For many institutions, attracting quality subject matter experts (SMEs) for curriculum and course design is challenging under the best circumstances. Budgetary constraints often compel institutions to pursue nonmonetary recruitment strategies. Furthermore, money is not always the deciding factor in an SME’s choice of opportunities. Successful, passionate practitioners have many options for professional development and service. They must weigh the return on investment carefully as their full-time roles, families, or other obligations can make it difficult to take on additional duties. Leadership in the curriculum and course design processes may benefit from crafting simple talking points for communicating to prospective SMEs the benefits of serving as a subject matter expert.
First, however, what is an SME? Simply put, an SME is an authority on a topic. Sometimes SME is a formal designation, as in the case of a hired and contracted role for processes such as curriculum and course design. Sometimes it is an informal one, as when referring to someone’s reputation as a go-to. SMEs can be internal members of an institution (i.e., faculty or staff) or industry experts hired from outside to provide knowledge and skill sets that are not native to the institution. Most importantly, SMEs are vital to many processes. There are three practical, easy-to-implement ways to attract quality SMEs: appealing to their sense of authority, leveraging the experience as a professional development opportunity, and encouraging them to enhance their CVs or résumés.
SMEs possess knowledge that makes them valuable in their fields and to their organizations. Regardless of their official titles, their peers likely recognize their expertise. Emphasize that you are looking for them to bestow their wisdom on not only students but also other stakeholders in the curriculum and course design processes, such as department chairs. Consider how you feel when someone solicits your opinion for something important or compliments your reputation in your field. You can use the same approaches to appeal to SMEs’ sense of authority and recognize the significance of their high level of expertise in the development process. It is important to be genuine in these conversations and tailor them to the comfort level of the individual. Not everyone will appreciate effusive praise, for example. The message should be specific to the audience.
Serving as an SME can increase a person’s exposure to peers and other industry professionals. This can give the SME opportunities to learn even more from other stakeholders in the curriculum and course design processes (e.g., other SMEs, department chairs, and instructional designers) about instructional design, assessment, and other critical topics in higher education. These processes also empower the SME to translate what they know into a learning experience. Those who teach, especially, often find that process to be transformational. Serving as an SME is rarely the same experience twice, and it provides an excellent opportunity to be creative and innovative in a supportive environment. This type of opportunity solves a major problem for those who feel stagnant in their roles by offering them engagement and recognition. Leverage a potential SME’s desire to grow and develop in their role.
Lastly, SMEs also benefit from the competitive edge that comes from demonstrating not only their knowledge but also their ability to share that knowledge with a wide audience. This is equally applicable to internal (faculty) and external (industry expert) SMEs. SME work can enhance a CV or résumé, especially for those who have been in the same position for many years. Many of the skills demonstrated in curriculum and course design are universally transferable, such as written and oral communication, collaboration, and project management. This experience can also be added to LinkedIn and other highly visible social media profiles. SMEs often overlook this benefit. It can be helpful to provide them with practical examples of the ways they can showcase this expertise. Talk to potential SMEs about how they can leverage their practical experience as a competitive advantage.
Irrespective of budget, money is often only one of many factors when a potential SME weighs the return on investment of participating in outside projects. Employing nonmonetary strategies for recruiting time-pressed SMEs can be an effective way to find the right people for the right reasons. Building strong relationships from recruitment through to the finished product provides an opportunity to establish a pipeline of qualified, engaged, and satisfied SMEs.
Becky Costello, EdD, is the manager of course improvement and quality enhancement at Rasmussen College. She has worked in online education for 10 years in student-facing roles and instructional design. She manages a team that makes strategic, data-driven maintenance and improvement decisions for online courses across several disciplines.