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The role of SMEs in e-learning – cooking up the perfect course

In the earlier days of humanity, if somebody needed guidance or information, they asked the village or tribe elder and whatever he said, went. Even if the answer was “look for two white raccoons climbing the north mountain on the first day of spring at midnight” it was still considered valid. Actually, the more complicated it sounded, the better – it could never ever be proved wrong.

Today, however, we face a different challenge. Information is everywhere and not necessarily consistent. Different sources offer divergent opinions or advice about the same query. For instructional designers this can prove a nightmare as they have to make sure everything they put into a course can be backed up by either science, statistics or the educated opinion of an expert.

If by chance there is a subject matter expert (SME) nearby when a course is being created, it’s great to use all that expertise without putting too much of it. Sounds as confusing as the white raccoons climbing the mountain, doesn’t it?

Well, here’s my take on how instructional designers and SMEs can work together to create learning awesomeness.

Be very specific about what you do

The SME might be an authority on the subject of your course but mind reading is probably not his strong suit. Since traditionally, the aid of SMEs has been employed in academic or classroom training, the e-learning dynamics and interactive features might come as a shock. However, if you give some examples of how these features get the information across a lot more effectively and show that in spite of the easy-going appearance the ultimate goal is a serious and important one it should get everyone on board.

Once the how is established, you should move on to the what. As an instructional designer you ought to have very specific learning objectives for every unit of the course. Make sure it is crystal clear what they are and why they were deemed important. The SME might have a different hierarchy in mind and needs to understand why only some topics are of interest for your course.

Of course, you should place great value on the SME’s input but avoid changing the original structure or editing the initial objectives.

Agree to a structure

As with anything else, a plan is always a good idea. In order to have a smooth process and make sure everybody involved is on the same page (or can at least find that page when they need to), it’s advisable to:

  • Set the goals right off the bat;
  • Make a schedule for joint online content reviews;
  • Agree on how progress will be tracked;
  • Always make a list of your questions before any meeting;
  • Have some form of interviews (written or recorded) with the Subject Matter Experts so you can later go back and revisit the information – they tend to give a lot of it;
  • Before giving the course the green light make sure you have the SME’s sign-off on it.

Establish the complexity of your course

If somebody is an expert in something, they must be passionate about it. As a consequence, everything regarding that subject is both fascinating and important. Think of culinary enthusiasts for example: they relish in creating intricate dishes with difficult ingredients but also recognize the importance of producing the perfect sunny side up egg.

You need to establish if your course is more like a light appetizer, a healthy brunch or an all-out three course meal complete with the perfect wine and appropriate silver cutlery. If your objectives are clear enough, the SME should be able to give you a correct estimate of how much time (and information) will have to go into that.

Whether it’s a bite-sized unit or an extensive modular course over several months, it’s very important to know before you start and plan your project development accordingly.

Sieve the information

As stated before, for an expert, everything regarding his topic is of high interest. Discuss with the SME and establish what is essential, what is important and what is only good to know. This way it will be easy to choose the delivery methods and decide what the learner should know or be able to do once he completes the unit.

The ‘good to know’ bits, for example, can be simple pop-ups or fun-facts boxes while the essential information will be highlighted, repeated and put into exercises or simulations.

The SME might also prove of great help with summarizing the content, picking the best storyline and the most appropriate challenges. As an instructional designer, you can use your creative energy on the delivery methods instead of researching a new subject and going through the gazillion (more or less reliable) resources that are available today.

To keep in line with the food metaphor, SME’s will ensure you have the right ingredients while you will cook and present the perfect dish.

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