4 Tips For Working With Academics In Course Design
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Working With Academics In Course Design

Building an online course is a complex process that requires not only intellectual power but also lots of sophisticated interpersonal and project management skills, because of the highly collaborative and iterative nature of the task. At the core of this process is the work of the academic/learning designer duo. Have you ever imagined what working with academics during course design involves, and how learning designers engage with them to ensure that we create meaningful learning activities and experiences for students?

We, a collection of learning designers from RMIT University Online, will shed some light on the inner workings of this process in an academic environment. We’ll also share some tips for getting this started on the right terms and maintaining an effective working relationship throughout the entire journey.

What Does An Academic/SME Do?

As the name implies, a Subject Matter Expert (SME) is the expert in a specific and specialized subject-area, for which a course is to be developed. In their area of expertise, the SME may have postgraduate qualifications, and thus many years of experience learning in the specific field of study. They may also have many years of experience teaching in their specialization, presenting at conferences and sharing that knowledge in some form or another.

SMEs go by different titles and have different functions in the course design process, depending on the industry they are in. In the academic environment, they are known as a course writer, content producer, a convener and most often, as an academic. As such, they oversee the learning content of the course, and work closely with learning/Instructional Designers to design learning activities and experiences that engage students on their learning journey.

Working With Academics In Course Design: Best Practices

Sometimes, the learning and teaching experiences of the academic may be radically different from the style of learning and teaching which we find to be more common these days – particularly in the online environment. Their perceptions and their understanding of what makes a good course may also be different. The journey of designing course has an end-goal: to create a great course. The aim is to build something that not only aligns with the intended learning outcomes, but also creates an experience for students and makes them "future ready". The journey itself, however, is usually full of challenges which is why the following tips may contribute to making the process of working with academics more effective.

1. Build A Relationship

Academics are usually very busy people with a lot of different responsibilities in the university environment. Hence, it is important to approach the course design process with empathy. Empathise with the academics and start the conversation by getting to know them. Building rapport is essential for effectively engaging academics in the course design process. Aim to win them over with the first call or meeting. Academics, like most people, have different personalities; as a learning designer, behavioral flexibility is necessary. Engage with their personality and be willing to adjust your approach.

Be conscious of the fact that being the assigned academic to develop your course is not the only job they have. Discussing what your role is as a learning designer; going through their style or preferred mode of communication and how best they would like to be engaged is essential in building the working relationship. This will help you manage expectations and allow for accountability during the course design process. One size does not fit all, in this case. Let them understand how you will support them from the time you first meet, up to course completion. Remember to acknowledge their hard work at the different stages, most especially at the completion of the project! Doing this increases enthusiasm for future work and minimizes barriers if you happen to be working together again, on future projects.

2. Set Expectations For Success

Set the expectations early in the design process. Academics need to know who the learning designer is and how we contribute to the learning design process. Let the SME know who you are, and what it is that you do. It is easy to assume others may know this, but you may be surprised. It’s typical for many learning/instructional designers to find it hard to explain what their job is exactly when asked by a friend or family member who is not acquainted with the industry. So too, your academic may also lack knowledge of the role a learning designer plays in the course design and development process. It is pertinent to know that learning designers are also SMEs – in learning design. In other words, establishing mutual respect can make the design and development process an effective one. Similarly, it is equally important to know what their role is and making it clear that you understand their work too.

Exemplar courses help trigger the minds of academics to what great course designs look like and how creative they can—and should—be during course design and development. It really helps to show them exemplary courses in their final form. It can also be helpful to show samples of work in the development stage, such as storyboards with feedback.

What happens when these expectations are not met, due to circumstances beyond your control? Simple tactics, such as escalating to managers and choosing to emphasize the expectations, may work. It’s also important to be open to scope creep. They happen, but how you deal with them can either make or break the outcome.

Another very important aspect of setting expectations is around the project schedule and timeline. Be realistic about the required time dedication and set up some processes that will work conveniently for the both of you. You both should agree on a timeline for deliverables up front, and constantly refer to that schedule to keep things on track. The academics might not be aware of other tasks involved in building a course online, and hence think the work that they do with you is all there is to it. It is your job to coordinate this and make sure that delays do not happen, so as not to impact following project-related tasks, such as developing interactives, creating visuals, and building the actual course in the LMS.

Once expectations are established and there is clarity of responsibilities, course development becomes engaging and the process more efficient.

3. Share Your Enthusiasm

As a learning/Instructional Designer, know you have one advantage. While the academics see the course through the lens of an SME, you can see a course through the lens of a learner. So, in your discussions with an SME, remind them of this: let them know that you do not have the same level of subject matter expertise as they do, but as a learner you see the course in a particular way, and as a result, you have some great suggestions to make that can really improve the learning experience. Perhaps there are a few concepts difficult to grasp, that could use an infographic? Or the course could do with rearranging the contents to present certain ideas first before others? Maybe you see an opportunity to incorporate a neat learning activity that gets students doing something as opposed to just passively digesting it?

Although you might not have the same level of content expertise as they do—something they probably don’t expect you to have—you instead have a ton of ideas to share. These ideas are incredibly valuable as they’ve been formed by your learning design experience, and perhaps also from the fact that you, like the learners themselves, have come to the course with little to no knowledge of the content itself.

Sharing enthusiasm, whether it be through sharing ideas that will engage students during their learning journey or doing research prior to your first meeting with the academics, goes a long way to engaging them in the process and identifying creative ways to improve the learning experience.

4. Be Open To Feedback

There are academics who pride themselves in being experienced in learning design as well. These experts believe that, because they have received great feedback from previous years, designing a course in a certain way is the way to go with the current design. As a learning designer, be open to the feedback and be willing to try some new things. Your ability to detach from the feedback will also help you be more objective and learn along the way. Sometimes trial and error is what you need to prove your point in a future iteration of the course design process. When you have proof that something didn't work, you now have the power to influence how it can be done in the future. This does not mean that you need to settle for mediocre solutions, of course. Consult with other learning designers to get a broader perspective, or ideas for a better solution and hopefully reach a compromise with the academic moving forward.

Naturally, there are as many ways to communicate with people as there are ways to design a course. Hence, these are just a few tips that can help learning designers better engage with academics and make the course design process more effective!

Many thanks to Chuk Ogoh, Carolina Bodin, Thuy Nguyen who contributed to this article.

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