By Ingrid Burke
To address the challenges of distance learning during the COVID pandemic, Plumas Charter School has been piloting a technology system called Lifesize, donated by Christian Palmaz of Genesee Valley Ranch.
Approved by the PCS board of directors in August 2020, Palmaz’s donation enabled PCS learning centers to leverage the cutting-edge video conferencing system to help create a dynamic and engaging hybrid learning environment for students and teachers.
What is Lifesize?
Lifesize uses installed cameras to make dedicated spaces available virtually. For example, students can log in from home during class time and both see and hear what a teacher is doing in the classroom.
PCS also uses other platforms, such as Google Meet and Zoom, but those systems have limitations that are concerning to teacher and Site Director Ryan Schramel, of Indian Valley Academy in Taylorsville, where the Lifesize technology was initially deployed.
“I was concerned about the integrity of the virtual environment we could have constructed (with other equipment),” said Schramel, “whereas, with Lifesize, we get a reliable, secure, and dynamic virtual environment. Lifesize is a tested platform with robust support mechanisms; if something isn’t working it gets addressed immediately.”
Responsive tech support, a 4K camera, and a class phone system aren’t the only features that make Lifesize useful in the school environment. Schramel cites the Kaptivo whiteboard camera as being “particularly helpful in the core subject area of frustration — high school mathematics.” Kaptivo captures and stores the teacher’s notes in real time and transmits the image to the virtual space; it even removes the teacher from the image for an unobstructed view. When the lesson is over, Kaptivo organizes the entire lesson into a PDF slide deck that can be downloaded and shared.
Last fall, PCS adopted a hybrid learning model that groups students into cohorts that are on campus two days a week, participating in distance learning two days a week, and completing independent study one day a week.
Because students can still “attend” class from home via Lifesize during their distance learning days, classes that are Lifesize-enabled are able to maintain a synchronous learning continuum that is uninterrupted by cohort rotations, said Schramel.
In addition to being used at the high school level at IVA and the Quincy Learning Center, Lifesize has also been installed at PCS’s Greenville Learning Center, where elementary teacher Lauren McIntyre uses it in her classroom.
McIntyre said she appreciates the way the technology allows students to join a class with minimal disruption, and focus on specific tasks.
“For example,” she said, “I can zoom the camera in on one student in the class for partner sharing. I can also zoom in to just the whiteboard, my desk, or allow the student to have a view of the entire classroom. This feature keeps my virtual students focused and engaged, while allowing me to create a collaborative learning environment for all students, whether they’re learning in the classroom or from home.”
McIntyre and Schramel agree that Lifesize will continue to advance PCS’s mission and support personalized learning beyond the current school year.
The technology removes barriers for students that are not able to attend in-person instruction, and it also connects PCS’s various school sites (in addition to Taylorsville, Greenville, and Quincy, PCS also operates a learning center in Chester). The goal over the next six months is to add an additional five units to the five already in use, so that classrooms at every site can be connected.
Taletha Washburn, PCS executive director, said that she is excited to build upon the school’s use of Lifesize. In the future, PCS students will be able to use Lifesize to attend classes taught at sites other than their primary learning center, enabling more flexible teacher scheduling and eliminating redundancy in single-subject high school classes, which are often taught at multiple sites.
“Beyond the pandemic, Lifesize will support the school’s mission by giving us added flexibility in student schedules,” said Schramel. “Students can join their PCS classes from the Feather River College campus, from the office of an employer, or from their hotel room in Uganda. Lifesize essentially gives us a powerful tool that can take our personalized learning system to the next level.”
The benefits of Lifesize extend beyond the school as well, said Schramel. At IVA, the Lifesize-enabled rooms have been used for other virtual gatherings, such as parents’ club meetings, 4-H club meetings, and last year’s student-led county supervisor candidate debates. “Lifesize has essentially become a community resource here in Indian Valley,” said Schramel.
After personally experiencing the hardships of distance learning as the parent of a primary-aged student, Palmaz said he was certain that educators needed something more.
“When the pandemic started, I knew education was going to be hit the worst. These amazing tools we enjoy in the business space are seldom found in even the most advanced universities, much less in K-12.”
Palmaz offered to donate three Lifesize systems to PCS for immediate deployment before the fall semester began, giving teachers and staff time to evaluate its capabilities.
“We were fortunate to be able to donate the latest cutting-edge video conferencing solution and custom tailor it for the needs of the classroom, the teacher, and the student,” said Palmaz.
“It’s great to see how the students use the technology. They are even teaching us a few new ways of collaborating.”
Palmaz actively volunteers in his local communities and supports local schools and youth activities. He encourages others to do so as well.
Learn more about Lifesize at lifesize.com. More information about Plumas Charter School is available at plumascharterschool.org.
Ingrid Burke is the public relations specialist for Plumas Charter School.