Virtual institutes 2020

The summer of 2020 has turned out to be different from what we envisioned, hasn’t it? When 2020 started, I was scheduled to present a pre-conference DNA workshop and a DNA talk at the Celtic Connections Conference (CCC) in Chicago at the end of July, then fly to England, spend about ten days in Cornwall and sail back to New York in the Queen Mary 2.

As events unfolded, Celtic Connections Conference went virtual, and I cancelled my travel plans. I dropped out of the CCC speaker lineup so I could help the conference organizing team pivot from an in-person to a virtual conference.

The silver lining in these changes was that I suddenly had time to attend genealogy institutes!

For those who aren’t familiar with these educational opportunities, institutes are multi-day, intensive, single-topic sessions spent in a group of 25-30 students with top-level national and international instructors. Typically, institutes are residential, with students traveling to the institute site, living in hotels or dormitories, and sharing meals.

Since 2010, I’ve attended nine in-person institutes (plus several virtual ones). In the suddenly freed-up summer of 2020, I chose to attend two more institutes, New England Historic Genealogical Society’s three-day American Ancestors Virtual Summer Institute for Advanced Researchers: Contributing to Mayflower Scholarship and Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh‘s five-day Mastering Genealogical Documentation course. Instructors for the American Ancestors institute were Lindsay Fulton and Christopher C. Child. The instructor for my GRIP course was Thomas W. Jones.

Both institutes were excellent! The instructors were superb, and the instructional materials (slides and handouts/syllabi) were well-organized and useful. The American Ancestors institute used GoToTraining, and GRIP used Zoom. Both platforms lent themselves well to student/teacher and student/student interaction. American Ancestors set up a special hidden web page for lecture recordings and other materials; GRIP used a course Dropbox. Both classroom platforms had chat functions, which were well used during classes. GRIP set up a Student Lounge Facebook group, and one of my GRIP course-mates set up a private group just for our course where we could chat and share with each other.

While there was less ability to socialize and interact with other institute participants than there is in a residential institute, I felt that I still had an opportunity to meet and get to know new colleagues.

The online institutes were definitely less expensive than the face-to-face ones, since there were no travel, lodging, or meal costs that had to be covered. Institutes are intense experiences, with classes running from early morning to late afternoon, evening activities, and homework, and can be really exhausting. An unexpected benefit of the virtual format was that, despite the long hours online, I felt less fatigued than I do at residential institutes.

My bottom line is, I’m glad I participated virtually! I’d certainly do it again, and I heartily recommend it to others.

I have one more virtual institute coming up this year: the DNA Virtual Institute sponsored by the International Society for British Genealogy and Family History, presented by Maurice Gleeson, in September.