Becoming an expert

Do you need to be a subject matter expert to be an instructional designer?

Is it realistic to know the topics you are creating e-learning for inside out?

How much of the topic should you know?

“A good trainer should be able to train anything even rocket science or brain surgery.”

I always recall something my first boss in training told me, “A good trainer should be able to train anything even rocket science or brain surgery.”

As a freelance instructional designer I would argue it is not always possible to know everything about every topic you are likely to work on.

Realistically you are probably going to work in a specific field, and there will always be subjects that you are more interested in than others. And, obviously, the chances of having to design a course on rocket science are pretty small!

Having said that, as a freelancer you may not always be able to choose the projects you get involved in so you might find yourself having to become an expert on a wide range of topics. For example I have designed e-learning on subjects as diverse as plastering and cancerous tumours! Someone I know has worked on projects as diverse as foot reading and playing the piano! None of these topics we necessarily knew much (or anything) about before starting.

Getting the information from the SME can be a complex and daunting process, especially if the subject is one you don’t know much about which could be the case. so how do you go about it?

How to become an instant expert

One model of learning is the four stages of competences

  • Unconscious incompetence
  • Conscious incompetence
  • Conscious competence
  • Unconscious competence

You will need to go through these stages as you work on the project. The good news is that you only need do become consciously competent. The second good news is that instructional design process, especially writing the storyboard, can guide you through these stages.

Moving from unconscious incompetence to conscious competence.

Unconscious incompetence

There are four stages of competence. The first stage is unconscious incompetence. You don’t know the subject and you don’t know you don’t know the subject. This might typically be the case before the client gets in touch with you. It could be a subject that you may be aware of but to date you have never given it any thought.

Conscious incompetence

The next stage is conscious incompetence. This is when you become aware of the project and the subject matter. Suddenly you now know that you don’t know anything about the subject. This moment of realisation could be accompanied by a sense of panic! It can be a scary experience thinking you have to design some e-learning on a subject you currently know nothing or very little about.

But remember you are not necessarily being hired because of your knowledge of the subject but because of your skills as an instructional designer.

Conscious competence

The third stage of the process is to become consciously competent about the subject. Now you know what you need to know about the subject, and you know it!

Your skills as an instructional designer will help progress you to the consciously competent level.

The first step is a needs analysis. Who are the learners and what do they need to know or do? Get your SME to focus on their audience and the specific content they need to know to be able to do their job. Focussing on the audience and their needs can help you understand the subject to the level you need to. It may be that the audience already has a level of knowledge above yours so you may need to have someone available to talk you through the more advanced aspects of the subject. This could be the SME but it may be appropriate for it to be a third party. This could particularly the case later on when you need to repurpose the content for the module to ensure it continues to be accurate.

From your analysis you can produce actionable objectives – make sure you have agreed clear learning objectives. Again, this will help you understand the subject matter yourself.

As a result of the actions you can now, with your SME, decide the appropriate content. Break the content down into chunks. This makes it easier for you to understand and, of course, it’s easier for the learners at the end. There is only so much information they (and you) can process at once.

A major part of the process of writing the storyboard is adding the relevant content – but is it a question of just copying and pasting? It can be quite an intimidating experience taking the carefully honed words of the SME and having to rewrite them. In some cases you might have to. Again this is where you can use your skills as an instructional designer to come up with the appropriate wording, gaining agreement from the SME, where necessary asking them to write the content for you under your guidance.

The original text might be written in the wrong tone, for example content designed for a face to face audience may not be appropriate for a virtual audience lacking the visual cues of the presenter. Or it could be the tone varies between different types of content, for example an instruction manual and a presentation. There may also be some missing bits, especially if it was originally part of a presentation where the gaps were filled in from the SME as they presented; you will need to ask them to fill in the gaps for you. And, of course, the existing content will not include instructional text and you will definitely need to change the text if you are going to include activities, rewriting it as questions and feedback.

Unconscious competence

The storyboard process is one of moving from a state of unconscious incompetence through to conscious competence. The final stage is unconscious competence where you instinctively know the subject. This may be the state of your SME but not necessarily the state you as an instructional designer need to acquire.

There is also an argument that there should be a fifth stage beyond unconscious competence. It has been suggested that this could reflect a level of complacency once one has learned the subject so well that it becomes second nature to them; it is as this stage that the risk of errors could creep in or that skills and knowledge might not be kept up to date.

