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?