Of SMEs and IDs: Partners in Design
By: Kim Zartman, Lead ID at EI
I’ve been an ID (instructional designer) for more than 20 years, and my parents are still not quite sure what I do. Since many of our new clients are equally unclear about the role of the ID, I’d like to explain what we bring to the elearning table so you can decide if your project needs an ID.
In a nutshell, my job is to systematically develop instructional experiences that help learners efficiently and effectively reach their learning goals. Lots of buzz words, I know, but the most important part of this definition is experiences. Instructional design is not about making content pretty, but rather creating appealing, memorable learning experiences that engage learners with the content in meaningful ways. For example, in one recent project, rather than simply explaining factors to consider when choosing a college, we began with a “College Cash” game followed by a story-based interaction featuring several high school students. In this scenario, learners read student bios, reviewed financial aid awards, and researched costs of attendance, so they could make an informed choice for each of the characters.
One of my favorite parts of being an ID is the opportunity to constantly learn about new subjects. I’ve worked on everything from accounting to zoology, and that’s not an exaggeration. My parents laughed – perhaps a bit longer and louder than necessary – when I mentioned the online apprenticeship program I was designing for plumbers. After all, my maintenance skills are limited to changing a light bulb – and that’s on a good day. But as an ID, I’m content neutral; I can apply my skills and knowledge to virtually any subject. That doesn’t mean I don’t need content expertise; indeed, I would typically be lost without my partner-in-design, the SME.
The SME, the Subject Matter Expert, knows the subject of the training inside and out. We work together closely to determine instructional objectives, select content and materials, and develop relevant, real-world activities. I enjoy working with SMEs; they are experts in their field and are passionate about what they do. However, because they are so knowledgeable, they tend to think EVERYTHING is important. My task is to keep us laser-focused on what’s important for this particular course or training. It can be painful to whittle down the SME’s well-loved content, but this process is essential for an effective course.
Because of their expertise, SMEs often struggle to make the content understandable to their audience. In the plumbing course, my lack of maintenance skills was actually a plus because I could easily identify the SME’s “expert blind spots.” Working together, we simplified definitions, added key background information, and broke down the information into small, snack-sized bits that students could easily digest. And thanks to my SME, I can now tell an elbow fitting from a coupler and a T-joint from an L-joint. (The opportunity to learn new things is a fantastic perk of my job!)
So is an instructional designer always necessary when developing an education or training project? If you just want a nicely designed presentation or well-written content with a few questions at the end, you probably don’t need an instructional designer. And some learners will be successful no matter how poorly designed the content, learning in spite of – not because of – the material.
But to help as many learners as possible reach the learning outcomes, you probably need an instructional designer on the team. In the earliest stages, the ID can help articulate exactly what the learners need to know or do as a result of the training. (Without this upfront analysis, your training may be headed in the wrong direction altogether.) Then working backwards from your destination, the ID can help identify or develop content and resources that help learners reach this goal via the shortest path.
And when it comes to elearning projects, I believe the ID’s role is even more critical. Development can be expensive, so the stakes are often higher, and it’s easy for the instructional focus to get lost in the latest technology. Too often the result is a gorgeous, even cutting-edge program, but one that has little impact on learning. The right ID, however, can ensure the technology is used to support learning, not as an end itself.
If you’re planning an elearning project, I’d love to hear about it and share how our talented IDs can help make it a success!