Designing better courses begins when you meet with subject matter experts and stakeholders. It doesn’t begin with the coding and development of the course. Meeting with your SMEs and stakeholders begins even before the money for course design and development has been allocated. Most instructional designers begin with the Analysis phase of the ADDIE model. ADDIE, which stands for Analysis, Design, Development, Implantation, and Evaluation, is the most widely used methodology. It still is fundamental even if you use a more robust agile model of development, such as SAM.
In this series, we explore how to design better courses. This segment begins with the very first activities that are part of planning the course. You first must meet with subject matter experts and stakeholders to determine what the learners in the course need to learn and how to measure the performance improvement as a result of taking the course. It comes down to answering the question: What do we want the learners to know or be able to do after completing the course? Whether the course is an on-the-job training course or an academic course, the question still remains the same. You must be clear on the expected outcomes for the learners as a result of taking the course you plan to design.
Subject Matter Experts and Stakeholders Know the Needs
When it comes to knowing the needs that the course must address, it’s the subject matter experts and the stakeholders who know the needs. They are the ones that must:
- Buy into your design
- Be your allies in getting course development supported and funded
- Promote the course when it’s ready for learners.
Utilize your subject matter experts and stakeholders to help you understand the needs and the subject. They can help yo understand the following issues as they relate to the subject:
- Is there a specific sequence of events that must be performed?
- What prerequisite knowledge and dependencies does each task require?
- How will you know if the learners have mastered what they need to know?
This is the first step in the Analysis phase of ADDIE. Even if you use an agile methodology like SAM, you must still go through the Analysis phase. Since your first iteration may only be about six weeks, your goal is to have a deliverable course, even if only some of the learning objectives have been addressed. You can do another iteration to get some more content into the course. In an agile model it could take two or three iterations to complete the entire course as the subject matter experts and stakeholders envisioned it.
Subject Matter Experts and Stakeholders Help with Unit Plan
To ensure the right sequencing for the final course, make sure you meet with subject matter experts and stakeholders to get consensus on the sequencing of the units in the course. The instructional designer can also work on breaking down each unit into properly chunked modules for presenting content, and labs for reinforcing what was taught with hands-on activities or role-playing as appropriate.
The Unit Plan paints the overall structure of the course. The presentation modules that cover the “theory” of the subject matter, such as choices that must be made and their pros and cons, should be kept short. For adult learners, presentation modules should be about 10-15 minutes in length. The shorter, the better for all audiences. If you are working with teens or elementary school students, you presentation modules need to be shorter, typically three to five minutes in length.
To understand all of the nuances of the subject (or at least most of them), you need a plan for interviewing subject matter experts and business stakeholders. We discuss this portion of the process next.
Interview Business SMEs and Stakeholders First
It’s important to know how the product or other process works in order to teach it. However, we need to examine the affective domain of the course. This is where the business stakeholders come in. You need to understand the business use case, and the business process you are supporting through your course. A star developer may not have this knowledge. Your course must meet the business management objectives and support critical or important business processes to increase success and buy-in for your course. Then interview your technical SMEs to understand how the product or process works on a technical level.
Build a Good Relationship with Your SME
The methods of interviewing SMEs is the same for both business and technical SMEs. Begin by:
- Establishing trust
- Establishing credibility
- Get your SME to talk
- Let your SME talk
To establish trust, describe to your SME what you are doing and why you need their help. They are more likely to help if you build trust and build a good mutual relationship. Not only will you get the information you are seeking, the process is likely to go smoother with the lubrication of trust.
Establish your credibility by coming to your SME meetings with a defined agenda and set questions you want to ask. You want to show your SME you have done your homework and are not asking questions you can easily find the answers to yourself by reading the documentation for the product or process. Be able to refer to what you have done and use that as a springboard to further clarify your understanding of the subject.
To get your SME to talk, ask open-ended questions. Have them show you how to use the product or explain the business process you want to teach. Open-ended questions encourage dialog and can help keep the SME talking so you can get maximum information.
Finally, once your SME starts talking, let them talk. Listen carefully, take good notes and encourage them to continue. Ask follow-up questions to keep them going and for further clarification as needed.
Be a Detective with Better Questions
You need to be able to ferret the requirements of your course. This requires asking deeper questions in your follow-up. One method that helps many instructional design interviewers is to think in terms of cause and effect. Your experts may speak in terms of the effects that they observe in the process or product. You can get better insights if you know the causes of what your experts observer in the use of the product or process you wish to train users.
Things don’t always go right. Ask about exceptions and how to handle them in them in the process. How do you troubleshoot when the unexpected happens? Basic troubleshooting is part of the basic theory. In doing this, you may discover the need for add-on courses on advanced troubleshooting of the product or process. Ask about the issues that can occur at each step of the process or procedure.
Listen for unexplained or unexpected specifics. You want to get clarification on them and understand when they are likely to happen so you can better prepare the learner to deal with them. Any troubleshooting can be incorporated inline with the area it may occur or in a separate troubleshooting module.
Finally, be curious. Ask why. Understand the why with more questions as needed. Don’t be afraid to dig deeper. If needed, you can have a follow-up interview with your SME to get into the deeper material after you have digested the material you covered at today’s meeting.
Once you have consensus on this structure, it’s time to design and storyboard the course and move into the Design Phase of ADDIE. We cover that in the next segment of this series.