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A Virtual Graduation Ceremony for Online Distance Students

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Key Takeaways

  • While online education is increasing, researchers find that students taking online courses at a distance drop out at higher rates.
  • Florida State University's College of Communication and Information has used various technologies to establish a better connection with online distance students, recently exploring the idea of a virtual-world graduation ceremony for those students.
  • A small pilot of an online graduation ceremony in Second Life proved a success with attendees, with the downside that technical issues (bandwidth and hardware incompatibilities) prevented some students from participating.
  • Future options include a hybrid graduation ceremony with some activity in the virtual world setting and other attendance in another software environment accessible to larger numbers of users.

In cap and gown, a master's student walks across the stage. As her family and friends cheer loudly, faculty and students applaud. Although it sounds like any other graduation day, this ceremony was held for online distance students who logged in as avatars for a graduation ceremony on Florida State University's virtual campus in the 3-D virtual world of Second Life. May 1, 2010, marked the first-ever virtual graduation ceremony for online distance students at FSU (see Figure 1).

Mon Figure 1

Figure 1. FSU Virtual Graduation Ceremony in Second Life on May 1, 2010

The Challenge of Distance

At FSU's College of Communication and Information, we have been exploring the idea of a virtual-world graduation ceremony as one of many ways to establish a better connection with our online distance students. We have used a variety of information technologies in our attempts to "bridge the distance," including e-mail lists, web pages, wikis, photo archives, Facebook, Twitter, and the virtual world of Second Life. Methods have included incorporating voice and visuals into our live online classes using Elluminate computer conferencing software, involving our distance students as representatives on our college committees, and extending on-campus events to our distance students through web streaming and other means.

Many of today's colleges and universities are venturing into online education, with distance education enrollments in the United States having increased from 1.6 million students in 1998 to over 3.9 million in 2007.1 However, concerns over student frustrations and high attrition rates in online learning have led many educators to research and experiment with new models for online teaching and new types of virtual learning environments.2 Among reasons cited for higher online attrition rates are distance students' feelings of isolation,3 lowered levels of student engagement in online classes,4 and lack of a "support system" of social relationships with faculty and fellow students.5 In a study on retention in distance education, Mark Nichols described a student who gave the primary reason for withdrawing as "not feeling a part" of the institution.6 John Foubert and Lauren Grainger observed that students who became involved in the life of the college or university through joining student organizations scored higher in areas of psychosocial development such as academic autonomy, educational involvement, and career planning.7 Namin Shin found that a sense of "studentship" — connection to the institution, referred to as "institutional telepresence" — was a significant variable in online distance students' learning achievement, satisfaction, and intent-to-persist.8

At FSU, our Library and Information Studies master's degree program can be taken fully online, and hundreds of graduate students attend our classes live online each semester from across the country and around the world.  As with many institutions, however, our convocation and graduation ceremony at FSU has always taken place as an in-person, on-campus event. Connecting with our online students to celebrate their life achievement of graduating from our institution is important, yet few of our distance students have been able to attend our in-person graduation ceremonies. While some online distance students do travel to our campus in Tallahassee to take part in convocation and university graduation ceremonies, for many such travel can be too costly, time-consuming, and difficult. How, then, might our online distance students participate meaningfully in a graduation ceremony experience if they cannot join us in person?

An Experiment with Immersion

Finding a way to leverage our current online technologies to involve distance students more fully in their own graduation ceremony proved an intriguing challenge. Over the years leading up to this virtual world graduation ceremony, faculty at FSU's College of Communication and Information discussed the idea of an online graduation several times, including the question of technologies for implementing an online ceremony. Social presence theory suggests that choice of communication technology can influence the extent to which users feel the social presence of the other person in the interaction process, due to the presence or absence of various cues — including visibility, anonymity, and synchronous or asynchronous interaction — that affect awareness of the "apparent distance" of others.9

We explored both web-streamed video and computer conferencing solutions such as Wimba and Elluminate (both companies have subsequently been acquired by Blackboard and merged into one product), but found that these types of software fall short of giving students the experience of truly "being there" as full-fledged graduation ceremony participants. At best, the Wimba/Elluminate conferencing-style software allows students to share audio and video by saying hello via audio and text chat, showing a picture of themselves, or appearing on webcam video. In terms of the traditional activities of a graduation ceremony, however, this type of software still provides more of a spectator experience than the participant experience of wearing the cap and gown, walking in the processional, receiving the degree, and crossing the stage.

