Not As Good As The Real Thing – Virtual Versus Real Time MBA Graduations

mba graduationGiven the pandemic circumstances there has been a shift, by many providers within the higher education sector, to online (virtual) MBA graduation ceremonies. There is no doubting the importance of a graduation to a student who has worked hard, invested heavily, and achieved a life ambition – but face-to-face graduations (live) are by far the better option – they are the ‘real deal’.

The Importance of a Graduation Ceremony

Graduations serve as an important milestone and punctuation point for students in the lifelong learning journey. For the MBA graduand, it is possible that they attended a live undergraduate ceremony at some point and have enjoyed the experience. For mature-aged MBA students this may be the first encounter with such an event – so it is important. For parents, partners, friends and family who have no doubt provided significant support along the way, in one way or another, to get to this point – it is also an essential acknowledgement and sense of achievement in the form of a public event.

On a number of occasions, I have witnessed the exhilaration and excitement of both graduand and support persons at the formal graduation event. It is clearly important to all. The notion of dressing up and being publicly acknowledged is a high-level motivation, not to be underestimated. The importance of attending graduations is highlighted.

Online (Virtual) Option

The online (virtual) graduation option was embraced by a number of higher education providers in an effort to ensure students had something to look forward to during the difficult COVID-19 pandemic days – 2019-2022. The concept is admirable.

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The format of the event was close to the usual graduation design with the exception that there were no graduands or audience present. In a number of cases the production values were very good despite the sense of being artificial or removed. I personally have recorded several addresses that have been used in the pre-recorded ceremonies for other institutions. For virtual students, the idea has been well accepted – better than nothing, I presume.

The stark reality for me, though, was the total lack of atmosphere that is otherwise achieved in the real-time (live) experience. Despite quality video and special effects – the productions lacked the drama and performance associated with real-time events. There is a coldness and artificiality that somehow does not sit right. In some ways the virtual events are too structured and organised.

A key discussion is centred on online versus hybrid options with the advantages of both under consideration.

The Real Deal Ceremonies

My own institution (UBSS) has a high level of student satisfaction with online classes made possible by good teaching and a significant investment in technology. Currently 96% of our MBA students wish to stay online – so clearly they are happy with the current mode.

Our view, from the outset though, was not to develop online graduations but deliver well received (and attended) face-to-face ceremonies. In 2019 we cancelled the graduation ceremony all together given the high level of COVID-19 restrictions. In 2021 (May) and again in 2022 (August) – upcoming – we have committed to presenting live events at the Sydney Opera House. All ceremonies have been well developed and appreciated.

There is considerable effort required to mount live presentations – and in some ways the virtual option is tempting – but at the core of the issue is the ‘student experience’ and this is best achieved in the live presentation mode. The notion of live streaming (which we use and have used for some years) provides the option for people who cannot attend (whether in-country or offshore) is also an important consideration.

There are some things in life – graduations being one of them – that are just better in a live format. Virtual graduations are better than nothing – but in turn, nothing beats the ‘real deal’, live presentations.

Emeritus Professor Greg Whateley
Professor Greg Whateley is currently Executive Dean at UBSS (Group Colleges of Australia) researching and writing in the areas of Quality Management and eQuality. He is author of more than 250 external publications and advises in the areas of accreditation, quality assurance, government reporting, eLearning, mLearning and bLearning. He is Chair of the Academic Board at the Australian Institute of Music (AIM); Member of the Editorial Board for the International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change and a Reviewer for the British Educational Research Journal.