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Graduation for Online Students


It's that time of year. Graduation ceremonies are happening all over the country and at almost every level of education from kindergarten to graduate school. We often think of graduation as an ending – a completion of courses, exams, and writing – but it's the beginning of what comes after graduation that is the true celebration. Commencement events and ceremonies help us mark this transition from the end of school to the beginning of what is next in our lives and careers.

How do online students graduate? Are there official ceremonies? A couple of recent news stories had me wondering, so I decided to find out more. Online colleges and universities are getting creative! They are finding new ways to help students and their families acknowledge the achievement of completing an academic program. These events may or may not require cap and gown. The benefits include creating connections and building community within the academic programs as well as strengthening relationships among students, faculty, and the schools.

Traditional Ceremonies

Several online schools, and ones with blended programs, are sponsoring elaborate graduation ceremonies similar to those experienced at traditional colleges and universities. Online students travel to the location where the ceremony will take place. Faculty and students wear academic regalia, a guest speaker sets the tone with a speech, and diplomas are handed out as graduates cross the stage and their names are announced.

  • Kaplan University conducts two university-wide ceremonies each year. Video and information about the most recent event in 2011 in Miami, Florida with guest speaker Governor Bill Richardson, are available online.
  • University of Phoenix also conducts an on-ground ceremony at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona. For more information about upcoming events, check out their graduation webpage
  • Western Governor's University is another example of an online school with an on-ground ceremony. Earlier this year, WGU held a graduation ceremony in Salt Lake City, Utah, that included students representing 32 states.
  • Traditional universities with online programs also include their online students in on-campus graduation events. Liberty University and the University of Illinois-Springfield are just two examples.

Local Events

Several online schools hold events in multiple local areas where they may also have offices or branch campuses. The University of Phoenix is just one example, holding graduation ceremonies "all over the United States, as well as on military bases in the Pacific and Europe." 

Streaming Online

The cost of traveling to attend a traditional ceremony can be prohibitive if you have a large family. Many schools have made it possible for family members to watch the ceremony in real-time, online. Broadcasting the ceremony online is becoming more popular with a variety of schools, both online and traditional. Kaplan University and Capella University are two of the schools providing these live broadcasts that are also recorded and posted online for viewing.

Interactive Websites

Strayer University creates a dedicated website for a "virtual commencement". The 2011 site includes a video message from the University President, information about student and faculty awards, and a slide show with music and narration where each student's name is read out loud. The website also includes a profile page for each student with a photo, information students have written about their education experience and future plans, and an area where friends and family can leave comments congratulating their graduates.

Virtual Worlds

What if the ceremony was completely online? This is happening through the use of 3-D virtual worlds. In these applications, individuals login and create a virtual avatar, then maneuver the avatar through a simulated environment online. Second Life is a popular virtual world that is being used to create online graduation experiences. Elaborate environments can be programmed to represent physical campus landmarks or create sci-fi type surroundings.

  • Bryan & Stratton College conducted a graduation ceremony in Second Life that mirrored the traditional event with a procession of graduates, guest speaker, and virtual caps and gowns.
  • Florida State University's College of Communication and Information conducted a virtual ceremony in 2010. They documented the experience and now provide advice for other universities that might be interested in exploring online simulation tools to create virtual graduation ceremonies.
  • The University of Hawaii's Educational Technology program also conducted a graduation ceremony in Second Life recently. This program includes several online cohorts of students who were able, with their families, to graduate online and even participate in a virtual graduation party that followed the ceremony.

Mark the Occasion

Online colleges and universities understand the importance of celebrating the completion of an academic program. These celebrations are becoming unique experiences as schools explore new ways to create these events using various technologies. Whether you attend a traditional ceremony on-ground, in a virtual world, or in your own way, celebrate the achievement and your transition from student to graduate.

June 2nd, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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