In Conversation with Leonard Houx

Jan 27, 2023 by Erin Becker

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Leonard Houx is an award-winning director of online learning design with thirteen years’ experience in optimizing online education. He is currently the Director of Learning Design at Cambridge Education Group and was recently recognized with the top international award for learning designers in all sectors from the Learning Technologies Group, generally considered the most prestigious recognition in the field.

Read on to explore the fascinating story of how Leonard came to the field of learning design, his take on transactional distance theory, and why more people should understand that learning isn't perfomance.

This interview is part of a new Nomadic blog series featuring different perspectives on L&D, leadership, and how companies are transforming the way they do business, learn, and grow. If you're interested in these topics, you might also enjoy my earlier interview with our CEO and co-founder Matt Burr, where we talk about how learning can support business transformation.

In Conversation: five questions with Leonard Houx

1. What brought you to the field of learning design?

In retrospect, the way I was brought to learning design seems like a charade. Something I made up from books I'd read.

I'd been working as a learning technologist for six years when I was hired at Avado. They assigned me to lead the learning technology for their partnership with Google. It was for their Google-branded Digital Marketing certificate course. Working for Google as a client felt glamorous and exciting. And I wanted to improve their results. I argued for a comprehensive redesign: the aesthetics, navigation, activities, language, media, structure.

What I proposed was a culmination of everything I had been working on and reading. A combination of UX research (Neilsen, Reddish, Fogg), graphic design (Tufte, Lupton, Bringhurst) and pedagogical research (Engelmann, Kirschner, Mayer). I had never met an instructional designer. But I told my team manager and product manager that my proposal was “instructional design.” This is despite the fact I was also bringing in a lot of other stuff (UX, behavioural design, graphic design).

It was a shock when they said I could go ahead. And behold: a learning designer unto us was born. The punchline is that it enhanced satisfaction and achievement >10%.

2. What’s a trend emerging in learning that you find interesting right now?

One thing I find interesting is transactional distance theory. It’s a way to think about how close a student feels to different elements of their learning (the instructor, their classmates, the material, etc). When learners feel closer to their teacher as a teacher (i.e., not a friend), it would appear to make a huge difference. My LD pal, Abi Truebig sent me a great bibliography on the subject.

I am also interested in research around how technology and organisational culture interact. This touches on ideas such as sociomateriality and Bruno Latour’s actor network theory (I never thought I would be a person who enjoys Bruno Latour, but here we are). It interests me because we tend to ignore how meshed together technology and org culture are. When we better understand how they mesh, we can design better. For me, it’s one of those situations where you think everybody who’s talking about it in your field is wrong. I’m quite sure this is healthy and normal.

3. What do you wish more people understood about learning?

I wish more people understood that learning is not performance. As Robert Bjork explains so well, learning is a state that we infer about a person’s long-term memory. Like, that you can perform some knowledge or skill again later. There is a tendency in higher ed to act as if a certain performance, let’s say writing a final paper, is the learning.

4. Any book, music, or movie recommendations you’ve been loving lately?

For nonfiction, I recommend Morgan Ames’ The Charisma Machine. It tells the story of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project and how it was able to ship over 3 million laptops with hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, persisting as an organisation for years, whilst continuing to achieve virtually nothing. In her descriptions, Ames is a paragon of restraint, which leaves you all the more appalled. Through her account, it felt like she exorcised the spirit of ‘build it and they will come’ technological determinism. To me, Ames' book explains so many of the bad projects in our field. It also explains why in the 00s we saw a kind of priest caste of ultra-confident, ‘big thinker’ keynotes at e-learning conferences. A humane, insightful and deeply relevant work of ethnography.

Another recommendation. A few weekends ago, my wife Caireen and son Walter and I met with our friends Mira and Matt to do a walk up London’s subterranean River Fleet (what Fleet Street is named after). It runs southward from Hampstead to Blackfriars. In Roman times, it was a major river, but over time it became a sewer and was eventually covered by roads in the 1700s and 1800s. But it’s still down there and you can see traces of it as you walk. We used the book London’s Hidden Rivers as a guide. You can also do guided tours.

5. What advice would you give to someone just starting their career in learning?

Once you get over the pains of your initial learning curve, you feel some ease. Nothing’s breaking; nothing’s baffling; nothing’s causing offence. Upon reaching this pleasant plateau, you can stop learning.

I would encourage you, though, to keep learning as a learning designer. Here are three reasons. First, because when you improve, you can improve outcomes for your learners. You can help people grow. And because you can help, and it’s your job to do so, there's some responsibility you have here. Second you should keep learning as a learning designer because research and tools advance on. So your skill-value may depreciate. This is not to be alarmist, but we just have to accept that (to grossly misuse the term) learning design is something of a moveable feast. Third, you should keep learning as a learning designer, because it’s enriching. You get to combine three complex, interesting, ever-changing fields: learning, technology and design. How cool is that?

So my advice is this: learn as much as you can as early as you can. Read books! Watch videos! Meet other LDs! Learn front-end web development, accessibility, information design, graphic design, usability design, cognitive psychology, teaching methods, writing, AI, statistics. Check out my starter list. Check out people like Paul Kirschner, Mirjam Neelen, Donald Clark, Julie Dirksen. You are welcome to panic about it. But try to be proud of what you’re becoming. And enjoy it too. Much of the joy of being a learning designer is doing lots of learning yourself.


Thanks again to Leonard for sharing his wisdom. We loved his advice to learn as much as you can as early as you can. Definitely words to live by, and the methods he shouts out are a great way to begin (as are the books on his starter list).

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