Graduation Goes Digital for the Class of 2020

Editor's note: This post is part of our ongoing exploration of how design is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In just a matter of weeks and months, traditional classroom learning has been transformed. To help stem the spread of COVID-19, colleges and universities across the globe have shuttered (at least temporarily) their physical spaces and converted coursework to online interactions. It also happens to be graduation season, and college seniors are sprinting for a finish line that is just a couple of months away. For many, graduation is a defining moment of recognition and celebration that probably won’t happen this year in the ways in which we’ve traditionally understood it.

There are just a few moments in our lives that serve as clear-cut markers along our personal timelines — moments that play an outsized role in our personal narratives and the formation of self and meaning. “This was the day I entered into marriage. This was the afternoon I became a mother. This was the moment I received my degree and turned outward into the world.”

What does it look like to mark a graduation — this long-earned, celebratory moment of joint achievement — in ways that could be, by necessity, suddenly more distanced? How do we honor the work, the accomplishments, and ultimately the transition that graduation represents? And more broadly, can we evolve the ways in which we think about what it means to participate meaningfully in group events?

As we find ourselves in a moment of upheaval in which we are using new digital tools, and with them the new understandings born from those tools, this will be a period of intense experimentation. Already, we’re learning about which tools work and which ones don’t, in a utilitarian fashion. But we’re also beginning to recognize which tools can help us build the stories we tell ourselves and each other, and which ones actually bring us together in this moment of physical separateness.

A few nights ago we saw DJ D-Nice pack over 150,000 simultaneous participants into a single virtual dance party — a 10-hour DJ set on Instagram Live. We saw a bunch of friends jostle by, as we maintained our social distance and danced alongside Michelle Obama, Oprah, Stevie Wonder, Janet Jackson, and countless others. You could feel the community. You could feel the simultaneity. And you could feel the energy and power of that shared togetherness.

Moving forward, what will be the models for these shared digital modes of being in the world? How do we think about the technology that will shape and define it? Can we push beyond traditional thinking as we mold and evolve these new technologies?

The hybrid, digital graduation

Early digital interfaces wallowed in a sort of aesthetic skeuomorphism — a tendency to dress new tools in the clothing of the old. Picture your iPhone Notes App aping yellow, lined paper. Or the paper-thin mobile device that belts out the ring of an old rotary phone.

Imminent solutions to things like a digital graduation risk being pulled in similar directions: broadcasting the speeches of the wise elders, followed by a sort of digital procession, and other direct lifts from traditional commencements.

These things have worked for eons, in person, in a green field, under the May sun. But will those memorable engagements easily translate into a digital experience? Possibly. But we also have an opportunity to do it differently, and do it in a way that is more accessible and inclusive.

The history of innovation is the history of things being used in ways they were never intended. As we begin to unlock the path toward digitized events like a virtual graduation, there are some well-known technologies we could blend to capture the pomp and circumstance of that special day.

1. Online gaming: The gaming world’s virtualized rooms of conversation and competition could offer unique environments.

2. 3D mapping: The ongoing effort to map the world all around and gather data would insert details of the natural and built environments.

4. Augmented reality (AR): Layers of AR could add myriad facets of information and artistry.

5. Virtual reality (VR): VR could provide inclusion, immersion, and empathy.

6. Mixed Reality (MR): The ever-evolving world of mixed reality could fuse together the real and virtual worlds.

Already, we’re seeing some of these creative solutions brought to life. Many schools, including MIT, UCLA, Harvard University, and others, are holding virtual events this spring with in-person ceremonies later this year. In February, 75+ Purdue University Global graduates, equipped with VR headsets, participated in a virtual reality commencement ceremony, while 400+ graduates of their graduating peers participated in a live event in Los Angeles. After a group of elementary school students in Japan organized a virtual graduation ceremony inside Minecraft, a group of University of Georgia students followed suit and built a virtual Minecraft world for graduating seniors to celebrate commencement. There are Minecraft campuses being created by displaced students across the globe. University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern University, and Boston University have recreated everything from dorms to food trucks.

These kinds of stories underscore the optimistic fact that in a very short amount of time, we are exploring and inventing all new ways of virtually coming together for work, school, and more. New constraints have introduced new creative challenges and new solutions, and there’s every reason to think we’ll be able to come up with a virtual graduation ceremony that the class of 2020 will be talking about for years to come.

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David G. Broz
David is a principal at Gensler, and leads a team focused on providing clients with award-winning designs that are research-based, as well as future-ready educational environments that redefine the campus for today’s digital native student body. David is based in Chicago. Contact him at .