Higher Education's Crucible Moment

By evolving in their approach to technology and teaching, educators have the opportunity to be strengthened by the fire that is the current pandemic.
3D rendering of vat of molten metal pouring into mold, isolated on white background

Higher education is in the midst of a crucible. The term, taken from medieval notions of alchemy, refers to a vessel into which a base metal is placed and forced to endure high amounts of heat and pressure. The metal—if it survives—emerges from the fire stronger and transformed.

Throughout history, the crucible concept has been applied to many situations and disciplines, including the areas I have devoted my academic career to—management and organizational leadership. Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas, both scholars in these fields, have described extraordinary leaders as those who “find meaning in the most negative events,” who "emerge from adversity stronger, more confident in themselves and their purpose, and more committed to their work.” They write, “Such transformative events are called crucibles—a severe test or trial. Crucibles are intense, often traumatic, and always unplanned.” By all accounts, our current crisis qualifies.

How will higher ed emerge from this crucible experience? Strengthened to take on what is ahead, or shattered from the trauma? The answer lies in how we as an academy choose to respond, and whether we view this experience as a threat or an opportunity.

Our current system of education was created in the mid-20th century, structured to prepare students to work primarily in standardized, manufacturing-based work. By all accounts, our educational environment was ripe for disruption—but to do so frequently seemed more trouble than it was worth, laden with economic and logistical challenges.

Education has now—without our consent—been fundamentally disrupted. Questions abound about whether the abrupt shift to remote learning will have a long-lasting impact on higher education as we know it. Perhaps the better question is whether this crisis has created needed disruption—one that will ultimately allow our educational system to better meet the current and future needs of our students, rather than continue to ramble down the road to obsolescence. Management pioneer Charles Deming summed this up best when he said, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

As educators and administrators, we have been faced with many tough questions from colleagues about what the current crisis means for higher ed, for learning, for management and education research, for universities, for our careers, and for our students. Will residential campuses become irrelevant? Will what we teach and how we teach be fundamentally changed, or are we simply in the midst of a stop-gap approach that will disappear once we return to campus? Are we risking losing the human component of teaching and learning in favor of efficiency?

There are no answers, only predictions. The questions are eerily reminiscent of those that have been floating around in conversations about the future of work for the last few years. Will machines replace humans? Can a robot do my job? In that realm, experts have been quick to assure us that while technology will likely take over the jobs we don’t like doing anyway—the rote, repetitive work. When it comes to complex work, technology will instead “augment,” giving us more opportunities to focus on the work that humans are best suited for and more interested in doing. Could the same be true for higher education?

The plummet into remote learning is accomplishing something vital: it is breaking down preconceived notions about what is and isn’t possible online, forcing even the most reluctant of teachers to give it their best shot in the interest of taking care of their students in this time of uncertainty and stress. Once the dust settles and we have the option of returning to business as usual, we will be left with an honest account of what remote learning could not replace, and what it did allow us to do effectively.

When schools emerge from the crucible caused by this pandemic, the ones that have been strengthened by the fire will have to answer a crucial question: What is a classroom for in the 21st century? This is not to say that traditional classrooms should disappear, just as traditional offices and workplaces should not disappear. It is to instead argue that their role should be reconsidered. We are preparing students—all the way from preschool to graduate school—to thrive in a world that is fundamentally different than the one our educational systems were originally based on. The “future of work” is speculative, but will certainly require agility, fluent use of technology, and willingness to seek out new ways of communicating, learning, and connecting.

Think about the radical workplace experiments over the last decade involving the Results-Only Work Environments, tried famously at Best Buy. While often misunderstood, the “ROWE” concept gave employees in such organizations choice as to where and how their work was best completed. The office was seen as a tool—one of many—that could be used to help get work accomplished. When face-to-face meetings were desired, the office facilitated such interactions. When employees needed the office for the resources it provided, it was available. What if we began to look at a classroom in the same way?

Whether we wanted it or not, we all have a front-row seat to the benefits and drawbacks of technology and remote learning. Eight weeks in, we are able to see what it can and cannot replace. For me, the benefit has been challenging myself to deliver a class that is valuable and interesting, even in this radically new world and format. I have learned so much and enjoyed the challenge of exploring new tools and brainstorming different ways to have interesting discussions and present material. I have discovered ideas to integrate into my classes in the future, and I have become a better teacher for that.

There are also losses, ones that no one will convince me don’t exist, even with the greatest technology prowess and dedication to remote learning success. I miss the casual drop-ins to my office to talk more about a topic we brought up in class, and catching up with students in the hallways. I can’t see which students look exhausted or unwell through the blurry lens of a webcam. I miss my students, the protected space and time of four traditional walls that create opportunities for discussion and interaction that is different from those that occur in a Zoom breakout. I can’t see the look of confusion on their faces when something is unclear, or their eyes light up when something sparks a question or idea.

For these reasons alone, it would be tough to find an educator who would argue after such an abrupt pivot to 100 percent remote learning that we no longer need our classrooms. When it comes to lessons, assignments, teaching approaches, and even class policies, nothing is sacred right now—except our students and their well-being. Deadlines and due dates still exist, with a symbolic asterisk next to them, meaning “let me know if there’s something happening for you right now that makes this not possible, and we can talk.” The psychological, social, and emotional elements of learning are hanging by a fragile thread.

Like most everything else, higher education is being tested. As educators, we have a choice in what lessons we learn from the current disruption. Our current crisis is a chance to explore possibilities—not to destroy traditional or conventional teaching, but to evolve it—to seize the opportunity to reinvent the educational environments our students need to thrive in the future of work, as uncertain as it may be. When we do return to campus, we will do so with a new understanding of what technology makes possible and what it cannot replace. We can emerge from this test worn down and weakened, or as one does from a crucible—strengthened and transformed. Let's make this our crucible moment.

Megan Gerhardt is a professor of leadership and management at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.