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  • The Computer Genealogist: Why Johnny Can't Do Genealogy: The Case for Improvement in Online Education

    Mark Howells

    Published Date : August 30, 2002

    I have viewed tens of thousands of genealogically-related websites over the past six years. While our collective ability to display our genealogy on the Internet has improved over these years, the genealogical community still seems not to be utilizing the Internet to teach genealogy. Most genealogy software programs will now generate HTML-based web pages from your database, or you can use one of the many tools that will convert your GEDCOM file to HTML in order to display your genealogy on the Internet. But what are we doing with the Internet besides showing off what we've done?

    Traditional methods of teaching genealogy

    I am no pedagogical expert, so professional teachers please bear with my simplifications here. There are several standard paths by which we teach genealogical methods and skills. By methods, I mean learning what to do - the overall process of the detective work we call genealogy. By skills, I mean learning particular aspects of genealogical research such as interviewing relatives, deciphering old handwriting, or operating a microfilm reader. While learning styles vary among individuals, some or all of the following are usually involved in the education of a competent genealogist:

    • One-on-one instruction with an experienced tutor.
    • Attending classes, workshops, and conferences.
    • Reading books about genealogical methods, skills, and record types.
    • Refreshing our skills through practice and by assisting or instructing others.

    The genealogical community does try to emulate these traditional forms of instruction on the Internet. In place of the face-to-face instruction of a tutor or a live conference, we have online classes with instructors who give direct advice to students via email or chat (see the National Institute for Genealogical Studies at and the Digital University at ). In place of reading books, we have online courses that provide pages of instructions without instructor intervention (see the National Genealogical Society's " Introduction to Genealogy " at and Brigham Young University's " Finding Your Ancestors " at ). Hundreds of websites provide information about accessing and using specific record types (see the Ogilby Trust's " Brief Guide to Tracing Ancestors in the British Army " at ) or for specific locations (see the Sibley County Minnesota Nine Step Program at ). Finally, opportunities abound for experienced researchers to help "newbies" in genealogy on mailing lists and discussion forums simply by answering their questions.

    Are we being all that we can be?

    Clearly then, we use the Internet for genealogical education. But are we using it to its best effect to do so? I would argue that we are not. The Internet is not being used effectively to teach the hundreds of thousands of new enthusiasts whose first contact with genealogy is the Internet itself. These are often people who would never attend a traditional class or conference but still have a desire to learn more about their family history. The genealogical community loses overall when we fail these potential learners. We are enriched by every new person who learns good research methodology and effective genealogical skills. We are poorer when these new enthusiasts aren't learning the right way to conduct genealogical research.

    Rather than bewail this situation, let's discuss some of the websites that are improving genealogical education online. These websites use the strengths of the Internet to the advantage of the educational process instead of simply duplicating traditional teaching methods in a new medium. I'll review what I view as their strengths (and a few weaknesses) below.

    How does the Internet best serve those who are seeking instruction online? Here are just a few examples. The Internet facilitates self-paced instruction very well. It can accommodate immediate feedback to the learner, thus providing a high level of interactivity. Teaching via the Internet can incorporate text, graphics, audio, and video to assist a variety of learning styles. Finally, the Internet can be used for relatively little expense to reach a global audience.

    Guided discovery

    There is a genealogy website titled " Genealogy - Free Advice for Effective Searches " at . Think of one of your more basic research problems (perhaps an early one that you have since solved) and then follow the instructions on the site. The website will ask you to respond to a series of questions about your particular research problem. Based on your replies, it will differentially produce suggested ideas for where to look for an answer.

    I can hear your protests already - this site is clearly a clever gimmick to get visitors to click through to commercial websites in order to gain revenue from the various affiliate programs. For just a moment, ignore the content of the results you obtained, the banner ads, and the pop-up windows and consider the elegance of this method of using the Internet for genealogical education.

    Guided discovery uses a series of statements or questions that direct the learner, step by logical step, into making discoveries, which lead to an answer. Performing functions step by logical step is almost the definition of computer programming. Based on variable responses to questions (input), computers are ideal for finding a logical selection amongst a series of pre-determined outcomes (output). By applying basic IF/THEN programming logic to typical genealogical questions, developing a group of pre-determined answers, and front-ending the whole process with a web interface, this website has integrated genealogical education and technology. Note that, in addition, the site provides the visitor with more than the ability to answer "yes" or "no." Click on the "Why ask?" button at any time during the questioning and a small pop-up window will provide a short answer as to why the particular document, date, or location is important to your research. These answers are a very effective way to teach methodology.