In contrast, a virtual world online environment such as Second Life allows distance students embodied as avatars to attend and actively participate in an online ceremony in much the same way that gamers play immersive simulation games. Given interest from the students and faculty in participating, the biggest challenge of a Second Life–based graduation ceremony would be in creating a sufficiently engaging and realistic simulation within the virtual world environment.

Our experience with this project suggests three major elements as important in creating a successful virtual-world graduation ceremony:

  • Location — a virtual campus or other staging area
  • Participation — faculty, students, and event staff
  • Staging — the audio and visual elements used in creating sights and sounds of the event

Location

Linden Lab's Second Life is a popular virtual world among educators, including hundreds who subscribe to the SL Educators (SLED) e-mail discussion list. While many other virtual worlds exist as alternative venues, including open-source versions of Second Life like OpenSimulator (OpenSim), Open Cobalt (formerly Croquet), and RedDwarf that can be set up and run on private servers — as well as new competing worlds like ReactionGrid and InWorldz — the major features attracting educators to Second Life include the ability to:

  • Join for free and yet still build, create, and write scripted programs in-world
  • Teach live online using both voice and text chat
  • Maintain ownership of in-world creations, as well as buy, sell, or rent virtual land for teaching and research locations
  • Tour and visit many populated and educational places including museums, businesses, libraries, universities, and government sites

For institutions without existing virtual campus space in Second Life, alternative arrangements can be made to use teaching and auditorium spaces provided by other educational institutions such as Info Island. Sandbox spaces allowing free building are available at many locations in-world and can be used without cost for short-term events. A variety of for-fee options to rent or own virtual land also exist.

Land ownership or rental allows a longer stay and more control in customizing the space used for the graduation ceremony. Buying land from Linden Lab requires a premium (paid) account, with the least-expensive Second Life premium account billed annually costing $72 USD ($6 per month), which includes a "Linden Home" with 512 square meters of land, plus a weekly allowance of $300L (300 Linden dollars, with $260L roughly equivalent to $1 USD).10 However, there is little ability to customize a prefabricated Linden Home, as well as limits to how many avatars can be present concurrently.

In the past, educators and nonprofits purchasing a Linden Lab region or island — the largest-sized private space available — would pay $700 USD setup plus a $147.50 USD monthly maintenance fee. This high-end type of virtual land covers 65,536 square meters of private space and allows 100 avatars to be present at a time. However, Linden Lab has indicated that education discount pricing will be phased out, which could increase the cost for a full private region to $1,000 USD setup and $295 USD monthly.11 For an additional $29 set-up fee, Linden Lab provides a prebuilt theme setting such as a conference center with media screens or a theater designed for presentations and events.

Cheaper options exist, such as renting rather than purchasing land, buying a less-private region space on mainland rather than on an island, and buying smaller-sized parcels of virtual land. At the time of this writing, a private island could be rented from Linden Lab on a short-term basis for $50 USD per day with a three-day minimum.12 Smaller and less-expensive Linden Lab land parcels are available for purchase by premium account holders through land auctions.13 Renting land from vendors other than Linden Lab can be done on a free account without having to purchase the premium account, and land price costs will depend on exactly how much and what type of land it is (developed or undeveloped, mainland or island), plus any other limits to building rights and occupancy. In the case of a non–Linden Lab landlord, total land costs will depend on the particular deal negotiated. Thus, the cost of obtaining virtual space for the graduation ceremony varies from no cost at all by using public sandboxes or making arrangements to borrow spaces temporarily, to making rental payments for parcels of virtual land or purchasing regions for institutions establishing larger permanent virtual campus spaces.

