All the colourful graphics, interactive pop quizzes and gamification elements in the world won’t compensate for an eLearning course that’s lacking in the core knowledge and basic principles of the subject that it’s trying to impart. That’s why a key member of any eLearning design and implementation team must be someone well-versed in the material that’s being taught; a subject matter expert or SME.
So in this article we’ll be offering some recommendations for working with subject matter experts on eLearning projects.
The Importance of SMEs
The instructional designer tasked with crafting an eLearning project may have considerable skill and knowledge, but each course is unique, and must be tailored to fit the needs and circumstances of the institution or enterprise it serves. These organisations will naturally have their own in-house talent – people with specialist knowledge and a wealth of experience in how things are done in their particular environment.
These subject matter experts can give crucial inputs that ensure that an eLearning solution drills down to the essential details that need to be communicated, and meets the learning objectives set out by the client organisation. As critical members of their particular establishment, SMEs can provide insights and an insider’s perspective, to help ensure that the training accommodates the particular quirks and working patterns of the course participants.
It should be remembered that SMEs are first and foremost a part of the client organisation: these people have day jobs and responsibilities, outside of the requirements of eLearning. So special consideration must be given to them, in the context of an eLearning development team.
Check Their Credentials
As experts in their field, SMEs will be the kind of people who publish books, go on speaking tours, and lead the conversation in online forums. So it’s likely that they’ll leave a trail of accomplishments and content that you can look into and assess, before approaching them. This can give you an indication of their core talents, areas of focus, and communication skills, before you meet them formally.
While arranging an interview, you might ask them to bring along some examples of their work in the training arena which they would consider relevant to the current project. When you do meet them in person, it’s also a good idea to have some samples of your own, so that you can compare and contrast the methods you’ve established for past projects with those of the subject matter expert.
Work to Their Strengths
Your respective working methods may not be a perfect fit, but it’s likely that you’ll find at least some common ground, and be able to call upon the SME’s experience and skills to bring clarity and content to the project. You should look to the subject matter expert to identify the key elements that learners should take from their training, and to help keep the course material focused and manageable in scope.
Establish a Rapport
In studying SMEs, researcher Archana Narayan identified five dominant personality types including the Absentee SME and the Temperamental SME. These quirks point to the simple fact that subject matter experts are people, too. As such, they’ll respond better to a situation where their needs and working methods are accommodated, and relationships are on a level that provides some balance between professional and more informal personal matters.
It’s important to remember that subject matter experts typically have a very busy work schedule, and may often have several duties and roles to juggle – both for their working organisation’s internal operations and in their capacity as specialist consultants. So it’s wise to establish clear lines of communication and optimal time-frames for contact and consultation with them.
There’s No “I” in “Team”…
Building a successful eLearning solution is a team endeavour, requiring mutual respect, cooperation and collaboration between team members. Your project manager will have assembled the talent needed to bring this about – and the SME you’re working with should be as much a part of the team as anyone else.
So everyone – project manager, instructional designer, course authoring expert, LMS specialist, graphics designer, communications manager, IT specialist and all – should be in the loop with the SME. Communication with the subject matter expert may be routed through one team member (e.g. the instructional designer), to ease the pressure on the SME’s time and email account.
Clear Goals and Expectations
A busy SME will appreciate having a clear picture of what your eLearning course objectives and training goals are – and also what’s expected of them, to help bring this about. This should extend to defining their role within the development team, opportunities for feedback and additional input, and establishing deadlines and time-frames for content delivery.
Need to Know versus Like to Know
With the wealth of knowledge and experience they bring to a project, SMEs run the risk of overloading the team with concepts and content. So it’s important to break the information down into grades:
- Essential information: What the learners must take on board, in order to meet all the learning objectives that make their training a success.
- Necessary information: The kind of material that can clarify essential concepts, but isn’t an absolute essential.
- Optional or Supplementary information: The kind of material that learners might find interesting, but which isn’t necessarily part of the essential course requirement.
There may be a tendency for the information that learners might like to know to overwhelm the essentials, so this material should ideally be confined to reference sections or supplementary exercises.
Change Their Point of View
Encouraging your SME to think less like an expert and more like a student or trainee will help them to assume the learner’s perspective. This can assist in distilling the content they provide into a more focused form, that better meets the specific goals set out by the training programme.
From time to time, they should be asked to step back, and look at the eLearning course material and related resources as if they were taking the course themselves. They should do this with an eye to whether the content delivers on its objectives to impart skills or knowledge effectively and concisely – and can throw up issues of clarity, or suggest better ways of communicating the desired information.
Stray Beyond Formality
And don’t be afraid to have some fun. Creating an engaging and interactive eLearning experience for the learner becomes more likely if the course creators aren’t grim and dismal, themselves. Give your development team members some opportunities for social interaction, or introduce a game-play element into the development process.
And don’t forget to express your appreciation to the SME in some way, for their input to the project and the time they’ve dedicated to you.