LifeSize technology enhances learning

LifeSize - Keeping classrooms & communities connected

Beginning in March of 2020, educators across the country began to grapple with the daunting task of conducting school and engaging students during a global pandemic.  In many communities, the options appeared bleak, and school board meetings became flashpoints of hostility between trustees, administrators, educators, and parents, all trying to figure out how to continue to reach and educate students while not seeing them in person.  Amid these challenges, one little school located in a small rural community nestled deep in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains, took an opportunity presented to pilot an exciting technology in order to offer a dynamic and engaging virtual learning environment.  

Plumas Charter School (PCS) in partnership with Christian Palmaz of the Genesee Valley Ranch, leveraged the cutting edge technology of Lifesize Video Conferencing Systems to create a dynamic hybrid learning environment. After personally experiencing the hardships of distance learning as the parent of a primary aged student, Christian 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.”  It wasn’t long after that he (Christian) reached out to the staff of PCS and offered to connect them with Lifesize and donate three systems for immediate deployment in time for staff to evaluate its capabilities and develop plans for the rapidly approaching fall semester. “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.” 

This fall PCS has adopted a hybrid learning model that has students grouped into cohorts that are on campus two days a week, joining virtual spaces two days a week and one day for independent study. Classes that are Lifesize enabled are able to maintain a synchronous learning continuum that is un-interrupted by cohort rotations. Ryan Schramel, site director of Plumas Charter School’s Indian Valley Academy (IVA) in Taylorsville had this to say: “The prospect of integrating the new technology on such a short turnaround was a little intimidating but after having watched our teaching staff adapt to the distance learning environment last spring I was confident that they would be successful. However, last year’s experiences exposed critical shortcomings in both Zoom and Google Meet. While these shortcomings could have been overcome by purchasing video conferencing equipment from third-party vendors to supplement the virtual spaces, I was concerned about the integrity of the virtual environment we could have constructed. 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. Our teachers simply do not have time/energy for added frustrations given the enormous challenges of the current environment. They deserve something better.”

Schramel notes that in addition to the 4K camera and class phone system that gives students at home a virtual gateway into the classroom there is also the Kaptivo whiteboard camera. Kaptivo has been particularly helpful in the core subject area of  frustration -- high school mathematics. The Kaptivo camera captures and stores the teacher's notes in real time and transmits the image to the virtual space, going so far as to remove the teacher from the image for an unobstructed view. Kaptivo also stores and manages information even as the teacher erases their notes to begin a new equation. When the lesson is over, Kaptivo organizes the entire lesson into a PDF slide deck that can be downloaded and shared. While Schramel has worked primarily at implementing the technology at the highschool level, Lauren McIntyre, an elementary teacher at PCS’s Greenville Learning Center has also leveraged the technology in her classroom.

Lauren, who teaches multiple grade levels, loves that Lifesize allows her to conduct her classes virtually (no pun intended) uninterrupted. “Lifesize provides me with the opportunity to have students join the class virtually with minimal disruption to the classroom environment. The camera allows the virtual student to focus specifically on the task. For example, I can zoom it 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.“  For Lauren Lifesize has become a pedagogical staple for her classroom instruction.   I use Lifesize for daily instruction in Reading and Math and for weekly assessments. For example,  4th grade virtual students participate in a weekly game of Multiplication BINGO with their classmates. I love being able to formatively assess student’s skills all at once with activities like this. Lifesize gives me the opportunity to create a collaborative learning environment for all students, whether they’re learning in the classroom or from home.”  While its clear Lifesize has been a valuable resource for distance learning in the year of COVID, it is also worth considering the usage of this type of technology for regular program integration in the future. 

When asked about how Lifesize can advance PCS’s mission and support personalized learning, both McIntyre and  Schramel agreed that it (Lifesize) absolutely  has a place in education beyond the 2020-21 school year. Lauren noted that “Lifesize removes barriers for students who are not able to attend in-person, classroom-based instruction.”  Lauren went even further observing that Lifesize could also connect teachers to other teachers, “it also enables staff to maintain professional development and collaboration opportunities across sites.” Schramel got excited about the added flexibility Lifesize would continue to bring in the coming years following the pandemic. “ Beyond the pandemic, Lifesize will support the school's mission by giving us added flexibility in student schedules. Students can join their PCS classes from the FRC 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.”  

Taletha Washburn, Executive Director of Plumas Charter School, also adds that Lifesize can allow PCS to further leverage teaching staff across the county, in that students from any learning center (Quincy, Greenville, Taylorsville or Chester) can participate in classes led by teachers at any other center.  This can be invaluable at the high school level in particular, where teachers are more specialized, and the same classes are often taught at each of the centers .  Utilizing Lifesize can enable less duplication of effort in classes and more flexible teacher scheduling.  For example, all eleventh grade students can take US History with Mr. Schramel in Taylorsville, while all ninth grade students take Geography with Mr. Peters in Quincy.  In this same way, the school hopes to utilize Lifesize to give more students access to Career Technical Education (CTE) teachers and courses, which are currently more limited to the Quincy community.  PCS is working diligently to evolve and improve upon CTE Pathways and options, and Lifesize is an exciting tool to add to the effort.  Taletha is excited to continue to build upon the school’s use of Lifesize.  Thanks to the generous donation from Christian Palmaz, the school now has five units in use.  The goal over the next six months is to add an additional five units, so that each Learning Center has at least one unit for use.

Ryan Schramel adds that the benefits of Lifesize extend beyond the school and has played a role in the community as well noting that “Lifesize also supports parents club meetings, community forums such as supervisor candidate debates, and 4-H Club Meetings.  Lifesize has essentially become a community resource here in Indian Valley.” When asked if he was happy with his investment, Christian answered “Absolutely! It’s great to see how the students use the technology. They are even teaching us a few new ways of collaborating.”

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