In our case, the College of Communication and Information already owned the virtual world campus space for our graduation ceremony. Like many other universities offering information technology and information studies, we created a Second Life virtual world campus. Launched in 2007, iSpace FSU was used for teaching several classes and research purposes. Modeled on FSU's real-world campus, the virtual Landis Green included open space where we could add a graduation stage and seating area (see Figure 2).

Mon Figure 2

Figure 2. Landis Green on iSpace, FSU's Virtual Campus in Second Life

Participation

Faculty participation is key to a successful graduation ceremony, so our first concern was to contact our faculty and administrators. Director Corinne Jorgensen agreed not only to attend but also to speak live at the graduation ceremony. Dean Larry Dennis could not attend the virtual event due to scheduling conflicts, but was willing to record audio speeches to use at appropriate moments in the ceremony. Other faculty and staff were also willing either to record an audio speech or to attend and speak live in-world, as seen in our Schedule of Events (Figure 3).

Mon Figure 3

Figure 3. Second Life Graduation Ceremony Schedule of Events

Having established the faculty's support, we then polled our graduating distance students to ask whether they would be interested in participating in a virtual graduation ceremony in Second Life and if so, what would be the best days and times. We used online survey software to collect the responses and sent our questions out to the students via the college's main graduate student e-mail list, as well as posting them on Facebook and Twitter.

Several distance students wrote back that they were not graduating yet, but hoped that a virtual world ceremony option would be available for them in future. One student who could not attend commented anonymously that this was "a wonderful way to make us distance students feel just a little more part of things!" A total of eight graduating students out of nine replying responded with contact information, all of whom were available to participate on May 1, 2010, at 3:00 p.m. EST. We decided to go forward with this small-scale test of concept as an experiment to see what the positives and negatives would be with running an online graduation ceremony in Second Life.

Staging

In staging the graduation ceremony, we needed to find, build, or buy arena seating for students, faculty, friends, and family, plus a stage large enough to accommodate a whiteboard and several avatars. We also had a plan to use a "shapeshifting" technique (see Figure 4) that would allow the faculty member leading the ceremony to take on different avatar forms on behalf of several faculty who could not be present but who had provided MP3 audio recordings of speeches. This meant we also needed to find, build, or buy various avatars to represent the different faculty members.

Mon Figure 4

Figure 4. Lorri Mon Plays an Audio Recorded Speech by Dean Larry Dennis

Because Second Life users can create, buy, and sell virtual items, the in-world economy offers a wide range of virtual world products and services for purchase in-world or via the Second Life Marketplace. As noted above, the exchange rate generally hovers around $1 USD to $260L, and many items useful for educators fall within the range of free to $300L (approximately $1.15 USD). Found "freebies" and items that you create are not entirely free of cost, however, since it can take a considerable investment of time to search for and find the right "free" readymade item or to learn how to build it yourself. We used a mixture of purchased items (the faculty regalia, student caps and gowns, arena seating, some avatars), plus freebies and items we created ourselves (the stage, banner, and lectern created by graduate student Robert Vandagriff, plus a freebie whiteboard, and our own audio files and photos). Avatars can range in cost from freebies to $800–$1,000L ($3–$4 USD) and higher, depending on the rarity of the item; for example, it can be difficult to find quality ethnic minority, middle-aged, or elderly avatars. Academic regalia for professors and gowns for students ranged from freebies to $150L each (approximately $0.60 USD). In purchasing decisions, we factored in the cost and availability of our own working time; for example, we concluded that buying attractive designer-made regalia and gowns for less than $1 USD each was more cost-effective than spending many hours of faculty or staff time to coach each individual faculty member on how they could travel to a place where they could obtain free, nontransferable regalia, or alternatively spending many hours on attempts to craft our own more freely distributable regalia. Instead, we allocated our limited time toward more essential efforts such as recording audio of faculty speeches and working out the sequence of events.

