A silly question about Instructional Designer & Subject Matter Expert

Jun 11, 2022

Hi all, 

I have read a couple of articles about the job responsibility and role of an ID and have got a few questions that would like to hear everyone's opinions on. And I am aware that the question may sound silly.

Let's say the context here is working as an ID at a university where you require to work with Subject Expert Matters who have in-depth knowledge in the topic that they are teaching and strong pedagogical skills. These pedagogical skills can include knowing how to teach, how people learn, how to design and manage a course and doing assessments. 

My question is why do we need IDs in this case? Wouldn't it be just easier if the faculty/instructor works directly with the project director to work out the budget for a project, then this faculty/instructor will work with a media specialist and quality review specialist to create and launch the course? 

9 Replies
Math Notermans

As i do work on a university as an elearning designer and developer i know firsthand that although the SME's ( teachers and professors ) have all the indepth knowledge they need, they lack the insight in what makes their knowledge and content good digital online learning. The job of the instructional designer is in this case to work with the SME's and convert their knowledge to elearning. Often they have Powerpoint presentations of more then 400 slides they present for a group, and what brings it to life is their story and way of presenting it. When converting the content/PPTs without translating their story to some sort of storyline for elearning it will become a dull non interesting elearning and in the end will fail. Thats the job of the ID. Make sure the story the teacher has to tell comes over.

Bianca Woods

Hi PD, and welcome to the community! Also, that's not a silly question at all. In fact, it's one that's been top of mind for a lot of K-12 schools and universities during the pandemic.

I'll echo Math's answer that being a great classroom teacher doesn't necessarily mean someone knows the best techniques for teaching in a digital environment. They are related skills. And during my own process of moving from K-12 teaching to instructional design, my classroom experience did help make that transition easier.

But the ways you share information, explain complex concepts, get (and keep) student attention, and assess new skills can be quite different in e-learning and online classes compared to in-person classes. And this is especially true for instructors used to giving lecture-based classes. Instructional designers who specialize in digital learning can be an important bridge between the SME and their students. Their skillset can ensure the SME's valuable content takes advantage of all the unique strengths of a digital environment and sidesteps its challenges.

Cary Glenn

Hi PD,
In my role as a Learning Designer of online learning I have a specific skill set that is built around online learning. Recently most of my work involves courses for several universities including Master's programs. University instructors often don't understand how online learning (especially asynchronous online learning) works. Asynchronous learning needs much more planning than a typical face-to-face course. Sometimes we use Rise or Storyline, sometimes we are building directly into the LMS platform (Moodle, D2L). I need to understand the technology, the limits of the technology, the accessibility of different components, and how to get learners not only to interact with the course but each other as well so they can construct new knowledge and be able to apply that knowledge and skills to their life.

Sadly, instructors do not always use royalty-free images and they sometimes fail to cite things properly. Part of my role is to make sure that doesn't happen. 

The LD is also a voice for the students. Where I advocate for a more inclusive and accessible course that also creates meaningful engagement. 

Paige Dao

Hi Bianca, thanks for your response. It does help fill in some gaps in my knowledge in the instructional designer job. I will go a little further and ask if you can help me with the following question because I think you are the best person for this. Coming from a perspective of an ex-teacher and now an instructional designer, what do you think  SMEs appreciate most when working with an Instructional Designer? I have been reading and it seems to me that communication skills are the key. However, it seems a little generic. 

Paige Dao

Hi Cary, that's an interesting way to look at ID as the voice of the student. As I am learning about the field, sometimes I find myself spending too much time trying to understand all the theories and ID models but forgetting that at the end of the day, they are for learners. So looking at ID from the perspective of students (what they need, how they learn and what will be beneficial for them) is definitely a good way to approach ID :). Thank you for taking the time to answer my question. 

Bianca Woods

PD, that's a really good question. And in my experience, the answer depends a lot on if they've worked with instructional designers before.

Subject matter experts who have never worked with an instructional designer before often assume we're just experts in e-learning development tools. They expect us to take their information and port it into an e-learning course with little to no changes. In these cases, some SMEs may even get angry if we change the content or don't include every bit of information they gave us: even if those changes lead to better learning experiences. So they appreciate that we build e-learning for them, but may be confused/upset when we do more.

However, when SMEs have worked with instructional designers before and had a good experience, they often have a better sense of how we can help them. E-Learning that's just a knowledge dump of text doesn't tend to lead to people understanding or retaining the information (even if that approach was somewhat effective in a lecture or classroom format). But a strong partnership between a SME and instructional designer can lead to content that covers the key things someone needs to know (what the SME is bringing to the table) and does it in a way that uses the unique strengths of digital learning to share content in a way a self-paced learner will complete, understand, and apply correctly later (the contributions of the instructional designer).

In those positive collaborations, SMEs tend to appreciate things like how the instructional designer:

  • used multimedia and interactions to make content easier to understand
  • took complex topics and made them easy for learners to wrap their heads around on their own
  • made edits that decreased the time learners spent in the course while still ensuring learning outcomes were met
  • created e-learning that learners actually completed
  • created courses that noticeably improved information retention and use later
  • made the e-learning design and development process easy on the SME
  • kept the spirit and intent of their content, even if we altered the length or wording.
Joe Boss

It's an interesting dilemma, in a previous role there were four of us who had performed a tech support role on the software we were writing training for.

To some extent, that meant we were both SME and ID (albeit still reliant on input from SMEs when new features were launched).

It's seemingly easy to fall into a trap of being ID, SME and project manager as well. There's a lot to be said for good project governance; setting deadlines for review, drawing a line in the sand before it ends up being endless arbitrary changes (subjective opinions on commas, as an example).

As an ID I think you can definitely add value to what does/doesn't work in a digital format. Plus, invaluable knowledge of LMS integration/behaviour.

In an ideal world, or as part of a larger team, you'd be able to delegate portions to a graphic designer or animator or similar, but it seems a lot of us are one-man bands. I should add that reading through Articulate's article, I'm not even splitting between ID and e-Learning Developer.