01/23/2014 05:56 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2014

Meeting the Needs of Students in the Age of MOOCs

One of the primary roles of educational institutions is to provide students with the resources and tools needed to succeed in school and beyond, and with developments in technology we have the opportunity to do so in unprecedented ways. However, for many students, especially those served by institutions such as Mercy College, a federally-designated Hispanic-Serving Institution, it is problematic that this opportunity is predicated on broad access to such technology.

In Rebecca Schuman's recent Slate article, "The King of MOOCs Abdicates the Throne," Sebastian Thrun cites the failure of MOOCs in as much as they are not ideal for all students. Specifically, "These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives. It's a group for which this medium is not a good fit."

Consider this: Why would we not strive to provide the same resources and advantages to these students? I would argue that we need to meet our students' needs by responding to their experiences and knowledge. So while many of us use tablets and smartphones on a daily basis, it is essential that we be attentive to students who do not have exposure or access to mobile computing in their high schools and communities.

As the world increasingly requires mobility and instant access to information in all aspects of our lives, the field of higher education strives to keep apace and innovate where we can so that we can best serve our students. At Mercy College, our online programs seek to address disparities in access by providing workshops, demonstrations and tutorials as well as a special orientation each time a student registers for a class. These orientations are used to assess and "certify" students so that he or she may successfully complete each portion of his or her online experience.

While some students choose to learn in a "traditional" classroom setting, others have no choice but to learn remotely. This is particularly true for the student who has been known as the "non-traditional" student who needs the most flexibility due to family and work demands. In fact some would argue that mobile learning for them has become the "traditional" classroom.

Regardless of your viewpoint, the shift is a reality and calls for colleges and universities to find ways to meet students where they are, academically as well as physically. But mobile learning needs to work for the underserved group too. As educators, we need to make it work for them. How do we do that?

One way to meet their needs is by offering options. For example, mixed modality, a hybrid of face-to-face and online learning, gives students the flexibility of mobile learning combined with the on-campus experience. Studies have shown that this hybrid learning style has the potential to increase student learning while lowering attrition rates compared to equivalent, fully online courses.

These online options coupled with advances in digital and mobile learning can actually help us better serve students who are underprepared. Intelligent Tutoring Systems that incorporate a self-paced learning model address the simple fact that students learn at different speeds, and perhaps those who have less experience with technology still have the opportunity to succeed in a mobile learning environment. In addition, Open Educational Resources (OER) and e-books along with podcast and video availability on mobile devices have also enhanced our capacity to reach students.

In just over a year, Mercy College is experiencing a 40 percent user-rate of the Mercy Blackboard Mobile App from students in web-enhanced, flipped, blended or fully online courses. So we are increasingly able to meet our students where they are, and this is vital to academic continuity, and ultimately retention and graduation.

From "snow proofing" classes during a storm to virtual recruiting to live tutor review sessions, the mobile learning community is advancing -- quickly. In addition, the cost of mobile devices is trending downward, while OER, productivity apps and social networks continue to proliferate and expand our options. To inspire and ensure success, we must be ready, available and most importantly adaptable for our students in this changing virtual world. Certainly, we have no shortage of tools to do this.