Build Engaging eLearning Courses: 7 Tips to Ensure SME's Commitment

Jill W.

A subject matter expert (SME) has the knowledge and experience you need to create your eLearning courses or offline courses, and it's up to you to get that information. Often, you may feel like you come from a different world, you both want to develop successful courses but your approaches can be different. The relationship between your and your SME will determine the quality of your learning material. So how could you effectively work together? What good practices should you follow to get what you need during your interview?

What are your objectives?

According to the Training Industry study, in order to engage your SME's to develop quality content on time and on budget, you have to engage them in five objectives areas:

  • Clearly communicating expectations with SMEs
  • Ensuring SME commitment to the project
  • Cultivating an effective team dynamic with SMEs
  • Effectively managing SMEs' time on the project
  • Minimizing conflicting priorities of SMEs/L&D team

Before creating a courses, a content-gathering interview is the usual choice. Prior to the interview, it's always wise to do a bit of background research. It's easier to communicate with SMEs when you know some of their terminology and jargon. Prepare a list of questions before you talk to your SME's so that they understand that you value their time and effort.

1. Make a good introduction

Building a relationship with your SME can do a lot to facilitate the project. SMEs have many demands on their time, and your project is usually not their highest priority. A positive relationship can get the SME on your side and encourage them to listen to you and respond to your requests. The better relationship you have with them, the more successful your eLearning courses will be.

So make sure to acknowledge their expertise and thank them for committing their time and effort to the project. It's worth taking a few moments to set the stage for a pleasant and effective working relationship.

Starting off with small stalk sets an amicable tone and puts the SME at ease. Tell you subject manager expert your purpose and goals. Ask them if they agree that those goals can be achieved in the timeframe. Then, ask them about their stories, the challenges they face at work and how they overpassed them, and their successes. Listen carefully to your SME's and ask questions. The more involved your SME is in the development process, the best your elearning courses will be.

2. Identify the audience

In order to build engaging courses and achieve your learning goals, it's crucial that  both you and the SME know who your audience is. Keeping the audience in mind will help you identify necessary content and choose appropriate teaching strategies.

3. Determine course purpose

Rationale is the reason we are writing this course. The rationale will tell you why learners are taking the course, why the course needs to exist and how it will improve learners' lives.

4. Develop Learning Objectives

A learning objective is a description of a performance or skill your want learners to achieve to become competent. Without clear learning objectives, it's impossible to build your content and generate assessments.

Objectives form the foundation of instructional material. They determine what needs to be learned and how learning is evaluated, providing focus and purpose for the course. They are also key to avoiding scope creep. So, work with the SME to develop learning objectives.

According to Robert MagerMager, R.F. (1984). Preparing instructional objectives, a learning objective should include three things:

  • Performance (what learners must be able to DO or Perform)
  • Condition (in which the learner must complete the performance).
  • Criteria (identifies how the learner is evaluated or how well the learners must perform).

5. Set Design expectations

This might seem like an odd question since SMEs aren't responsible for design, but they may make a valuable contribution. At the same time, asking can help identify any pre-existing ideas the SME might have. It's next to impossible to work with a SME who has an entrenched idea of how a course should work when you're going in a different direction.  Identifying your SME's expectations is the first step to managing them.

6. Gather existing material

Leveraging existing material is usually the quickest way to develop content, and it keeps you from reinventing the wheel. At the same time, a client who's working with you may not be satisfied with their current courses. Ask them why they are dissatisfied and what should be changed. Material may be outdated, incomplete or inaccurate as well as unengaging.

Ask the SME what isn't working with the current program. What don't employees know that they should? What do they struggle with or find confusing?

7. Define the Learning Content

What do learners need to know and do to accomplish the learning objectives? Here's where you elicit the expert's expertise, and it's a huge question. Your own expertise will be needed to guide SME's, gather crucial information and organize it according to the training goals and objectives.

You might have to ask additional questions to draw out a terse or uncertain SME, or you might find yourself trying to restrain their response by reminding them to focus on the objectives and remember the scope of the project. You could help them by classifying information as critical, important or nice to have information.

With all these questions, some flexibility is necessary. A down-to-business SME who's irritated by discussion of the weather shouldn't be subjected to small talk. Sometimes course details like rationale and participants are determined by someone other than the SME. However, as long as you're alert to your SME's position and attitude, the questions here can help get your interview, and your relationship with the SME, on the right track.


Ensuring SME's commitment to the project is crucial to be able to create engaging eLearning courses. Working with SMEs can be hard because they're not involved the same way as you do in the process. But, despite all the challenges you could face, the relationship you developed will be the reason your eLearning courses will be a success... or fail!

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Jill W.

Jill is an Instructional Designer at BaseCorp Learning Systems with more than 10 years of experience researching, writing and designing effective learning materials. She is fascinated by the English language and enjoys the challenge of adapting her work for different audiences. After work, Jill continues to leverage her professional experience as she works toward the development of a training program for her cats. So far, success has not been apparent.