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How to learn for cheap (or free!) in Ottawa

By Barbara Popel on June 27, 2015

You may be surprised by the wide variety of inexpensive and free courses available at University of Ottawa and at Carleton University.  Some are well-advertised and very popular, some less so.  Their topics are wide-ranging and intellectually interesting.  This article will give an overview of 4 of these programs – 2 at University of Ottawa (UofO) and 2 at Carleton University (CarletonU).

But before I start, a word about the nature of these courses.  None of them are for university credit, so there are generally no prerequisites, assignments, quizzes or exams.  There is usually a suggested reading list, but no one will get on your case if you don’t crack a book.

So, let’s look at the smorgasbord of free and inexpensive courses at the universities!

Tabaret Hall at the University of Ottawa, photo by flickr user Swadhi Ranganee, from the Apt613 flickr pool

Tabaret Hall at the University of Ottawa, photo by flickr user Swadhi Ranganee

Eclectic Continuing Ed courses at the University of Ottawa

UofO’s Centre for Continuing Education offers courses for professional development and for personal enrichment.  The latter are an eclectic mix of evening courses – typically 6 evening lectures per course, but sometimes fewer lectures – in fall, winter and spring terms.  There’s some repetition of courses from term to term, particularly for the language-learning courses.

I’ve taken “How do you learn all those lines? – an interactive lecture about the craft of acting”, 2 introductory courses in Spanish, an intriguing course on the Ottoman Empire, a well-illustrated course called “From Nebula to Supernova:  Life Cycle of Stars”, a course comparing 4 Eastern religions, and – my favourite! – a course called “Creating Christians: The Social World of Early Christianity”.

The courses are usually taught by grad students and guest lecturers.  In my experience, this means “mileage may vary”; some lecturers are very good, but some, though enthusiastic, are not polished educators.  The classes are typically very small – a dozen or fewer students – and the students are of all ages.  There’s plenty of opportunity to ask questions in class.  Soft copies of the lectures are often available to the class, usually after each session.   There’s free coffee and tea.

Location: Classes are held on the top floor of the Desmarais Building at Laurier and Waller (gorgeous views!).

Cost: Recent prices ranged from $100 to $120 plus HST for a 6-evening course; that works out to $20 per lecture, which ain’t bad when you consider what most entertainments cost.

Registration:  Fall registration begins on August 1.

The University of Ottawa's main library, photo by flickr user Trevor, from the Apt613 flickr pool.

The University of Ottawa’s main library, photo by flickr user Trevor

Mini Medical School at the University of Ottawa

UofO’s Faculty of Medicine offers a “Mini Medical School“.  The “teaser” on their website asks:

“Itching to learn more about the human body and its amazing intricacies?

Ever wonder what makes your body tick?

Interested in learning more about medical terminology and how to speak to your personal physician?

Want to hear about current and local research initiatives on health issues?

Wish you had had a chance to go to medical school?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions then “Welcome to Mini Medical School at the University of Ottawa!”

I haven’t taken any Mini Med courses, but the recent list of topics looks intriguing!  This past year’s course was called “The Complicated Brain:  Exploring the Diversity of Neurological-Psychiatric Disorders”.  It delved into topics such as neuroplasticity, treatment of depression and anxiety, and preventing brain injury.  The course was given in both the fall and the spring.

The course is taught by professors on Thursday evenings, 6 lectures in the fall which are repeated in the spring.  Course registration is limited to 200 people; last year both the fall and spring sessions sold out.  Some folks enjoyed the course so much they took it twice!  Soft copies of the presentations are made available to the class.

Location: Classes are at the Civic Campus of the Ottawa Hospital on Carling Avenue.    
This past year, the cost was $180 (including HST) for adults and $140 for seniors and students.

Registration: Fall registration begins in early July.


Let’s turn to the other large university in town – Carleton University.


