did not set out to start a university, but we did,” says Derek. “And the reason we were able to was because we work together exceedingly well—it’s been total synergy from the start.”