5 min. read.
The experience of learning
For many professionals with specific expertise, teaching their subject matter often seems like a straightforward task given their level of competency in their field. As such, when preparing to teach the content itself, they assume that simply exposing learners to the material will result in effective learning outcomes. At a deeper level, the process of learning is a complex one not understood by many. It is not uncommon that while planning learning experiences, the focus is placed exclusively on content delivery. There is, however, a lot of theory and even science behind the process of learning. Learning experiences should be designed, and this happens through the process of instructional design.
Instructional design in online learning
When compared to in person learning, online learning is more dependent on efficient and effective instructional design. In an online learning context, instructors and learners are not all in a single physical place, possibly not connected at the same time, and in fact in many online learning experiences, there is no instructor, which means that the full experience needs to be anticipated and designed a priori.
At the heart of instructional design principles, is the understanding of learners’ needs and the alignment of course objectives with learning activities that put learners in a context that closely resembles the one in which they will need to perform the acquired competencies. It is common to find experts in various fields who believe that simply presenting content to learners is enough for them to learn. This misconception, in the age of the enormous amount of content available on the web, has led many to assume that anyone can learn just by accessing content online. This is far from true. Acquiring new knowledge and skills is far more complex and requires well designed learning experiences, thus the importance of instructional design.
Instructional Design meets the Subject Matter Expert
The instructional design process is a collaborative one involving, at a minimum, a Subject Matter Expert (SME) and an Instructional Designer (ID). In many situations, one might find various subject matter experts, each with their own expertise, as well as a team that might include professionals responsible for multimedia development, graphical design, editing, and other aspects of the course creation. It is not uncommon, especially in courses without an instructor, for these teams, which include the DI, to make the course content more appealing and engaging.
Even though a SME might have full understanding of their field, understanding what a student needs to learn to perform specific functions or roles in her field is another matter. SMEs have reached their level of expertise through extensive academic and professional experiences. However, the goal of any training or learning opportunity is to help the learner achieve specific competencies at certain levels of performance that are significantly below those of an SME, and not to transform the learner into another expert. Thus, the instructional designer’s role is one of establishing a meaningful dialogue with the SME to extract the necessary information that should be presented to the learners, to elaborate learning goals that are aligned with the learners’ needs, and to create the learning experience that will enable learners to achieve those goals. The strength of the relationship between the ID and the SME is essential for the success of the course.
Improving the learning process and outcomes
The subject matter expert and the instructional designer responsible for designing and developing the project may not be familiar with each other’s discipline, so it can often seem like SMEs and designers are speaking different languages, or even living on completely different planet– Tara D. Holwegner
Since the collaboration between SME and ID is so critical, here are a few recommendations to improve this exchange both in quality and in efficiency:
- The SME and the ID should understand their roles clearly: the SME brings their knowledge about the subject matter and of what is asked from professionals in their field, while the ID understands the learning process and how to create a learning solution
- Clarify the level of commitment required by stating when, how, and for how long the SME and the ID need to meet to reach a good result. They will need to establish expected response times and use technology to support their collaboration and to avoid confusion.
- The ID can help the SME take a step back to put the learner at the center of the learning experience and establish what content needs to be presented and which learning activities will be engaging and effective from the learner’s perspective.
- The ID should read all the materials given by the SME to be able to ask the right questions and help the SME step into the learner’s shoes. Ask for anecdotes and create together a story that will connect to learners.
- Always keep the learner at the center of the process. In that sense, recognize that motivation is essential, and that learning should not be overwhelming.
The collaboration between SMEs and IDs is at the core of the online courses we offer through IDB Academy, and it is what ultimately allow us to provide learners in Latin-America and the Caribbean with effective learning experiences and professional development, supporting their path to become more effective public servants.
If you are interested in learning more about the instructional design process, visit our catalog of courses for designing online learning experiences.
By Stella Porto, Learning and Knowledge Management specialist at BID Academy.