3 Challenges Faced by Subject Matter Experts creating e-Learning


As I work with training professionals, I often hear of the difficulty in taking various training assets used in a classroom setting (presentations, technical documents, scripts, etc…) and converting them into a comprehensive e-learning course. This process can prove especially tricky when the individual doing the converting is the in-house expert on the subject.

Every organization has their “go-to” person for the product, process, or technology. Since they are the expert, it seems natural to have that individual create the training. However, having the expert create the training can bring its own set of issues.

Here are three challenges typically faced by subject matter experts (SMEs):

“I’m not familiar with proven, effective learning theories and models”

Although an SME knows their material forward and back, they don’t necessarily have a clear idea of how to properly present it. A typical SME has presented the material in a classroom or meeting environment dozens of times but is often unclear on how best to capture the effectiveness of that experience. A common fallback is to just use the PowerPoint presentation from the meeting but this generally yields poor results.

I recommend taking some time to storyboard the course to determine the flow of the training and to cover all of the items from the live session. Many resources are also available online that give basic information on learning models like ADDIE. Learning online is different from being in a classroom so it’s important to know what type of exercise is effective when the learner is sitting at a computer or using a tablet.


“I’m too close to the material/audience”

By definition, an SME is immersed in their content. That level of immersion sometimes makes it difficult to prioritize the most important items to teach the learner. What is important to an expert may not be as important for an entry-level or mid-level employee to know. This creates a situation where the training may go over the heads of the intended audience or the SME may over-correct and “dumb down” the course. Either way, if the training doesn’t hit the mark, the desired outcomes won’t be achieved.

A good approach is for the SME to simply step back and try to put themselves in the position of the intended audience. A fresh set of eyes is also extremely helpful in this situation. Someone from outside the department or even the organization is in a better position to quickly identify deficiencies and spot lessons that don’t match the learner.


“I don’t have clear learning objectives”

Knowing only that your audience needs to be trained on a subject is never enough. Although it seems intuitive, there are some specific questions that need to be asked. These include: What specifically does the learner need to know and at what level? Why do they need to know it? And, what are they actually supposed to do with this knowledge?

It’s always important to document your objectives for the course first, and then build the training around them. It seems like a no-brainer but it’s surprising how easily it is to forget this basic rule when you are in the midst of putting a course together. Also, the objectives should come from someone other than the SME. Make sure all stake-holders document and submit their desired outcomes for the training so the course can be tailored to meet those objectives.

These 3 challenges are common but all of them can be overcome with some planning and outside input. A final recommendation is to consult a qualified instructional designer. Whether the ID is an in-house resource or a contractor, someone trained to create quality instructional experiences can be invaluable in the process. Even a few hours spent consulting with an ID can help insure that the considerable time dedicated to development will result in an effective course that meets training objectives.