Saturday, January 12, 2013

Let's rethink institute and conference handouts

Tomorrow I'll pick up my registration packet for the 5-day “Advanced Genealogical Methods” Course at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG). A good six weeks ago, instructor Thomas Jones provided his students with three .pdf files totalling 66 pages to extend our learning experience through advanced preparation.

When was the last time you attended a genealogy seminar, conference or institute with required reading prior to the first session of class? Bravo! Dr. Jones has created a superior learning experience through advanced preparation. He advised each session will be 75 minutes long, in contrast to the usual 60 minute genealogy conference and seminar sessions.

At registration tomorrow night, we'll pick up our course "notebooks" with the usual 4 pages per session limit. In previous four years participation at SLIG and at two at Samford University's Institute of Genealogiy and Historical Research (IGHR), none of my course instructors managed to keep a session handout to 4 pages. Usually instructors photocopy additional pages at their own expense or provide flash drives with additional course materials.

Craig R. Scott, course coordinator of IGHR's "Advanced Military Records Course III", deftly handled the page limit by providing student access to a shared folder with supplementary reference materials, the least of which was some 75 pages in length.

Whether it is a genealogy conference, workshop, all-day seminar or institute these questions emerge:

  • In this hi-tech world, why must we continue with syllabus materials in paper, CDs and flash drive format and not factor in the emergence of tablet technology? Access to online .pdf files solves the problem, as each participant elects to use the technology he prefers.
  • Why must instructors submit session handouts months in advance? Ostensively, this is to  provide time to create the course notebook or conference syllabus. Even in the "ancient" world of genealogy research, technological advances occur that render those handouts obsolete in the mean time.
  • How about providing handouts for the course or conference sessions online a week in advance in an "attendees only" section of the sponsoring organization's website? This would significantly reduce costs of producing the event, and cut down on the volunteer efforts required to colate said notebooks. This would assume that the instructor and the attendees act responsibly and follow through with their side of the equation in preparation for the event. No more hand holding, we're big kids now!
  • Why not give instructors space on the sponsoring organization's website to upload their handouts in an "attendees only" area, no later than one week prior to the event? Additional handouts, based on class discussion could be added by the instructor during a week long institute, but are probably better handled by referring the student to the instructor's professional genealogy website.
Students could be better prepared by working through the course materials in advance. 

Although these suggestions could be applied to National Genealogical Society and Federation of Genealogical Societies annual conferences, Ol' Myrt here especially hopes RootsTech is listening. As the leading-edge conference in the world of genealogy, they could pioneer a markatable methodology of website management that would make it easy for even the smallest genealogy society's webmaster to implement these suggestions.

Happy family tree climbing!

Myrt     :)
Your friend in genealogy.

Twitter: @DearMYRTLE
G+: +Pat Richley-Erickson
Second Life: Clarise Beaumont


  1. I second that opinion. I have attended past SLIG and always wondered about the amount of paper (would have preferred cloud or flash drive (and Barbara Renick is to be applauded as she gave hers that way a few years back). Also I always returned the binder - did not need it and a pain to add to luggage for flight. Excellent idea to try as far as possible to go paperless AND prepare in advance.

  2. I would LOVE to receive the syllabus notes in PDF format! Then it is up to me whether I print them out or not (I wouldn't - I would rather have it all on my tablet or laptop). As it is, I'm torn about how to take notes - handwritten on the pages of the handouts so everything is together? Or on my tablet or laptop but then the notes are separate from the syllabus.. I think I will probably scan in the syllabus at some point and have all the handouts and my notes in one folder (SLIG2013) in digital forrmat. But seems silly to scan in stuff that originally was in digital format!

    1. I've used iAnnotate, a .pdf reader that permits annotations.

  3. Our local Family History Fairs sponsored by LDS Family Search Centers and the Portland (Oregon) Area PAF Users group post all of their syllabus material online for attendees to download or print at their discretion. As a speaker this is great. I often download all of the other speaker's material, as I don't get to attend many classes when I am teaching. Old syllabus can take up a lot of space in our offices, and the material is easier to access online.

  4. Great ideas! We should give more options for going paperless! I practice that during society board meetings, using my ipad and evernote rather printing out the cumulative ream of paper over the term. A missing piece of the puzzle is better connectivity at conferences to support it, though I suppose this could be less relevant for institutes where you're not bouncing around classrooms and truly could prepare in advance. At rootstech, the official app with course materials required online access -- my wifi-only ipad often could not pierce the saturated network so I couldn't access anything on the class I ended up attending via the official app without getting my own hotspot. It's the same problem at Jamboree. Perhaps heavier wifi users like myself would be willing to pay a surcharge for a password protected dedicated network for a conference to increase speed but if we truly go paperless, we must find a way to offer the bandwidth to the broader group of attendees.

    1. I agree that connectivity is an issue that most conference facilities don't adequately handle. I couldn't believe that at RootsTech 2010, there was no universal internet access. It was restricted to those with ethernet cable connectivity, which didn't work for those of us with iPads. (sigh)

      Now I have my own Wi-Fi hot spot. I use the same model as Dick Eastman. My husband and I can connect through our Verizon Wi-Fi. The issue then remains that some parts of our conference centers are "dead spots" owing to the architecture.

      As genealogy conferences and institutes gain awareness of these issues, the money they save on developing and printing the syllabus can be spent on better internet access arrays.

      Obtaining the syllabus on a CD or flash drive also doesn't help those of us who use tablets.

    2. Lugging around a laptop is so 20th century.

  5. I couldn't agree more. I'm some way from the paperless office, but I'm getting there. In my day job at TNA we are moving from paper to electronic or digital media for research guidance. We produce paper copies if they are needed, but fewer and fewer people want them. Instead of getting paper copies of documents, readers can use their own cameras, or the fixed ones provided that will send the images to their email address, free of charge.

    I don't print out meeting agendas and papers, I send them to my iPad, where I use Evernote for making notes. I don't want great heavy books of syllabus material, or ever a CD - even though I travel with a laptop as well as the iPad, many laptops no longer have a CD-drive anyway. When I did a lecture tour of Australia last year I prepared e-handouts, which I published on my blog, and finished each presentation with a slide of the blog url (and if I were more organised, I could have made them available in advance, too!). At Who Do You Think you Are - Live in London each year, there are no paper handouts; speakers are encouraged to send them to the Society of Genealogists, who organise the workshop programme, where a volunteer uploads them to the SoG website.

    If only we could have the wi-fi issue sorted out too. I'm OK in the UK, where I use my smartphone as a hotspot if necessary, but that's no good in the US - help me out, Rootstech, please!

  6. Great idea! I would much rather have my handouts on my iPad.

  7. Absolutely Myrt! The handouts need to be available a few weeks in advance so attendees can review them to decide which sessions they want to attend. I often find the description of a lecture does not match the material covered in the handout and I can make a more intelligent decision as to which sessions I want to attend.