    Now, back to content: no, the suggested answers are not complete; no, the questioning process isn't completely logical; no, some of the advice given is not of the highest caliber; and yes, most of the suggested resources in the answers are affiliate-coded commercial links. I'm not endorsing the commercial websites advertised on the site, some of which are of dubious genealogical value. Even so, do you see the beauty within the beast? This website has shown us all what can be done in online genealogical education.

    Other educational websites for genealogy should expand the idea. Most of a new learner's first questions about how to approach genealogical research can be answered in such a fashion. And notice that no human instructor is needed to guide a learner through these questions. Of course, the results will not be perfect every time. But some macro-level questions about genealogical methodology such as "How do I start?" "What should I look for first?" and "Where do I find it?" can be answered very effectively in this manner. The questioning process also subliminally teaches genealogical methodology while the visitor is focused on getting his or her research question answered.

    This approach isn't new to our field. The "Record Selection Table" of the LDS "Research Outlines" for various states and countries follows the logical IF/THEN model of teaching genealogy. See FamilySearch Research Helps at for some examples. This sort of guidance, based on the nature of the research problem, follows a simple format of "If you need: (type of research question)," "Look first in: (secondary sources)," "Then search: (primary sources)." Automating the process using the Internet simply makes the technique more powerful.


    So how are we doing at teaching genealogical skills on the Internet? Skills are often learned by observation first and then reinforced through practice. Hands-on genealogy workshops frequently provide this sort of education in a classroom-like setting. There are again some stellar examples of websites using the full power of the Internet to teach genealogical skills. ) is an excellent teaching website, but was created not necessarily with genealogists in mind. Of particular interest is its web technology for teaching history students how to read old handwriting. First, look at its " Magic Lens " page at . Using a page from Martha Ballard's diary (source for A Midwife's Tale), written in December 1789, a java applet allows the visitor to move the "magic lens" over an image of the original document. As you move the "lens," a printed version of the same page is displayed over the manuscript page. This trick of superimposing one graphic over another is more than just cool coding - it is also an educational tool that helps visitors learn to decipher old handwriting. DoHistory has further provided a web page where you can try transcribing individual words and lines of the same diary ( ). Once the visitor has entered his or her transcriptions, the "Check your transcription" button provides the correct answers alongside the visitor-supplied ones. Talk about immediate feedback and interactivity! Why aren't genealogical websites providing this level of instruction?

    Genealogists do have a few good sites which provide instruction on reading old script (see " Scottish Handwriting " at and " Deciphering Old Handwriting " at oldhand.html ). But these sites don't take advantage of technology to provide much more than static graphic examples. Online forms for practicing transcription and real-time feedback are a much more effective way of learning the skill.

    The skills we teach online need not be as difficult as reading old handwriting. Remember the first time you tried to thread a microfilm reader? Were you all thumbs and did the reel have travel plans of its own? The Paul V. Galvin Library at the Illinois Institute of Technology has a web page that provides detailed instructions on how to use microfilm readers at . It uses keyword links to photographs that show the components, their location, and use on a particular brand of machine (simple, but effective). Now imagine if it also included small video clips demonstrating the various operations. Wouldn't viewing those clips a few times in the privacy of your own home help your confidence level in using a reader for the first time?

    Click here for instructions

    What else might we teach on the Internet? How about animated map graphics of how to walk a cemetery for recording purposes? Video clips on tombstone rubbing? Audio clips of how to interview a relative? Demonstrations with circles and arrows showing how to cite particular sources?

    We seem to be stuck in the text-only stage of Internet genealogical education - with just a light sprinkling of graphics. The technology is available to do much more. If we ask ourselves why Johnny can't do genealogy, the answer is that the genealogical community is not making the most of this wonderful tool called the Internet. Are you upset by the thousands of uneducated "surname hunters" clogging up the Internet? Ask yourself what you have done to advance their education on the Internet lately. We can do better by them.

    MARK HOWELLS is technology columnist for Ancestry Magazine. He volunteers as host of the Norfolk (England) genealogy mailing list and is the chairman of the Internet Branch of the Norfolk Family History Society. He can be reached by email at

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