Higher Learning Commission

The Latest in Engaging the Adult Student Online: Authentic, Meaningful and Real-World Engagement Models

Amy Smith, Rhonda Capron and Kirsten Hoyt


Recent research in the adult learning and student engagement arenas is often categorized in three ways: (1) behaviorally by doing activities; (2) affectively by experiencing feelings; and (3) cognitively through thinking (Hew 2015). In the online adult education space, student engagement has implications for course completion and, ultimately, program retention and completion. For the kind of student learning that leads to increased retention and course and degree completion, all three forms of student engagement noted above—behaviorally, affectively, cognitively—must be in play in the curriculum and instruction of academic programs.

In addition to the types of student engagement, Yoo and Huang (2013) found that adult learners need to make the connection from the curriculum and program content to workplace performance and career development to promote continuous learning behaviors. If adult students can apply what they learn to diagnosing and solving real-world challenges, they are more intrinsically motivated. Wells and Grabert (2004) argue that real-world applications in higher education programs, such as transferring business situations, processes and systems to classroom settings, are important and help students link learning within college courses to the world of work. These links foster the intrinsic motivation that leads to authentic and meaningful engagement

As well as intrinsic motivation, Landis and Haley (2012) assert that students can increase their knowledge and enhance their learning by collaborating with their peers. Newmann, Wehlage and Lamborn (1992) describe the need for instruction to be authentic and meaningful and attest that collaborating with peers creates a deeper level of knowledge and meaning. This deeper level of knowledge, or higher level of knowledge construction, was also found by Hew and Cheung (2011) in their study of peer collaboration in asynchronous online classroom activities.

The apex of curriculum and instruction that actively engages learners by attacking real-world problems and building solutions, fostering intrinsic motivation and collaborating with peers presents a new horizon in instructional innovation. Beyond the learner him- or herself, motivation and engagement also have implications for the instructional design of learning experiences, from course to programs. Hew (2015) finds that research participants tied student engagement to five course educational learning development themes that, when employed, engaged adult learners on a new level: (1) fostering active learning; (2) monitoring learning; (3) making meaningful connections; (4) promoting interaction; and (5) using helpful course resources. The University of Phoenix’s academic programs incorporate these real-world connections and collaboration by incorporating Hew’s themes into the structure of the university’s courses.

The University of Phoenix has seen a new level of active, engaged learning by incorporating simulation, gaming, live tutoring and business plan software into the learning from three colleges within the University of Phoenix. Results have shown an increase in student engagement, an increase in retention and the benefits of emerging models of student-and-faculty interactions.

The School of Business: Software Tool Fosters Engagement

Several students within the university’s School of Business have been interested in becoming entrepreneurs by creating a new business or intrapreneurs by growing a new product or service line within an existing organization. In three of the university’s entrepreneurship courses, the instructional design team, in collaboration with faculty members and subject-matter experts, has integrated software as a service tool; the software, from Palo Alto Software, Inc., is called LivePlan.

LivePlan is a business planning software that helps business leaders pitch, plan, manage and grow their ventures. The tool provides more than 500 business plan samples with industry benchmarks for key financial ratios. The business curriculum includes assignments that ultimately lead to an investment-ready business feasibility plan. More specifically, assignments in the first management course prompt each student to firm up the idea for his or her company, define the mission, select a legal form, identify human resources, create a competitive analysis and plan for creation and growth.

In the second course, the student builds on this plan and completes several assignments to develop a marketing strategy. The third and final course focuses on finance and addresses analysis in key areas, such as cash flow, break even, financial ratios and sources of funding. The student’s knowledge and skills learned in these courses, enabled by the software tool, are reviewed and enhanced by internal and external entrepreneurs.

The School of Business deans tapped entrepreneurs from practitioner faculty and alumni to create an Entrepreneurship Advisory Board. These members reviewed the draft curriculum and provided feedback and recommendations to ensure that the curriculum covered the key pain points of business ideation, creation and sustainability. The university also developed a partnership with the U.S. Black Chamber to provide this coursework to its members. This collaboration with the advisory board and the Chamber brought real-world perspective to the educational experience as students engaged in critical thinking and knowledge-based planning.

