Creating online learning means collaborating with subject matter experts – SMEs in the jargon of elearning. If you frequent the elearning discussion boards, you’d be forgiven for thinking that SMEs are the thorn in the side of elearning authors and developers. There are countless discussions about how to ‘manage your SMEs’, about how they do not understand the needs of learners and how they bog you down in detail because they can’t differentiate between critical and ‘nice-to-have’ information.
But why should they? Surely this is our role as learning designers: to sort out the wood from the trees and bring a fresh perspective to subject matter that is familiar to the expert but new to the novice? My job is to decide what the learner needs to be able to do as a result of the learning interaction and then to work with the experts to find out how they can achieve this.
Much of my work involves working with specialist nurses and teachers. I am in awe of their commitment and depth of knowledge and I love to listen to their confident command of a subject. I am by nature more of a surface learner – I know a little about a lot of things. Teachers and nurses work from their distinct and strongly-held professional value bases and the true experts never stop questioning their own practice and that of others. They are experts in the real sense of the word – they know their subjects inside out and see complexity in every detail.
Panning for gold
My job is to surface the tacit knowledge of the expert – it’s a process of panning for gold. I need to uncover the themes that drive their work and keep them inspired. In the course of our conversations, every now and again an idea glimmers and, by sifting through the less relevant detail, we get to the core of what we need to focus on for this particular project.
Tacit knowledge consists of beliefs, ideals, values, schemata and mental models which are deeply ingrained in us and which we often take for granted (Wikipedia). It is this ‘taken for granted’ bit that is important to me. During a conversation with a SME there is that point when he or she will say something that blows me away. It is often something that I have not read or seen anywhere else, but it is somehow the key to unlock understanding for the topic in hand. More often than not, the thing said is so blindingly obvious to the SME that they have already moved on to something else whilst I am still scribbling down my notes. This is why dialogue is so important before any writing takes place. Without this time to talk with the SME, I may miss the most important thing our learners need to understand.
Ask the obvious
Connie Malamed talks about the ‘the curse of knowledge’. This is the fact that it is often hard for an expert to ‘un-know’ what they know and it is hard for an expert to remember what it is like to not have the knowledge that they have. To counteract the curse of knowledge a degree of ignorance about a topic is not a handicap. I make no apologies for asking obvious questions because they are the ones that novices need answered.
Michael Polanyi wrote in The Tacit Dimension (1967), that ‘we can know more than we can tell’. I think, though, that if you listen hard enough to SMEs, you can turn this around to ‘you can tell more than you think you know’. If we listen carefully to SMEs they are telling us all we need to know, but we have to learn to listen.
Strategies for getting to gold
I’ve developed a few techniques for getting the information I need.
I start with a broad conversation about the project. To establish trust, common ground and dialogue, we start by talking about the learners: what the challenges are, what the context is, what the SME thinks will be most useful. Then we start to talk about possible learning outcomes and what the learner will need to get there.
On the basis of this first discussion, I will develop a learning design with clear learning objectives, possible activities and the indicative content. Our next discussion focuses in on what the learner needs to know. This is where the conversation can expand and become difficult to manage. SME’s are often passionate about their subject and the conversation may range widely. I try to pay attention to the wider discussion, whilst also as focussing in on the key points (panning for gold).
Following this, there are often key areas where I need to gather further information. From this point on, I can work by email or document sharing but I find it helps to give the SME some structure that they can then overlay with their specific knowledge. Here are some ways that have worked for me:
1 Share diagrams, flow charts and other visuals
I develop a diagram or flow chart to show my understanding of the processes they have been explaining. This is a popular device with SMEs as the diagram can often surface issues that have been difficult to explain previously – it’s also useful when there are several SMEs working together.
2 Use an article or paper to spark discussion
I send an article from a professional journal, with a note. “I found this, do you agree with what this is saying? Would it be useful for our learners?” As often as not, the article I have chosen is not ideal, but the SME suddenly remembers one that is really good and sends it back to me.
3 Use a video link to generate debate and discussion
Similarly, I may find a video on YouTube or Vimeo. I send a link and ask for their views. I may hear back that it’s good – or I may hear that it is distorting the facts. Either way, it adds to my understanding of what the SME may be after.
4 Develop a template that SMEs can fill in
I develop a job aid, with headings already completed and ask the SME to fill in the detail. The aid may have come out of our earlier conversations, but the SME is able to make it authentic by giving real working examples that bring it to life.
5 Work up a case study together
I ask the SME to give me a case study. This may start as a very short scenario but, working together, we build it up. Sometimes it is used in the end-learning; sometimes it is a tool for me to understand how things work in practice. Either way, it is another means of creating dialogue.
This is a creative process and you know it is working when the SME comes back with comments like: “That’s exactly it, but I hadn’t thought of it that way”. Experts enjoy sharing their knowledge and they want others to feel as inspired by the subject as they do. On my last project one of the most satisfying comments from an SME was “I loved the layout and feel of it all – plus it actually inspired me to look at these issues again from my own level, and to follow the flow charts and revisit the documents included.”
Beware consultation fatigue
A word of caution, though. There is a balance to be struck with how much you can expect of your SMEs, even if it is part of their job to work with you. After the elation of one project where all these tactics worked so well I was rather perplexed by the lack of help I received on a subsequent project. On reflection, there were a number of reasons. There were internal crises that needed to take priority, several people were on leave and finally, I think there was an element of ‘consultation fatigue’. So I learned from this that I need to respect the work priorities of my SMEs and to spread the work of consultation as widely as possible.
Experts are busy people, almost by definition. Because it can be hard getting hold of them, it may be tempting to skip the consultation step. Don’t do it! While I was writing this, I read an interview with the crime writer, Linda LaPlant, in The Independent. Although talking about screen writing, she sums it up perfectly when she says: “Always when you are writing something, you think you’ve got it, then you talk to an expert and realise you didn’t at all.”