When New IDs Meet Old SMEs: Advice for Understanding Facultyspeak

As an instructional designer (ID) new to an institution of higher education, you are no doubt bright-eyed and eager to help improve university-level learning and to assist with much-needed faculty development and support.  Armed with your excellent education, great awareness of instructional design, comprehension of pedagogical theory, and technological know-how, you’re ready to dedicate yourself to the cause.  The problem is that nobody seems to want what you have to offer.

Perhaps the first slap in the face a new ID receives is a baffling lack of faculty enthusiasm for your subject and goals.  As Brenda Litchfield, U. S. Faculty Developer, writes, the hardest part of being a faculty developer might be “getting faculty to come to workshops” (Reiser and Dempsey 224).  Indeed, subject-matter experts (SMEs) are often resistant to IDs, despite the benefits each can offer the other.  At times, it may seem that teachers themselves are the ones getting in the way of good teaching.  If only IDs had a handbook for understanding SME language (aka Facultyspeak)!

According to Jacquie McDonald, an Instructional Designer in Australia, the ability to “’sell’ ID theory (which often means more work to time stressed staff) is a key ID skill” (Reiser and Dempsey 221).  I asked several SMEs at a local community college this question:  What do you wish IDs would understand better when delivering workshops or helping you design classes?  Perhaps their responses, below, will give you insight on how to speak the language.

SME #1:  Humanities Professor

“Trust me.  Assume I know something about technology.”

  • Sometimes, when IDs sit down with SMEs, they may make assumptions about instructor abilities with technology.  Many instructors typically possess a great amount of experience with technology (or believe they do).  It should not be assumed that instructors having technology problems lack enthusiasm and skills with technology.

SME #2:  English and literature Professor

“Don’t make me relearn things I already know.”

  • IDs can mistakenly assume a lack of pedagogical understanding on the part of SMEs; for example, one ID writes that SMEs are “trained in content, not pedagogy” (226).  While instructors may indeed lack formal academic training in pedagogy, it is rarely true that they are without intense on-the-job training.  Try to assess the actual needs of instructors before delivering trainings; time-stressed professors feel dishonored by professional development that “teaches” information that is already known, whether technical or pedagogical.

SME #3:  History Professor

“You can never go wrong putting the emphasis on the human element.”

  • IDs can build credibility with professors by listening to “big picture” instructor goals, which often mix both content-level goals and affective goals (to connect, to guide, to help students grow).   IDs, understandably, get excited about new tools that can help instructors but are disappointed when teachers don’t employ them.  However, many instructors resist technology because they perceive impediments to the interpersonal relationships that create the matrix where effective learning occurs.  In other words, IDs could do a better job showing instructors that they get the intense emotional work that professors often perform.

SME 4:  Philosophy Professor 

“Stay focused on where students are coming from.”

  • Instructors are the institutional members who develop and support long term interpersonal relationships with students.  While IDs offer essential services for professors, they are typically distanced from the realities of the one-on-work with students experiencing a course.  While a problem may be “fixed” quickly from a technological viewpoint, damage to an instructor’s credibility and students’ engagement may take much longer to repair.  Sometimes, it feels that IDs do not recognize the high stakes for success, nor are they the ones to “face the music” when failure occurs.  Finally, it is essential for IDs to understand that, in two-year institutions especially, students may be using computers for the first time.  It’s essential that instructional design addresses student technological skills on each end of the high-low spectrum.

To summarize the spirit of most of the interviewees’ comments, IDs could improve by honoring the two factors professors seem to value most:  1) knowledge (of their subject matter, of technology, of pedagogy) and 2) a sincere desire to help students. 

These interviews illuminate only a few faculty opinions and no ID opinions.  The author hopes to develop this idea further in the future and would welcome an ID point-of-view.



  1. I think it would be interesting to interview IDs about their opinions on SMEs. One of the SMEs you talked to seemed to make a really good point that IDs should also focus on students’ skills. I think it was really interesting how you interviewed SMEs. What was the most surprising thing you found in your interviews? What were you expecting going into the interviews? I think that IDs and SMEs both have a lot to learn from each other. There needs to be a way to change opinion that each has of the other. I think the things you mention for the IDs to be aware of is a good start for how to help IDs and have opinions of them changed in the eyes of the SMEs. Are there any other ways you can think of for opinions to be changed so SMEs and IDs can work together more efficiently?

