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Four Things I've Learned About Working With SMEs in Higher Education

By Pasqua Lawrenson |



Have you ever wondered how to create a world-class online program? The answer is that it takes a team, and one of the most influential people on that team is the Subject Matter Expert (SME). An engaged SME that is open to learning can do wonders for a course. It can be daunting knowing how to approach SMEs, whether you’re an experienced Learning Designer (LD) or not, so here are four tips to help you navigate this.


“Find ways to show the SME that you’re on their team and serve as their ally in developing an excellent course."

1. Play your part

LDs are capable of many things, but developing an in-depth understanding of all the content for a Master’s degree course overnight is not one of them. Sure, there may be some remarkable outliers, but on average, this is not the case. This is where the SME comes in. The SME's primary role (and major benefit) is to provide guidance on the course content. The role of the LD is to provide advice on how to adapt that content following  online learning best practices. By playing their respective parts, the SME and LD become interdependent colleagues, leaning on each other’s strengths to produce a noteworthy course.

2. Empathize 


SMEs in higher education are balancing multiple priorities at once, and many haven’t developed their courses for an online audience before. They’re often used to delivering their course on their own, in a lecture hall. This may result in a steep learning curve within a short timeframe. It is important to take time to understand the motivations and needs of an SME when establishing a working relationship with each other. What do they hope their course will achieve? What do they already know about online learning? How can you be of assistance to them throughout the course development process? If you show an understanding of the SME, they are likely to be open to hearing your ideas. 


Along with empathy, find ways to show the SME that you’re on their team and serve as their ally in developing an excellent course.


3. Over-communicate 


Effective communication is critical to the success of course development. Expectations from all parties should be made clear from the beginning. Make sure to clarify how the SME should provide feedback and provide your suggestions for creating excellent online learning.  Prioritize addressing any important questions you might have on the content. Both parties should also be clear on what can be achieved realistically and by when. Short weekly check-ins with your SME, if time allows, helps significantly with keeping the course on track. The development of large courses takes months, so the sooner you and the SME find a good rhythm of communicating, the better.


4. Be responsive to feedback


An unavoidable part of the course development process includes receiving feedback from both your internal team, but also from SMEs. While as an LD, you are an expert in online course creation, being open to others’ feedback and their reasons for it will help you in the long-run. LDs can have a tendency to get so caught up in the content of a course, that a fresh pair of eyes may catch things they’ve missed or share valuable, new perspectives. Should you disagree with an SME’s feedback, as it may not align with best practice in online learning, share this respectfully, and use evidence to back up your response.


As I heard recently, “An SME plays a unique role in that they are both client and colleague.” This couldn’t be more true. Working with SMEs can take some getting used to. Still, it can also be a highly rewarding experience—one in which both parties can learn from each other to develop exceptional online learning experiences.

Pasqua Lawrenson

Learning Designer at Construct