Over the fear of the Covid-19 pandemic, universities, high schools, and other educational institutions across the United States are closing their campuses and canceling all events and gatherings. The graduation ceremony, probably the single most important event of the school year, is either canceled, postponed, or up in the air.
Saddened by the abrupt end of the school year, seniors at the University of Maine threw their impromptu graduation ceremony before evacuating from the campus. Some universities are also exploring online alternatives-University of Pennsylvania was one of the first to announce their “virtual ceremony”.
Why Virtual Graduation?
A virtual graduation ceremony, hosted online by the web-conferencing technology, is a great way to make up for the absence of graduation rituals due to the virus outbreak. If postponing the in-person ceremony by a few months or next year, the attendance would likely suffer, since many students will be pursuing the next chapter of their lives-college or career-in a different town.
So, how do we do this? While a university with over thousands of graduates every year has an entire event team and other resources (such as a custom web-conferencing system) to plan their virtual graduation, planning an online graduation ceremony could sound intimidating to smaller school administrators who never did a live-stream for their graduation before.
I would like to share a simple four-step guide to plan your own online ceremony. After all, the logistics of a virtual ceremony is supposed to be simpler than the real-life ceremony. No venues and catering, no floral decor and stage set-up, no photographers and photo booths… The graduation ceremony is downsized to its essentials: to tell the story of your graduating class and inspire the graduates to achieve higher. With a little work (and probably a lower budget), you can still make this a day to remember in spite of the virus!
1. Set Up a Web-Conference Software
For a small online ceremony for dozens of graduates or a few hundreds of students, a free or affordable conference software will go a long way. You are looking for a web-conference software to allow at least these key functions:
- Video conferencing via webcam. The speakers and graduates will need to at least show their faces to participate!
- Screen-share or upload PowerPoint presentations by the presenter. You will need this to play presentation slides or music with a picture or video, such as the national anthem, the traditional music of your school, or background music at transitions of functions.
- Flexibility to allow multiple presenter roles or switch between presenters. This allows the main host to pass the spotlight of the virtual ceremony to the remark givers, keynote speakers, degree and award recipients, etc. at any time.
- Live-stream the virtual ceremony to additional people, allowing people who do not need to show their faces, such as faculty, alumni, and family members who are not at the same location as the student, to watch on their own devices.
- Access from mobile devices, in case some students may not have a desktop or laptop computer at home.
Other functions such as live chat and cloud recording of the ceremony are also offered by most conference software, and it’s up to you whether these additional functions are important or not for your school.
Google Hangout: Many schools and educators are already using Google Hangout for business — comes in the G-Suite for Education package — to give virtual classes to students. The same tool could be used for the virtual graduation ceremony at no additional cost! In response to the virus outbreak, Google has relaxed the restricted maximum of Hangout attendees for all G-Suite for Education customers, which allows:
Larger meetings, for up to 250 participants per call
Live streaming for up to 100,000 viewers within a domain
The ability to record meetings and save them to Google Drive
Other Popular Options: Google Hangout would be the most convenient for educators who are already using G-Suite products and the students also have set up their accounts. If it doesn’t work for you, there are also plenty of reliable web-conference software out there:
Zoom: Free for limited functions, and paid plans start at $14.99/month.
GoToConference: Flexible plans start at $14/month per organizer.
If you’re not the most computer-savvy and had no experience setting up an online class or webinar, you may want to work out the technical sides of things with an event planning professional. The person will be behind the curtain to assign presenter roles and coordinate this event. However, with so many ready-to-use online conferencing software options available, each backed by their dedicated customer support teams, DIY the virtual graduation with your faculty and staff would not be as hard as it sounds.
2. Adjust Your Graduation Ceremony Program to Be Web-Friendly
Keep what works, and eliminate what doesn’t: At a real-life graduation ceremony, students and family members come for the graduation day and can hang around, take pictures, and socialize for hours outside or in the middle of the formal functions. Many schools even offer luncheon or refreshments at a reception.
The social functions are obviously impossible to happen at virtual graduation and will likely be taken out of the graduation day schedule. However, if you would like to make this
Watch the runtime: You would also want to limit the duration of the ceremony to an hour or a maximum of two hours — just enough to get the essential activities done while everyone’s attention span lasts. The time limit of each speech could be reduced, and you can suggest ways for speakers to engage with the participants virtually — such as preparing a PowerPoint slide and video.
Define Your Virtual Dress Code: Even with a bit of blur from the webcam, it would still be exciting for your students to wear their well-deserved caps and gowns, right? Just like a corporate web-conference, your online graduation ceremony should not be attended in pajamas.
If your students have already received their cap and gown before classes were canceled, great! They are ready to put them on at home and smile when their names are called.
If students need to get their caps and gowns shipped to them, Cap and Gown Direct’s school solutions may be able to help you with this. Students can receive instructions to order online with links to our items at discounted group prices. Click here to learn more or inquire about special orders.
Fundraising? No problem. Some schools have the tradition of fundraising from alumni and parents at the graduation ceremony. You can still do that at the virtual ceremony! Simply prepare and share a link for donations at an appropriate time during the virtual ceremony.
3. Get the Word Out!
If you have already announced the graduation date, it’s probably the easiest to keep your original scheduled date and start time. If not, you can figure out a few potential dates. Either way, you will want to check with all the stakeholders-speakers, the principal or dean who will be honoring the degrees and awards, to make sure people will have access to high-speed internet at that date and time.
Up until now, you have the Where, What, When, and How of the virtual ceremony! It’s time to get the word out. Here are some ways you can promote the virtual ceremony when students are away at home:
- Ask the teachers to shout out to their students at online classes
- Send out emails announcements and reminders to your parents' and teachers’ email list
- Announce it at a visible spot on the front page of your school website, linking to the page with all the details
- Send out printed invitations, if you like it the classic way. A printed invitation can also be conveniently included in the package if you’re sending the cap and gowns and diplomas to the students via mail.
Besides your “virtual dress code”, don’t forget to share the different system requirements provided by the web-conferencing software of your choice to your participants (who will join via webcam, voice, or both) and viewers (interested but not actively involved alumni, faculty, and family members who will only watch the live stream).
4. Last But Not Least… Do a Test Run
Even if you or your technical assistant have plenty of experience and confidence in running the virtual ceremony, other speakers may not be as prepared. Virtually “gather” a few colleagues and all your speakers to do a quick test run of the entire program to make sure every little part works technically and sensibly.
This can be done as early as two to three weeks before the ceremony date, so you have enough time to make necessary adjustments, and people who need to familiarize themselves with web-conference technology could still remember what to do before the ceremony begins.