10L: Leonard Houx

About Leonard

Leonard has been working in digital learning for over 12 years. He has written about digital learning for the Guardian, FT, E-Learning Age, Association for Learning Technology and Times Higher Education. He is also a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, a silver medal winner for Best Distance Learning for his work with Google’s “Squared” marketing course and all-around great person.

A supporter of evidence-based teaching, Leonard also co-organises an e-learning research reading group in London (lerg.co.uk) where practitioners meet to discuss current research papers in online learning. He also is currently in the final stages of designing an online MBA for Bayes Business School where he is Senior Instructional Designer.

So, what do you do dear?  Describe your work to an elderly relative. 

For institutions who want to deliver digital education, I am a leader and designer who ensures it is world class. Whereas most of my counterparts set the bar at simply getting it done, I aim for more by getting it done and making it an optimal experience. 

What was your favourite learning experience (Could be work, personal, school…anything is valid)?  What were you trying to do? Why did it work so well for you?

Having been an avid skateboarder since I was a kid, I learned new a trick on ramps called the handplant (or “invert”). You fly out of the transition, grab the board with one hand and, with the other, plant your hand in a one-handed handstand on the top of the ramp, then roll back in. I still learn tricks periodically in my old age, the reason learning this particular manoeuvre was a great learning experience is because I never imagined I could do it. 

It took me three months. I was doing ones below the coping, working my way up. I kept falling or missing the coping when I tried to get to the top.  Obsessive, I persevered, watching the same YouTube tutorials, switching out different cues (“it’s an air bert”, “snap the tail”, “cross the hands”). Every time, I would psych myself up “This is it. Today is the day”. When I finally did it, it was a shock and then a thrill. The range of possible events in the world had expanded. 

When asked “what is the best way to motivate learners?” leading education researchers prescribe learning. The thrill of being able to do something new. Advancing oneself. I like to think this thrill, as I experienced with my handplant, is what we in part supply for students.

Enough already…What one thing do you wish people in your industry or profession would stop doing? (What gets your goat?)

I see so many problems – visual gaffes, typographic abuse, misattributions, accessibility violations, whole-cloth plagiarisms, general failure to learn anything about the educational research. This spirit of amateurishness – especially in UKHE – can be so profound that people can’t see that there is anyone out there who takes e-learning seriously. I see so many things I value trampled. 

That said, I have found that outrage does not win people over. You have to ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish. I have spent most of my career pulling my hair out over bad practices, but it has rarely accomplished anything. Sometimes you have to be indignant to feel like you are not losing your mind – especially when people are telling you something is amazing. Other times, especially on twitter, you might just be taking exception in order to show how far above certain people you are. It’s like people who clutch pearls about the grocer’s commas, or comic sans, or even learning styles – like, dude, I am sorry but who is the audience here? Are we simply doing this so we can all high five each other for knowing something is wrong?

It’s good to have passion for your work in e-learning – and the passionate people are the people I want to work with! – but it’s also important to put things in context. There’s a lot that could be said here from so many perspectives: power, alienation, old-fashioned bullshitting. Where to start? In practice, though, I mostly must accept that most people don’t see that their iframe doesn’t align with the main column, they don’t see how they’re exceeding cognitive load limits, and they generally don’t see what the big deal is.

Same again please…What has changed for the better in your professional world as a result of COVID working practices? Should it be retained for the future (whenever that might be and whatever it might look like)? 

​​The lockdown inspired me to write some things I’m happy with. I wrote two pieces with Andre Spicer (Professor of OB and interim dean at Bayes) in the FT and Times Higher Ed. I wrote a piece showing how to use psychological research in instructional design for The Learning Scientists from which I got some great feedback. I also wrote a report for the CIPD about research in virtual conferencing, which they used in their recent evidence review report. All great experiences.

I also think that, at least on the level of discourse, the world of L&D and HE e-learning has improved. On Twitter, a lot of the most sane, practical voices have risen to the top and a lot of the poseurs have fallen by the wayside (at least in my feed, lol).

From the good old days…What do you miss most about working life from the pre-COVID world? Do you think it will return?

I miss seeing people on campus, running into people when getting lunch or coffee. For higher education, the atmosphere at Bayes is exceptionally friendly.

Theft is the sincerest form of flattery…Which part of which other industry or profession do you think we should learn from and adopt (or just steal)?

A lot of people I know in our field answer this question by saying we need to learn from marketing or UX. I agree, but we need to take both fields with a grain of salt. 

With marketing, I worry that what marketers count as a “conversion” is often simpler and more atomic than what we are trying to follow in learning.

Likewise, with UX, I see a real tendency in e-learning towards shallow uses of user research. For example, user research will often say users want this or that feature. Now, multiplying functionalities this way is not a great design approach to start with. But it’s especially bad in learning because learners pursue ineffective learning strategies. So the bad UX research is putting their imprimatur on bad learning experiences. 

What other industry can we steal from then? We can learn from theatre and the role of the dramaturge. The dramaturge is a kind of internal critic who, when the play moves from script to stage, makes sure it makes sense. Originally, in 18th century Hamburg, a theatre opted to hire the top critic to make their plays “critic-proof”. This is exactly what most e-learning projects need.

You know who would be great for this…Which famous person (live or historical) do you want to join your team and why?

Dieter Rams. He is both an impeccable designer and a deep thinker about how people live and use things. 

If only I had…What did you learn from your most recent mistake?

I wish I had started a PhD a lot sooner, but I am finally doing one now at Bayes in the Management school. Doing it part time whilst working full time is tough, but it’s so exciting. 

There can be only one…Which one tool or piece of kit would you keep if you could only use one from now on?

Not sure if this is the absolute one but the liquid format in my mobile version of Adobe Acrobat is fantastic. A lot of research articles I read span line lengths that are too wide and make reading a strain. But Adobe Acrobat’s liquid mode reformats these into shorter reading lines. It’s a huge improvement.

The picture of success…Which image or picture is a good representation of how you would like to develop your practice over the next five years?

File:Van de Graaf canon in book design.svg - Wikimedia Commons
Van de Graaf canon

By jossi – Popularized by Jan Tschichold in his book “The Form of the Book” in 1975., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1052009.

Here’s one I was chatting about with my colleagues Annora and Jura yesterday. This is the geometry used in medieval and renaissance book layouts. It’s called the “Van de Graaf canon” or “secret canon”. Scribes used them to produce beautifully proportioned books following the golden ratio. Jan Tschichold brought this idea to the minds of modern typographers in his The Form of the Book, describing these canons as “impossible to improve”.

That said, it’s not a picture of success. It’s a picture of what makes success possible: agonizingly precise thinking. Or, as my wife, who is an architect, says – it takes a lot of effort before things look effortless. 

What I hope for, for my next five years of practice, is the good fortune to be able to continue to agonise over such canons and so build online education I can be proud of.

Where can we find you?


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