Is it necessary for an Instructional Designer to be a Subject Matter Expert?

Should The Roles Of Instructional Designers And Subject Matter Experts Be Consolidated Or Autonomous?

Let’s take it one step at a time. Instructional Designers (ID) draw up the specifications of a course, after analyzing the training needs, define the learning scope and objectives and decide on the format, as well as on the assessment method. Subject Matter Experts (SME) communicate their knowledge, offer an outline of the subjects that should be covered, define the resources and check the accuracy of the material provided by the ID team, but they are usually not the ones creating a course. So, the main question is:

Is It Necessary For An Instructional Designer To Be A Subject Matter Expert?

Should their roles be autonomous, identical or interconnected? Experiences vary, but let’s see at what level they actually coincide. It depends on the field…There are fields that require a combination of both, with prime examples those of Education and Healthcare. For example, in order to teach at a university level and cope with the difficulties this task entails, you need the experience, the background and the expertise. Thus, in this case, you cannot just be an Instructional Designer. You also need to be a Subject Matter Expert.

Nevertheless, there are various other fields where an ID does not have to be an SME to be able to promptly design a course with a sound structure and a solid content, as long as he has the experience to do so, access to the right material, as well as the consultation of an SME.

Surprisingly, there is also a third side. A relatively inexperienced ID might in some cases be more appropriate than an expert one, because he or she may have a better appreciation of a novice learner’s thin background and design a more detailed and explanatory course content. In other words, he or she can identify himself with new learners; which, depending on the level of the students, might be extremely useful.

Strength through unityAccording to Walt Disney “You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it requires people to make the dream a reality". In other words, a solid design team of professionals is necessary for any project to be successful. Team collaboration between management, SMEs and IDs will definitely provide a consistent, well-integrated instructional product or system. Nonetheless, each player needs to know his role.

Instructional Designers should:

  • Research and gain knowledge over their subject before they design the course
  • Familiarize themselves with the domain-related jargon
  • Group questions, problems and issues before addressing an SME

Subject Matter Experts should work closely with IDs in a promptly manner, both aiming to create a well-rounded and solidly structured course with accurate content and a fair assessment system. Narrow resources, narrow choices. Bottom line, it’s all about the benjamins! If the budget is tight and the deadlines suffocating, a company will choose a multi-dimensional, experienced ID, who possesses a solid grasp of his subject. On the other hand, if the company can afford it, its management will certainly seek to find multiple professionals, each one assuming their role and all of them closely cooperating.

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