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By Ryan Taylor

Louise St Denis of Toronto founded the National Institute for Genealogical Studies in October 1999. Since then the Institute has offered 150 courses on all aspects of family history research.

Asked what people like best about the program, St Denis says, "Bringing education to remote areas. No matter where people live-Nunavut, Fogo Island-they can still study with us, learn and earn their diploma."

The Institute now has several streams, oriented toward geographical areas such as Canada or Germany, and also toward specific needs. There is a new diploma course for librarians who work with genealogical researchers. St Denis responds to the students' requests by finding instructors who can provide expertise in specialized subjects. More than a hundred instructors have written courses for the Institute.

The courses are offered online through the auspices of the continuing education program of the University of Toronto's Faculty of Information Science Professional Learning Centre. The student accesses the course materials through the Institute website. Most courses are several weeks long, with assignments and examinations. There are online chats with other students and instructors, and a mentoring program where a student can be guided through specific research problems by an expert.

Despite the physical distances between them, students still feel part of a group through the chats and corrrespondence.

One of the most successful students, Paul Jones of Toronto, brushes aside any suggestion that the courses are simple. "To do well, you have to apply yourself. I worked just as hard on these as I did for my B.A."

St Denis agrees. "It's amazing when you think of the sheer amount of knowledge that's being shared."

She oversees the whole project from a perch in downtown Toronto overlooking Lake Ontario. Her own energy and enthusiasm communicates itself to her technical staff, who work beside her, and the instructors, who are scattered across North America. One of the joys of online communication is that the instructors can keep in close touch with her as well as the students.

What is the biggest problem she faces? "Keeping everything up to date," she says. The courses must constantly be updated, especially as most of them include reference addresses and websites, which change from day to day.

Since teaching genealogy online was a new idea, St Denis started from scratch. "All the technology had to be written, to avoid duplication. We created the infrastructure ourselves. There are so many unique materials in genealogy, we had to tailor everything to suit our students' needs."

The diploma requires forty courses, specializing in a certain area, but with electives from the more universal aspects of study in family history. Holders of the diploma are entitled to add PLCGS after their name, which stands for Professional Learning Certificate in Genealogical Studies. Quite a mouthful, but it's quite a concept, too.

The Institute is always growing. There are new courses in the works, and plans to begin a stream focusing on genealogy in France. French genealogy has few instructional texts in print, so that will be good news for the many descendants of French settlers in North America.

St Denis would also like to offer all her courses in both of Canada's official languages simultaneously. Translating the Canadian courses is in progress.

St Denis is always looking for new challenges, which is probably why the Institute has been such a success. Her greatest challenge is finding new instructors for the specialized topics. "Our instructors are the best known genealogists in Canada," she says proudly.

More information about the National Institute of Genealogical Studies can be found at www.genealogicalstudies.com. Shortened versions of the course texts can be bought separately. These publications are also listed at the website.

Posted September 26, 2005
Column copyright © 2005 Ryan Taylor

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