Looking beyond the screen

 How to involve SMEs in the instructional design process

Looking beyond the screen

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Sometimes managing a new e-learning project can be difficult due to several reasons, such as time and budget constraints. But not only time and budget matters are crucial for the success of the project. Also the engagement of all team members and a clear and good communication can lead to effective results.

At Abstract Technology, we not only provide and work with open source software solutions, but also strive in the spirit of the philosophy and apply it in all projects. Continuous communication and flexibility as well as the strong involvement of the client in each project step are the cornerstones of our working method. The development of a new online learning course requires the participation of different players at different stages. It is important to start with:

  • a strong commitment of the stakeholders (CEO or managers for a company, directors for Universities or public institutions; etc.);
  • a multi-skilled team supporting the project on the technological side and on the user experience (UX);
  • the involvement of the subject matter experts (SMEs).

The cooperation between instructional designer and SMEs

Instructional designer have to deal with content experts in their field since they will deliver the course content and therefore have a fundamental role in the online course development. If content experts are not fully engaged in the content design process, getting what is needed from SMEs isn’t often easy.

How to successfully involve SMEs in the instructional design process

In the following we collect some recommendations based on our daily activities and experiences regarding course content design and development.

Communication is the seed of a strong relationship

It’s fundamental to establish a positive relationship as well as channels and methods of communication with SMEs at the beginning of the project. Sharing an overview map which explains:

  • all the stages and tasks that will be achieved
  • a clear project scope and constraints
  • a detailed timeline incl. milestones
  • a measurement of success

Instructional designer are no content experts. Usually it is not expected that they have a full understanding of the final course content, but they have to be informed about the context. A previous research on the client’s business sector may help to better understand the needs and goals of the future online course.

Sharing values to satisfy expectations

Based on the previous made research, a list of questions may help to guide the discussion:

  • What are the expectations?
  • What is important to build a course?
  • Who are their learners (the audience)?
  • Why they want to spread the knowledge?
  • How they want to promote the course?

An instructional designer has to demonstrate sincere interest on these kinds of feedback and to listen a lot in order to avoid misunderstandings and other incidences. The elaboration of Personas may help at this stage of the project.

Content is the king, not at any price

Convincing SMEs to give up specific or redundant information is sometimes difficult for an instructional designer. The point is that not all the things we know are useful for learners. SMEs have deep knowledge in their field of expertise, but this does not mean that any content can be applied in a course. How can we help SMEs to decide what information is fundamental and what is not?

A fast way to do this is to create a content discovery map. Based on the Bloom’s taxonomy, this tool will give the opportunity to get the right content for the course. Following the six different levels:

  • Remember, 
  • Understand, 
  • Apply, 
  • Analyze, 
  • Evaluate, 
  • Create

An instructional designer is able to create effective digital activities and choosing the most useful and interesting content for learners. The question is how interactions and collaborative learning make information meaningful for learners, so not the amount of information is relevant but the quality and its presentation.

Transform obstacles in opportunities

Sometimes an e-learning project is not moving on or is somehow stuck. This can happen, but why? It depends on the production process as well as the commitment and availability of SMEs. An instructional designer sometimes has to push and reset the course development tasks again and again. This can be frustrating, not only for instructional designers but for SMEs as well. A clear and a complete storyboard will help to overcome the impasse. Once the learning goals are defined and explained, different templates have to be elaborated to showcase each component (text, video, quiz, etc.) and SMEs can link all the references needed to build an online course. 

The support of SMEs throughout the whole course development process is very precious and it will be very appreciated if their contribution will be visible to the entire project’s team. 

Review is a win-win situation

Once the e-learning course is ready, the review phase starts and this activity could involve a lot of people, depending on the client’s needs and expectations. Determining who should part of the course review, is up to the instructional designer. At this stage, an initial prototype might go out to the SMEs first. 

What kind of feedback do you need? 

This requires a clear and specific definition:

  • achieving a general overview on the course structure/content
  • discussing the accuracy and relevance of the content

Then, once the feedback is collected, the next responsibilities, tasks and an updated timeline have to be defined and shared. Often, testing all the improvements and changes could be an iterative process and it will help not only to enhance the course, but to make the involved SMEs happier than ever.

The work of an instructional designer does not end with the launch of the course. The relationship with SMEs will go further and it will entail the course’ success measure by the learners’ perspective. Meeting, working and communicating on the same level with the SMEs is a facilitator for the full designing project cycle and will lead to success.

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