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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Guest Post on The making of a genealogy MOOC (massive open online course)

Written by Tahitia McCabe, Univeristy of Strathclyde

Hosted by our partners, FutureLearn, the Postgraduate Programme in Genealogical, Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies at the University of Strathclyde runs a MOOC called Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree. To date, we’ve had just over 48,000 people register for the course!

I am the Lead Educator on the MOOC and the course director of the Postgraduate Programme and though I’ve worked on the Programme developing course content for a number of years, I’d not developed this type of course before. The University and FutureLearn were very happy to give me and my colleague, Graham Holton, Principal Tutor on the Programme, free rein to consider audience, content, level and length which was freeing but also a bit terrifying.  There were very few guidelines but also constraints aside from the considerations of the platform the course would be hosted upon so it was really down to us to shape the entire thing.

We quickly decided that the course would be primarily aimed at beginners and we wanted to make it useful to family history researchers around the world no matter the records they used. This meant we would focus on genealogical research techniques rather than a specific country’s records, though given our personal family backgrounds, many of the examples we use are British and American. The Postgraduate Programme has a strong element of genetic genealogy and we feel it’s important that everyone understand at least the basics of what DNA testing can offer to the family historian so we included a segment on this.

We started working on course development in October of 2015, with filming largely accomplished by December and I then spent a large part of the holiday break writing the accompanying articles. We had content development help from some lovely folks in the genealogy community (Marie Dougan (, Biff and Nan Barnes of Stories to Tell ( and Alasdair Macdonald ( and as with most projects working around everyone’s schedule was a challenge though everything came together swimmingly in the end.

Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree is the 5th MOOC created by Strathclyde and the University’s MOOCs are known for including a storyline. As soon as I was told we’d need an idea for this, Chris popped into my head. She took an on-campus beginner’s course with me in the Autumn of 2014 and was a total novice at that time. Her end project discussed some intriguing findings she’d made with her family tree (I don’t want to give the details away here!) and her methodical approach really impressed me. Thankfully, she was willing to share her story with us and we ended up spending many hours in filming. The storyline develops each week and is the true story of her research journey; I am so thankful for her generosity and her passion for genealogy. A true star!

Though the first run started in March of 2016, FutureLearn and the University’s MOOC support team needed about 2 months to create transcriptions of all the filmed lectures and to make sure what we’d placed on the platform actually worked with the software. It was a nerve wracking time waiting for the quality check report to come back but thankfully, there were just a few tweaks to be done and then it was a case of publicizing the course. Over a month and a half, we saw the enrolment figures grow and finally by the time of the first week of the run, we had 26,000 people signed up. A staggering amount of discussions were generated over the six weeks of the course and it proved impossible to read them all but the willingness to share ideas and help fellow classmates was infectious!

The course has run a further two times and is actually currently running and in its fourth week. If you want to join in, it’s not too late, you can enrol at We’ll also be running it again in the summer though exact dates are still to be decided upon. It’s free and open to everyone! 

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