Family History Enters the Academy

Dr Kristyn Harman, University of Tasmania


A decade ago, the University of Tasmania’s history discipline decided to diversify its undergraduate offerings to attract more students. At the time, it was clear that family history had become one of the most in vogue pastimes in the western world. Recently in the United States of America, for example, family history ranked second only to gardening in popularity. It therefore seemed a fairly obvious choice to create a new undergraduate unit focused on family history.

Introduction to Family History was initially taught intensively. Face-to-face classes were held on campus and at Hobart’s archive and library over the winter teaching period. However, family history researchers’ exceptional levels of engagement with genealogy websites did not readily translate into enrolments. It was only after a decision was taken in 2015 to deliver the unit solely online that interest in it exploded.

Shifting to an online learning environment makes a lot of sense considering that many family history researchers are already sitting at their computers and tapping into the trillions of records available online. When the online iteration of Introduction to Family History attracted many hundreds rather than merely tens of students, a decision was taken to build on this strong foundation and to introduce a Diploma of Family History.

Fundamentally, family historians are concerned with acquiring similar skills and producing similar outputs to historians and other HASS academics. Colleagues from across the HASS disciplines at the University of Tasmania met to discuss how best to meet the aspirations of our growing family history student cohort.

While Introduction to Family History could continue to provide students with the skills and tools needed to set out on their learning journey, scope existed to introduce several more methodological units. Being an Australian-based university, developing learning experiences focused on identifying and learning about convict ancestry was highly relevant as was focusing on Australian families’ experiences of the world wars.

Paper documents, though, are not the sum total of history. Our focus turned to instructing students in the finer details of eliciting, recording, transcribing, and preserving oral histories. Our cohort also engages with learning about their family’s past through considering pertinent places, images, and objects. It is possible to specialise in narrating a family history through creating a photo essay, that is, arranging a sequence of captioned photographs in a narrative sequence, as well as to engage in more traditional forms of non-fiction or fiction writing.

One of the fascinating facets of the Diploma of Family History is that it attracts people from a wide range of backgrounds. Some have no prior experience of tertiary education, while others are retired university professors. A few are young, many are mature aged. Most are female. Despite this diversity, all share a passion for learning more about their family’s history and for becoming increasingly skilful in recording and sharing their research within the family or more broadly.

Catering for such a diverse student cohort has been possible through the skilful use of our online learning management platform. Our overarching aim has been to ensure that the course materials we make available to students are engaging yet accessible. One of the keys to achieving this has been to ensure that students are exposed to a multi-media approach. Their learning experience with us includes carefully curated video lectures with transcripts (some recorded onsite and some offsite at relevant world-heritage listed locations), relevant reading material, a range of online activities, opportunities to use discussion boards, and links to relevant internet-based content.

We have been fortunate in being able to repurpose a visually-attractive template produced in another part of our university originally to support the delivery of a MOOC. This digital interactive content builder makes it easy for academic and professional staff alike to construct web pages within our learning management platform using colour coded frames with relevant icons to guide students through sequenced learning activities. The learning experience unfolds sequentially from an initial frame that stipulates the learning outcomes relevant to a particular webpage (we call these chapters) through to a final ‘what’s next?’ frame that reinforces the material covered and flags what to anticipate next.

Across the Diploma, we focus on introducing the key principles and best practice in family history research with particular emphases on effectively searching for, critically evaluating, using, and storing research material. While much of our focus is on the wealth of digital materials available, we also educate students about how best to prepare for physical visits to archives and libraries.

As well as sequencing learning activities, we ensure that assessment tasks are suitably scaffolded. For example, in Introduction to Family History where the final assignment is a biography, we present weekly topics including ‘What is a Biography?’, ‘Brilliant Beginnings’, ‘Meaningful Middles’, and ‘Concise Conclusions’, with the latter three being illustrated with pertinent case studies. The value and purpose of referencing is introduced early in the learning experience with opportunities to practice what and how to reference being woven throughout the unit as online activities.

One of the strengths apparent in having such a diverse range of prior learning in our student cohort is that quite a lot of peer-to-peer learning is facilitated through those with more advanced knowledge in the field stepping in to assist others via our online discussion boards. Those of us teaching into the Diploma have also found that we have learned from our students, too, many of whom have dedicated years to researching particular topics of interest.

While the formal learning in the Diploma of Family History takes place online, it has been really interesting to see how groups of students living near to each other in different parts of Australia have arranged to form study groups and have met physically over coffee or meals to work together.

Ultimately, our family history students are encouraged to see and present the lives of their ancestors within relevant wider historical contexts using formats ranging from photo essays to written biographies or works of historical fiction. Some have gone on to publish books, while others have quilted their family’s history using portraits printed onto fabric. Wonderful legacy pieces have been created which are sure to become treasured family heirlooms!


Find out more about the University of Tasmania’s online Diploma in Family History


Zanzo Portraits, Hobart

About the Author: Dr Kristyn Harman is a Senior Lecturer in History in the School of Humanities who specialises in cross-cultural encounters across Britain’s nineteenth-century colonies, and twentieth-century Australasia. Her thematic interests cohere around socio-cultural frontiers, including: transportation to, and within, the British Empire’s penal colonies; frontier warfare; Indigenous incarceration; colonial domesticity; and the Australian and New Zealand home fronts during World War Two.

She is the author of Aboriginal Convicts: Australian, Khoisan and Maori Exiles (University of New South Wales Press, 2012), which won the 2014 Australian Historical Association Kay Daniels award, and Cleansing the Colony: Transporting Convicts from New Zealand to Van Diemen’s Land (Otago University Press, 2017).

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