Hardly a stranger to technologies that help online distance learning students feel more connected, Florida State University's College of Communication & Information held its first-ever virtual graduation ceremony for online students last year.
According to an article in EDUCAUSE Quarterly Magazine, the college has been exploring a variety of methods to establish better connection with its online distance learning students. Methods have included e-mail lists, photo archives, wikis, social networking sites, extending on-campus events to online students via web streaming and even incorporating voice and visuals into its live online classes. In the college's more recent attempts to involve distance learning students and to foster a sense of belonging, distance learning students were able to attend their graduation ceremony regardless of their geographical locations. Logging in as avatars in the 3-D virtual world of Second Life, distance learning students wore graduation caps and gowns, and received their degrees on stage as the avatars of their family, friends and faculty members cheered and applauded loudly for them.
Marking a milestone in a person's life, graduation ceremony is perhaps one of the most anticipated events in the lives of many college students. As most graduation ceremonies take place in-person and on-campus, many online distance students find it too costly, time-consuming and difficult to attend their graduation. Holding a virtual graduation ceremony, as FSU has exemplified, is an excellent way to include distance learners in the celebration of their achievement as students. The virtual ceremony proved a huge success with attendees. According the article, many graduating students valued the immersive and participatory nature of the experience and were happy to be able to attend their graduation ceremony, even if it's just virtually. Not unlike real world graduation ceremonies, friends and family of the graduating students were also able to share in this joyous occasion by logging in as avatars or watching over the graduating students' shoulders on their computers.
Not only did distance learning students respond positively to the ceremony but faculty members as well. Faculty members who were unable to attend and speak live at the virtual event gave an audio recording of their speech, which was used at appropriate moments in the ceremony. The college has since received questions from current distance learners eager to know when future virtual graduation ceremonies would be held as they look ahead to their own graduation.
Though the virtual ceremony was considered a success, some graduating students were prevented from participating due to issues related to bandwidth and hardware incompatibility. Other technical difficulties experienced by FSU were related to the choice of location for the virtual ceremony. For instance, controlling the movements of the avatar proved to be challenging for inexperienced users, making it difficult for them to perform certain actions and going to designated areas.
While FSU may not be the first institution to stage a virtual graduation ceremony, other institutions include Bryant & Stratton College and The University of Edinburg, it will very likely not be the last as many institutions continue to seek ways to better connect with their online students.