Paulina Tervo & Serdar Ferit on Immersive Storytelling as a Powerful Tool in Education | HundrED Innovation Summit

Lyfta was founded by award-winning filmmaker duo Serdar Ferit and Paulina Tervo in 2016, with the desire to inspire future generations to make a positive impact in the world. Lyfta’s platform was created to support teachers in tackling complex themes and topics with the best tools to introduce different global phenomena in the classroom.

What does Lyfta do?

Serdar Ferit: What we do at Lyfta is we invite children and teachers to explore new places. So they can literally go around the globe, click into a place and go straight into a personal space and a personal story. For example, they could go into the home of a single father, taxi driver, see the food that he has cooked for his young daughter, learn how to make it, sit with them at their dinner table in virtual reality and when they are ready, they can get to know him better by clicking on him, bringing him to life and watching a very personal, short documentary about him. Another example, we could go to a village in northern Ethiopia and go into the school, find out what the classrooms look like, find out the kind of kids in the classroom, click on one of them to have a window into a personal story from their life. And the stories are designed to provide stimuli for teachers to delve into a variety of themes, topics, skills, values, etc.
Paulina Tervo: And what’s so powerful about immersive storytelling is the connected environment so it is not simply that you are watching something on a screen. It is the experience. It is that the learner learns through experience and they are in the driving seat of what they are doing. It is an exploration, so you can literally  spin the globe, click into somewhere and go and see how people live in a different part of the world where you might never have been. . So it’s the combination of immersion and the real-life story that is unique to Lyfta.
Serdar Ferit: And we call it place, people, pedagogy - the three Ps of Lyfta.

What inspired you to create Lyfta?

Serdar Ferit: We didn’t initially sit around a table and think Let's find a solution for education. Our first instinct or driver was to just find a new and experiential way of telling stories. Once we made our first immersive, interactive documentary, my dad, who was a primary school teacher, said: “Have you shown this to children because I think it would be a really good way for teaching and learning?” We tried that and we realized that actually, this is the most exciting audience we have ever experienced. That was when we decided to put everything behind it.

Paulina Tervo: One story is that I went traveling to Ethiopia in 2004 and came across this village that really inspired me, as a human being as well as a filmmaker. Over the year I got to know the community and we ended up making a documentary there, that then grew into this immersive experience, which is now one of the stories on Lyfta’s platform. So that was an inspiration but I think the deeper impact,  for me is seeing that children have so much power and we shouldn’t underestimate their power and what they can bring to the world when they are still kids. I have seen a lot of kids around the world when I have traveled as a documentary filmmaker and I have seen very different contexts where kids live in. But still, the one thing that connects all of these children, in poverty and in rich countries, is that everybody needs education and everybody wants to have an education. It is a human right that we need to be able to provide and quality education is very important and we (Lyfta) want to bring that - that should be our legacy we leave to the world, to the kids.

How is Lyfta making education a more inclusive experience?

Serdar Ferit: Inclusion is quite a broad word. It is mainly used for special needs education. So two unintended but really delightful experiences we have had with Lyfta is that we found out that our top user  of Lyfta last year was a special needs teacher. She was literally using it in every single lesson. I got in touch with her and met with her just to find out what she was doing. And she was a teacher of ASD & MLD autistic children. And she said she has seen absolute transformations in her students. They have become more expressive, more communicative. She said their relationships with one another have improved and she attributes that to Lyfta. I wouldn’t dare say that as one of the co-founders but this is what she said. She said there were children who wouldn’t step foot into her classroom, but having peaked in and seen Lyfta, they got interested and now they go to every single lesson and are excited about it. We didn’t design Lyfta for autistic children but having had this feedback, we are now working with a network of special schools to try and make our future iterations as inclusive as possible with universal design, etc. We just want to make sure we don’t leave anybody out because that is very much in our philosophy anyway.

