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C2C Digital Magazine (Spring / Summer 2018)

Colleague 2 Colleague, Author
Cover, page 11 of 23


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Getting the Information You Need from Subject Matter Experts

By Cindy Higgins, Instructional Designer, State of Kansas

Figure 1A Circle Information Logo (by Carelesshx)

When creating e-learning courses, getting needed information from subject matter experts can be easier planned than accomplished. At a 2018 TRAIN Learning Network Annual Meeting1  sponsored by the Public Health Foundation April 25 in Arlington, Virginia, three roundtable discussion groups with a total of 19 online learning developers from government agencies across the nation tackled the topic of the seemingly easy, yet oftentimes arduous path of obtaining what they need from subject matter experts (SMEs) for course development. 

"Compelled Compliance Content Provider"...

Successful working relations with SMEs, all agreed, depends on the type of SME and their motivation(s). (This differentiation has been explored by several online authors, e.g. Archana Narayan, How Important Is the SME?;  Andrea Moore’s Working With SMEs: The Good, the Bad, The Ugly, and Peggy Salvatore’s Working With SMEs). The typical SME in these group discussions, most agreed, can be termed the “Compelled Compliance Content Provider.”

Getting course content from this SME version, the majority said, usually came in a PowerPoint presentation, and none received any other storyboard form. Said one about how she uses the PowerPoint as a storyboard but also as a means to encourage content compilation and organization:

  • Our SMEs are just that. They can stand in front of a class and train and go to their personal files and pull stuff out for me. I take their PowerPoints, add notes, and convert that into online training and a training aid. I put things in PowerPoint what I think works or use them to ask, “What would you visualize here?” Have them think. There is no way they could do a storyboard. They don’t know how to put thoughts together. I literally have to sketch it out for them and do their thinking for them. Here are the blanks: Do you know what to put in here for me?

Another e-learning developer told of requesting content providers to convert their PowerPoint documents into Excel spreadsheets for video production:
  • 99% of all content is PowerPoint. Chances are, they have done the training and have the slides prepared. We might rearrange it, take things out. A lot do listen to us about making a script – what you are going to say in recording. That saves both of us time. Plus, we put that in closed-captioning feed for 508 compliance. For those that want a more timeline-based video, we tell them to put it in Excel and have every row be a time stamp. “Time yourself saying this” and have how many seconds and correspond with an image. They like this a lot. It doesn’t have the move-ablity of PowerPoint because with a video you are forced to think linearly. 

None complained about receiving information via PowerPoint. If given options perhaps they might, if following the mindset of Christopher Pappas, an online e-learning writer, who says to avoid taking content from PowerPoints because it’s best to start fresh in terms of design and not be dictated to by SMEs on course design.2  

Blank Templating?

Starting with a blank template is the only option for several who said subject matter experts weren’t able or willing to prepare information for online learning. Said one working with a state police department, “It’s easiest for me to take their face-to-face and do whatever I want with materials. They say, ‘Watch me do it, create something, show me.’ As long as it covers what I want it to, cool.” 

"You Do It" Approaches

This “you do it” attitude and approach was on the far end of a continuum that more often had “hand holding” as a dominant strategy used by developers to get course content packaged into an online course. “We tell our SMEs that their job is to give us content,” said one developer. “Our job is to explain that content. We help them design, and say ‘This is why your question is bad.’ But we have to massage that message to get their presentation to be a more engaging experience.”

Figure 2Time Clock Illustration (from Pixabay)

Insufficient Time

There’s also the courses that never get past the discussion phase. A common refrain the groups hear is lack of time. (“They want online learning but don’t want to put the time into it” or “A lot of people are too busy to devote time to it, and there isn’t enough a buy in from the top to push down.”) Then again, many SMEs don’t know what to include in a course, which is why it helps to have them pinpoint learning objectives; provide case studies and examples; and classify information into the must-know, should-know, and nice-to-know categories. Other reasons offered for stalled courses included course content gets outdated, staff turnover, “backburner” status, review and approval processes, micromanagement, and funding streams. 

Side quote: Interestingly, the perception of online courses can be a course creation deterrent. In initial consultation, one group member said, “We have to ground them. When you say ‘online class,’ they think flashy websites with hundreds of hours of development time.”


1 The TRAIN Learning Network is made up of agencies and organizations in the public health, healthcare, and preparedness sectors, including state health departments, academic institutions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Medical Reserve Corps, and Veterans Health Administration. These agencies develop and share workforce trainings aligned with national standards on the TRAIN LMS platform. More than 97% of these trainings are free, and many offer professional development credit hours.

2Christopher Pappas. Oct. 15, 2015. Working with Subject Matter Experts: The Ultimate Guide.

About the Author 

Cindy Higgins works for the state of Kansas. Higgins has an instructional design graduate degree from Emporia State University and a master's degree in journalism and a design undergraduate degree from the University of Kansas.  

She may be reached at  

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