This weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Summer 2011 Family Tree University Virtual Conference – which is the first of its kind for genealogists and family historians.
The conference ran from Friday, August 19, 2011 through today, Sunday, August 21, 2011. The conference was set up in Blackboard Learn 9 which is a learning management system (LMS). I had used earlier versions of Blackboard before, but not this system, and it has changed A LOT. I had a bit of a learning curve when I first accessed the conference, but nothing too stressful.
The conference offered:
A virtual Exhibit Hall— complete with exhibitor coupons and prizes
Live chats— regularly scheduled throughout the three days, with the transcript available for saving should you have to miss the chat
A contest — in the form of a quiz, in which entries were chosen at random to win one of three awesome prizes
A discussion board– open 24/7, and a swag bag with some really awesome offerings.
Seventeen pre-recorded sessions— divided into three tracks:
Tech Track (my personal fave):
Amateur Photo Restoration – Nancy Hendrickson
Build a Research Toolbox – Thomas MacEntee
Digital Preservation for the 21st Century – Sunny Morton
Digitize your Genealogy Documents – Nancy Hendrickson
Google Surname Search Secrets – Lisa Louise Cooke
Researching the Internet Archive – Thomas MacEntee
Twitter for Genealogists – Nancy Hendrickson
Research Strategies Track:
At Home with the Family Archivist – Sunny Morton
City Directories: Key to Your Family’s past – Maureen A. Taylor
Making Sense of Pre-1850 Censuses – Maureen A. Taylor
Plattng Metes and Bounds Properties – Diana Smith
Platting Rectangular Survey System Properties – Diana Smith
Using Naturalization Records – Lisa A Alzo
Finding Your East European Ancestors’ Village – Lisa A Alzo
German Newspapers in America — Jim Beidler
Irish Genealogy Online – Rick Crume
Strategies for Tracking Down English, Scottish, and Welsh Ancestors – Rick Crume
As you can see there is a tremendous amount of material available – more than enough for a full weekend, and in my case, more likely a full week. When I originally signed up for the conference I had blocked out all three days so that I could participate in any online discussions or chats, and watch all of the pre-recorded sessions at my leisure.
As it goes with the best laid plans, this did not happen. I ended up stuck in New York for personal reasons, away from my computer and not happy about it. I had my iPad with me so that enabled me to start to look through the site and participate in the discussions on a limited basis, but I was dying to do more.
I was very thankful to find out that all of the pre-recorded sessions were downloadable, so once I finally managed to get back to my desktop computer, I downloaded all of the sessions, and then painstakingly checked each file to make sure they were in working order. This took the better part of the day on Sunday. It became quickly obvious to me that I would not be able to watch every session the same day – that would have taken another 8.5 hours or so, which just does not leave enough time to sleep. Thomas MacEntee I am not— I need my sleep or I turn into one of Kerry’s zombies.
Needless to say, I have watched only a few of the videos thus far, but what I have seen is terrific. I downloaded all of the videos even if they don’t seem to apply to my present research agenda, because, well, you just never know who you’ll be doing research for in the future. Each video comes with a pdf version of the slideshows— which to me is an extra bonus since I’d otherwise be transcribing the slides while trying to listen to the presentation.
The hashtag for the conference is #FTUVC, although it was not used very frequently. I was very surprised to learn that there were quite a few participants who were unfamiliar with Twitter (my social media of choice… this month). So it was very fortunate that the conference included a chat session and a video session on Twitter. I’m hoping that some of the folks who have been holding out will decide to dive in and join us at Twitter soon.
I have one suggestion for improving the experience: The LMS (in this case Blackboard) should be available to participants before the day of the event, so that they can play around and get used to the interface. I didn’t have too much trouble catching on, but I have experience both teaching online courses and with earlier versions of Blackboard, so my learning curve was not as steep as some other participants, who seemed to be frustrated with the system on the first day. I honestly didn’t check to see if it was available beforehand, because the registration email said it wouldn’t be, and I never break the rules (okay – you can stop laughing).
Overall the conference has been a great experience. The instructors did a terrific job, there were a wide variety of sessions available, and the extras (exhibit hall, swag, chat) really gave it the feel of an ‘on-ground’ conference. It was much closer to a traditional conference than I expected it to be when I signed up. I hope FTU plans to do additional virtual conferences in the future, and maybe other societies will borrow the idea and provide similar offerings as well.
A follow-up post can be found here: wrap-up