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Listening to Alumni: Reflections on a recent ELESIG event

By Jim Turner for the ELESIG

Barrie Edmonds from the University of Nottingham presented “Using data to shape strategic thinking and improve the online learning experience” discussing the ongoing work on digital capabilities at the institution. Through carefully constructed slides Barrie took us through the learning journey of this project, its aim, planning and delivery. The University of Nottingham has been going through a process of curriculum renewal to embed certain attributes, skills and knowledge into courses. Digital capabilities has become a key part of this process. The focus for this session was on digital capabilities, linking JISC tools such as the discovery tool and the insights survey to build university-wide implementation.  

We have yet to adopt JISC’s tools at my institution, so it was interesting to hear about the strategy and individual elements that are leading towards a culture change. Here are some reflections on what I learnt from this session, and hopefully some useful insights for those on a similar learning journey.  

Listening to Alumni 

One of the early activities was to survey alumni (375n) to understand their experience of digital capabilities at the institution and their perception of their usefulness within their employment (see fig 1). This approach produced a snapshot of not only how important these skills are within their jobs but where capability development is most needed within their studies. For instance, ICT proficiency is seen as very key but scores quite low on how well this was developed. However, digital identity management was seen as the least important and the least developed on the course. This data helped the University of Nottingham to make informed decisions about strategic priorities for curriculum development.  

Fig 1. Graph showing the 15 JISC capabilities matched against the perceived importance in job and development during university studies.  

This made me wonder about the extent of the published research that explores the digital skills and the alumni. There is so much potential in understanding the changing nature of the workplace through engaging with students feeding back on their transition into their chosen careers. It also opens up a potential window into how digital technologies are changing the workplace. I thought I would have a quick look around for what I could find of this. I haven’t taken a systematic approach to this, I just wanted to capture some interesting findings. I hope you find this useful.  

  • Alumni research: The published research report on a variety of subjects past students are consulted on. Interestingly, one vain is a focused on encouraging donations. As you might expect there is little in the area of digital skills and capabilities.  
  • Alumni and new students: A long term reflective action research approach was taken by the Hospitality programme team at Sheffield Hallam University (Egan and Cockill, 2012). This reported on work over 5 years to see how they a improve the course through engagement with alumni. They began with an audit of all the different ways in which they connect with alumni. I’m sure this type of process is used by many teams, and this paper details the process exploring how the programme has developed in response to feedback. One key activity being the mentoring scheme between new and past students. This reminded me of the last ELESIG event on Digital Champions. Imagine building an alumni of digital champions and the potential perspectives from this groups as they report back on the developing digital workspace, and how they could support new champions.  
  • Alumni and skill development: A large survey of STEM students (1500n) was undertaken by Technion University (Lavi, Tal and Dori, 2021). Similar to the University of Nottingham survey this focused on skills. The analysis focused on soft skills development, and identifying the teaching and learning activities which developed these, helping to match better practices for particular skill development. Not surprisingly active learning methods were identified as more conducive to skills development than passive. Perhaps hinting at the ways to integrate digital skills and capability development into the curriculum. Another study conducted an appreciative enquiry through interviews with 8 students (Fleischman and English, 2019). The themes also highlighted soft skills, as well as the importance of resilience, and the willingness to constantly learn. The method shows how much can be gleamed from small studies such as these in understanding the students transition and growing awareness.  
  • Hidden research findings: I am going to guess that alumni research is being conducted by little of it seems to be appearing in publications. Which is a shame as its potential to inform course development and wider understanding of the student journey beyond the institution. I hope that work such as the University of Nottingham’s approach could be conducted across institutions to provide a richer picture of digital capabilities.  

ELESIG are a group focused on supporting the development of evaluation and research of the student digital learning experience. Alumni voice offers a new space to explore this experience beyond the control of the institution but unique in providing a perspective we can all learn from.  


Egan, D. and Cockill, J. (2012) ‘Enhancing Student learning and development in cooperation with our alumni.’, Student Engagement and Experience Journal, 1(1), pp. 1–12. doi:10.7190/seej.v1i1.36. 

Fleischman, D. and English, P. (2019) ‘The alumni narrative of the connection between university skills and knowledge, and industry: An “outside-in” understanding’, in Fifth International Conference on Higher Education Advances. Fifth International Conference on Higher Education Advances. Available at: (Accessed: 9 May 2022). 

Lavi, R., Tal, M. and Dori, Y.J. (2021) ‘Perceptions of STEM alumni and students on developing 21st century skills through methods of teaching and learning’, Studies in Educational Evaluation, 70, p. 101002. doi:10.1016/j.stueduc.2021.101002. 

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