Grassroots language technology: Fred Lieutaud, FLGames, Planet Alert

I recently used the soccer game from this open source set of language games designed by Fred Lieutand – FLGames. Worked really well in a revision class, I often forget how competitive my first year engineering students are.

With no further ado here is Fred talking about technology and language learning. Many thanks to Fred and if you are interested in talking about this area do get in touch.

1. Can you share some of your background?
I’m a French teacher of English working in a middle-school in the North East of France. I’ve been teaching in the same school for 18 years now. I am interested in computers, but mostly in knowledge sharing through open-source licenses and I like creating things, so I started developing my own tools to teach.

2. You mentioned your current project, Planet Alert, can you explain
that a little?

Planet Alert is the answer I’ve found so far to the problem of student’s motivation. One of my goals is to have the kids take pleasure in coming to class and learning English. I have a feeling that this is possible through the use of ‘games’ (hence my FLGames – sources on GitHub).

Planet Alert is then a sort of ‘game’ providing class managing tools and trying to keep in mind as much as possible that technology should serve the classroom and help students improving their skills. If it doesn’t fulfill these goals, it shouldn’t be used in class.

In Planet Alert, students have their own avatar, and they need to take care of it to help the team (i.e. the class) succeed in the ‘game’. The scenario is not that interesting in itself : Humans wanted to conquer Mars, but Martians were first: they have invaded the Earth, and they have emptied human brains. To resist and free the planet, humans have to re-learn a language (English !).

The game is strongly connected to the classroom in many ways. Lots of ‘real’ actions have an effect on the avatars. Participation, group work, individual exercises, helping other kids. Each positive action increases player’s experience (XP), but also increases his or her gold coins (GC). Each negative action causes health points loss and might also cause GC loss. Thanks to the GC, a player can free places throughout the world (famous monuments – the goal is to have them developing geographical skills), free people, buy equipment (to earn even more), buy protections (to lose less than normal), buy potions (no homework for 1 lesson, changing seat in class for 1 lesson, assisting the teacher), donate to another player (to help him buy a health potion, for example). Once bought, players get the element to stick in their copybook and scores are updated for real in the classroom and on the website.

I try to encourage team work with special elements (group items) such as the Memory helmet or the Book of Knowledge : the first is a helmet giving access to online exercises (created inside Planet Alert), the second gives access to lessons that can be copied in the copybook (to validate an extra-homework, which gets credited with extra XP and extra GC). This gives also the kids a possibility to work outside of the classroom and revise vocabulary or go a little further than what has been done in class. For students not having an easy internet access, they can also do extra-work in their copybook. When shown in class, they get credited of a positive action.

At the beginning of the lesson, I often check the ‘Main Office’ page so we have the recent news and discuss things (someone needs help, monuments). An exercise in class becomes a ‘Group mission’, a test is a ‘Monster Attack’ and so on. Most things are related to the ‘game’.

Some roles exist : ‘Ambassadors’ for players having 10 positive actions in a row, ‘Captains’ for players having the best karma in each group. This is useful in class, for example to start an activity : Captains first !

Anyway, I guess you get the picture. It’s hard to be concise since Planet Alert offers many possibilities. It is really a way to manage class differently. Teachers can also generate reports over selected periods and see who has done extra-work, who has forgotten their material, who has participated. This is a great help for parents’ meetings.

Well, I could go on for hours about everything that is behind this website. But from my own (much biased !) point of view, the results are encouraging. If you want to have a look, the official website is https://planetalert.tuxfamily.org.

3. How do you decide on whether to use technology or not in class?
From what I’ve answered from the preceding question, you can imagine that using computers in the classroom is often a necessity for me. Although my focus is not to use the tool in itself for the sake of using it. I want to use it to share with the class. It has to prove its added value: either in helping communication, or in helping students learn. Planet Alert is an example of a common sharing, but the FLGames are another example for helping memorizing (Soccer for increasing speed, Grammar Gamble to improve the written skills, Car Race to encourage group work and cooperation). I believe technology in class should always be a means to promote real interaction. It should trigger some sort of desire to work, to speak, to get involved.

4. What kinds of tools (apart from your own) have you found most useful?
As you can see, I mostly use my own tools. But I also use OpenBoard to manage all my documents on my interactive whiteboard. I exclusively use open-source things for many years now and that is  something very important for me. With Planet Alert, I try to initiate students to open-source licenses : they have already drawn some of the monsters used in the game and accepted to share them on Open Clipart Library :). Other important aspects are the possibility to customize the tools and the ability to do so quickly (I like working with simple .txt files as data source).

5. Anything else you would like to comment on about technology in language learning?
I have a feeling it would be hard to do without technology when teaching, but this is a personal opinion. It is fundamental to understand that teaching relies much more on the teacher than on technology ! Some teachers are not ‘techies’ but they still do extraordinary work. I think a teacher has to find his or her way of teaching. And all sorts of teaching may work !