Jean Chatzky: Online education done right

At Bankrate we strive to help you make smarter financial decisions. While we adhere to strict , this post may contain references to products from our partners. Here’s an explanation for

Research shows that learning something new is one of the best ways to keep your mind healthy. No wonder people over 50 seem to naturally gravitate to the vast world of online learning for everything from pursuing a passion to retooling for a new career.

One in 10 students who take online courses at Kaplan University, for instance, is over 50, says Sophie Vlessing, senior vice president at Kaplan Higher and Professional Education.

Kevin Hawkins, 56, of Washington, D.C., recently graduated from Kaplan University with a bachelor’s degree in health and wellness after a 36-year career in broadcasting. Now Hawkins runs his own online health and wellness coaching business. “I knew I needed more education to shift careers, and I liked the flexibility of taking online courses,” Hawkins says.

Colleges have been catering to online adult learners for years, often offering video lectures and courses on their websites and posting popular lecture series on YouTube and iTunes. Starting around 2011, massive open online courses, or MOOCs, hit the scene. Often free, many of these classes provide interactive video features such as mini-quizzes and student discussion forums.

But not all online learning is created equal. Although many are free, plenty of sites charge for courses. And tuition for some degree programs can cost close to the same as attending college. What’s more, quality of courses and the amount of interaction with faculty and other students can vary.

How can you find the online education that’s right for you? These 5 tips can help:

Know your goals. Most continuing education can be broken down into 3 categories: pursuing an advanced degree, enhancing skills for the workplace and pursuing a passion.

Adult students who know what end result they are pursuing will have an easier time evaluating the offerings, says Jeffrey Selingo, author of “MOOC U: Who Is Getting the Most Out of Online Education and Why.” He advises students to choose only courses they are passionate about or need for training or skills enhancement so as not to waste time.

Pick the right school. Coursera is an education platform that partners with universities around the world to offer thousands of free online courses.

EdX, the nonprofit started by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Udacity, which specializes in courses that help build technical skills and other high-tech training, are other companies that pull together online course offerings., a joint venture between Kaplan and AARP’s Life Reimagined, offers information on both online and on-campus courses for adult students.

Embrace the differences. Online courses are inherently different from the classroom experience. You’ll need to be comfortable with the computer and willing to communicate online with your teachers and classmates. You will likely need to work more independently than you might in a traditional classroom and have less guidance on deadlines and course load.

Although the self-paced nature of online courses can be a plus, it’s also easy to fall behind because you don’t necessarily have to show up for class, and you may not have classmates pushing you to keep up, Salingo says. An active student forum and a professor schooled in online teaching can help.

Do your research. While it’s tempting for retirees to sign up for a class at Harvard, Yale or Stanford just because it’s offered for free, adult students should keep in mind that not all classes or professors translate well to the online environment.

It can be difficult for professors to teach to an audience whose response they cannot see. Research what you can about the professor teaching the course before you sign up, including watching videos of his or her courses that might already be online.

Study the syllabus. Make sure the class or program you are considering has a variety of reading, lectures and interactive video elements, to keep engagement high. Take a look at the student forums to see if they are active and interesting and find out if other students are in your area and can possibly form an in-person discussion group.