What Does a Subject Matter Expert Do, Anyway?
SMEs May or May Not Be Instructors
Subject matter expertise can be part and parcel of instructing. A K-12 teacher is both an instructor and an expert in their subject (like fifth-grade math); a college professor is often a subject matter expert (SME) first (researcher in genetics) and a teacher second; corporate trainers often spend years in the field and then transition to teaching newcomers. (See “Do SMEs Make Good Trainers?” for tips on making that transition effective.)
What role does a subject matter expert play in a formal course development process? Such a process often separates course creation into several roles: an instructional designer might be well versed in applying instructional techniques, while a course developer might be a master of programming an online learning environment. An instructor might be an experienced facilitator.
In such a process, a subject matter expert provides the core knowledge upon which training is built, the content and the details. They may not specify the ultimate training goal—which is often a business decision—but they supply the knowledge that’s needed to achieve the goal.
Distinguishing the SME Course Development Role from Other Roles
The role of subject matter expert is separate from other roles, including that of instructor (although many organizations use instructors as subject matter experts). Subject matter experts help define objectives; they provide content; they identify likely scenarios; they validate and refine the course material. Without subject matter expertise, the course will be useless and ineffective. Yet they don’t necessarily design learning experiences, program the course, or deliver it in a classroom.
Where do subject matter experts come from? They may be the twenty-year veteran of the field who knows every system, and whose last experience in a classroom was thirty years ago. They may be external professionals, hired for the purpose of building the course. And, yes, they may be the person who will be teaching the course.
Clarifying the SME Role for Learner Benefit
When either developing or working within a course development process, carefully consider the role that the subject matter expert will play. Setting clear expectations, letting the subject matter expert know what their role is and where responsibility starts and stops, will help you separate each role and empower that role to do what it does best. The instructional designer can design, the course developer can program, the instructor can teach, and the subject matter expert can ensure that the course content enables the learner to perform.
Until next time,
Microassist Senior Learning Architect
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