Many businesses fail because of the inability of the leaders to overcome challenges in marketing and profitability, particularly cash flow (Kelley et al. 2014). Ultimately, the success of the university’s students in their new or existing businesses will be the definitive endorsement for the knowledge and skills they acquire in this course sequence.

The College of Humanities and Sciences: Gamification and Simulations as Innovations

As part of its commitment to engage all learners who are newly enrolled in postsecondary education at the University of Phoenix, the College of Humanities and Sciences implemented a series of real-world simulations in its first-year course series. These instructional and curricular innovations were aimed at engaging adult students with relevance and application in the areas of critical thinking and academic writing while building their confidence and identity as college students.

The second course students take as part of their bachelor’s degree general education requirements, a writing course, was revised to include real-world simulations and business settings as applications of the writing process. This course, which focuses on critical thinking, incorporates a game whereby students explore problems and build solutions within the confines of a steam-punk, DaVinci-esque laboratory. The College of Humanities and Sciences co-built the simulations and gamescapes to foster peer-to-peer interactivity and active learning and to force students to make meaningful connections between the content of the courses and life and work settings. Presenting 18 months of student learning and retention data from implementation, this paper will illustrate the positive impact simulations have on adult student engagement and learning.

The College of Information Systems and Technology: Live Synchronous Learning Labs

University of Phoenix engages students in the online environment in many ways, including the use of collaborative discussion boards, learning teams, peer-to-peer interactions and student-to-faculty interactions. In addition, the university offers live synchronous learning labs (Live Labs) to students in a variety of subject areas, including writing, math, programming and accounting.

The College of Information Systems and Technology offers two Live Labs in the PRG/211 Logic and Algorithms class: Arrays and Problem Solving and Algorithm Development. PRG/211 is an introductory class designed to provide students with a basic understanding of programming development practices. The course covers programming fundamentals; problem solving and algorithm development; programming logic; structures, verification and validation; and file processing. These are all complex topics, and on reviewing data from past course pass rates, grade distributions, student feedback and faculty feedback, the college implemented a major course revision that included content and structure innovations as well as the addition of the two Live Labs mentioned earlier. Twelve months of student learning data from this implementation of Live Labs shows the positive impact live synchronous learning labs can have on adult student learning.


Learners can engage and make meaningful connections in a variety of ways. The examples presented are ways that the schools and colleges at University of Phoenix have implemented meaningful student engagement and demonstrated student success. It is critically important for universities to know their students and to meet them where the learning needs to happen. In addition, universities must continually monitor the success (or failure) of changes implemented in courses to see the impact on student retention and learning.


Hew, K. F. 2015. Towards a model of engaging online students: Lessons from MOOCs and four policy documents. International Journal of Information and Education Technology 5 (6): 425–431.

Hew, K. F., and W. S. Cheung. 2011. Higher-level knowledge construction in asynchronous Online discussions: An analysis of group size, duration of online discussion, and student facilitation techniques. Instruction Science 39 (3): 303–319.

Kelley, D. J., A. Ali, C. Brush, A. C. Corbett, T. Lyons, M. Majbouri, and E. G. Rogoff. 2014. Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2013 United States report. Wellesley, MA: Babson College and New York: Baruch College.

Landis, E. A., and M. L. Haley. 2012. Do students achieve higher grades when working together in learning teams than when working through individualized study efforts? Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice 12 (5): 74–86.

Newmann, F. M., G. G. Wehlage, and S. D. Lamborn. 1992. The significance and sources of student engagement. In Student engagement and achievement in American secondary schools, ed. F. M. Newmann, 11–39. New York: Teachers College Press.

Wells, C. V., and C. Grabert. 2004. Service-learning and mentoring: Effective pedagogical strategies. College Student Journal 38 (4): 573–578.

Yoo, S. J., and W.-H. D. Huang. 2013. Engaging online adult learners in higher education: Motivational factors impacted by gender, age, and prior experience. Journal of Continuing Higher Education 61 (3): 151–164.


About the Authors

Amy Smith is Academic Dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, Rhonda Capron is Academic Dean of the School of Business, and Kirsten Hoyt is Academic Dean of the College of Information Systems and Technology at the University of Phoenix in Arizona.

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