Across the globe, universities have been canceling their commencement ceremonies due to the ongoing challenges posed by COVID-19.
The reasoning is sound. Large crowds of people congregating together inside buildings as we face an unprecedented health pandemic would not be sensible.
But the good news is that through technology and some creative workarounds, institutions are still finding ways to deliver memorable experiences for graduate students.
Robots, all rise!
At Business Breakthrough (BBT) University in Tokyo, graduating students have benefited from an idea using avatar robots to stand in their place at the ceremony.
The robots, dubbed 'Newme' by developer ANA Holdings, were even dressed in graduation caps and gowns for the ceremony. And iPads were attached to the heads of the robots, showing the faces of the students who used Zoom conference calling to 'attend' the graduation ceremony from the comfort of their own homes.
"I think this is truly a novel experience to receive a certificate in a public area while I am in a private space," Kazuki Tamura said via his computer avatar when receiving his master's degree diploma.
The University said it hoped the idea could be used by other universities wishing to avoid large gatherings as the pandemic continues to disrupt ceremonies at institutions worldwide.
Institutions find creative coronavirus commencement workarounds
Other institutions have similarly been finding ways to beat the restrictions imposed by the outbreak.
Officials at Arizona State University, for instance, have also turned to robots so that graduates and their families can take part in events online. Over 140 students graduated by taking their turn to move a robot to step forward and receive their diplomas.
It's a novel idea that brings a smile, but recognizing that it might not be for everyone, the institution has also offered anyone from the class of 2020 the opportunity to do a real-life walk on at any future graduation ceremony that they choose.
A different kind of creativity was on show recently as groups of medical students graduated early at the University of Nottingham in the UK, in order to join the NHS front line. They attended a large scale video conference enabled by Zoom from their homes, using their own mortarboards, gowns, and hoods created from whatever materials they had to hand. The graduation featured on the BBC.
Meanwhile, a drive-in theatre in Monroe Township, Ohio, has been fielding calls from institutions in the area seeking an alternative to the traditional commencement ceremony. The theatre has the capability to hold 300 vehicles at a time, and all of them would be separated by at least six feet.
The podium may be gone but students still have an appetite for graduation in its many forms
For many institutions, the graduation ceremony has moved temporarily online. They've amended rather than deleted their ceremonies for this academic year.
This is a welcome adaptation. Commencement ceremonies are designed to honor graduates' accomplishments, to collectively recognize achievement, and to provide a right of passage.
During these unsettling times, when there has been so much disruption, rituals like this that provide a sense of meaning and community seem even more important than ever.
And this sense of occasion can arguably be created online quite effectively as a temporary solution whilst the pandemic continues. After all, the best commencement speeches can transcend the campus that happened to host guest speakers and live online for years to come. Read Steve Jobs infamous Stanford commencement speech for one notable example. The thinking and messages still strike a powerful chord with young people far and wide today.
It appears that for institutions that embrace technology and attract speakers who inspire and connect with their graduating students, audiences maybe even wider than ever before.
P.S. With the coronavirus forcing universities to temporality close and adapt to a hybrid learning experience, staff and students have been finding other creative ways to keep moving forward during the pandemic.
We talked earlier this month about the students who created impressively realistic campus recreations in Minecraft in order to build an online community. If you haven't read it yet, check it out.