Image by flickr user FastTrackPhoto, from the Apt613 flickr pool

Image by flickr user FastTrackPhoto

Learning in Retirement at Carleton – Not just for retirees

Carleton offers the hugely popular Learning in Retirement (LinR) program.  Don’t be put off by its title – you don’t have to be retired to take LinR courses.  But you do have to be free during the daytime on a weekday.  As at UofO, LinR courses are typically 6 lectures each and are scheduled in the fall, winter or spring term.  There’s little repetition from one term to the next.

LinR’s offerings are even more wide-ranging than UofO’s Continuing Education ones.  I’ve taken some fascinating architecture courses, several art history courses (which included trips to the National Gallery), a wonderful course called “The Seven Wonders of the Muslim Civilization” which dealt with architecture with an overlay of cultural/religious information, and an exciting neuropsychology course called “Brain and Behaviour”.  My husband has taken a number of courses ranging from astrophysics to ancient Egyptian civilizations to “Plagues and Pandemics” (which was packed with loads of surprising facts), and a brilliant wide-ranging course called “Great Ideas of Science”.

The courses are taught by semi-retired and retired professors, so they’ve got the pedagogical chops.  The classes are larger – sometimes much larger – than UofO’s personal enrichment courses.  Typically the registration cutoff is 55 students; wait lists are common.  Most of the students are (surprise!) retired, but in the past 2 decades I’ve been taking LinR courses I’ve not found them to be ageist.  Despite the large class sizes, because the instructors are good lecturers, there’s lots of opportunity to ask questions in class.  Soft copies of the lectures are often available after each session.

Location: Leeds House, at Carleton

Cost: Most of the recent courses were $110 plus HST for a 6-session course.

Registration: The fall calendar will be released the week of July 13 and registration will begin on August 5.  


Image by flickr user kaitlin.

Image by flickr user kaitlin.

Massive Open Online Courses at Carleton

Can’t fit a 6-lecture course into your busy schedule?  There’s an app for that!  CarletonU Onlineor as they refer to themselves, eCarleton, began offering something new last year – a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) in Psychology.  Actually, 2 courses – Psyc1001 Open Access and Psyc1002 Open Access.  Both courses require that the student read the textbook (information-dense but very well-written), view the lecture videos, and take the online quizzes.  Everything is self-paced.

An aside:  MOOC’s of various types have been around for about a decade  You can read up on MOOC’s on Wikipedia.

Psyc1001, which I’m currently taking, covers “an historical context and then a survey of psychological research methods, (and then) the brain and nervous system followed by the building blocks of sensation, perception, learning, memory, consciousness, language and thought”.   Psyc1002 places  “an emphasis on people as social animals (and covers) human intelligence, psychological testing, motivation, emotion, human development, stress and mental health, psychological disorders, treatment, and social behaviour.”

Completing Psyc1001 is a prerequisite for taking Psyc1002.  The material is what you would see if you were taking these courses in a classroom for credit.  But you don’t need to register as a Carleton student to take these MOOCs.  Anyone anywhere in the world can take these courses.

(If you decide you want a university credit, you can switch to the “flex term” version of the course, get the Psych Department’s approval, pay the tuition, etc.  I won’t detail what’s required; there’s plenty of info on the website.)

Both courses are taught by the irrepressible Dr. Bruce Tsuji.  His enthusiasm for the topics is infectious!   There are computer-based options for discussing topics online with Tsuji and with other students.  The former works well, but in my experience there’s little evidence of other students’ presence, though I’m told the course has a fairly large cohort registered.  As you might expect from the first year using this new (to CarletonU) technology, some of the interfaces and script flow could be improved, particularly in the first few modules.  But in general most things work fairly well.

Location: Online

Cost: Free!  The only cost you’ll incur is the textbook.  You should be able to find the textbook second-hand; mine cost about $70 at Amazon.

Registration: Because this is a MOOC, you can register at any time and there’s no deadline for completing the course.


So, if you’re frugal but intellectually curious, you have lots of options for university courses from both UofO and CarletonU!