Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Educators vs. Subject Matter Experts

Recently, I've sat through a discussion with one of our subject matter experts as he attempted to teach me how to perform credit card batch maintenance on one of our systems.

The system itself is quite simple - look at the credit card transactions and make sure they are correct. If they are, click the Submit button. If not, click the Edit button next to the incorrect transaction. Correct the transaction and click OK. When everything is correct in the batch, click Submit. A yes/no decision tree within an intuitive user interface.

I happen to like this subject matter expert. He is knowledgeable about the systems he works with and possesses almost saintly patience. Sadly, by the time the subject matter expert finished explaining how the batch maintenace system worked - I was thoroughly confused.

The "training" went something like this:
- The system is on Internet explorer at X address
- Log into the system
- "If you don't know your user name or password, people generally call me, but they really need to talk to their practice administrator. You know, I really need to enforce this....."
- This is the main screen. (He then provides a detailed explanation of what each button does - whether we use the button or not.)
- 30 minutes later......
- Click Batch Maintenance
- "You really should only have 1 batch, but lots of people have multiple batches so you really need to make sure you have the right batch. I try to tell them to only open one batch, but they don't listen to me. If you have the wrong batch...."

How many "trainings" given by a subject matter expert have you sat through like this?

The majority of the subject matter experts I know approach training as an evil akin to getting a root canal with no anesthesia. As a result, many provide training in the following manner:

1) The expert assumes you come in with a certain level of prior knowledge, either about the system or the process. That assumed level of prior knowledge varies based on the subject matter expert's mood and personality.

2) If the subject matter expert likes you, has time to talk, and/or thinks you are a moron and is taking pity on you (again, depending upon the subject matter expert's mood), they assume that you need to know EVERYTHING about the system, including the location of interesting lines of code or strange factoids about the evolution of the system across versions.

3) The subject matter expert is not concerned with the context in which you are going to be using the system. That is YOUR problem.

From my perspective, an educator's JOB is to make a topic understandable, thereby encouraging behavior change. When we approach training, we:
- Determine the student's actual prior knowledge of the topic
- Figure out what the student needs to know. This includes eliminating the unnecessary from our courses.
- Place that knowledge in a context that makes sense to the STUDENT. Not the developer or the administrator or the expert.

These important steps differentiate an educator's training vs. a subject matter expert's training. These steps are the ones that are lost when someone without an educator's mentality designs and delivers training.


Karyn Romeis said...

Hi from a first time reader (you can thank Tony Karrer for the pointer).

This is a subject dear to my heart, too. As a learning solutions designer, I have a lot of contact with SMEs, and recognise the chap you describe here. I think it's why we have a job, actually - those who know their subject well are often (to use a very English expression) totally pants at explaining it. That's where we come in. We take those garbled, rambling explanations and turn them into something like your initial summary that the end user/learner can understand.

During my high school years, we had two maths teachers who worked in tandem. One of them was a certified genius who had romped through her BSc Hons with stratospheric results. The other was a plodder-with-a-passion. Guess which was the better teacher? No contest.

David Wilson said...

Wendy, I think this is a very interesting point you are making about the mindset, focus, interest and commitment of subject matter experts in the learning process. I'm sure we can all think of SMEs that are very motivated to pass on their knowledge, and try hard to help their learners really understand their subject. But unfortunately this is still all too rare.

I think you may have put your finger on a key reason for this - SMEs assume that learners are in their (i.e. the SMEs) context, not the other way around. Your point 3. The learner typically has to make the leap of understanding to be able to relate what they are being told back to their own needs or problems. In reality this is very challenging, unless the subject is very easy, and of course if it is that easy, they could probably have worked it out for themselves anyway! Context is critical for learning.

One key area of interest for me currently which directly relates to this discussion is the growth in rapid e-learning activity and its potential challenges and limitations . (See the discussion linked to some trends for 2007.

Rapid e-learning has emerged as one of the key trends for e-learning, and in some ways, rightly so given the cost and time to produce custom e-learning content. A big part of this assumes that SMEs can also become e-learning authors, but as you have pointed out SMEs are generally not great trainers, let alone educators. They might be able to generate lots of powerpoint slides but that doesn't necessarily equate to good learning content. Now the problem will potentially be magnified as they start to produce lots of bad e-learning instead.

I say magnified because this problem already exists in current e-learning, and it also exists in SME driven training. But with rapid e-learning, we don't even have the SME face to face to give us a chance to ask questions or examine our context. Their potential to crank lots of bad learning reaches new levels.

Of course this is a risk, and more enlightened organisations are aware that they have to manage quality. But our research with large corporates shows that this is not an easy battle, often taking the form of damage limitation rather than added value!