A graduate in cap and gown holding a diploma with an earth globe connecte to a computer mouse

Virtual Graduation

A narrative about creating a virtual graduation for a school of the blind and visually impaired

Virtual Graduation

Our school, the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired, is a residential school like many state schools for the blind and visually impaired. As a result of this, the faculty gets to know the students very well since students attend our school often for many years of their school careers. When the coronavirus crisis caused the closure of our school in mid-March, a graduation ceremony seemed to be implausible. However, since we had known and taught most of the graduating students for several years, I was certain we could devise a virtual ceremony worthy of these students’ efforts and pay homage to their families for trusting our school with their children. As the reader knows, a high school graduation is a seminal moment in everyone’s life and it was inconceivable to me that our students would not have one.  

Therefore, I got to work. For many years, we had used a PowerPoint (PPT) presentation during the physical graduations to highlight students, display pictures of them, etc. Given that, PowerPoint seemed a good platform to compile and organize the sequence of events, just as in a regular graduation. We had already been using the Zoom videoconferencing platform for meetings and classes so we decided to use our school license for the live, virtual graduation. In addition, we had always had a luminary guest speaker so we decided to also locate someone for guest speaker. The search for a speaker culiminated beyond our wildest dreams, for we were able to book Erik Weihenmayer. More about this in a related post. The conceptualization just described was the easy part; bringing the project to virtual reality was difficult. I will say here that the graduation turned out to be successful and the reaction of the graduating students and their families was worth the work.

Lessons learned:

  1. Embedded videos in PowerPoint delivery over the internet were not feasible; we had one small one. Use audio. We discovered that due to the varying devices, internet speeds, storage capacities, etc. of all the devices involved, that it was best to avoid recorded videos. We did use recorded videos for our guest speaker and superintendent speeches but these were hosted on servers separate for the presentation, Vimeo and Youtube, respectively. When I replaced video from the presentation with audio, the size of the PPT file went from 2.4GB to 50MB, a substantial decrease in bandwidth and computer memory use. This mitigated lockups, etc.
  2. Using a teleconferencing platform like Zoom was best accomplished with an enterprise license where several co-administrators were assigned with specific duties such as allowing entrants, managing the flow of events (my job as narrator), panning from screens showing current speakers, graduates, etc. This feat would not have been accomplished without several persons with administrative duties behind the scenes managing the Zoom interface.
  3. Audio (microphone) for all audience participants was disabled, as enablement would have created chaos, we had roughly 200 in our audience. We did open everything up at the end and chaos ensued.
  4. Caps and gowns were sent to the graduates so that they appeared in graduation attire on the video.
  5. Rehearsal is essential; we actually practiced several times with and without graduates to help ensure a smooth flow of events.
  6. Recorded audio must be tested in real time in rehearsal to avoid audio spikes or decreases in volume, recordings are often recorded at varying volumes.
  7. Enabling and accomplishing a virtual graduation in this age of pandemic quarantine was, all the administrators and faculty involved agreed, one of the most gratifying events of their educational careers.

By George Thompson