Advice For Working With SMEs...From An SME

Understanding eLearning From An SME's Viewpoint
Sviatlana Zyhmantovic/
Summary: A good rapport with subject matter experts is key to effective eLearning design. Although often challenging, working toward relationships of mutual respect is well worth it. Here, I share ideas from an SME's perspective for professional relationships that will smooth the eLearning design process.

Understanding eLearning From An SME's Viewpoint

With online learning becoming more of the norm than ever before, it is so important for eLearning designers and SMEs to collaborate effectively with each other to develop high-quality content that engages students and promotes active learning. As a subject matter expert, I was introduced to instructional design several years ago and was at once skeptical about someone else “touching” my content to make it “better.” After all, I was the expert, right? However, having an open mind (though only somewhat in the beginning) and listening to what my instructional designer could do has led to instructional design becoming a best practice for my college and our faculty training team.

I admit the journey from me insisting my content was just fine the way it was to understanding the value of collaborating with an eLearning designer was not always easy. At the start, I was involved in more than a few “turf wars” and had to swallow my pride and consider that maybe–just maybe–there was a better way to reach learners. Now that I have great relationships with my eLearning design colleagues, I can look back and see that they were struggling too. In retrospect, one of the best meetings I had with my eLearning designer involved debunking some of the myths she had about SMEs. Here are a few suggestions I offered her. Today, I still share them with my other eLearning design colleagues. One outcome has been robust, learner-centered courses and training programs that have actively involved learners. The second, and just as significant, is that we collaborate with an appreciation of the content, respect for one other, and (yes!) recognizing the importance of meeting deadlines.

1. Communicate That Instructional Design Is Not About Altering Content...

...It is about setting students/trainees up for successful learning.

I agree SMEs can be seen as difficult at the outset. It helps to understand why that is for many of us. When I was first introduced to instructional design several years ago, I was initially approached by an eLearning designer who told me she was “going to make my course so much better.” I admit I am always open to making my courses better, but I did not feel I needed someone who was not all that familiar with the content to “repackage” it. After all, if it was working, why change it? In retrospect, I would have been much more open to ideas if I were approached with, “let’s work together to help your students succeed in your course and enjoy it more.” That way, I would have felt as though I were part of the process, that I would be heard, and that my content would be well received by learners who would succeed.

2. Be Upfront About Schedules And Timelines

Set expectations early in the relationship. Many of us are involved in multiple projects and activities, so a mutual understanding of deadlines, content transmittals, status meetings, and content review is critical.

3. Be Efficient With Meetings And Do Not Overwhelm SMEs With Details

Let us know, based on our collaboration, what you think would be the best design for the course, but we are not necessarily interested in the technical processes involved in getting course components developed. Too many details may lead to us feeling that “this is all too much” and we may check out.

4. During Collaboration, Ask Questions

Interviews are great! Please do not expect an SME to understand how to provide detailed descriptions needed for course design. It is tough for us to know exactly what the designer needs. When I reviewed storyboards and SME questionnaires used for course design, red flags went up when one of them required that SMEs provide essays describing the purpose of their content in a minimum of 1,000 words. From my experience, the chances an SME will do that are slim. However, most SMEs do enjoy talking about the subject matter for which they are passionate. Therefore, asking questions is a way for us to share and for the course designer to get the information needed for great design.

5. Provide The “Why”

If something other than what the SME is currently doing is a better course design, provide the reason why it supports and enhances student learning. SMEs know their content well and many do not want to change its design. However, most do want learners to succeed. Therefore, it is important that they understand that better path to success.

6. Share Examples And SME Endorsements

Recognize that many SMEs are analytical, methodical, and tend to think very logically. This type of linear thinking does not allow for many “bells and whistles.” In fact, many of us will consider them unnecessary. Therefore, it is a great idea to show us an online example of how these course features can actually help learners focus and motivate them to learn. Better yet, schedule a meeting with another SME who has actually gone through the course design experience and now understands how students can learn better in an engaging, non-linear way.

For me, coming to a mutual understanding with eLearning designers was challenging, but now it is enjoyable to collaborate with one another, so much so that I’ve decided to enroll in an instructional design program so I can teach the courses that I play a significant part in designing. Best of both worlds!