Working with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). Part I

Massive Open Online CoursesSooner or later all instructional designers end up working with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). Since most instructional designers are not familiar with the subject area for the eLearning course they are creating, the client is typically responsible for selecting the SMEs. During the project-planning phase, project managers should provide a description of what is expected from the SME in terms of expertise and experience. The project manager should also describe in detail the SME’s responsibilities, including expected meetings and document reviews. In the project plan, the project manager should document the risks associated with having an SME that does not meet the described requirements.  Subject Matter Experts should be aware of all the expectations. The role of an instructional designer is to design courses while the role of an SME is to provide expertise in a subject area. SMEs should not be expected to arrange content in order. Often, SMEs provide either too much or too little content, and it is the job of an instructional designer to include the right amount of material in the course. Some SMEs are so knowledgeable that they want to share everything they know, thinking that every piece of information is indispensable. To ensure that SMEs only provide relevant information, instructional designers should follow the two steps below:

1. Ensure the content provided by the SME meets the intended objectives.

2. If it does not, they should go back to the SME and ask relevant questions to get all the information needed to satisfy learning objectives. If the content covers all the objectives, they should break the information into the following three categories: must know, need-to-know, and nice-to know. The must-know information is what the learner absolutely needs to know to obtain knowledge or learn the skill. The need-to-know information is not as essential as must-know but may clarify certain concepts for learners. The nice-to-know information, on the other hand, is not needed at all. It may be helpful to the learner, but achieving objectives and learning new skills is possible without being exposed to the nice-to-know material.

When working with SMEs, instructional designers should always ask for examples of the content. Many SMEs use their knowledge and skills every day. The content is common sense to them; therefore, they may forget to share elements or steps crucial to the learners. Instructional designers should catch situations where elaboration and examples may be needed and ask SMEs to fill the gaps. If SMEs have a tendency to provide too much content, reminding them that the course is not infinite and that they should only include the most important information from their content should help them identify the must-know material. If SMEs have a difficult time organizing all the content they want to share, a mind map or a graphic organizer will help them consolidate their thoughts.

Here are some questions that can help instructional designers collect content for each learning.

•          What information do learners need to know to meet the objective? 

•          What skills do learners need to perform to meet the objective?

•          What images can help learners understand the content?

•          What activities can help learners understand the content?

•          What are some examples or scenarios that illustrate the content?



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