Initially, we envisioned a full formal ceremony complete with processional and recessional, as well as students walking across a stage with their diplomas. However, as we began to plan, build, and work with faculty and students, it became clear that we might have problems with some students and faculty being able to move their avatars around. We left in the processional, for which we planned to play "Pomp and Circumstance," but cut the recessional out of the planned program. We worked on making ramps up to the stage wider and more accessible for both the faculty who were speaking and the students who were walking across the stage, and anticipated that a certain amount of chaos might nonetheless ensue (which it did, but was greeted with amused tolerance by all). In response to a student's comment to us on Facebook, we made a last-minute addition of Verdi's "Triumphal March" from Aida to the conclusion of the ceremony.

Considerable time was spent helping students and faculty individually with preparatory steps of gifting and wearing their regalia and graduation gowns, recording speeches, and obtaining information for introductions. Two students who had planned to attend were unable to do so, while two others showed up unannounced to participate in the final hour before the start of the ceremony. For the coordinator of the ceremony, it was essential to maintain a listing of every student, faculty member, audio file, and necessary action in sequence, including when to step aside for a live speaker and when to step into concealment, "shapeshift" into an absent speaker's avatar, and then walk out onto the stage in the role of that speaker to play their audio file.

The Ceremony

In addition to the conferring of the degrees and individual recognition of each graduating student, faculty members took the stage to speak about shared achievements and an ongoing connection to the university. Associate Professor Michelle Kazmer spoke of an ongoing role for alumni in mentoring student interns and encouraged the graduating students to stay in touch with faculty and the university. Librarian Pam Doffek mentioned how the library could continue to serve alumni after graduation. I talked about service learning projects that students had performed for the community and the shared efforts of students and faculty to build the virtual campus (see Figure 5). I also led the singing of the "Hymn to the Garnet and the Gold."

Mon Figure 5

Figure 5. Faculty Speeches at the FSU Graduation Ceremony in Second Life

To further "humanize" the ceremony when our faculty members spoke or our students crossed the stage to receive their diplomas, we displayed real photographs of them on the whiteboard behind their avatars for all who had made pictures available to us in advance. We had requested biographic information in advance to be used in giving short introductions for each faculty member and student, and this turned out not only to be another humanizing touch but also helped fill in extra time that the avatars sometimes needed to navigate up onto the stage.

The virtual world environment allowed us to create special effects that would not have been as easy to achieve in real life. Associate Professor Paul Marty parachuted into the graduation ceremony to deliver his speech, and we set off fireworks at the end of the ceremony (see Figure 6). We also operated a photography area where students and faculty posed for individual and group pictures following the ceremony, e-mailing pictures to students and also making them available for the students to download from Flickr. Video of the day's events was shot by Director of Academic and Research Technologies Peter Jorgensen and graduate student Robert Vandagriff and later made available to students and faculty via our YouTube channel, FSUlibIT, which we posted about and linked through our Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Mon Figure 6

Figure 6. Special Effects Highlights from the FSU Graduation Ceremony in Second Life

Discussion

The results of our small-scale test of conducting an online graduation ceremony in the virtual world of Second Life showed that, although eight graduating students expressed initial interest in participating, ultimately two could not participate because their computers or bandwidth was not compatible with the Second Life software. This finding raises concerns, since our goal was to help any and all online distance student attend the graduation ceremony.

Nonetheless, eight students walked as avatars in the graduation ceremony, with two of them showing up unannounced in the hour prior to the event. Some of the students who did attend within the virtual world brought along family and friends who attended as avatars. One graduating student was joined at the ceremony by his son, while another student was accompanied by her daughter and a family friend. In some cases, it appears that families and friends not present as avatars watched over graduating students' shoulders on their computers; for example, when one student walked the stage her family and friends could clearly be heard cheering through her avatar's microphone. Following the ceremony, students lined up for picture-taking and were eager to access both pictures and video from the event to share them with friends, family, and other students. In one of the graduation pictures, a father and son posed together as avatars.

