UBC IT and Graduation 2020: A Virtual Experience

by Anisha Parmar

A behind the scenes peak at UBC President, Santa Ono's ceremony speech during the virtual ceremony dry run at UBC Studios Vancouver.

Graduation is a long-standing and cherished tradition at UBC. Each spring and fall, thousands of students walk across the ceremony stage, exchanging handshakes for degrees and celebrating with loved ones.

This year, physical distancing restrictions due to COVID-19 quickly made it clear that in-person celebrations would not be possible.

UBC joins other post-secondary institutions in moving this year’s graduation to a virtual format without losing its emotions and experience. While not a replacement for the traditional ceremony, UBC will host a live broadcast for each campus on June 17, with a pre-show, the graduation ceremony and alumni reception streamed on Facebook and YouTube.

Behind the scenes, UBC Studios and AV Services across both campuses were tasked to work on the virtual event. For Ceremonies and Events Director Liz King, the integrated event production team has been paramount to level of professionalism and experience needed for this inaugural event. “From the very start of our virtual ceremony planning, the IT teams we’ve worked with have been 100% on board,” said King. “We benefitted enormously from their talent and expertise, and have valued their collaborative spirit.”

There will be two virtual graduation ceremonies – one for Vancouver graduates and for Okanagan graduates. This replaces the 28 in-person Vancouver ceremonies and 6 Okanagan ceremonies, perhaps lessening the spontaneity of the event, but enabling a greater opportunity for families and friends of graduates to participate in the ceremony through social platforms.

Cross Campus Collaboration

UBC Studio Producer Chris Spencer, who is leading the project for both teams, noted the many different show elements for the broadcast, including live-streaming, audio, accessibility and video production. Graduates will also receive their keynote address from Canadian comic Rick Mercer, a 2010 UBC honorary degree recipient. Adding to the festivities, the Okanagan campus is celebrating its 15th anniversary and the pre-show will include highlights from the last four years. “Hopefully, students that are graduating this year will see themselves in this year’s video footage," said Gideon Dante, Executive Producer and Team Lead for UBC Studios Okanagan.

There are inherent challenges to recreating the event. “We wanted the virtual event to feel very much like graduation and authentic,” said King. “The processions are the hardest for us to recreate, but several Deans who are usually in the Chancellor’s Procession are submitting video greeting and students will have opportunities to add content to the procession slides.”

Multiple IT team members work together to ensure that the live broadcast musical elements are in sync.

Accessibility and Technical Challenges

While the consolidation of multiple graduation events breaks from tradition, it’s also opened up the possibility for students to have a wider set of loved ones in attendance alongside an inclusive and accessible lens, thanks to technology.

Chris Leung, AV Services Specialist who has worked closely on live captioning and sign-language interpretation for the show, notes that accuracy is key. While the ceremony is scripted, live elements and timing can change.

Another technical challenge was Facebook and YouTube’s aggressive music copyright algorithms. As a workaround, the teams worked with the students in the UBC School of Music and the UBC Okanagan Symphony Orchestra to create and record customized ceremony music.

Ready, Set, Action

The inaugural year for any event runs it chances of glitches – in this case, either technical or in real-time. Dry runs were completed last week, with last minute review of all critical details. Two days before the event, there’s a palpable build-up of excitement. “Working with many partners gives us confidence in making sure we deliver this special event for our graduates,” said Saeed Dyanatkar, Executive Producer for UBC Studios. “It’s live, and we only have one chance to get it right.”