Monday, March 3, 2014

Exploring New Formats for Genealogy Instruction

Wow, my blog post "A Conference Manifesto" for the Genealogy World garnered more interaction than I thought it would. Reading through the comments at all the various places the piece was shared, I am noticing a pattern:

1. I'm not alone. Others are tiring of the back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back lectures that make up a daily genealogy conference schedule. It's not a dislike of the lecture format, but more of a desire for variety of presentations. When you open a conference schedule and see 50 different lectures, it's kind of like 50 kinds of vanilla ice cream. I like vanilla ice cream, I just don't need 50 versions of it.

2. Commenters say they prefer--and often learn more from--interactions with others outside a conference's classroom hours than they do in the lecture sessions. This has been my experience as well. This is not a knock on speakers or the lecture format, rather a plug for the value of group learning.

3. There seems to be a measurable desire for other learning formats to be incorporated alongside lectures into conference programming. Of course, there will be those who don't like changes, but there is now a group just as vocal about exploring other options.

What kind of options are out there? I started looking at conferences for different types of things. Some ideas are already being incorporated in genealogy conferences, but could be tweaked for more success. Others are just new ways we can teach the old tricks and subjects we deem important.

Conference within a conference - It is exactly as it sounds: a smaller day-long event within a larger one, usually where the sessions are tied together by a specific theme. Here's an example I pulled from the cobwebs in my head:

BCG Camp (a hypothetical example of a conference within a genealogy conference)
The Board for Certification of Genealogists holds a day-long mini-conference on one of the days of a national conference. The schedule could go like this:

8:30am-10:00am - Opening keynote of the larger conference. Usually these are huge draws so there's no need to take away from it. Start the camp later.

10:30am-11:30am - Lecture on a key principle like the Genealogical Proof Standard or something. Give attendees an in-depth look at a selected topic with an expert lecturer.

12:00pm-1:30pm - Ticketed BCG lunch with time to socialize and notable speaker. 

2:00pm-3:00pm - Certification Q&A. Certified genealogists answer audience questions. The crowd is taking in information as they would in a lecture, but they're participating in the learning as well. Have the group watch the instructional BCG certification seminar video at home ahead of time so the basic questions are already answered and they bring a variety of new ones.

3:30pm-4:30pm - Problem solving exercise. Present a genealogical problem, divide the class into groups, and give them time to work out their approach to solving the issue. Then gather the class back together, share the groups' processes and reveal the speaker's solution if different. 

Aftersession - Have a meetup or informal social event in the evening so prospective certification candidates meet one another and mingle with CGs. 

See there? A whole day of learning and interaction with only one traditional lecture.

Conference within a conference isn't just for groups. Planners and speakers can also schedule these mini-camps around subjects of interest like military records, Irish genealogy research, etc.

Unconference sessions - Yes, we already have these in genealogy conferences, but they aren't being utilized properly. They're usually only publicized on an exhibit hall white board that folks may or may not see. Why not put unconference topics, times and places right in the conference program with all the other sessions? Planners could request unconferencing topics and facilitators just as they call for speakers. Pick the best ideas and put them in the master schedule.

Here are some ideas for possible FGS unconference topics: How we find speakers/subjects for our genealogy society, fundraising ideas, popular newsletter topics, creative membership drives, your favorite genealogy resources for researching in Texas/Scotland/whatever. Do you think people would attend these unconferences if they were in the program? I do. Put them in the conference program and ask attendees to bring their best ideas and questions. Designate a facilitator and let's create a list of ideas we can take home and share with others.

Interest groups - Wouldn't it be great to meet up with people researching French ancestry? Or RootsMagic users? Or whatever little genealogical niche you desire? I realize it is difficult to cull these ideas and get them into a program many months out but there has to be a way. There just has to be.

Blended learning - This is a trend in K-12 education right now, but there's no reason it can't be an option for genealogy conferences or single society meetings. Students do part of their learning at home (usually an online component), on their own schedule and at their own pace. Then the group comes together to apply what they've learned. It's backwards: lecture/lesson at home, homework/problem solving at school.