Those able to attend appeared to value the immersive and participatory nature of the experience. Graduating student Linda Vosburgh said, "I am very proud to have been part of this first venture for distance students. It really brought forth the reality of graduation for me since I was not able to attend in person." Students who participated wrote to thank us for staging the event, and our posted news of the virtual graduation brought positive comments from other students and alumni. We have subsequently received several questions from students looking ahead to their own graduations and asking when future virtual graduation ceremonies would be held.

Participating faculty appeared pleased with the experience overall. Paul Marty e-mailed after the event, "The SL graduation event was fantastic — everything went so well, and it was truly impressive! I think the students enjoyed it, and I know the faculty did for sure!" Christie Koontz wrote, "I have been telling everyone from all my walks of life about this virtual graduation — and folks love it!!" The two most concerned voices were mine as organizer of the ceremony and the graduate student who assisted in building, staging, and filming it — both of us were exhausted by the end of the ceremony — and aware of the challenges that arose throughout the process. Robert Vandagriff observed, "Our biggest issue was acclimating users to the interface. It was difficult to train first-time attendees to move their avatars well enough so that they could be in designated areas when we needed them to be." I expressed concern that two graduating distance students had wanted to attend but could not due to either bandwidth issues or computer graphics card incompatibilities with Second Life, raising questions as to whether other IT solutions might still be needed in seeking to accommodate all graduating students in future online events.

We learned some useful lessons on what we could improve upon in future. For example, we have a better understanding of usability in how to help faculty and students walk and move more easily in the virtual world setting. We found that giving landmarks to the stage and offering teleports didn't work well; in the excitement of the moment, people concentrated on trying to move their avatars rather than on accepting a teleport offer or looking through their inventory to find a landmark for the stage. As a future alternative, we could try using "pose balls" — scripted objects that a person can click on to move an avatar into a specific position and posture, such as standing at the lectern on the stage. The stage itself could be lowered and redesigned with ramps, making it more easily approachable from all directions, and arrows could be placed on the ground to give avatars a clearer directional target to navigate toward when walking in the processional. Our experience also suggests that it might not be possible to avoid having some participants show up minutes before the ceremony begins, making solutions that rely on practice time in advance impractical.

In exploring the use of Second Life for online graduation ceremonies at other institutions, we found that four other virtual-world graduation ceremonies had occurred in recent years for distance students in online certificate and degree programs. In 2007, an early graduation ceremony at the University of Malta's Diplomacy Island in Second Life celebrated the completion of a three-month course in Internet Governance by 120 students in 90 developing countries worldwide.14 Manchester Business School conducted an in-world graduation ceremony in February 2009 for 18 British Petroleum executives stationed in countries around the world who received certificates in project management.15 This was followed in June 2009 by Second Life graduation ceremonies at Bryant & Stratton College conferring degrees on 40 graduate students,16 and in November 2009 by a ceremony at University of Edinburgh's virtual campus conferring degrees on four students.17 However, such ceremonies seem to be relatively rare; indeed, during the applause at the conclusion of FSU's in-world graduation ceremony, one audience member commented, "That's something you don't see every day."

Conclusions

Florida State University successfully tested Second Life virtual world software on a small scale to hold an online graduation ceremony for the College of Communication and Information, though technical issues prevented two students in the initial group from attending the event. The Second Life software seems to successfully mitigate the "distancing" effects of online graduation through a greater degree of social presence engendered by social cues allowed by embodiment in a virtual world avatar, including not only voice and synchronous visual presence but also the "paralanguage" of nonverbal gestures and movement.18 Given that a quarter of the first group of our students who expressed interest were excluded from the Second Life event by bandwidth or hardware incompatibilities, however, additional options should be explored in finding ways to include all graduating students who wish to attend.

We are considering other options, including a hybrid ceremony where attendance and activity could occur both in the virtual world setting and in a Wimba/Elluminate-like environment that's accessible to larger numbers of users. This could allow us to "scale up" event attendance while retaining immersive and participatory aspects to reduce the sense of distance in the online graduation experience. Among other interesting models is the Strayer University Virtual Commencement website, where students write their own graduate profiles. Family and friends can post comments as well as view the relevant degree presentation for each student. Such interactive Web 2.0 features, which that enable sharing of graduation videos, audio files, photos, and comments, may be another way to integrate participatory experiences for students who are unable to access more graphics- and bandwidth-intensive applications like Second Life.

