Fostering the SME/LD Relationship: 3 Top Tips for Subject Matter Experts (according to Learning Designers)

Students at cafe table

A brief note on terminology: 

SME = Subject Matter Expert (usually the course leader or academic who is in charge of a course in their institution)
LD = Learning Designer (the e-learning platform expert who builds your content into an online course)

Holly Clothier, our Head of Learning Design, recently wrote an article for insendi compiling some advice for new Learning Designers. Originally planned and written as two completely separate pieces, Holly and I were interested to see the number of resonances and crossovers between my piece addressing the LD/SME relationship and Holly's article covering the LD role. These resonances and crossovers ultimately emphasise how important a fruitful SME/LD relationship is in the role of the Learning Designer.

When preparing to translate or reimagine a face-to-face university course for online delivery, the process can feel overwhelming for SMEs. While some institutions choose to keep this in-house (either by the SME working on it themself or by utilising their institution’s own Learning Designers), insendi offers an alternative. As well as a cutting-edge online learning platform, insendi also has a dedicated team of knowledgeable, passionate, and experienced Learning Designers. As LDs, we work closely with SMEs to develop and build meaningful online learning encounters for students. 

A great working relationship between an SME and a Learning Designer is a very important component of online course development, both in terms of the development process and also the completed course. SMEs are the experts in their subject, and they usually come to the project full of knowledge, passion and ideas. However, as LDs, we are the experts on the insendi platform and by knowing it inside out, we can guide faculty to get the absolute best from it. We do this by, for example, choosing the most appropriate activities to teach a particular point, or by including social learning opportunities that are all-to-often lacking in other online courses. 

This SME/LD relationship can demand a lot from both sides. Often, we work very closely (sometimes across time zones, language barriers and academic disciplines) so there is a strong requirement to be flexible, and to embrace a genuinely collaborative approach. This collaboration can be a very different process compared to more traditionally insular methods of face-to-face course development. Acknowledging these demands, I’ve polled the LD team at insendi and compiled our top three tips for SMEs to keep in mind when working with LDs to get the absolute best out of this collaborative process. 

Tip 1: Embrace online learning

Designing for a completely different method of delivery to what you’re familiar with can be tricky, and it can be tempting to try to directly translate the more familiar face-to-face course elements as closely as possible. However, research shows that this isn’t the best idea because the resulting courses often fail to utilise all the opportunities afforded by online learning (see, for example, Bates, 2019). Instead of focusing on what e-learning can’t do, now’s the time to get excited by all the new opportunities that e-learning can offer. Your LD will be able to help and advise, as well as suggest pedagogically-rooted ways to fill in any of these ‘missing bits’ that you love about teaching face-to-face. For example, trying to translate a two hour live lecture into a two hour recorded video in an online course is likely to be problematic. Research demonstrates that students are generally unable to engage for anywhere like that long (Guo, Kim, and Rubin, 2014), leading to the risk of SMEs losing many of their important teaching points. Instead, how about some shorter, focussed videos, each addressing a specific theory or concept, interspersed with genuinely engaging, meaningful activities? There are opportunities here to simultaneously increase student engagement, deepen understanding, and build a sense of community within a cohort through a series of well-planned asynchronous learning sequences which would be very difficult to include in a traditional face-to-face lecture. By flipping some of the more familiar and well-trodden methods of face-to-face delivery, we can reconsider and re-evaluate the best ways of achieving the required learning online.

Tip 2: Help your Learning Designer to understand the content of your course as much as you can

The chances are that your LD will not have an academic background in the subject area of your course. However, this is not a problem because LDs are here to curate your content, not to act as mini-SMEs. This is where the SME can really enhance the SME/LD relationship: fostering a truly collaborative working relationship will reap numerous explicit and implicit benefits for the online course that you will produce together. One key suggestion from insendi’s LD team is a willingness to guide your LD through your academic content patiently. This is usually all we need to be able to plan the learning journey of the course in the most effective, meaningful way. Being the kind of SME who is approachable and happy to explain a tricky point or answer our questions (without assuming a subject-specific postdoc level of prior knowledge) is so significant to the course development process that it made it into second place in our most important top tips from insendi’s team of LDs.

Tip 3: Be prepared before you begin work with your Learning Designer

As LDs, we understand that your time is precious — and limited — and we are also aware that the course development process can be a significant piece of work. This is why our third top tip is to be as prepared as possible before we begin our work together. Usually this means having as many of your materials gathered in a shared space as possible. This gives your LD a chance to get to know your course before your initial meeting, helping to ensure that your time together is as efficient and as effective as possible. As a minimum, we would encourage SMEs to come to that first LD meeting with a clear overview of the course, including how many sessions it is likely to be, where (and what kind) of assessments you imagine, and your learning objectives for the course (and ideally your sessions). This gives us an excellent starting point, and plenty to discuss when we begin this course development process together.

With these three top tips in mind, it is worth finishing with a final reflection on the LD/SME relationship. Insendi’s team of LDs are genuinely excited to work on new courses, and we love working with faculty who are engaged and enthusiastic about all the opportunities that online learning can offer. Part of the job description of a Learning Designer is being passionate about learning, about robust pedagogy, and about creating powerful learning journeys for students. The SME/LD relationship is a collaborative one, and one that will be benefitted above all by frequent and open dialogue. This, and the three top tips outlined above, are sure to get that all-important working relationship off to the best possible start as you begin your online course development journey. To find out more about what insendi can bring to your courses, please get in touch.


  • Bates, T. (2019). OERs: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In R. Kimmons (Ed.), EdTech in the Wild. EdTech Books. [Accessed: 11.02.2021]
  • Guo, P. J., J. Kim, and R. Rubin. 2014. How video production affects student engagement: An empirical study of MOOC videos. Paper presented at L@S 2014, March 4–5, 2014, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
Dr. Katy Wright

About the author

Dr Katy Wright is a Learning Experience Designer at insendi with a background in university teaching. She completed her PhD at Royal Holloway (University of London), focusing on issues of language and power in post-apartheid South African literature. She is co-editor of a volume of critical essays on J. M. Coetzee and she also managed a large funded international conference on his writing.

Katy taught at RHUL for nine years, working mainly with international students across all disciplines, and was the recipient of two college teaching prizes during this time. She has significant experience in curriculum and materials design as well as course writing, and she constantly draws upon these skills as a Learning Experience Designer at insendi. In this role, Katy works closely with academics from universities around the world to translate their face-to-face courses into engaging, meaningful and transformational educational experiences. She is passionate about the opportunities offered through e-learning and is doggedly committed to high standards and robust pedagogy in the courses on which she collaborates.