Thomas MacEntee envisioned a "flipped lecture" format in a comment on my last blog post. Randy Seaver also proposed an idea where genealogists independently watch video lessons taught by experienced researchers, then coming together in person to discuss the issue and/or apply it to real research situations.

The ideas are there. The interest is there. I think this is something the genealogy community should explore.

MOOCs - Massive Open Online Courses are all the rage right now in the online community. See Coursera for an idea of what's available out there. Discussion is also buzzing in the library community, so--if you read my last post--this should be a genealogy issue in about 5 years.

Why can't the genealogy community get on the MOOC train? Is doesn't have to be a "massive" effort. Maybe we can get FamilySearch on board. Maybe they're already exploring the option. It's jut something to think about.

So what do you think? Are your idea gears going? What would you like to see at genealogy conferences and society meetings?

Do you think the general genealogy public would like other format options alongside lectures? I don't know. Change is funny. And people are funny. I'm not an expert at judging ether one.

I wrote a blog post about how the all-lecture-all-the-time conference format was starting to wear on me. Others agreed across several social media platforms and more enthusiastically than I expected. There is a desire for other learning formats...not to replace the traditional lecture but to accompany it.


  1. Excellent ideas. With all the WWII research and writing I've done the last couple of years I have two of four lectures written already and more books in the works. My plan by this fall is to start booking seminar days - similar to what you proposed for a BCG day - spend a day navigating the WWII records and show what else is out there. Everyone thinks they can't research a soldier because "all the records burned." They can and I have done it. I also work on Women during WWII which a lot of people do not.

    Maybe I need to put in some call for papers again on the national level and see if anyone wants a newcomer to the national scene. We should be talking about WWII before all the veterans are gone.

    1. Jen,

      First: thanks for commenting. Second: you should definitely put in for some national conferences. You have a great knowledge set and it needs to be shared.

  2. Hear, hear Amy. I wrote in a similar vein a few weeks ago after the recent genealogy cruise

    1. Agreed. We're definitely on the same wavelength here.

  3. FYI, BCG always has a full-day hands-on workshop the day before every NGS conference. This year's program -- sold out as always -- is on Putting Skills to Work.

    1. Thanks for the info, Judy. That sounds interesting. Glad to hear it's a sellout.

  4. You are on the right track here, Amy. Thank you! For presentations, I would just like to hear from people with recent research articles explain how they did that research, the problems they overcame, and what worked/didn't work. I don't think I'm ever going to get that, but another thought I have is that there is a lot of knowledge at those conferences, yet nothing is in place to help crowd-source solutions to research problems. What you are describing really helps with that issue.
    Ultimately I think it's very hard to overcome the speaker funding question and really change conferences ... it makes me nervous that the corporations where the genealogy money is have invented their own conference (Rootstech) with no real oversight by a board elected by the community (as would essentially be the case with the FGS and NGS conferences) and so our first real chance to change the dynamic has slipped out of our hands. I'm sure I''m saying too much, but the issues you are raising are really important, and change will come, eventually, no matter what. I just hope we have a voice in that change.

  5. What a wonderful topic Amy! To be honest, it would be hard for me to comment on a national gen conference as I have not been to one. I have been to some state gen conferences before but prefer webinar and online classroom environments using social media to network. This is mostly due to my schedule and pocketbook. What I can tell you is why I prefer library conferences too: variety and products. One of the BEST presentations I have attended at a conference was about evidenced based practice in education. Another one was about flipped classrooms. I also paid for a preconference workshop on professional writing. There is so much variety to choose from even with the lecture format. And there are different speakers every year. When I determine what presentations I would like to see I usually ask myself these questions: what is being done differently with good results? how could I use that in my own research/business models? what will I be able to produce from the program? what new information will I gain?
    Library conferences also use the time well for advocacy with a few flash mobs at the state capitols, committees for different interest groups, and yes, even the book cart drill teams (: They also use social media to support the lecture format with twitter hashtags, electronic flyers, downloads, conference app, etc. And of course, free wi-fi. There is just always something different to keep the interest going and people coming back.

