Is it SME? Stories of Collaboration, Building Stronger Working Relationships Between IDs and SMEs

Concurrent Session 10
Streamed Session

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Working with subject matter experts can be challenging. We will highlight three mini-cases focused on a process for working with faculty when designing courses.  This session will explore the context and challenges of working with faculty SMEs.  We will suggest methods for positive and effective course design for all parties.


Dr. Robertson earned her Ph.D. in Urban Education, Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee in 2012. She has experience as a faculty member in undergraduate and graduate education, fieldwork observations, and at the K-12 level. She joined Concordia University Wisconsin in 2017 as an instructional designer for blended learning, where her duties include assisting faculty in designing curriculum and creating meaningful faculty professional development opportunities.

Additional Authors

Instructional design consultant with a human-centered design philosophy. I have advanced education in adult learning theory, extensive eLearning course design experience, and technical skills that support my design (Articulate, Canva, Powtoon, Powerpoint).

Extended Abstract

In a recent study published by the OLC (Beirne & Romanoski, 2018), working with faculty (subject matter experts) is the top challenge for instructional designers working in a higher educational context.  Faculty worry that involvement of the instructional designer will remove the personal touch of the course and students will only be numbers and not people (4).  This observation mirrors our own experience of working with faculty subject matter experts.  Both subject matter experts and program directors respond to the role of an ID in many different ways that make the course development process challenging.  They unintentionally, and sometimes intentionally, exclude the ID from the development process until the course is in a nearly complete form and then send the information for the ID to copy and paste into the learning management system.  They respond with surprise when the ID asks for a large block of time as the project gets going and sometimes choose not to accept this meeting. They can be resistant to suggestions or changes of any kind.  Through a compassionate lens, we can understand why this resistance exists.  It is a significant paradigm shift for seasoned professors who have been developing their syllabus, choosing content, building assessments, teaching the course and then making adjustments for the next offering.  Other challenges we face include but are not limited to: SMEs being poorly oriented to the ID process, SMEs having prior course design experience that did not employ effective use of an ID, and SMEs who hold a faulty assumption that content is to be covered rather than used, leading to content dumping and cognitive overload in the course design.  

In this presentation, we as instructional designers, one in the online course development arena and one in the blended learning context, will highlight three mini-cases focused on the process of working with Subject Matter Experts in an academic context.  One case will explore the role of effective orientation and initial meeting to design course outlines.  One case will explore the process of helping a program director and SME recognize that a course re-write, rather than revisions, is the appropriate path.  Finally, we will explore a case of helping a professor think through the intentional design and placement of content that supports learning rather than dumping content that students need to cover.  Each case will describe the context, the challenge associated with working with the SME, and our reflections on what was learned.  Following the three mini-cases, we will present some suggested actions that support a more positive and productive working relationship between the ID and SME.

We will present a process of working with the subject matter expert beginning with pre-launch preparation and concluding with post course design review.  The process description will include some techniques that have worked for us.  These techniques are related to ‘orienting a SME,’ ‘guiding a SME inappropriate Content Selection,’ ‘Helping a SME connect assignments with objectives,’ and holding ‘productive check-ins’. 

Our presentation will combine the use of a PowerPoint presentation, some handouts with a suggested process and related questions for each stage, and live polling.  Potential live voting tools we are considering for the presentation include Poll Everywhere, Vox vote, Mentimeter, Participoll, and Kahoot.  We will use the tool throughout as a learning assessment at the beginning of the presentation, along with questions throughout asking for attendee participation. 

Q&A ideas: The 10-minute Q&A/group discussion, we will give groups 3 minutes to develop a process prototype for working with faculty SMEs, the remaining time we will ask the groups to give a 30-45 second ‘elevator pitch’.  While groups are developing their prototype, we will move about the groups answering any questions about our presentation or the task at hand.  We will also be offering suggestions for groups that are stuck and are looking for help.