Course Writer vs Instructional Designer and SME

Pam Vreeland, my manager, posted a question in a LinkedIn group that has prompted some great discussion there. She graciously agreed to let me republish her question here, as I’m curious what others think about these two models for course design.

A colleague of mine challenged my thinking recently on course design.

I have always preferred having an instructional designer and a SME work collaboratively to develop online course work. Her position is that a course writer can do the job of both as long as he/she is good at researching the topic. I am not convinced.


So what do you think? Do both models work? Are there certain situations where you would choose one model over the other?

16 thoughts on “Course Writer vs Instructional Designer and SME”

  1. Pingback: E-learning Development: Common Goals and Roles of SMEs and IDs

  2. Pingback: Content Expertise for Instructional Designers « Experiencing E-Learning

  3. ID and SMEs are masters of their trades. While SMEs will provide content, the ID will ensure that it is delivered in a way learners can understand and apply it.

    In my mind, a course writer is a jack of all trades but master of none. Simply researchnig a subject matter does not provide for context (I can research on difficult customers but it would never be like meeting some everyday). As well just writing about something is not pedagogy.

    In the end, money may be saved by using only a course writer but will the result be worht the savings?

    1. 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.

  4. Pingback: Twitted by karenmoloney

  5. Christy, while I think we tend to do a lot of research as part of the job description, there are a few of reasons and situations just off the top of my head that I see as challenges to that point of view.

    First, I work in an environment in which the “how-tos” of the job are highly specialized. While we do have documented procedures on our intranet, an SME’s knowledge goes above and beyond that. No only will they know the procedural information better, they will be able to answer my questions that fall along the lines of, “What mistakes do newcomers typically make when learning this information/skill?” They also help me decide between essential and peripheral information; even if I *could* research the specialized information that is involved in creating the courses I create without an SME, an SME’s expertise is key in figuring out which information is absolutely necessary.

    Second, I find that I’m often creating courses on new procedures or systems that aren’t documented yet. How am I supposed to research something that is not yet documented, unless I mine the knowledge from the humans who know it?

    1. Excellent points, although I think some SMEs are better than others at filtering out what’s essential and what’s just nice to know.

      For all that I’m trying to play a bit of devil’s advocate here, I do really think it works better with an ID and a SME. You can’t get the same quality with a single person working on a course; you need to have multiple perspectives.

  6. My (not necessary applicable to everyone’s situation) preferred way of courseware development is to create a course template & guidelines; then hand it to a SME and let them fill-in-the-blanks… =)

    I find that this is especially useful when working with a number of SMEs, plus saves hours from having the ID hand-hold the SME throughout development. At most, the ID reviews the content and makes fixes.

  7. I also get kind of frustrated when I see job postings for instructional designers that insist on experience in the content area. I agree that it can be nice to have; it’s helpful to have some minimal knowledge in the area or at least a related area to be able to speak the same language as a SME. But that minimal knowledge can easily be gained through research, so prior experience seems just “nice to have.” Do you think that’s just a matter of employers not really understanding what an instructional designer brings to the table, that they think being a SME is the only way to develop learning?

    Lance, I like your medical example. What about the other end of the spectrum from the high-end specialized training? Can a course writer without a SME successfully develop low-level beginner courses?

    1. Hi Christy
      Interesting point. I am forced to say ‘yes’ .. up to a point. I have done this myself.
      The key here, from my experience, is that the writer has to have enough (correct) information in order to write with some level of authority. The benefit is that the writer is in a prime position to judge what a newcomer feels approaching the topic. All to often, SME’s forget where they have come from and start talking way beyond the level required for a beginner.
      The catch is that you cannot completely do away with the SME, as the resultant work needs some form of expert review to ensure that the writer has interpreted the material correctly, incorporated the necessary information and anticipated questions that may arise on the part of the learner. (which of course brings us back to the ID / SME dynamic).
      I guess what I am saying is that it can be done, but just because you can, does that mean you should?

      1. Letting the ID play the role of “naive learner” is important too; it’s part of why letting SMEs create content on their own without an ID to review isn’t as effective.

        One of the points brought up in the LinkedIn discussion echoes your final point here: even if the ID can do the work with just research, is it efficient to do so?

        I wonder if you had really limited time with a SME and a fairly basic course that an ID can research, that maybe an ID could develop it but use the SME at the end of the process to review rather than at the beginning. You’d risk having to redo everything if the ID got off track, but it might be possible. Not ideal, but feasible.

        That brings me to my next question though: do you feel like anything at the graduate level is low level enough for this to be successful? Would you prefer to take masters courses developed by course writers or IDs + SMEs?

  8. Hi Christy,

    I think to create a good course, to create learning value for learners, you need to have a subject matter expert.

    Sometimes the ID might be the subject matter expert. In most cases, it is not so. It really helps if an ID collaborates with a SME and works on a course. Research is a good thing to do. But you cannot create value by researching on a topic that is new to you.

    A certain amount of expertise and depth on the subject matter is crucial.

    1. Dr. Diane Gregory

      I agree with you Christy. In fact, I think I prefer that a course content expert be the “instructional designer” as well. I come from a Curriculum and Instruction background with a strong background in Learning theory. I believe that online courses be generative and frame work be developed in advance. I don’t support the ADDIE model unless there is room for development and change in the online course as it is delivered. I do not like the idea of creating a canned course and then deliver it. I like the idea of determining student learning styles first and providing options in which activities to do and even have students develop their own activities based upon the objectives of the activity.

      I believe in social constructivism and emancipating knowledge construction. I believe that pre-done courses are ineffective. I support the idea that the person who creates a course framework be the content expert, the teacher and the designer with assistance from a team of people to provide feedback. Doing it this way is a lot of work, but I think the core of a successful course needs to rest upon the content expert.

      My opinion for what it is worth.

    2. Dr. Diane Gregory

      I believe in social constructivism and emancipating knowledge construction. I believe that pre-done courses are ineffective. I support the idea that the person who creates a course framework be the content expert, the teacher and the designer with assistance from a team of people to provide feedback. Doing it this way is a lot of work, but I think the core of a successful course needs to rest upon the content expert.

      My opinion for what it is worth.

      1. Diane, I agree with some of your points. If you’re going to have a canned course, don’t bother having an instructor; just make it self-paced e-learning and be done with it. But a “canned course” could be a simulation. I’m sure you’re aware of the research with the Air Force and others about how simulations are, in fact, effective.

        Learning styles, on the other hand, have much less empirical support than “canned” simulations. Check out my post on Understanding Learning Styles Research for some thoughts there.

        Diane, how do you propose teaching content experts enough learning theory & design to create a solid framework for a course? How do you get SMEs ramped up enough on learning for them to be able to design a complex course like you’re describing, let alone a simple “canned course”?

  9. While I agreee that it is true, a good course writer can develop exceptional courseware, I prefer the Instructional Designer/ SME dynamic (I may be biased, being an Instructional Designer, but none-the-less).
    Let me give you a scenario: your doctor has done taken a course in a new treatment program. Which course do you want him to take – the one written by the expert, or the one researched by a lay-person?

Leave a Reply