May 27 2020

With Tech, the Class of 2020 Graduates on Screen and Via Streams

While continuing social distancing, schools use videoconferencing and other resources to host virtual commencement ceremonies.

Pearson Online Academy will celebrate graduation this year the same way it always does: virtually.

The online global school’s students and families plan to gather on June 16 via Adobe Connect in a ceremony that will include Camtasia-edited video segments, PowerPoint presentations, and student speeches recorded on smartphones.

“The kids have worked so hard, they have put so much into high school,” Principal Katie Mussachio says. “They have been looking forward to this, their parents have been looking forward to it. It takes a lot of work to graduate from high school, and it needs to be celebrated.”

The big difference this year is that Pearson Online won’t be alone. In the face of COVID-19, school districts nationwide have been scrambling to put together graduation ceremonies with all the pomp and circumstance, minus the in-person contact.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn about the tech that can help English language learners graduate.

Finding New Ways to Celebrate Graduation

At Academics West School in New York City, students will get the full graduation day treatment, but they’ll get it remotely via Zoom.

“They have a host of events scheduled online for graduation,” CEO and co-founder Jeffrey Kassinove says. “There will be an expressive arts show performed by students. We will have past graduates speaking, and a few of our administrators will speak.”

Around the country, many K–12 schools use videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom for remote learning. For many, a natural shift is to leverage the same platform for their graduation events, but a range of other technologies also are in play.

In Killeen, Texas, for example, school district administrators already use the free local cable station Channel 17 to broadcast community news. This year, they will televise virtual graduations for almost 2,500 students from five different schools.

The setup includes Wowza for streaming, Final Cut Pro for editing, Adobe Media Encoder for video management, and the JW Player video platform, says Taina Maya, chief communications and marketing officer for Killeen Independent School District. The net result won’t be exactly like the real thing, but it will have all the main components.

“It will incorporate the valedictorian and salutatorian speeches, and our students will be able to participate with a picture and a personalized message where they can give a nod to a favorite teacher or a high school experience,” she says.

With online learning already in full swing, it hasn’t been hard to engage students in the preparations for graduation, Maya says. The toughest part is nailing down the logistics.

“We are trying to accommodate all of those students in one event, and we want to ensure that no is left out,” she says.

To that end, students have prerecorded their speeches, and the district has offered to take everyone’s senior picture in cap and gown.

“Those pictures will be used to fill a personal slate that will be shown as part of the ceremony,” Maya says. “Names will be called, just as in a traditional graduation.”

As a veteran of virtual graduations, Pearson Online’s Mussachio says that kind of attention to detail is key to pulling off a successful online ceremony. “You have to put on a pretty darned good show,” she says.

“Instead of the 30-second walk across the stage, we do slide shows where you see their picture and what college they are going to,” she says. “Before and after the ceremony, we have less formal pictures of the students: a ballerina in dance class, a family trip to Disney World, their favorite high school memories. It highlights the uniqueness of every student.”

Prerecorded segments combined with livestream activity can bring a virtual graduation to life.

At Washington County Public Schools in Maryland, for example, administrators are partnering with virtual ceremony production companies StageClip and MarchingOrder to create preproduced student profile videos, Superintendent Boyd J. Michael III says.

StageClip uses Snapchat filters to put graduates in a virtual cap and gown using the school’s colors. MarchingOrder provides barcode scanners that work with a school’s laptop to keep the order of graduates intact. The end result will be livestreamed in a ceremony on YouTube, Michael says.

For some, though, that isn’t enough. At Clinton High School in Arkansas, Principal Tim Smith wanted kids to be able to safely celebrate together. Over four days in April, Clinton High graduates donned their caps and gowns and headed to school with their families — one family at a time, for social distancing. The students crossed the stage, received their diplomas, flipped their gold tassels and had their portraits taken. All of this was recorded to MP4 format and edited into a single stream.

For the big event, students will gather at a local drive-in movie theater to watch the full event: together in spirit, with vehicular separation.

“So many things have been canceled: senior trips, awards ceremonies. They are not getting any of the stuff they’ve waited for,” Smith says. “Graduation is the last time the senior class comes together as one. They need this kind of closure, this last hurrah.”

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