On SMEs, learner stories, and learner ergonomics

Instructional design is learner-centered design and yet ID processes can quickly get away from a consideration of learners’ needs.

The care and feeding of SMEs

Subject matter experts, or SMEs, are a great boon because they’re usually passionate people who have kindly agreed to help you despite their very busy schedules. Good designers  view SMEs  not just as content-generators, but as participants in the design process. They are often stakeholders and typically the star performers whose experiences you should tap into as you analyze performance opportunities and consider optimal ways of addressing these opportunities.

Expecting SMEs to generate learning content without insight into the instructional design plan (or worse before even having a plan) often results in quite a bit of “nice to know” versus “need to know” information. Not only does this waste SME time and doesn’t create a good partnership experience, but you may be faced with the issue of explaining why a lot of the information you’ve obtained needs to go on the cutting room floor.

Additionally, while SMEs provide invaluable perspectives on ideal performance, they won’t necessarily have insights into common errors and misperceptions that average learners may face. SMEs are often “extreme users” — they may not always be able to articulate what for them has become an intuitive process or mindset.  Don’t forget that your target audience should drive the design of the experiences you create, otherwise, odds are you’ll be providing them with knowledge rather than wisdom. Knowledge will let your learners pass multiple choice tests; wisdom will give them the ability to solve problems that are fuzzy and ambiguous—the kinds of problems they really want your help with.

Get learners to tell their stories 

Assuming that  a learner gets to a  training session or learning module motivated and eager to acquire wisdom, does he or she quickly become discouraged by hours of lectures or list after list displayed on PowerPoint slides or web pages? This is the kind of epic fail that we’ve been exposed to in institutions of higher learning. It’s important to resist an “it’s been done this way before, and people have managed to learn” mindset that entrenches this kind of content creation into organizational structures.

One way to create true learning experiences is by letting learners share stories and then using those stories to create learning scenarios others can benefit from. Transitioning from a traditional face-to-face training to blended or online training? Use activities to provide a forum for narratives in ILT sessions and then draw on those narratives in your future designs (whether they’re part of instructor-led experiences or online). Take advantage of any opportunities to interact with learners to gather your own wisdom about what matters to them. As you create learning experiences, you need to understand not just where the knowledge and skills deficits are, but what attitudes and values shape how your learners apply new knowledge and skills. Make your learning stories more than about actions, make them about emotion and motivation as well, the things that drive more lasting change.

Instructional design must take human factors into account

While it’s popular to disparage face-to-face training these days, we’ve seen plenty of epic fails online as well. Technology-mediated-learning experiences fall flat when we don’t to consider learner expectations of interfaces and how they connect with them. It’s not enough to generate content or even great web-based learning experiences and simply link to them on a web page. You want to think of the “ergonomics” of your learning environment.

  • How is the learner drawn in? What will motivate him or her to click on a link?
  • Is a learning experience easy to find at time of need?  (How patient are you when you have to click more than 3 times to find what you need?)
  • Does the experience motivate learners to act?
  • Is the experience accessible to a diverse audience of learners? Does it take vision and hearing challenges into account? Are you considering cognitive load?

Finally, distance learning doesn’t have to create distance.  Use technology as a way to connect learners both to people and to their environments, and to enhance a sense of community during the learning process.

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