The role of a subject matter expert (SME) in the development of e-learning content cannot be overstated. An SME is someone with a wealth of knowledge around a specific topic. SMEs have built this knowledge over time with education and experience. Their specialty might be an activity, technique, method, process, or framework; an industry or sector; a product or service; a technology, piece of equipment, machine, or material.
It is important over the course of developing e-learning content to foster a close relationship with your SME. You may be an expert in instructional design, but the SME is master of the content. Without the input of the SME, you won’t be able to put together a course that nails its learning outcomes.
SMEs are team leaders who collaborate with their peers to offer guidance and share knowledge. A good SME communicates effectively and offers clear insights into the content.
The SME is expected to educate the instructional designer. The instructional designer or learning experience designer need to understand the context and the content to be able to plan and design effective learning outcomes and e-learning content. The SME does this by providing accurate and detailed information that can be used to create the course’s content that will assist in meeting the learning objectives. Additionally, they can be called upon to review all learning resources such as e-learning modules, job aids, videos, etc., for accuracy and usability, and give feedback where appropriate.
SMEs don’t have a lot of time to spare as they often have full-time jobs in addition to their instructional design duties. Collaborating on e-learning projects is additional work. Because a lot of time and effort goes into developing an e-learning course, delivering content top quality content on time and in budget can be a challenge when working with SMEs.
Here are some best practices when dealing with an SME:
Set clear expectations: From the outset of a project, make sure you and the SME are on the same page about what is expected of them. A job description can go a long way in preparing an SME for their role. Schedule a meeting and be upfront about expectations so no one is left disappointed. An SME’s time is precious, so be clear about deadlines, content transmittals, status meetings, and content reviews.
Educate your SME about instructional design: SMEs don’t always come from a background in instructional design, so it’s important to give them a window into that world and make them understand the process of designing an e-learning course. It’s beneficial to take your SME through the entire development cycle of an e-learning module.
Provide examples: Give your SME an idea of the type of content you want them to provide by showing them examples of e-learning courses that deliver similar information. Maybe you can share previous examples of your own work or courses that you’ve seen elsewhere. SMEs will appreciate any direction you can give them on where to focus their efforts and filter their knowledge.
Teach your SME that “less is more”: An SME has a wealth of knowledge of their specialist subject and may be inclined to want to include as much of it as possible when delivering content. But e-learning isn’t about quantity – it’s important to differentiate between what a learner “needs to know” versus what is “nice to know”. If the SME has a clear understanding of how e-learning courses are constructed, they will be better positioned to provide only that information which is relevant, avoiding an overwhelming “content dump”. Further combat the “expert mindset” (the tendency to use impenetrable jargon) by asking the SME to explain the content as if they were talking to a five-year-old child. Also ask for real-world examples that will benefit not just the instructional designer, but ultimately learners as well.
Schedule their time: Unless you’ve hired the SME to work for you full time, it’s likely they will be very busy with other tasks. To avoid being side-lined, it’s important to schedule regular appointments with your SME to make sure everyone is working together towards the same goal. Be sure to prepare any questions or documents ahead of these meetings so you aren’t wasting the SME’s time. Provide a detailed overview of how you plan to work on the development of e-learning material. Explain the stages where the SME is expected to be involved and the time they will have to spend on each stage to guarantee you are making the best use of their time. Also be sure to provide a timeline for each deliverable as this will help them streamline their schedule and focus on the relevant areas. However, it’s also important to remain flexible – working around the SME’s schedule will make them more willing to contribute to your e-learning project.
Keep the lines of communication open: It’s a good idea to have a direct line to your SME so that you can communicate one-to-one instead of through a third party such as a project manager. Ask the SME how they would prefer to communicate – this could be via email, instant messaging software, video conferencing, or phone calls. Be prepared to adapt to their preferred method. This will allow you to touch base regularly and avoid any miscommunication. Good communication nurtures good relationships.
Ask the right questions: As an instructional designer trying to extract information from an SME, it’s critical to ask the questions that distinguish between essential and non-essential information. Important questions include “what is the goal of this course?” – if the SME knows the exact learning goals of the course they will be able to give you the most crucial information. Also ask “what are the learning objectives of this course?” – an SME must know what learners need to accomplish by completing the course; for instance, giving information to introduce a new topic is different from providing information to change behaviours. Finally, ask “why does this information matter to the learner?” – this will help the SME filter out unnecessary information and help them focus only on what is relevant.
Keep the relationship going: By the end of the course, you will have spent weeks or months working with a particular SME. Don’t assume the relationship ends there. You may need their expertise again in the future. Show your appreciation with a sincere thank you email to increase your odds of working with them again in the future.
SMEs are vital to creating meaningful and impactful courses that will have maximum benefit for learners. Assist them in making the best possible contribution they can by guiding their efforts. Build a strong relationship based on trust and mutual respect and you will discover that working with SMEs can be a rewarding and educational experience.
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Written by Rob Ewart