04/27/2012 09:49 am ET Updated Jun 27, 2012

Education Reform: Language and Technology vs. STEM

As we get closer to the presidential election, organizations and individuals are once again appealing to officials for an education reform. Over the past few years there has been a push for Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) programs. What about a push for language instruction?

Although a science and technology program is valuable, a program that integrates technology and language is equally important. Part of the problem with this type of language initiative though is that individuals within the discipline have split views. On one end are the traditionalists who are completely against incorporating technology into language pedagogy. On the other end of the spectrum are those so eager to test new technologies that in their haste end up poorly incorporating technology into the lesson plans. For example, I recently learned that a teacher created a class account on Pinterest and had the students post a picture and a paragraph about a famous Spanish monument on the site simply because Pinterest is currently the "hottest" tool in technology. Needless to say, the activity was a disaster because it was poorly integrated into the lesson. In a globally connected world, technology is a crucial element of language instruction but it requires careful thought and planning.

Also, while making sure that students develop information, media and technology skills is important if we are to compete and keep up with other nations in the 21st century, we shouldn't forget that these technological skills must simultaneously be accompanied by language acquisition to effectively communicate on the global stage. It was through my time abroad that I understood how problematic language barriers can be and consequently how valuable it is to know other languages. Not too long ago, I was sitting at the airport in Morocco shortly before our flight's departure when our Morocco Exchange Program director was taken by an official for questioning. Our director had just distributed a series of papers with information about Morocco's history, its government, religion and arts and culture for us to read on our flight home. However, the officials were suspicious because they did not know what type of information the papers contained since everything was in english. I will never know what ran through the official's mind, maybe that our director was a stranger dispersing misleading or harmful information about their country to a group of foreigners but I do remember being nervous our director would not be allowed to leave Morocco. Fortunately, our director knew Arabic and was able to explain that we were a group of students from the U.S. on an intercultural exchange program and that the information on the handouts was for educational purposes. The official apologized for the misunderstanding and appreciated that our director was teaching us about Moroccan culture. I have heard many times that people are more open-minded when you speak to them in their target language, and this experience certainly proved it. This story is an example of how language can overcome cultural barriers and stereotypes. In addition, with this story I hope to reiterate that when it comes to language instruction, the content (language and culture) is equally if not more important than the technological components used to teach. Ultimately technology is meant to enhance language learning, not hinder it or serve as a substitute for the actual language.

Therefore, in terms of language instruction, the best initiatives are those that effectively integrate language and technology. One of the few models of this unique language initiative is found at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Every year the Department of Modern Languages at Marist College offers a course titled Spanish and Technology. Unlike traditional lecture-style pedagogy, this course is completely project-driven with the goal of fostering 21st Century skills such as creativity and innovation, critical thinking, and self-direction, while simultaneously developing a student's media literacy and Spanish language skills. Based on the success of this course and its commitment to preparing students for the 21st century, Marist now also offers a pre-college Spanish Summer Institute, an intensive two-week program. This program offers high school students the chance to earn three college credits. Students develop their language and technology skills, take part in cultural activities, interact with native speakers from other countries, learn through location-based games using the iPad and visit businesses, museums and historic sites throughout the Hudson Valley and New York City. As one student recently commented in a testimonial, this program helped her "communicate and feel more comfortable in the target language."

Today, a lot of attention and funding is given to STEM programs but the humanities, language acquisition in particular, deserves just as much attention. As we think about potential education reforms, more options that combine technology and language learning or the humanities in general should be made available. The best education reform is one that not only supports STEM programs but also Language and Technology initiatives.