Graduation 2020: The Show Must Go On

Tambellini Author

Top of MInd: Newsworthy for Higher Ed
Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes

As students and faculty adjust to an online environment for delivering instruction, many are asking the question, “But what about graduation?” For those who were scheduled to go through their commencement this May, the disappointment is real. On the heels of online classes and before mandates of social distancing, some students got creative. But with CDC recommendations and safer at home orders put in place, students and institutions were left with limited options. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced institutions to move instructions and operations online, commencement is a challenge that is proving to be just as difficult. In a poll published March 31, 2020, by EDUCAUSE 46% of responding institutions had decided to postpone their traditional commencement to a later date, with 23% of respondents still working through their decisions, and 14% intending to organize a digital/online commencement. There was even 13% of respondents planning to cancel commencement. It is likely more important in 2020 than in any past year that we recognize the heroism of faculty and students to persist in their academic journeys and celebrate their accomplishments with the vigor they deserve.  

I encourage every institution not to delay the recognition of students and their accomplishments, and to embrace a bold new approach. After all, if all your face-to-face courses have moved to online in a month or less, I would argue our institutions are more than able to leverage the creativity and power of engaged speakers, passionate faculty, and forward-thinking students to create a new and engaging ceremony for their entire community. Traditional colleges and universities can look to online institutions for help. These programs have unique approaches to graduation ceremonies that connect students who are not able to attend live commencement events. Opportunities to use streaming services, video presentations, and pre-recorded content allows institutions to take advantage of the resources they have invested in for other purposes and use them in new and different ways. As you consider graduation, think about the critical aspects of the ceremony and how to approach them differently.

  • Keynotes—consider having them developed in advance and professionally edited. To add a live aspect, consider having the keynote introduce their speech live during the ceremony. 
  • Leadership should consider being live to provide a more realistic experience for the viewers. 
  • Ideally, class leaders and their speeches would be live, assuming the individual is comfortable in this approach 
  • Consider how to best engage individual graduates. Perhaps students are provided an opportunity to submit a video clip. While this will require clear guidelines and a review and approval for the publishing process, it gives students a way to participate in their celebration directly 
  • Work with individual colleges, schools, and divisions to plan graduation, from the institution-wide ceremony to individual divisions aligned best for your students. 

Some overall considerations:

  • Blend live and pre-recorded content to create a fun and engaging experience.
  • Involve student government in how best to engage not only individual students but groups of students—team sports, co-curricular clubs, etc. to produce videos.  
  • Don’t skip the recognitions and find a way to have the students accept their awards live or recorded. 
  • Consider the use of caps and gowns for students and presenters. 
  • Explore options to stream the event multiple times or have it available for download for individuals to watch on their own time or to share with family and friends. 
  • Consider your graduation date and how that aligns with other institutions. If you have a popular date and time, you may want to consider a different date to avoid potential streaming challenges. 
  • Do some dry run approaches, maybe with the ongoing community updates, having leaders and others share their messages live. 
  • A graduation ceremony is likely to attract a larger audience and may require testing with your providers. 

Taking the time now to recognize academic accomplishments as scheduled, although through a different approach, will support your students moving forward and acknowledges that we all can change and adapt. Creating ways to honor timeless traditions, collaboratively with the community may even create new traditions for generations to come. Moving to a virtual ceremony doesn’t mean you have to forego a physical celebration when appropriate. And remember, standards for live productions have been greatly reduced as we watch live newscasters from their homes, have our families join our meetings, and many other engagements that only a month ago would have been unprofessional. Have some fun with your graduation ceremonies and allow your community to have fun together again. 

Some links with additional information: 

  • MarchingOrder provides support for the development of a virtual ceremony website and recordings. 
  • University of West Georgia (UWG) provides an overview of approaches used for online program graduation ceremonies, including a list of a development approach and what to consider, with examples throughout. 
  • Colorado State University Global Commencement 2020: CSU has been holding live webinar graduations since 2018 and has a commencement website that institutions may find valuable. 
  • Campus Technology’s recent article, “Seniors Invited to Participate in Minecraft Graduation Ceremony.”

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Tambellini Author
Karen Boudreau-Shea is vice president of Advisory Services for Tambellini Group. She is a business, operations, and information technology executive with over 30 years of experience. Karen focuses on all areas impacting student success, including researching ERP vendors, LMS vendors, and newly identified student success vendors with a suite of offerings across the student life cycle.

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