Endnotes
  1. I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008 (Needham, MA: Babson Survey Research Group and the Sloan Consortium, November 2008); see also National Center for Education Statistics, Distance Education at Postsecondary Education Institutions: 1997–98 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, NCES 2000-013, 1999).
  2. Sarah Carr, "As Distance Education Comes of Age, the Challenge Is Keeping the Students," Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 46, no. 23 (February 11, 2000); see also Johnette Moody, "Distance Education: Why Are the Attrition Rates so High?" Quarterly Review of Distance Education, vol. 5, no. 3 (2004), pp. 205–210; Neil Terry, "Assessing Enrollment and Attrition Rates for the Online MBA," Technological Horizons in Education Journal, vol. 28, no. 7 (February 2001), p. 64.; and Noriko Hara and Rob Kling, "Students' Frustrations with a Web-Based Distance Education Course," First Monday, vol. 4, no. 12 (December 1999).
  3. Denise Link and Susan Scholtz, "Educational Technology and the Faculty Role: What You Don't Know Can Hurt You," Nurse Educator, vol. 25, no. 6 (2000), pp. 274–276.
  4. Libby V. Morris, Sz-Shyan Wu, and Catherine Finnegan, "Predicting Retention in Online General Education Courses," American Journal of Distance Education, vol. 19, no. 1 (2005), pp. 23–36.
  5. Terry Müller, "Persistence of Women in Online Degree-Completion Programs," International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, vol. 9, no. 2 (June 2008), pp. 1–18; also see Joi D. Lewis and Florence A. Hamrick, "Identity Development and Involvement of Urban African-American Women in the First Year of College," Initiatives (online), vol. 59, no. 2 (Spring 2000).
  6. Mark Nichols, "Student Perceptions of Support Services and the Influence of Targeted Interventions on Retention in Distance Education," Distance Education, vol. 31, no. 1 (2010), pp. 93–113.
  7. John D. Foubert and Lauren U. Grainger, "Effects of Involvement in Clubs and Organizations on the Psychosocial Development of First-Year and Senior College Students," NASPA Journal, vol. 43, no. 1 (2006), pp. 166–182.
  8. Namin Shin, "Transactional Presence as a Critical Predictor of Success in Distance Learning," Distance Education, vol. 24, no. 1 (2003), pp. 69–86.
  9. John Short, Ederyn Williams, and Bruce Christie, The Social Psychology of Telecommunications (London: Wiley, 1976), p. 157.
  10. See Second Life wiki Premium Account information (July 16, 2010); see also Second Life LindeX Market Data page (October 16, 2010).
  11. Second Life Private Region Pricing page (October 17, 2010).
  12. Second Life Land Rentals page (October 17, 2010).
  13. Second Life Welcome to the Second Life Auction block page (October 17, 2010).
  14. Diplo Foundation, "Emerging Leaders for Virtual World: Virtual Ceremony in Second Life" (2007).
  15. Kevin Feddy, "Virtual Graduation Ceremony," Manchester Evening News (February 16, 2009).
  16. Marc Beja, "Online Students at Bryant & Stratton College Will Graduate via Second Life," Chronicle of Higher Education (May 27, 2009); see also the CSG Digital video of the event "Second Life Online Graduation" (2009).
  17. Fiona Littleton, "Virtual Graduation," Vue: Virtual University of Edinburgh (February 2, 2010).
  18. Lisa Collins Tidwell and Joseph B. Walther, "Computer-Mediated Communication Effects on Disclosure, Impressions, and Interpersonal Evaluations: Getting to Know One Another a Bit at a Time," Human Communication Research, vol. 28, no. 3 (July 2002), pp. 317–348; see also Martin Lea and Russell Spears, "Paralanguage and Social Perception in Computer-Mediated Communication," Journal of Organizational Computing, vol. 2, no. 3/4 (1992), pp. 321–341.

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