Thinking Outside the (Genealogy) ToolBOX: Exploring Educational Opportunities with Future Learn
Thinking Outside the ToolBOX: Exploring Educational Opportunities with Future Learn for the Family Historian
Disclaimer: The author is in no way affiliated with Future Learn.
In the early 2000s, less than 15 years after the University of Phoenix introduced the first fully-online college degree program, I decided to take Introduction to Art History while attending community college. It ended up being one of the most difficult classes of my undergrad. Why? In part because it was still one of the early distance learning classes offered. There were no pre-recorded video lectures or live-stream Q&A sessions. The teaching approach consisted of ‘read X chapter’ and ‘turn in Y assignment. There was very minimal interaction with the instructor and even less with my classmates.
Flash forward just 20 years and new technology has made remote learning more interactive than ever before. In 2015 when I was accepted into San Jose State’s all online Master of Library and Information Science program, I was a little skeptical of what to expect as a distance learner. However, I had done my homework and SJSU’s iSchool had a great reputation. Not only was I able to communicate with both professors and peers, we were expected to work in groups for most major assignments. We utilized platforms such as Blackboard, Canva and Second Life. I was also fortunate to assist with a collaborative research project which later became a published book. By early 2020 once complex technologies for online education were already becoming increasingly wide-spread as complexity and prices dropped—terms like Zoom, Facebook Live, and GoToWebinar were already familiar. But when the COVID pandemic hit that year those early adopters in every branch of society were ahead of the game. Everyone from teachers to businesses to grandmas quickly learned how to use these technologies as a way of maintaining connections within their circle of influence. Genealogists were no exception.
As life-long learners, genealogists routinely seek out methods to expand their skillset. Genealogy societies bring in speakers, offer webinars, host conferences. The National Genealogical Society offers courses on a variety of family history related topics that can be completed online. A handful of genealogy institutes offer a chance to take a deep-dive into record types, methodology, and niche topics. While these avenues are critical to the family historian’s educational landscape, there can be challenges and limitations such as cost, travel, and time. Increased remote learning opportunities have begun to offset some of these burdens.
I first found out about Future Learn while looking into the University of Strathclyde’s PhD in History with Genealogical Studies program. They linked over to a free short course on Future Learn called Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree, a 6-week class which I ended up taking as a way of getting a feel for the Strathclyde program and instructors. While I didn’t end up entering their program (due to other reasons), I found a new, low-cost tool for life-long learning: Future Learn.
Future Learn is a platform that connects you to universities from around the globe. They offer short courses for free. Yes, you read that right—free! Free learning from universities like the University of Bristol, the University of Connecticut, the University of Glasgow, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Michigan. Course topics cover everything from anatomy to psychology. The classes are organized into weekly lessons consisting of a mix of written lecture, pre-recorded video clips, and links to explore materials for yourself. There is even a chat forum below each lesson to facilitate discussion with your peers. With their basic plan (free), you have access to the course for the duration of the class (typically 3-6 weeks). They also offer membership upgrades, concentrated tracts (which they call ExpertTracks), and more formal programs for a premium.
I’m going to focus on the free, “Short Courses” as they call them. If you’ve jumped over there already to scout around, you may notice that the University of Strathclyde has the only course with the word genealogy in the title. Don’t let that deter you from exploring all they have to offer. There are hidden jewels for family history researchers if you think outside-the-box and narrow in on the topic you want to learn about. Whether you are a novice or a veteran in the genealogy arena, there is something here for everyone. Family historians can enrich their knowledge with Future Lean by seeking out curricula that emboldens historical context and skill-building.
As family historians, not only do we need to know genealogical methodology, but we need to learn the context surrounding our subjects. What events were happening around them? What laws were in place that may have impacted their daily lives? What cultural or religious norms were practiced by their neighbors? Recreating the scene like a true detective can be instrumental in tearing down brick walls and preventing prolonged strolls down the wrong path.
Consider looking for courses that could help you get a better understanding of the history of a particular event or location. Look into occupational, religious, or ethnic histories. Here are some examples of current course offerings that could be advantageous for uncovering historical context:
Radical Spirituality: the Early History of the Quakers – Lancaster University
The Scottish Highland Clans: Origins, Decline and Transformation – University of Glasgow
Working Lives on Britain's Railways: Railway History and Heritage – University of Strathclyde
Country Houses and the British Empire: How Imperialism Transformed Britain’s Colonial Countryside – University of Leicester
Japanese Culture Through Rare Books – Keio University
World War 1: Trauma, Memory, Controversy – The Open University
Continuing to add new skillsets to our toolbox allows us to better interpret documents, understand historical context and share our knowledge. If you have brought transferable skills into your genealogy research then you understand how non-genealogy-specific skills can help you achieve your goals. Future Learn offers courses that can help boost your proficiency in areas like language, writing, research, and analysis. While the content may not be delivered in a way that is directed at family historians specifically, we can adapt and apply the core concepts to meet our needs.
Have you been apprehensive about continuing past your immigrant ancestors due to a language barrier? Seek out an introductory course in the language you want to learn. Some language classes they offer include Dutch, French, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Spanish. Dublin City University offers a series of classes on Irish Language and Culture.
Storytelling is at the heart of family history. Writing our findings is essential for saving and sharing our genealogical discoveries. Whether for family, friends, clients or ourselves, writing up the results of our investigations ensures that our ancestors stories continue to be told. Cultivating writing skills upholds audience engagement so that our ancestors continue to be remembered.
The University of Michigan offers four courses on Future Learn that focus on basic concepts such as drafting, structuring, wording and revising your writing. For those seeking to publish scholarly-like papers in genealogical journals, there are academic research and writing methodology courses that, while not specific to the genealogy field, can provide a basis for academic-level writing skills. (Note: Standards in structure and methodology vary from field-to-field and even journal-to-journal even in academics. Always read a journal’s submission guidelines and examples prior to submission.)
Improve your paleography skills with the University of Glasgow’s, Early Modern Scottish Palaeography: Reading Scotland's Records.
Develop your online search strategy and critical thinking skills with Learning Online: Researching Your Project from the University of Leeds.
Analyze sources like a pro after taking Learning from the Past: A Guide for the Curious Researcher, co-taught by historians and librarians from the Universities of Nottingham and Birmingham.
Do you want a deeper understanding of how DNA works? Check out the University of Aberdeen’s, How Does the Body Use DNA as a Blueprint?
Gain a basic understanding of law (in the UK) from an Introduction to Studying Law through the University of Law.
Have you taken a class on Future Learn? How did it help you with your genealogy research? I would love to hear your thoughts below.