Secondly, I can also tell you a story about dyslexia which was  fascinating for us. So one day I was at a school in London, about one and a half years ago, and we were doing a whole Lyfta workshop and part of it was about Virtual Reality. It was just for six kids and we had one VR headset between us and normally when we share a VR headset, I ask the children to tell each other or describe what they can see and what they can hear, just to keep everybody included and so nobody is just waiting for their turn. The second boy who got up and put the headset on was exploring a factory in a village in Ethiopia. He was looking around and clicking on things by staring at the icons and some text popped up. I asked him to read it out loud for everyone to hear and he hesitated for a moment. But then he read it out perfectly well and when he took his headset off to give to one of his friends, he whispered in my ear, “By the way, I am severely dyslexic and I have never read out loud in my life. But I just did and I think you should probably know that.” Now I didn’t know that the child was dyslexic, let alone severely dyslexic, and if I had, I would have never asked him to read it out loud and put him on the spot or embarrass him. But that was a really interesting revelation for us again because it was unintended. We confirmed with his teacher, we interviewed the boy. His mum wrote me an email the next day. She was obviously really excited to find out that this had happened and that actually inspired us to do a study with a Finnish university on Virtual Reality and Dyslexia. We did the study with British schools, with English language and that’s being analyzed at the moment. So we are all looking forward to seeing what the results are. 

Why is immersive storytelling a powerful tool in education?

Paulina Tervo: We initially launched Lyfta in 2016 . We had a few of these immersive environments. We brought them into some schools and the feedback was really, really positive. In fact, nearly every child said that they enjoyed the lessons and  some 87% of them said they loved Lyfta lessons. So we were really encouraged to keep going and since then, we have been working with a lot of schools in the UK, in Finland and some in the US as well. Through the teacher feedback we have learned that the teachers would love to use it but need a little bit more hand holding as well, and  an example of how they could take this into their curriculum and how can they use it in their everyday life and lessons. So we have now built a new iteration of Lyfta which gives the teacher a lot of new tools to use it in a classroom. They are able to search for content according to a theme or a UN Sustainable Development Goal, and they can filter all the content that is relevant to that theme. They can also build  their own lesson plans within Lyfta. So we are trying to make things easier for the teacher because the teacher is really the key to Lyfta.

But from the student's side, what we have seen is that when a student is able to immerse themselves in an environment, they forget the act of learning and they are just learning. Some of the kids we have spoken to said that “When I am reading a book, I have to focus on the reading. I have to focus on learning. But when I am using Lyfta and am in an immersive environment, I can just learn. I don’t need to think about the fact that I am learning.” It is really amazing the see that kind of learning, that when you forget about it, it actually happens. Somebody else said today that when you take kids out in real life environments, they learn more. But sometimes you can’t do that. Sometimes you can’t take your class from a rural village to a big city to meet people who look different from themselves. But if you can provide that with immersive story experiences, you can gain exposure to people that you might not otherwise ever meet.

Serdar Ferit: On that point, Lyfta is being used in a number of rural schools in the UK, as well as more urban environments. But it is being used in lots of rural schools where children get very little exposure to people from different cultural backgrounds. We were invited to one of these schools in Essex, in south-east England, by a teacher who was concerned about the rising levels of nationalism in her town. It was quite a white working class school. She was worried about the effects of the Brexit campaign and she generally felt the town was becoming more hostile. So, we designed a whole day program for her class, which was a year 8 class, thirty children. At the beginning of the session, the kids did a self-assessment to gagegeneral levels of empathy as well as attitudes towards people from different backgrounds. As a part of that, we showed them a picture of 6 different people. Three of the people were white and three were not. We have people who were from Africa, from the Middle East, etc. And we asked the students, “How much common ground do you think that you could have with each of these people?” Perhaps expectedly, they thought they could have more in common with the people who looked more like themselves. Then throughout the day, the students got to spend time with all these people. They went to their homes, their workplaces, they looked around in 360 environments and clicked on things to understand the context that these six individuals worked or lived in. When the students were ready, they would click on these people and bring them to life. They watched personal stories about them in short documentaries. By the end of the day, they had spent about ten minutes with each of the people and then they did a second assessment to see if there would be any change in their attitudes. And there had been such a massive change that we couldn’t have predicted it. They felt more empathy towards everybody, all six. But the biggest change came towards the people who were not white. And the absolute biggest change came towards a guy called Mohammed who was 55 years old, a taxi driver. He was fifth out of the six people after the first assessment but once the students had met everybody, he jumped to the top. He became their favorite person and that is something we couldn’t have imagined at the beginning. It was really special for us and the teacher. The teacher was very emotional about that as well and that gave us a lot of hope. We are now building a globe and our vision is to have a whole world of stories, so by the time a child completes his or her education, they literally have been to every single  country in the world and they have met a human being from every country in the world. They can see and experience how interconnected and interdependent we all are. We believe if we can get there, we will make a positive dent on this planet.

Paulina Tervo: The world is full of good stories. They just need sharing. Stories as we know are powerful tools for education. We want to help other filmmakers share their stories as well at Lyfta.

To learn more about Lyfta visit their Innovation Page.