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The design of online classes has evolved dramatically in the past five years.

University of Toronto/Johnny Guatto

The title alone, Death 101, suggests something other than typical University of Toronto fare.

But Death 101 is no horror show. It is an online course, now archived, on global health risks, death and disease, and their effect on policy, developed by the University of Toronto for EdX Inc. And that makes the course even less typical.

EdX is a third-party platform on the web (another popular service is Coursera Inc.) that is in the business of hosting MOOCs, or massive open online courses. Sometimes the courses have a prerequisite, such as prior knowledge of the topic. Sometimes they are part of professional certification programs.

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MOOCs have become another option, along with the plethora of online courses already offered directly by postsecondary institutions, for busy adults looking to dip into online learning, whether for work or pleasure.

And as a result, this has led to rapid changes in adult learning. The design of online classes has evolved dramatically in the past five years. And what is required of students online has also changed dramatically.

Prospective students who choose to study online have a few key issues to consider.

Expect to be busy

Simply signing up, doing some reading and dabbling in a class anonymously are not enough. That is no more effective than sitting in a lecture and watching a professor speak for one, two or three hours, says Gregor Kiczales, executive director of the University of British Columbia's extended learning department and a professor of computer science.

Online courses are about concision. Each lecture tends to be short, about 10 minutes, accompanied by exercises sprinkled throughout the course. They aren't about daydreaming through long classes and weeks of plowing independently through vast texts.

"What's interesting is that the online courses, in a funny way, have a real advantage, because it's so easy for them to intermix presenting content with activity. It's so easy for them to say to the learner, 'Hey, you haven't solved a problem in a day. Why don't you do this now?' " Dr. Kiczales says. "It's so easy for them to encourage the kind of activities that we know promote learning."

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Shop around for the right class

This isn't as obvious as it may sound. There are many different ways in which online classes are designed to engage students, from continual assignments to little nudges by an algorithm or directly from an instructor. Consider your preferences.

"Look for signs that the online course is well designed for learning, not that it's well designed to be efficient for the institution providing it. Does it have a clear sense of what's going to happen each week? Does it have real activities that are going to be interesting to engage in? Does it check back in with you to see how you're doing, and keep you up to date? When you post questions online, do they get answered quickly? All of those are quality indications," Dr. Kiczales says.

Expect a "flipped" learning experience

The traditional method of doing the reading, attending the lecture and then doing some exercises later is now frequently flipped. The emphasis with online courses is often on the exercises. This creates a more sequential learning experience – baby steps – different than the go-it-alone experience that some courses offer.

"I have them do a little bit of reading, a little bit of video [watching], and a little bit of exercises on which they get feedback. And that process repeats until they get all their skills," says Saul Carliner, a professor and interim chair of the department of education at Concordia University. This flips the learning experience by emphasizing activity rather than passive listening. This is spilling over into how many tradition classroom courses are taught, too, often with a hybrid, online-offline approach.

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"There is a fair amount of evidence that this is quite a successful means of teaching. It may be more entertaining, that's great. But ideally, it's more engaging," he says. "It's doing what you're supposed to do with effective instruction, which is, I introduce a skill and I verify that you understand it before I move you on to the next skill."

The question, though, is whether this flipped method, this step-by-step approach of sequential exercises online, suits the way you like to learn. Not everyone is so linearly minded; not every subject is as suited to linear teaching.

Think about what you want from the online class, not just what it offers

Are you looking for a new professional skill, or obtaining a prerequisite for further study, or looking to earn a certificate?

"That self-assessment of what's appropriate for you, and what you're looking for, is probably the most important thing, so that you follow a path that's not going to be frustrating for you," says Laurie Harrison, director of online learning strategies at the University of Toronto.

Remember, too, that even if the class is a good fit for your needs, the way it is delivered online can alter what it provides. For instance, some MOOCs are free, but certain things like a completion certification or study aids are likely behind paywalls. So assessing your needs often means plowing through options of which class to choose.

"It's a double-edged sword. You could almost say that with so much choice, where do you begin? But with so much choice, there's a right fit for everyone," Dr. Harrison says.

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