Building Relationships: The Learning Designer and the Subject Matter Expert


Getting a new project and working with someone new is one of my favorite parts of being a learning designer. So much of the role is about building relationships and that process starts at the first meeting. I remember getting a project assigned to me to work with a faculty member who was putting her face-to-face course online for the first time. When we met via web conferencing software for our first meeting, she explained that she was concerned about teaching online and, while excited, she was unsure about the process of developing an online course. I had not worked on a course in her discipline before. I knew I would have my work cut out for me but I was also confident the course would turn out fine because our relationship started with good communication. The Subject Matter Expert (SME) was honest, open-minded about the process, and honest about her concerns. I could work with that! And I did. Here's how.

We worked together. From the beginning, I explained our roles as working in tandem with each other. I was there to support her in learning and exploring elearning pedagogies as she developed her online course. She was there to provide the content expertise to ensure the course was academically rigorous. Only together could we build a pedagogically strong, academically adventurous, and engaging course in which we were both proud.

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We set deadlines. We used our first meeting to talk about the process and how we each had a role in getting to the finish line. We detailed out various milestones (or chunks of the overall deliverable) we would reach along the way to developing her class. We talked about realistic milestones and set deadlines. We used those milestones as our defined "homework" for each weekly meeting and discussed the commitment that was needed on both our parts to keep us on schedule.

We supported each other. While we had deadlines, we also had lives and other responsibilities that sometimes nudged us off course. We talked honestly about our challenges and about how we could help each other in getting the tasks done. For example, she was stalemated by having to write formal objectives. When she told me that, I offered to write the objectives for her. She articulated for me what she wanted the learners to know and to do, during each step of the course development and I used that information to write the objectives. By putting it in different terms and allowing the process to happen another way, we were able to get there using both our strengths.

We shared examples. The SME had little experience teaching or developing online courses. I had little experience with her discipline. One of the best ways to overcome this challenge is to show examples. We made sure to spend time looking at examples during each meeting. I would find and share collaborative and creative technologies, examples of learning activities from other courses in her discipline, and/or learning designs and features in her university's Learning Management System. She shared with me activities, resources, and assessments that worked well in her face-to-face courses. This sharing helped us explore, discuss, and be creative in our approach. We had open conversations about what would and wouldn't work with her students.

By using these techniques to build a strong working relationship, we successfully built an interactive and engaging class. Our relationship was so strong that she requested to work with me again when she was asked to develop another course. We are still in touch today and she continues to express her gratitude that I helped open her eyes to different approaches and technologies to improve both her online and face-to-face courses and teaching. I am so grateful to have many stories like this to share because of the time I spend meeting each SME, wherever they are in their exploration of online teaching and designing. Relationships are the best part of my job! All of my colleagues here have similar stories and we often talk about how relationship development is the best part of our jobs.