I was reflecting on some of the eLearning projects on which I have worked recently and marveled at the variety of topics these covered. These have included career planning, financial reporting, dealing with workplace hazardous materials, landscape design and construction, golf course design, and greenhouse management, to name a few.

Am I an expert in any of these fields? No, not by any stretch of the imagination, but in each case I worked with a subject matter expert (SME) who was. However, NOT being an expert in these situations was, in my mind, an advantage. I could approach each topic with fresh eyes and an inquisitive mindset. I had the SMEs teach me, so I could help them design courses that could teach others. If I didn’t get it, it was unlikely that any of the target learners would get it. As a non-expert, I was a good foil in this sense.

SMEs generally love their areas of expertise and often become wedded to content. We all have seen the results – static content dump. A learning designer who is not a subject expert can help the SME look at his / her subject in a different way, and encourage different ways of engaging learners in and with the content (not to mention with the SME and other learners as well).

So when I see the question raised about whether or not a learning designer needs subject expertise to be effective, I vote “no.” In this case, ignorance is a virtue.

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