It is here that the Instructional Designer, as a fresh pair of eyes, can play a role in not just creating the training for the original audience but also in helping the expert in reflecting upon their own knowledge of the subject and occasionally advancing it. There have been several occasions when the SME has turned me and said, “I’ve never actually thought about that before!”

As for you, you’ll probably never need to move on to the stage of unconscious competence with this particular topic – by then you’ll probably be on to something new.

Isn’t that the point of being an instructional designer – always learning?

Tell me or let me learn for myself

Which works best?

One of my earlier postings was all about trying to create interactive training whether the learner is encouraged to uncover the information themselves, rather than simply having it presented to them. This is a conversation I have regularly with some of the people I have worked with. My inclination is to go with the higher levels of interaction but is it worth going to all that trouble to create something where they have to complete an activity when you could have just told them? I thought I would reflect upon the pros and cons of each approach.

It’s worth pointing out right at the start that an effective e-learning module can (and probably should) contain a mix of the two but what should the proportions be like?

Let’s begin by looking at presenting the learning.

My first question would be how well can the information be retained.

The answer is dependent upon how well the information has been presented. Masses of text is likely to slide off the eye balls, but perhaps if it is presented in a more engaging manner; a video, for example; and a script that has been well-written then it is more likely to work.

The second question I would ask myself is how well can it meet an actionable objective.

If the training requires the learner to be able to do something differently afterwards, telling them might not be enough. It might be necessary to in some way replicate the activity. This is not just the case for task based training; it is also appropriate for when trying to change behaviours or attitudes. An exhortation, if well presented, might work but allowing the learner to experience (as far as possible) why they should change their behaviour or attitude would be much more effective.

To present information effectively, the subject needs to be presented in a simple and engaging way and it needs to primarily relate to information awareness objectives (“I know…”, “I have been told…”).

Has the instructional designer fully engaged with the content?

One other risk is that sometimes just presenting the information might mean the instructional designer has not fully engaged with the content; they are doing little more than a simple copy and paste job.  No-one reading this will have produced such material themselves but I am sure we have all experienced examples of e-learning where the interactions seem to consist of clicking on multiple buttons to display pop-ups, the sole purpose of which is to cram as much text as possible on the screen (with the occasional bit of clip art thrown in).

So what about interactive? Is it better? Well, it can take a long time to develop and can be technically demanding but then so can a high quality video or animation. The ID needs to really engage with the content provided by the SME – not simply re-present in a truncated form – in order to repurpose it for exercises or games but a good quality ID will do that anyway.

Are learners more likely to retain information they have found out for themselves?

Surely the learner is more likely to retain something they have had to uncover for themselves rather than simply be told it? You would think so but the jury is out on this one. One of my favourite books at the moment, “Urban Myths about Learning and Education” devotes a whole chapter to the subject and suggests that it might not always be the case. Sometimes the learner is so busy doing the exercise they fail to take it in.

If you want to change behaviours simply telling them might not be enough.

An activity can be more easily mapped to actionable objectives. “I can…”, “I am able to…”. Arguably this is what training in a corporate environment is all about. Your job as a trainer is change how people do things so it affects the bottom line of the business whether this is to sell more products or services, or do something in a more efficient manner. If you’re trying to get people to do something differently simply telling them might not be enough; it might be better to create an activity that puts them in the situation.

As an example I can, as a former cycle instructor,  tell you that the safest place to ride a bicycle on a road with no high quality segregated cycle facilities is the middle of the road, right in the eye line of the driver behind you. In my experience most people’s reaction is to disbelieve it. However, have a look at this. It was a simple online game I created for a cycle training company. You may not still be convinced but you may now be more open to the possibility. (Note it was published in Flash).

Keep the presentation short and sweet

So upon reflection, both have their place and to create training that is exclusively one or the other would not be effective. However, when presenting information, it should be done in an engaging manner and it should not be a short cut for the instructional designer to avoid engaging with the subject. And it should be kept as short as possible. Most of you are probably fully aware of Cathy Moore’s contention that the information should be the minimum required for the learner to be able to successfully complete an activity which matches their real world experiences.  And finally, make sure the approach is appropriate to the subject and the objective; if the learners just need to be aware of something there is really no point creating an activity (although a part of me wonders if all the objectives are simply awareness raising whether that is a job for a department other than learning and development) but if they need to be able to do something then an activity would be the best solution.