More virtual graduation excitement

Paul Greatrix rounds up some more international examples of best practice in virtual graduation.

We recently looked at the issue of how universities were going to approach graduation under lockdown.

One of the most entertaining approaches included the involvement of robots in place of graduands at a Japanese university.

Picture on an ipad

This has since been emulated by the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University which also used telepresence robots the students controlled themselves to ‘walk’ across the stage. As Sanjeev Khagram, the dean, observed:

“The students could move the robot with their picture on their iPad. They could see me. I could see them. I could welcome them, congratulate them. They could say, ‘Thank you.’ I could ask them a question, we have a conversation, we take a photo.”

But only academic award winners were allowed to control the robots it seems. A brief video of proceedings is available here. The report also noted

Khagram said Thunderbird administrative staff became pros at maneuvering the robots. Students weren’t always as adept.
“I would be in the middle of the room waiting for them to come across. They’re getting closer and closer and they’re getting more and more tentative. They’re really worried they’re going to run into the dean,” he joked.

Obama dials in

But the robot approach is not really going to work at scale and other approaches are being employed for more mass events. At the other end of the spectrum we have enormous online events such as these nationwide graduation events for US high school students hosted by Michelle and Barack Obama. These are really impressive events and have drawn in a range of celebrities too:

In addition to Obama, celebrities including LeBron James, Malala Yousafzai, the Jonas Brothers, Yara Shahidi, Bad Bunny, Lena Waithe, Pharrell Williams, Megan Rapinoe, H.E.R., Ben Platt, and more are scheduled to appear, per a press release.
The “Graduate Together” website is also encouraging high school seniors, educators, and family members of graduates to submit portraits, speeches, superlatives, and “stories that need to be told” to make the experience more interactive.

You can see Barack Obama’s commencement message here and short of playing the video it is rather unlikely that many universities would be able to secure the service of one or both of the Obamas for their graduation ceremonies. There are some more creative approaches being adopted though too.

Marching bands on zoom

At the University of Pittsburgh after a series of focus groups with soon-to-be graduates, Kathy Humphrey, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for engagement, and her team came up with a new approach which included messages from peers and promises of surprise guests. Graduates watched from their homes as famous alumni and government officials congratulated them via YouTube. Fireworks and a Zoom performance by members of Pitt’s marching band capped off the university’s celebration.

Meanwhile at Ohio State University they had an online event recently but are sticking with plans for a physical celebration at some future date:

Under normal circumstances, graduates would lock arms on the field at Ohio Stadium in Columbus during the university’s commencement. With the physical event pushed back, leaders looked to maintain some sense of tradition in their live-streamed virtual ceremony.
University leaders spoke to graduates from the empty football stadium, coupled with a message from Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple. The live stream was reportedly a success, garnering more than 20,000 viewers at one point during its broadcast.

Although they had to celebrate at home, many Ohio State graduates still ordered their regalia for the virtual commencement, Davey [Chris Davey, Ohio State’s interim vice president for university communications] said.
“We’re seeing hundreds and hundreds of our grads that are going ahead and getting their cap and gown, and many of them are telling us that they plan on wearing it that day,” he said.

Be in my video

Other universities have similar plans and, as this report notes, Iowa State’s virtual ceremonies will include videos of university leaders on stage where the actual ceremony would have been:

The ceremony will also include music performed by the university’s music and theater departments and the ISU Brass Ensemble, remarks from the university’s president, Wendy Wintersteen, and a singing performance by the Iowa State Singers.

In April, the registrar’s office mailed gift packages to all graduating students containing a souvenir tassel, a postcard, diploma cover and “streamer tube,” according to the university. The university is also planning a separate virtual ceremony honoring graduating students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual and or part of the “ally community.”

Meanwhile West Chester University is spicing things up with Zoom backgrounds and Snapchat filters that make the user appear to be wearing a gap and gown and downloadable congratulations signs for friends and family.

There are lots of entertaining approaches being developed for online graduations and universities will no doubt want to do all that they can to mark the achievement of finalists this summer. But no matter how well delivered, how engaging and uplifting, they really aren’t quite ever going to substitute for the real thing. Institutions will still have to make sure they arrange ceremonies at some point in the future where the class of 2020 can celebrate their achievements properly – as the University of Brighton has already announced.  it will do as you can here in this recent podcast recorded with Stephen Dudderidge, the University’s Registrar.

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