  2. This only shows one side of the equation because I admit that faculty are ALSO incredibly hard to work with. I think it takes a long time to earn trust. For example, English ran a writing-across-the-curriculum program where we reached out to other disciplines that use writing as a grading/learning/assessment tool. It took a lot of listening up front in order to be successful.

    It’s important, I think, to understand that faculty resistance probably comes from fear and student-centeredness rather than ideology, selfishness, or cluelessness; most faculty fear technology because teaching itself is so time consuming and because we view the stakes as really, really high. One has to “know” there will a significant pay off to be gained through the change. Technology glitches or roadblocks feel like little warnings NOT to move ahead. So, I think it would be useful for IDs and SMEs to just talk; they’d probably realize quite quickly that they have very similar goals.

    Another thing I was realizing as I wrote this post (but it didn’t fit with any of my colleagues’ quotes) is an often unspoken tension that lies between administration, staff, and faculty. Faculty are often wary of top-down directives or of initiatives that seem to come from beyond. IDs, because of their fluid nature, can be seen as either staff or administrators, and this may have a negative affect if instructors assign categories of “supporters” rather than co-faculty. Alternatively, IDs might be viewed as more closely aligned with the needs of administration and therefore “anti-faculty.”

    These are just a few thoughts off the top of my head; there’s a lot more that could be done to make that article better/more complete.

  3. It’s interesting to read these comments from the faculty side. I have never had an encounter with an ID associated with my teaching (haven’t been around long enough), but if they assumed I didn’t know anything about technology or insisted on only teaching things I already know, I have to admit, I would be annoyed by the training and probably wouldn’t want to go to another. I can see a great need for ID’s need to market themselves and ID training to faculty. Like was discussed above, if faculty do not know a benefit will come, why should they attend ID training workshops or implement what is taught there?

    Taking this course has helped me see the need for IDs in higher education, but I can see how different workshops or training could have various levels of efficacy, especially for certain faculty members. I’d imagine a good ID department would keep a close relationship with faculty to find what types of training are desired and needed, then be able to sell the training in an appealing way to faculty. If they try to keep a close relationship with faculty, this shouldn’t be difficult. But the big question is: How easy is it to keep a close relationship with faculty? And how difficult is it to form a working relationship between the two where both are beneficial to each other?

  4. I really appreciate the conversation your article has prompted. I was wondering how the IDs are assessing the instructional or technological needs of the SMEs? Are they simply applying blanket trainings based on new technologies or trends in pedigogy?

  5. The issue I usually run into when dealing with faculty isn’t a lack of tech expertise but pedagogy (I realize that’s not always the case). They are generally very knowledgeable about their content and often quite tech savvy. However, most have never studied ed psych or teaching pedagogy so in the absence of instructional coaching they tend to teach as they were taught – lecture and test. On the job training is often lacking as well so their experience tends to just reinforce the status quo. Talking with faculty about their teaching is also really touchy. There doesn’t seem to be a way to go about that doesn’t result in them getting defensive. It’s most successful when they come to you first and ask for help but often the ones not asking are the ones needing it the most. I just had this conversation with an instructional coach here and it seems to be the catch 22 of the age.

    1. So true… once you get someone on the defensive (intentionally or not), their attitude changes towards you and they are definitely less likely or willing to listen to what you have to say. This defensiveness thing is huge… so much so we had a half-day staff training a couple years ago on how to approach people (e.g., parents, teachers, paraprofessionals, coworkers) and work with them without putting them on the defensive.

  6. Rebecca, such a fun blog post. 🙂 I think it’s great you interviewed some of your colleagues to get their perspectives on ID and what can be done to help them design and deliver better courses.

    Your statements about lack of enthusiasm for what IDers have to offer and what their goals and objectives are seem to be common among teachers / instructors at any grade level. From my own observations of teachers in the classroom and my conversations with them, time seems like a real barrier for them. Integrating and implementing what IDers are recommending or training you to do seem like impossible tasks when you perceive yourself as “busy.” For K-12 teachers, I think they see it as just one more thing on their plate and this can greatly impact their buy-in of effective ID strategies and practices.

    In higher education, my husband has been struggling with (and still is) trying to convince the most conservative group of professors on campus (law professors) to update their instructional practices to be more in tune with 21st century learners and classrooms. To say the least, it has been an uphill battle since he started working at the law school 10 years ago, and the push back has always been, “I’m too busy, and this is YOUR job.” Although my husband’s primary role at work is not an IDer, I wonder what IDers can do to make what they do more credible in the eyes of people who they are trying to help.

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