Content Expertise for Instructional Designers

In the discussion on the course writer vs. instructional designer and SME models of development, Pdrum left this comment:

My job includes being an IT division HR director at a university. We are just wrapping up a three year, multi-phased project to switch to a new ERP including modules in Finance, HR, and Student Applications. We needed SMEs and IDs, but the IDs needed to have a prior working knowledge of the subject of the module they were working on.

We tried to deviate from this by hiring an ID with a masters in IDT. He had created a lot of training and instructional materials for university classes, but he did not have working knowledge of finance operations. He failed miserably because he could not fathom what the SMEs were saying. He could not moderate user groups to gather data or test the instructional material he was creating. We had to let him go. The IDs who have faired the best are the ones with business in their backgrounds. Not just ID in their backgrounds. The ones who struggled had little previous knowledge or experience with the module subject.

So I agree with the statement that IDs in conjunction with SMEs are the way to go, but the ID needs some “priming” when dealing with certain subjects. Sometimes the learning curve is so steep that it slows the process to an unacceptable pace and the resulting training materials lack depth and insight.

I wonder if the problem in this case isn’t so much about content expertise as it is about being able to communicate with the SMEs effectively. Someone who didn’t have background knowledge in finance operations but was able to quickly get ramped up, at least enough to ask good questions, might have been successful. This example sounds like someone who couldn’t learn the jargon quickly and couldn’t communicate effectively with that audience.

I’ve always kind of looked at the content expertise as a bonus; it can help you come up with real-life examples and makes it easier to speak the same language as the SMEs. But I’ve never viewed it as a requirement to be successful, just “nice to have.” I also wonder if an instructional designer with more content expertise and experience would be less effective in the role of “naive learner.” As Lance stated earlier in the discussion,  “SME’s forget where they have come from and start talking way beyond the level required for a beginner.” It seems someone with less expertise could have an easier time being an advocate for beginning learners. But maybe that isn’t required.

What do you think? How important is content expertise in the field for instructional designers? Must you have experience as a salesperson to develop successful sales training? Is it different for different subjects, where maybe it is required for some but not for others? Is it possible to have too much content expertise?

10 thoughts on “Content Expertise for Instructional Designers

  1. Christy — I think your summary is exactly right, and a good ID adds value regardless of their domain knowledge.

    This is one of those topics that has been the elephant in the room for instructional design, and I’m glad you are addressing it.

  2. You know, a lot of what I’m hearing in this discussion seems to be that there may be some ideal minimal background, but that there are strategies to use regardless of your experience. If you have little experience, you make sure you really interview the SME (and Chadd’s point about working with the audience is good too). If you have lots of experience but are developing for novices, then you use the techniques usablelearning mentioned (user testing, working with recent learners).

    So perhaps the answer for people who don’t have expertise in fields where job opportunities exist is to talk about what strategies they would use to be effective in that situation. Talk about how you would work with SMEs and learners to make sure what you design will be effective. Be able to explain how you communicate with people whose experience is very different from your own. After all, I think that’s the ultimate failure from the original example in my post. That ID’s lack of experience wouldn’t have been a problem if he had been able to communicate with the SME anyway.

  3. As a person with a strong history in sales, I appreciate you recognizing that role in your ID-SME post! I agree with usablelearning and jkvela, that there is an ideal balance of the skills and knowledge of an ID and SME.

    My personal experience has been that the SMEs are generally detached from the goals and duties of the sales department. It is not required that an ID has experience to develop successful sales training. Although, it’s in their best interest to have consulted with both a SME and salesperson. That way they get a the philosophical and practical sides of the product.

    As a novice to the field of ID, I realize the described situation is not always an option and not flawless. It just seems to make perfect sense to consult all sources of potential input when developing training material.

  4. This is an interesting point that you raise. I’ve been in the wonderful world of adult learning for over 12 years now and I’ve wore such hats as Trainer, Facilitator, Instructor, Instructional/Curriculum Designer, and SME to name a few. Based upon my experience in the world of adult learners, I operate under the conviction that you do not have to be a SME to be effective – whether you are designing the learning or presenting it. The important aspect is that you need to be effective wearing the “hat” you have on.

    Instructional Designer’s are usually very process-oriented in their roles and able to apply design guidelines to a variety of subject areas, often times without any type of content expertise. ID’s should be considerate of the learner audience and focus on designing material that will motivate and engage the learner. Realistically, it is not possible for all IDs to be familiar in all subject matter areas they design, and because so they must rely on SMEs. SMEs can assist with determining the extent of the content, identifying the objectives and review the accuracy of the learning content. If the designer isn’t using an effective approach to working with the SME, understanding the content will be difficult.

    Having been on both sides of the fence, as the ID and as the SME, I’ve learned that as the ID you have to be a very effective communicator when gathering information from SME’s. You must ask the right questions, keep accurate notes, and maintain an effective organizational method for compiling gathered information. A solid and professional working relationship is required; both the ID and the SME have to understand the roles that each play in the development of learning materials (the ID should explain these roles).

