Katherine and Jess: Our experience of online learning

Here at the University of Bristol, we’re working hard to develop the best possible blended-learning curriculum for this academic year, in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This will see a mixture of small face-to-face group teaching and mentoring with an innovative and engaging online learning aspect.

But, what is learning online like? For many prospective postgraduate students, you may not have ever studied online, and we understand this might be unsettling and leave you wondering whether you’ll still receive high quality teaching. We want you to know that if you still want to study in 2020, you don’t have to put your postgraduate plans on pause – but don’t just take it from us.

We’ve been chatting to Katherine and Jess, current students on our MA Translation, which is taught completely online. While the blended learning curriculum will still have an aspect of face-to-face teaching, we hope their experiences of studying online will help many of you find out a bit more about online learning.

Katherine, MA Translation
Jess, MA Translation


Tell us about your motivations for choosing the MA Translation…

Katherine: Having just had my first child, I was looking for a career change into a field in which working could be flexible around family life. With an undergraduate degree in French and Spanish and a passion for languages, translation was always something that had interested me. Researching Translation MA courses and looking into the career further convinced me that it was the path I wanted to take. The MA Translation at Bristol appealed to me because it was fully online, so I could take the course from home, it had part-time options that I could fit around parenting and the University has an outstanding reputation. I also love the city and visit fairly regularly so it was appealing to me that I could make use of the University’s facilities when I am there.

Jess: Having studied my undergraduate degree online with the Open University, I was already comfortable with distance learning when I started my online MA in Translation. I had different reasons for choosing to study each of my degrees online. For my undergraduate degree, it was simply because I was disappointed by the experience of going to university at 18. I felt that it was too similar to school, and I was ready to be out in the world! During my first year, I left and spent some time working and travelling. When I settled in one place after a couple of years, I started studying online, because I didn’t want to lose the freedom that I had to be in charge of my own schedule. I’ve always loved working and being self-sufficient, and I didn’t want to lose that, or to have to arrange work around uni.

Studying online suited me perfectly, and there were optional in-person tutorials where I met other students. The flexibility was great for me; while studying, I changed jobs a couple of times, trained to be a piano teacher, started a business, moved house a few times, trained to be an English teacher, and then moved to Spain. Which brings me to the Masters!


How does your programme provide you with the high-quality teaching you expect?

Katherine: Teaching on the course has been delivered in a number of ways, from video calls with my tutor, podcasts from my lecturers, audio-visual presentations delivered by other students and written course notes. I think the most effective learning I have done has been through the comprehensive feedback received on my own work as well as the opportunity to read other students’ work.


Do you also get the opportunity to work with your fellow students, despite it being an online programme?

Katherine: The Blackboard Online Learning Environment provides a forum for the group to share ideas, we all submit exercises and are actively encouraged to feedback to one another. I have learnt a great deal from other students’ work and quite often we share our individual feedback on the forum too, so we can learn from each other’s feedback. I feel that technology allows us to work together and collaborate effectively.

Jess: Another student once sent me an email after a funny exchange we had on Blackboard, and since then, we’ve been in touch regularly and will definitely meet in person once travel is back on the cards!


What’s your favourite thing about your programme?

Katherine: My favourite thing about the programme is that it can be flexible around my other commitments. I’m doing the course part-time which works for me as it allows me to complete paid work alongside the course.

Jess: It’s different from my previous experience in that interaction with other students is a big part of the course. That is my favourite part of it – we look at each other’s translations and discuss them on Blackboard. The tutors also join the discussions, so we receive regular feedback from them.


Have you had any problems with the online aspect of the programme?

Katherine: The only slight challenge I have come across is access to relevant course books that are not online. The vast majority of the necessary material can be found via the library online so this is rarely a problem, but I would just say that it takes a little organisation to check which books you may wish to access that aren’t online. You can then submit a request to the library who will post them out to you.


Do you have any tips or advice for prospective postgraduate students who may be daunted by the blended-learning approach for this year?

Katherine: My advice would be to consider the positive aspects that online learning can bring, such as the flexibility. It’s also important to take into account that the skills being learnt through online learning will be extremely useful in the majority of the careers/study that students move on to. So many careers and study opportunities require competence in remote working, using technology and learning to familiarise yourself with different online platforms. I also feel that successful completion of online learning demonstrates your motivation, organisation and adaptability to potential future employers.

Jess: If you’re new to studying online and you’re feeling nervous, or you’re worried about what you might be missing out on, I would urge you to think about how to make the most of the benefits! You can still meet your fellow students and form real friendships. As long as you manage your time and keep up with your work, studying online is so rewarding and gives you the freedom to develop other interests and areas of your life. I hope you enjoy it!


We are regularly updating our COVID-19 webpages for prospective students. Visit www.bristol.ac.uk/students/coronavirus/applicants to keep up with the latest developments. If you have any queries, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at choosebristol-pg@bristol.ac.uk.


Meet the lecturer: Dr Florian Scheding

Meet Dr Florian Scheding, Senior Lecturer in Music.

Tell us about your journey into academia…

There was no grand plan behind my journey into academia. Rather, it was a journey of curiosity. One aspect of this is that I wanted to know about and live in different countries, and moving from degree to degree led me to study at universities in Germany, Spain, and Britain. I was very lucky along the way (and perhaps I also did well in my academic work) because opportunities always presented themselves, until, after jobs at different institutions, I was fortunate to be offered a position in Bristol.


What’s your favourite thing about teaching on postgraduate taught programmes at Bristol?

