Virtual Commencement and Beyond: Digitally Transforming Higher Education

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As commencement season has begun, higher education institutions are asking: “How do we acknowledge the difficulty and disappointment for students while still moving forward? How do we use virtual tools to deliver experiences in a way that is still authentic, inclusive, engaging, and meaningful?”

With the looming possibility of keeping campuses closed through the fall semester, commencement is simply one relevant and important example of higher education experiences, operations, and long-held traditions that need to be digitally transformed. As the pandemic continues, institutions have begun searching for ways to reimagine these essential academic and curricular experiences for the digital environment.

In an extraordinary moment of cross-college collaboration, VPs of innovation, online learning, and event strategy from MIT, Harvard Business School, Berklee, Southern New Hampshire University, and the Art Center College of Design teamed up with IDEO, the global design firm, and Extension Engine, a company that designs and builds custom online learning experiences, to imagine what commencement might look and feel like in the age of COVID, and what opportunities this moment might open up to make a virtual student experience even more engaging.

Collectively, we agreed that whatever is ultimately done in lieu of the face-to-face ceremonies must capture the essence of commencement: a sense of community, accomplishment, and celebration. Despite feelings of disappointment and loss, and the pressure to develop viable alternatives for commencement in just a matter of weeks, they collectively came to describe virtual commencement as an opportunity, not only for this particular moment in time, but also as a stepping stone into the virtual world. 

Here are a few ideas for higher ed institutions to adapt for their own 2020 commencements:  

  1. Allow for connection in uniquely digital ways. Solicit videos of students from their years of study to feature in a “wrap-up” livestream video, or use emojis and virtual applause to celebrate one other and “fill the virtual amphitheater.” Design photo filters unique to the university, so students can snap selfies and share with friends. 
  2. Create a bridge between digital and physical traditions. Launch a virtual chain letter where grads congratulate one another and families congratulate students, then print and mail it; Preserve important traditions that are germ-free, such as when MIT grads turn their brass rings emblazoned with a beaver insignia from facing in to facing out (there’s a joke that goes along with that—look it up). Berklee plans to create a physical memorial of their virtual graduation on campus when it reopens. 
  3. Design something exclusive that reflects this moment. Publish a collaborative yearbook online and give each grad a page to journal, insert art or sound files, and otherwise capture how it feels to graduate during a pandemic. Instead of only mourning what is lost, how can we help the Class of 2020 wear living through the pandemic as a badge of honor? Fact is, no one will have had a graduation like theirs and this will one day be a story to tell.
  4. Leverage the accessibility of digital. A remote ceremony has different affordances. These can open up possibilities for inclusion of more friends and family, and new kinds of participation. For example, colleges can invite many more people to a virtual forum without adding any expense and geographical distance and physical accessibility are no longer an issue, allowing students who hail from all over the world to invite extended families and friends who might not be able to attend otherwise. Use tools like Google maps to add location pins and make those calling in from abroad feel seen and represented. Of the group who gathered, SNHU may be the best poised to make this transition. The vast majority of their students—around 130,000—are already online learners, with only 3,000 who attend on campus. That mix poses unique opportunities and challenges in a normal year, and commencement was the one moment they could meet each other face to face. Jesse Damiani, their Deputy Director of Emerging Technology, is an AR/VR enthusiast and considering how they might gather “in person” in a virtual space. 
  5. Make it your own. One size doesn’t fit all. At Art Center College of Design, the commencement doubles as an exhibition of student work that’s open to recruiters and proves to parents they won’t just have a starving artist grad, so they’re considering how to translate that online. There are years of traditions that are potentially lost, but also opportunities that open up. In lieu of their usual live commencement performance, Berklee is asking 200 students and honorary doctorates like Mikhail Baryshnikov, André De Shields, Sheila E., John Legend, and Cassandra Wilson to send in a recorded performance which the college will stitch together and pipe into families’ living rooms. 

As discussions begin about whether campuses will re-open in the fall, commencement is likely to be only the first of many rituals and touchpoints that define the college experience that have to be reimagined for this socially distant time. Everything from alumni reunions to admissions tours to new student orientation to career services are critical to how higher education institutions attract students, raise funds, engage alumni and corporate partners, and perpetuate their distinct cultures and traditions. The disruption and uncertainty of the pandemic are likely to affect higher education for years to come. Simply forgoing these crucial experiences and services is not an option. 

How is your institution going to use digital tools to deliver engaging academic and co-curricular experiences in this environment?

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Furqan Nazeeri

Furqan Nazeeri is a Partner at Extension Engine. He regularly speaks on innovation in online learning and has 20+ years of experience building and managing high-performance teams. Prior to Extension Engine, Furqan was a founder/CEO of VC-backed Pivot Inc. (acquired by NASDAQ:CME) and EIR at Softbank Capital. He has a BSE in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Harvard University.

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