    So do I believe it is possible to have too much content expertise? Perhaps. I’ve run across some pretty technical SMEs in my years, a few that I’ve had trouble getting them down to a novice level. I’m hard pressed to imagine these experts in a position of designing learning materials. However, being the content expert, as long as you do your homework prior to the design, your job task analysis or needs analysis will let you know what needs to be taught and what does not need to be taught.

  5. It is an interesting debate – what amount of prior knowledge is necessary for an ID to be successful? arhampton had a good point that trainers who are novices in the field are likely to know the right questions to ask. On the other hand, if your audience is comprised of mostly experts in the field, then background knowledge becomes almost a necessity for the ID if they are to provide opportunities and training that will be useful. As someone who has also “fallen into” instructional design, I see how my work as an ID would be best when focused in the same career path I have experience in. Outside of this field, would I have enough of the right knowledge (even after asking the “right questions”) in other occupations?

  6. I can see the argument that an ID who is a novice in the field provides more of an advantage when the audience is also novices. And I agree that some expertise is an advantage, especially for more advanced content. Basically, it’s good for an ID to have a comparable background to the audience for the learning being designed.

    But where does that leave us in the real world? Should we start advising people to not get degrees in instructional design unless they have worked in some other field previously? Granted, that does seem to match a lot of what I’ve seen in practice; lots of people do “fall into” instructional design from somewhere else. But I don’t see any of the schools granting masters degrees in ID telling people “Don’t start your degree yet. Go work in health care or training or IT or accounting for 2 or 3 years and then come back to us.” That just doesn’t seem realistic.

  7. Hi, I tried posting the below on another post but the comment kept getting ‘discarded’. this was the post on social networking

    I don’t know about the argument “needed to reach net generation student”. If so then it sounds like saying that whatever is the fashion of the moment will define how we teach. What if the next generation is into satanic rituals then, hey we might have to start killing people to ‘reach them’.

    Im not against social networking. I use Twitter in fact and find it very useful. However since we’ve known since at least McLuhan that the medium is at least as important as the message, I think there are some worthy questions to be explored regarding how the medium itself effects our minds

    1. I double checked in the spam filter and didn’t see anything there. Sorry you had problems posting. I assume you were trying to respond to my notes from Evaluating Social Networking Tools for Distance Learning. If you look back at this post, you’ll see that I was taking notes on a presentation given at a conference. When I take notes, I record what someone else is saying; that doesn’t mean I agree with everything. The quote about “needed to reach net gen students” was from the presentation description written by Ellen Hoffman of the University of Hawaii. But let me respond anyway.

      First, I think the net gen idea is generally overblown. There are some generational trends, of course, but I don’t think that people over the age of 50 really enjoy boring page turner e-learning. We should create engaging, interactive learning because it’s more effective for everyone, not just the younger generation.

      Second, the “satanic rituals” argument is a logical fallacy known as the “slippery slope.” There are all sorts of rational, logical arguments you could make to debunk the net gen idea; you don’t need to resort to this kind of silliness.

  8. I’m a former humanities instructor and a current student in Walden University’s Instructional Design Certificate program. I find this discussion interesting, because I have lost employment opportunities for a seeming lack of direct content knowledge of the business industries requiring trainers that I have have applied to.

    For example, I have all the multimedia and teaching experience necessary to create training materials, but I have never worked in the healthcare industry. Should this preclude me from further consideration, especially if my portfolio and other professional work experiences can clearly demonstrate my ability to communicate a broad variety of information across a variety of disciplines?

    But, I would only bid for ID work that includes subjects I’m interested in learning about, because my enthusiasm would make up for a lack of direct knowledge.

    So, from my point of view as an aspiring ID/ trainer, it would be easier for me to develop content for industries I have the least amount of knowledge of because I would be forced to ask and answer questions that most novices would, which would result in the type of breakdown and conversations with SMEs that the previous respondent mentioned.

  9. Over the years, I’ve defended the idea that a good instructional designer can design well regardless of their level of subject matter expertise, but I’ve been revising that stance for a while.

    Basically, I do believe that instructional design expertise improves the learning experience, and if the only option is a SME working with a non-expert ID, then that’s what you do.

    I also believe the idea that an ID without domain knowledge can be an advantage, as they require the SME to break it down to comprehensible chunks, *if the learners are also novices* — that last part is key. I don’t think you necessarily get an advantage from a ID not having domain knowledge if the learners are operating a much higher level, and if the content is advanced material.

    The question is, is it problem when an ID with little domain knowledge is designing instruction for an advanced audience, even if they are working with a subject matter expert? I think it probably is, but it’s still better than not having an ID involved at all, if that’s the alternative (and an ID with high domain knowledge is unavailable).

    Good IDs learn subject matter fast (or they wouldn’t be good IDs), but the swiftest learner still can’t get to an advanced level of expertise quickly.

    This should probably be quadrant diagram or something, with the X & Y axes being learner domain knowledge and ID domain knowledge, but I suspect the ideal circumstances would be for the IDs domain knowledge to match that of their audience.

    If the IDs domain knowledge significantly exceeds that of their audience, they should probably use good user experience methods to compensate for their own blindspots (involved a recent learner on the design team, or user test a lot). And if their domain knowledge is significantly less than their target audience, then they should recognize that this is a tough problem, study hard on the content, ensure they have good SMEs to rely on, and validate often with the target audience.

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