This year was my first Alt C. Although I’m an inveterate conference-goer, I have consistently missed this one. Most frustratingly, several years ago, when our team was accepted to present on the work we had done on iTunes U Course Manager, and The Open University’s OU Anywhere app, and we had to pull out for various boring reasons. So it was with a sense of ‘finally!’ that I zipped into Manchester with colleagues. Zipped being relative when you’re taking the train from Milton Keynes Central to Manchester Piccadilly.

It was also great to get to this conference as a member of newly and officially established Learning Innovation team. Nothing like the rubber stamp of officialdom to make you want to get out there and meet the people you have only ever seen on Twitter, and start making connections with projects and ideas you may be able to adopt.

If I went to Alt C with any preconceived notions, it was that I was all FutureLearn-ed and MOOC-ed out. I’ve spent an enjoyable, if intense, year-and-a-bit focusing on creating content for that platform, and was seeing everything from that perspective. So I enjoyed coming out of the practical and into the theoretical. The strong theme of ideas in, and purpose of, ed tech hit me right in the sweet spot, and I was pleased to see a set of connected issues form for me from my favourite sessions.

The open discussion from Lawrie Phipps (senior co-design manager at Jisc) and Donna Lanclos (anthropologist at UNC Charlotte) on the question of whether learning technology is fit for purpose gave me a moment to challenge some of the assumptions I make around the sector, i.e. that it is.

Being a distance university complicates your approach to some things and simplifies it in others. When someone asks: ‘Do you even need a VLE?’, or: ‘What problems is the VLE solving?’, the answer isn’t quite no or no problem, because we use the VLE much more extensively as a teaching tool than a traditional university might, but that doesn’t mean our VLE is the best choice, either.

When you start picking at fit for purpose, you starting picking at what the purpose actually is. Whether we use learning technology for learning, whether we teach effectively with the technology. Or whether we’re forcing un-useful technology on a reluctant student body and reluctant faculty colleagues. And which forces me to say, and so what if we are? How will we know if something is useful, if we don’t try it? Every bit of boring tech started out as something shiny and weird, once.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be approaching learning technology in a responsible way, and that means putting it through its paces, breaking it, and putting it back together again. Our students change and our sector changes, and if we’re fit for purpose we will stop evolving.

It sometimes feels like we’re on a mission to please everyone that pleases no-one. We have the name of the university thrown sarcastically back in our faces all the time. Hint: it refers to our open entry policy, not a slavish need to be consistent.

Which segues nicely onto the next presentation that made me sit up and think. Donna Lanclos and David White (Head of TEL at University of the Arts London) focussing on how the concept of ‘Digital Natives’ gets in the way of technological innovation in teaching and learning.

I got burned by making assumptions about digital native-ness in 2014, when the MOOC my team developed for FutureLearn with colleagues from Faculty of Education and Language Studies required learners to film themselves, upload the video, set the privacy settings correctly, and share it with others in their cohort. Leaving aside people’s lack of enthusiasm for recording themselves, I was taken aback by how complicated the process to film/upload/share became for the learners. I had made the error of thinking that just because they could hit a share button on Facebook, they would be able to do the same with any other application and website. They had to be taught, and we weren’t adept enough at teaching them. The consistency problem came up again, too.

Facebook does not equal The Internet. A mobile phone does not equal tech savvy. This goes for the academic community as well, but our assumptions generally about lack of savvy and lack of interest are as unhelpful as the opposite.

That said, I am increasingly frustrated by negativity that often amounts to nothing more than superstition and crankiness. Those who don’t want to push themselves or learn to do things in new ways, because they are concerned they might not pass. That is just not good enough. We have a responsibility to our students to help them work and live well in a digital world.

I really enjoyed Peter Bryant’s tweet on the subject: ‘Heard the phrase “technology must be seamless” too many times. Why must it? Why can’t be chaotic and broken and troubling, life often is.”

Well put. It’s a complex issue, and I have unpicked my own argument multiple times on writing this.

Peter (Head of Learning Technology and Innovation at LSE) was one of the presenters at the next presentation to hit home.

I had previously seen his presentation at the Disruptive Media Learning Lab at Coventry University, where he talked about ‘leveraging the power of the massive’. I liked it so much I put it on a post-it note and stuck it on my computer. I might have blurted that out like an idiot when I met him!

So having spent all year deeply mired in MOOCworld, it was refreshing to see someone throw massive at a wall and see what stuck. And what stuck was a user-centred massive online learning experiment, which saw the formation of crowdsourced UK constitution.

The presentation was talking about leveraging massive as more than just a number, but a body of practice and community of learning. It also talked about contesting what ‘open’ means. That open means no beginning or end, opening knowledge and learning out to the community, opening up digital citizenship and engagement, and embracing non-linearity.

Communities and crowdsourcing within education offers a fascinating opportunity for personalised learning, which our team is looking forward to playing with.

Personalised learning and the quantified self has come up several times in Learning and Teaching Solutions’ horizon scanning activities, and remains an area with an engagement gap we would like to cross. But then David Kernohan (senior co-design manager at Jisc) came along and blew my assumptions about trends and patterns in technology predictions neatly out of the water.

It also brought me to neatly circle back to the question of whether learning technology is fit for purpose. Especially if we can suspect vendors of using predictions to deliberately influence the hypes in ed tech. Capitalism at work.

The presentation emphasised for me again our need to approach ed tech responsibly, but enthusiastically. We can’t allow ourselves to blinded by ‘the next big thing’, because that often comes from the mistaken notion there will be a next big thing, or even one big thing, that will solve all our educational problems forever, while making a cup of tea as well.