The MA Music in Bristol rightly has a reputation of being one of the country’s best postgraduate taught programmes in music. I love teaching the excellent students who choose to study here. With their diverse backgrounds and interests, many of our postgraduate students take advantage of the flexibility the programme offers them and tailor their unit choices to best suit them, and accompanying them on their journey is a real privilege.


What’s your number one top tip for prospective postgraduates?

Embarking on a postgraduate taught programme at a top University like Bristol may be one of the most intense experiences you ever do: you learn things every day, you are challenged every day, you discover something new every day. Try to get the most out of it while you’re here: go to events, be proactive, get involved with societies, meet people. Your postgraduate study is a unique time, and that intensity can make it one of the most enriching years of your life.


Meet the lecturer: Dr Andy Flack

Meet Dr Andy Flack, Lecturer in Modern and Environmental History.

Tell us about your journey into academia…

To be honest, I fell into my academic career. There was no particular plan that I opted to follow. Having completed my BA in History, I undertook an MA in Contemporary History before going to work in the Third Sector in London. I was lured to undertake doctoral study – An Animal History of Bristol Zoo – four years later not because I aspired to an academic career, but because I was relentlessly curious. I missed the university environment and the kind of learning that it fosters.

Indeed, I’ve loved learning from an early age. From childhood through my teenage years and into my adult life, I could usually be found with my nose buried deep in a work of history, or alternatively a work of natural history. From that point of view, it’s perhaps unsurprising that I’ve ended up working as an environmental historian; a field which combines history with the natural sciences, and which studies the ways in which people in the past have interacted with the natural world. I also need to note that I undertook all my degrees here, at the University of Bristol. There is certainly something about this place – and the way in which it teaches History – that has kept me ‘hooked’.


What’s your favourite thing about teaching on postgraduate taught programmes at Bristol?

I love teaching on postgraduate History programmes. MA students on our courses tend to be committed to learning about the past in active conversation with their peers, both staff and students. Indeed, we very much feel that our master’s students are valuable co-investigators as we collectively look to the past to see what we can unearth.

In particular, the MA History course allows students to undertake deep reading and research across historical periods, places, and topics. There are several specific areas where our University is especially strong. We have a strong team of historians of modern Britain, modern America, and slavery, as well as the largest grouping of environmental historians anywhere in the world, beyond a couple of institutions in North America. The MA course gives me an unequalled opportunity to teach my own specialism – modern environmental history – with my colleagues and in depth – to students who are committed to and excited by the past and the lessons we might draw from it that can help us to address some of the greatest crises of our times.


What’s your number one top tip for prospective postgraduate students?

My top tip for prospective postgraduates is to enter your studies with an open mind. Certainly, you’ll most likely have identified the kinds of histories you know you like via previous degrees, for example. The MA will give you the chance to dive deep into those histories. However, the most rewarding aspect of postgraduate study, in my view, is embracing the chance to study people, places, and approaches to the past that you might be deeply unfamiliar with. Take a ‘risk’. What about Medical History? Or Environmental History (of course…)? Take the road less travelled and you might find that your way of thinking about the world – in the past and present – is changed forever, opening an array of new opportunities in the process.



Meet the lecturer: Dr Juan Zhang

Meet Dr Juan Zhang, lecturer in Social Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology.

Tell us about your journey into academia…

I encountered Anthropology by chance! Growing up in China and studying Urban Planning for my undergraduate degree, I wanted to gain a more human-centred understanding on urban space and social relations for my postgraduate training. With that, I decided to study Sociology in Singapore. There I was introduced to Anthropology and fell in love with ethnography and participatory research.

My master’s research was an ethnographic exploration of how migrant workers in Singapore formed weekend communities that led to drastic transformation on urban space. This experience was a revelation that Anthropology could provide a unique perspective into the ways in which people interact, make connections and create new meanings and practices that would challenge any fixed or taken for granted thinking on space and society.

I completed my PhD in Anthropology with a project at the China-Vietnam borderland that looked at the relationship between borders and livelihoods. An ethnographic approach has helped me understand human complexities and social change that challenges any black-or-white thinking about society at the everyday level. With my PhD, I worked as Research Fellow and Lecturer in Singapore and Australia before finally coming to Bristol. (Yes travelling is a big part of being an Anthropologist!)


What’s the best thing about your postgraduate taught programme?

The MA in Anthropology is a PGT programme that I designed and have directed since 2019. I teach the Anthropological Theory and Practice core unit as well as the Work Placement in Anthropology optional unit.

The Theory and Practice unit focuses on both theoretical training and practical application of anthropological knowledge on complex social problems in relation to design, technology, work, and sustainability. Guest lecturers with different disciplinary backgrounds come to our MA class with diverse expertise that cover topics from nature to energy, big data to digital museums, the future of work to social policy. Work Placement in Anthropology offers the excellent opportunity for students to be connected to Bristol-based companies and organisations beyond the university setting. Current placement projects involve We the Curious, Icon Films, Realise Design, local museums, community and charity groups. Immersive experiences with these employers and networks created through internships and placements are what makes the MA Anthropology experience meaningful and rewarding.


What’s your number one top tip for prospective postgraduate students?

My top tip for prospective students who wish to be the next generation of Anthropologists is to embrace independence and critical thinking. This MA will help you value research and social engagement as a way of understanding people and society through their diversities and complexities.

This programme focuses on research training and will offer opportunities to students who show their passion and ambition towards research initiatives, which may potentially transform ideas and practices!