Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Course Review: Excelsior's Practicum in Genealogical Research with Melinde Lutz Byrne

Excelsior College Courses:

Excelsior College offered two new genealogy courses this summer: "Practicum in Genealogical Research" with instructor Melinde Lutz Byrne and "Genetic Genealogy" with instructor Dr. Blaine Bettinger. I signed up for the practicum and am proud to have completed this intense, advanced course a couple of weeks ago. It appears the courses will be offered three times a year: fall, spring, and summer. And, they hope to add additional courses soon.


Each of the courses are 15-16 weeks long and are priced like college courses at $1,595 each. However, members of several societies (NEGHS, NGS, and APG) receive 10% off. And, I was fortunate to have signed up with a 20% discount after watching the intro video. 

Course Prerequisites: 

Although the site says this advanced course is intended for "experienced genealogists and researchers who are seeking to gain advanced skills to resolve open genealogical problems" and that the prerequisites are "genealogical research experience or instructor approval," the instructor has shared other criteria at other times. Most students should have taken the Boston University ("BU") genealogy course or ProGen or have lots of experience as an advanced genealogists. I believe I was the only student who had not completed BU or ProGen. And, though I finished the course successfully, I think it was harder for me and I took more time than other students.

Time Commitment:

The site says the weekly time commitment is "7-8 hours per week." I started the course spending 20-25 hours per week. Once I realized I didn't need to be as picky about the citations and that I shouldn't do as much outside research, I started averaging about 15 hours per week. This is a huge time commitment and it was hard to complete all the assignments during the summer.

Working Ahead:

One thing that made the completion of the assignments possible is that, for the most part, you can work ahead. You can access most of the assignments from the first day so you can work around vacations or other commitments. The exceptions are the few times when you work together in groups or the assignment involves another student's paper so you must wait for the paper to be ready.

The Course Consists of 8 Modules:
  • Planning Solving Methods
  • Predictable Bias
  • Evidentiary Gaps
  • Provenance in Evidence Evaluation
  • Report Structure
  • Research and an Ethical Compass
  • Assembling the Evidence
  • The Total is Greater Than the Sum of the Parts
A Typical Module:

Each module lasted 2 weeks (though I understand the course will be shortened by a week this fall). For most modules, you turn in 2 assignments each week, though some weeks only have a single, bigger assignment. One of those assignments is usually presented to the entire class for discussion while the other is presented just to the instructor for evaluation. Besides the assignments, you also are expected to respond thoughtfully to at least 3 of your classmates posts. And, there are two optional online class "chats" each week for one hour each. 

Each module starts with a lesson where you learn about the topic. The assignments are related to the topic and might include vidoes (TED Talks) or research and articles by other researchers. The last part of the course works towards your final project where you work on one of your own "brick wall" cases and present it as a paper to your instructor and your classmates.

What I Learned:

With often two writing assignments per week, I learned to write as a genealogist. Often, we would be told our paper had to be two pages or less. My first paper's first draft was five pages long and I had to pare it down to two pages! I learned how to trim the excess and focus on what was really important. I have not written "research papers" for a grade in decades and this was an incredibly valuable experience.

All of our work had to include citations. Though I understand the importance of citations, I have not been working with them and it was a cause of stress at the beginning of the course. But, eventually I had a system down and it almost became easy! I just added quick citations as I wrote and "polished" them before I handed in my paper. My citations still need a lot work, but just including citations in my writings is a huge improvement for me!

We also spent time almost every week reading sections of BCG's Genealogy Standards. We probably went over each section two or three times. I had never even read this small book from cover to cover, but now I am quite familiar with the standards! We used these standards to analyze other people's writings and determine whether or not we felt the met the GPS (Genealogy Proof Standard). 

Was It Worth the Cost?

$1,595 is a lot of money for most genealogists, though the course can be taken for $1,435.50 with one of the above mentioned memberships. Is it worth the cost? For comparison, I will use GRIP, the week-long Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh, which I have attended the past 3 summers. 

Early bird tuition for GRIP is $425. If you stay in a single room, the cost is $350 for room and your meals for a total of $775. Since I live in Texas, I also need a plane ticket which costs about $300. So, my total is about $1,075. 

At GRIP, I spend 4 1/2 days in a classroom with other students listening to several teachers speaking in depth on a specific topic. As in most classroom situations, I learned both from my instructors and from my classmates. All three of my courses have offered homework, though some of it has been more relevant and helpful than others. 

On the other hand, I spent 16 weeks in the Excelsior class. The homework for each module was relevant and I received feedback not only from my teacher but also from my classmates. I also got to review my classmates' work and see how they handled the problems differently and study their writing: several of my classmates were superb researchers and writers. For 16 weeks I averaged 15 to 20 hours reading over the instructor's lessons, watching videos, reading both published and unpublished research by other genealogists, studying Genealogy Standards, and reading my classmates' work. And, of course, doing the in depth assignments! It was a tremendous learning experience.

Yes, the Excelsior Practicum was expensive. And, I know many genealogists won't be able to afford it. But, if you can, I think it is worth the cost and the time and you will likely become a more advanced genealogist because of it. As with most endeavors, though, you will get out of it only as much as you put into it!

If you have any questions about this course, please ask! You can leave a comment on my post or email me at drleeds@sbcglobal.net


  1. Congratulations! Thanks for the review it's very helpful.

    1. Thanks, Jlouise! I wish I would have gotten the review up earlier for those contemplating the fall course, but it's up now. :)

  2. Sounds like you learned a lot. Would you pay full price or even just 10% off if you had to do it over again?

    1. Linda, Let me put it this way... as much as I love going to GRIP and being around other genealogists for six days, I learned a lot more through this Practicum. I found it a lot more practical and enjoyed the homework and feedback aspect. So, overall, I think it is worth more than the cost of a week at GRIP. But, it costs quite a bit more than GRIP, too.

      I would probably join one of the societies to get the 10% off if I wasn't already a member of one. But, yes, I would pay "full price" (minus the 10%).

  3. Nice review, Dana! I agree that with some of these "distance education" experiences that the greatest value can be from the writing requirements regardless of feedback.

    1. Thanks, Patti. It wasn't a perfect class and I know Melinde will be working to make some improvements, but it was a really helpful class! And, I feel like I am a stronger genealogists because of it.


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