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In-Depth Review: FutureLearn’s Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

Develop an understanding of genealogy – how to research your family tree and communicate the results.

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Produced by the University of Strathclyde for FutureLearn, this six-week course helps students learn how to trace their family tree. It is a fountain of information with plenty of supplementary resources (both free and paid) available. Even more resources and useful websites are to be found in the student comments on the course pages and in the Facebook group. There was also a Twitter community, which I did not follow.

Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree


Tahitia McCabe and Graham Holton are both from Genealogical Studies at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, Scotland. Tahitia has worked as a historian and librarian in both the United States and the United Kingdom and is now the Course Leader for the University’s MSc in Genealogical, Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies by Distance Learning. Graham is principal tutor for the MSc course and was closely involved in the development of the postgraduate programme. Also previously a librarian, he has a lifelong interest in genealogy.

The Course

This course can help you, whether you are wanting to simply find out who your ancestors were and when they lived, or are going all out to discover as much as possible about their lives. You may be able to learn what they did for a living, what their domestic conditions were like, their hobbies and interests, whether they lived in the same house their entire life, moved from place to place or migrated to a new country.

I have been interested in trying to research my family tree for many years and thought this course might just supply the push I need. It was a bit daunting, though, to discover in the first week that old records are sometimes incorrect and hard to verify. Handwriting can be difficult to decipher, names of both people and places are often misspelt (especially in areas of low literacy), ages may be recorded or estimated wrongly, and occasionally people were married twice without being divorced or widowed – which could either be a paperwork error or blatant bigamy in the days when divorce was difficult, expensive or impossible. The importance of using more than one source (for example, a census as well as church baptism records etc) to verify your data is discussed. Happily, by the end of the week, curiosity won out and I began my search by checking online cemetery records of my grandparents’ graves. Immediately I discovered an error! My grandmother’s age at death was recorded to be 37 instead of 57 – she died when my father (her third child) was 26 years old. Before doing this course, that information would have really stymied me, but I now understood that somewhere along the line, a 5 has probably been transcribed as a 3.

Useful tips for searching databases and the importance of, and strategies for, keeping careful records of your research is covered in Week 2.

Researching your family tree: what is a research strategy?

Week 3 discusses civil, church and military records. Although many of the records used as examples in the course are Scottish, sources from other countries are also discussed. It was interesting to discover that records of height, clothing, shoe and hat sizes for Scottish military servicemen in World War I have been preserved in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. If your ancestor was on this list, you can find out this detailed information, which can add the personal touch to a name on the page.

Reading about military records led me to search for and discover some interesting information about members of my own ancestry whose records are preserved in the Australian War Memorial archives and available online.

The course mentions that although many records are now available online and in libraries and family history collections, sometimes the only way to find specific information is to actually go to the relevant town and view the archives.

Week 4 covered genealogical proof and DNA testing. Although many students were keen to connect with unknown living relatives through DNA similarities, I was less interested in this aspect than in tracing my forebears.

Week 5 is titled Putting Your Research into Context. It discusses delving into your ancestors’ lives by discovering their occupations and what society was like during their lifetimes. I realised that although I began this course simply wanting to discover the bare facts about my ancestors (births, marriages, deaths and when they arrived in Australia), as the course progressed I was becoming fascinated by their lives and was remembering stories from my childhood: the great-grandmother who became a laundress to support her young family after being widowed and the coal miner from Wales who migrated to Australia and set up his own business building houses with his sons.

Week 6: The why and how of referencing, organising your research and backups were covered. These aspects are important so you can remember where your information came from, avoid plagiarism, verify it, and easily find it again.

Widely used genealogical databases such as Ancestry.com, Family Search and FindMyPast are discussed and a useful resource was provided at the end of the course. All the links mentioned during the course were collected and presented in pdf form which could be downloaded into our personal Genealogy folder on our own computer, although student-provided links were not included here. FutureLearn assures students that we can continue to access the course pages indefinitely via our subject dashboard, so I will be doing this as I continue to research my family history.

Discussion Forums

FutureLearn discussions are more successful than the current Coursera and EdX systems 

The student discussions in the session I took (July-August 2016) were dynamic and interesting. FutureLearn has a good system where participants can see and join discussions on every page of their courses with just one click. In this respect, for me, FutureLearn discussions are more successful than the current Coursera and EdX systems. There is certainly a high participation rate in discussions on the FutureLearn courses I have done. To further boost the feeling of community, all students in this class were allocated to study groups of about 30 participants each. The Educators regularly posted optional activities designed to familiarise participants with examples of resources and increase research skills. Because of time constraints, I did not attempt these extra activities, although I read some of my fellow students’ findings.


Like several other FutureLearn courses I have done, more emphasis was placed on engagement with the course materials and discussions rather than testing, although there were helpful weekly quizzes with about 5 questions each.

What Next?

I was unable to find any other currently available Genealogy MOOCs, but researching family history can touch on several fields including history courses which can help you put your ancestors’ lives into the context of their societies. Depending on what part of the world your family hails from, you can choose from a number of courses available from various providers, such as Coursera’s The Modern World: Global History Parts I and II, or The Holocaust. FutureLearn also has courses on the Holocaust as well as Irish Lives in War and Revolution and several courses covering different aspects of the first world war. Canvas.net has several self-paced history courses on topics including The Great Depression and The Roaring Twenties. EdX has The Civil War and Reconstruction.

Because DNA testing is becoming more affordable and popular amongst genealogy researchers, you may like to learn more about how DNA works, with Coursera’s Introduction to Genetics and Evolution.

You may want to publish your findings, in which case various research and writing courses from a number of providers could be useful.

The University of Strathclyde encourages interested students to enroll in their (paid) on-campus or online courses to increase their genealogical knowledge and research skills.


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Pat Bowden

Online learning specialist, still learning after 150+ MOOCs completed since 2012. Class Central customer support and help since 2018. I am keen to help others make the most of online learning, so I set up a website:  www.onlinelearningsuccess.org

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