  6. After reading all about these new ideas, I’ve thought of another one. What about making our own sessions at conferences. The NGS conference app has the ability to see who else is attending the conference. If it could be changed to let us create sessions on some obscure topic such as a small town of interest or a famous ancestor, we could schedule it so others can sign up and then meet at the specified time. If it’s set up in advance we would have time to get together the information we have on the topic to bring it to the session. Then all could discuss a topic they know something about and learn from each other.

  7. I have been to only one national conference (NGS at SLC) and one regional (SCGS Jamboree) and prefer to spend my $$ going to institutes where I can focus deeper on a subject. What I found at the conference I attended was after 4 or so lectures, your brain cannot take in any more. However, you paid the big $$ so you sit through lectures to get your money's worth. But if your brain if full and can't take in any more, you are really wasting money.

    I learn best by doing something with what I learn. If I don't do something pretty soon, I will lose that information. I would love to have more "workshops" even those I signed up for ahead of time and did pre-homework for it. I want more help learning sound methodologies to solve genealogical problems. I want to learn about using new record sets I've never used before. I like working problems with others. But from a scheduling viewpoint, I see why it's not done much.

    Thanks for having this discussion!

  8. My 2 cents worth of "blue sky" ideas:

    "Pro-gen model" for other topics than professional genealogy
    - incorporates blended learning, interest groups, unconference (online via HOA or webinar hand-raising, or at in-person event)
    - spread over several weeks, provides time to digest / practice individually, and network with fellow students virtually, even after class ends

    Meetups advertised via bloggers, sign-up open to public who read postings

    Physical local meetings
    - go to evite site for free registration (like Sheri Fenley sets up for Sacramento event headcount)
    - table topics & facilitators (like SCGS Jambofree), people move from table to table
    - free room/tables/chairs: perhaps FHC, society, library, patio dining (eat & schmooze after)

    Online meetings - maybe possible to mimic above?
    - via HOA: join/drop "filmstrip", or post questions/comments (like DearMyrtle); recorded free
    - via webinar hand-raising too limited? is there a multiple speaker format?

    Topic-specific formats

    "Explorinars" (like Thomas MacEntee)
    - great for learning to use a new tool (eg Evernote, Dropbox)
    - pace & step-by-step instructions allowed installing & setup during webinar!
    - recorded, so could playback & pause, if desired
    - perhaps a group followup session a couple of weeks later could help both answer questions after using, as well as share how others using?

    "Stump the Panel" (like CGSL)
    - an attendee asks a research question
    - 3 panel members suggest ideas and/or conduct on-the-spot short online research
    - then floor opened to all attendees to make further suggestions, or ask questions about suggestions (eg how might be used elsewhere, more details about a new-to-them resource)
    - repeat steps above, for question from another attendee, round-robin

  9. Amy, thank you this is an awesome set of suggestions. I posted recently about Roots Tech's many problems on my own blog and I see many great solutions here. Now that I think about it I did see and unconference white board somewhere in a hallway, I think. The problem was that I had no idea what it was until it was too late. The Salt Palace is huge and there were 13,000 people rushing around. If there had been an unconference sign up list online before the conference, followed by a special listing of those sessions in the app, on the website and on-site that would have given smaller interest groups a better opportunity to connect. I also loved the meet-up group idea. Jen Baldwin of NextGen had a small meet up of "young" genealogy enthusiasts like me but we only ended up with about 8 people. We had a wonderful time laughing and talking, but if we had had a better/ more official way to advertise the meet up, we could have gotten a significantly better turn out. I know there were way more than 8 people under 40 at that huge conference! I will be linking to this post on my blog

  10. One additional option: Virtual Conferences. I've either attended or worked at nearly all of the Family Tree University virtual conferences, and they're a great option. I wish more people were doing things like that, because the travel/expense is a huge barrier for many people. When you do travel to a regular conference, you feel pressure to get as much as you can out of it, which is part of what leads to the zombielike shuffle to sessions where you aren't really absorbing much anyway.