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Relationship Between SME and ID


Reflections of an Instructional Designer

Recently I was discussing with a faculty member why it is difficult to truly measure the feeling of appreciation from his students. The course material can be presented and instructors can hope the students begin to appreciate the subject matter, however, we cannot measure their appreciation any more than we can make them feel appreciative of the subject matter. After thinking about this meeting, it occurred to me that an instructional designer (ID) encounters this same dilemma every day. As much as we may want to make faculty appreciate the role of the ID, we cannot measure their level of appreciation any more than we can make them feel appreciative of our suggestions.

The relationship between the subject matter expert (SME) and the ID is a delicate one. It rests on the balance of respect and trust. Each party must respect each other and their field of knowledge. Likewise, each must trust each other that their common goal is the same – to create the best online course possible. Ultimately, when used properly, the combination of the SME and the ID can produce a masterpiece!

Online courses have already come a long way. No longer is it considered acceptable to merely take classroom content such as a presentation and upload it to the learning management system and label it an online course. While some courses such as this still exist, it has become increasingly evident that teaching online is very different than teaching a traditional course. This becomes more apparent during the process of developing an online course. It is for this reason that many institutions now employ a collaborative team-based approach to begin course development (Hixon, 2008). This team consists of the ID and the SME. In this scenario of online course development, the SME is the faculty member.

Who knows everything about the subject matter? The answer of course is the SME. Who has been trained in the use of instructional design and makes solid efforts to keep up to date with what’s new in educational technology? The answer of course is the ID. While each may know a little about what the other does, it is clear that each position has a specific purpose in the course development process. The SME knows the content unlike anyone else. Often the SME may have so much knowledge and so much to offer their students, that they can unintentionally fill an online course with too much content, all in the heartfelt desire to provide students with everything they can. The job of the ID is to review this content and the goals of the course, and begin to move things in an effort to make a clear path for the students. A clear path that will allow students to take in the information they need, and directly apply this new information to the activities and assessments with the intention of expanding their knowledge of the subject, all while building a community of learners and utilizing multiple instructional methods. This process of collaboration between the ID and the faculty allows for the successful combination of adult pedagogy, student support and technological advancement (Ebersole, 2012). The end result is a product that allows the instructor to confidently determine whether the learning objectives have been met.

The concept of designing an online course has improved and continues to exceed expectations. Current online courses engage students in successful group work, address learning styles and incorporate various forms of instructional media to present the course material. It is evident that online courses have become a team effort. A collaborative team effort where both the ID and the faculty member must coordinate, communicate and effectively apply their expertise.

If this sounds like something you would be interested in when designing your online course, contact your Instructional Design team at CIRT!


Ebersole, J. (2012). “Online Learning: Maturing? Perhaps. Improving? Always.” Retrieved March 3, 2014, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/johnebersole/2012/09/24/online-learning-maturing-perhaps-improving-always/

Hixon, E. (2008). “Team-based Online Course Development: A Case Study of Collaboration Models.” Retrieved March 3, 2014, from http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/winter114/hixon114.html

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