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Optimizing Instructional Designer--Subject Matter Expert Communication in the Design and Development of Multimedia Projects.

This article summarizes a study, which explored the development, trial, and implementation of the Content Production Process (CPP)--a process which is designed to assist instructional designers working in university, business, or military settings, in eliciting, and subsequently conceptualizing, unfamiliar content from subject matter experts (SMEs). The study's approach draws upon a variety of theories, constructs, and methods including: advance organizers, schema theory, consultation practices, elicitation procedures in instructional design, knowledge acquisition strategies in constructing expert systems, interviewing strategies, and knowledge mapping. Three major insights were gained into the use of the CPP. First, the novice instructional designer found that knowledge map construction was useful for assisting her to think carefully about unfamiliar content. Second, the knowledge map appears to have been a useful "communication prop" for assisting the instructional designer in interacting with the subject m atter experts. Third, the instructional designer found that combining a "teachback" procedure with the knowledge map provided a powerful means of checking her understanding of the content against that of the expert. The CPP offers a process for improving the interviewing process in instructional design.


Imagine attempting to design an instructional unit in an area in which you have no understanding or expertise. How would you approach the unfamiliar materials? What are your choices? You can read textbooks or reference materials or you could talk to experts in the area. Subject matter experts, however, are often busy people. How can you optimize your time spent with the subject matter expert? How can you elicit information of sufficient quantity and quality so that instructional design is possible? This article addresses the relationship between the instructional designer and subject matter expert and discusses a possible method for facilitating the transfer of knowledge so that efficient and effective instructional design can proceed.

Research on instructional design has not adequately addressed the conceptualization by the instructional designer of unfamiliar content as presented by a subject matter expert. Many researchers in the field of instructional design acknowledge the importance of this conceptualization (Brien & Towle, 1977; Bratton, 1981, 1983; Cram, 1981; Wallington, 1981; Rutt, 1985; Armstrong & Sherman, 1988; Morrison, 1988; Tessmer, 1988a, 1988b; Rodriguez, Stephens, & Arena, 1991; Davidove, 1993; Maple, 1994; Lee, 1994; Ingram, Heitz, Reid, Walsh, & Wells, 1993; Yancey, 1996). However, only general heuristics and suggestions have been offered. There appears to have been few systematic efforts to develop a comprehensive strategy for the conceptualization and elicitation of subject matter knowledge.

It is not possible for the instructional designer to be conversant in all content areas, and as such they must rely on SMEs to assist with determining the scope and accuracy of the unfamiliar content. Due to the crucial and unique role of the SME, the instructional designer must streamline the flow of information to prevent a communication bottleneck. Without an effective strategy for interacting with the SME, valuable time will be lost understanding and organizing the content, hence there is a need for an efficient and effective method to assist in the instructional designer-subject matter expert interaction (Keppell, 1997, 199a, 1999b). The Content Production Process (CPP) draws upon a variety of theories, constructs, and methods including advance organizers (Ausubel, 1960, 1963, 1968), schema theory (Rumelhart & Norman, 1983; Gordon & Rennie, 1987), script theory (Schank & Abelson, 1977), consultation practices (Davies, 1975; Bratton, 1980, 1983; Rutt, 1985), elicitation procedures in instructional design (Brien & Towle, 1977; Bratton, 1981; Wedman, 1987), knowledge acquisition strategies in constructing expert systems (Neale, 1989; Cohen, 1990), ethnographic and teachback interviewing strategies (Spradley, 1979; Pask, 1975), and knowledge mapping (graphic organizers, concept maps and knowledge maps), (Barron, 1980; Novak & Gowin, 1984; Lambiotte, Dansereau, Cross & Reynolds, 1989). The following section explores the characteristics of the instructional designer and the role of the SME in the CPP.


Instructional Designer

Instructional designers tend to be process-oriented individuals who apply instructional design principles to a wide range of content areas. The designer usually begins by analyzing goals, needs, and learner characteristics in an attempt to understand the instructional problem. The scope and content of the subject are then identified. These areas represent the instructional design "problem space." The designer's main goals are to select, sequence, synthesize, and summarize the content for instructional purposes and deliver the desired product--all of which must be completed "despite having no content expertise" (Nelson, Magliano, & Sherman, 1988, p. 32). All the designer has is "a set of representations based on a design model which can guide the development of an effective training program" (p. 32) (italics added).

The design model is the designer's accumulated knowledge of how instruction should be developed. It is the amalgamation of general experience, educational background, and instructional experience. The design model is analogous to a script. Scripts are knowledge packages in memory, which allow individuals to understand routine activities (e.g., eating in restaurants or visiting the dentist). They are prototypical or stereotypical information useful in everyday occurrences. Schank and Abelson (1977) suggested that we have hundreds of stereotypical situations coded in memory, each having idiosyncratic variations. The designer has a generic script that can be applied with variations to new instructional problems. The advantage of the generalized script is that it is adaptable to new instructional problems. The concept of the script suggests how a designer can approach unfamiliar content.

The development of design models has contributed to a generic script for approaching instructional problems but one that lacks a conceptualizing and elicitation script. Wallington (1981) suggested that the designer requires the ability to extract and assimilate chunks of information and then work them into a logical framework as defined by the SME who will most likely have integrated content knowledge that has been drawn from many years of experience and many sources of information. The aim of the designer in the interaction with the SME will be to "formulate a working content structure within which the information and skills to be taught can be formed into a sequence and hierarchy" (Wallington, 1981, p. 30) or other appropriate structure. The interaction of the designer and the SME involves receiving, classifying, and storing information, building and rebuilding structure, requesting new data, and recycling until an appropriate instructional module has been developed. Essentially, the designer should be abl e to deal with new content and:

not only take in large complex chunks of information quickly but he or she must create a theoretical framework in which to manipulate the information. The developer must question the subject matter expert to check both the validity of additional incoming information and the framework in which it fits. In this mode, information begets information and if the developer has truly established a strong rapport with the subject matter expert, this expert may offer unlimited quantities of information simply as a sign of good faith. (Wallington, 1981, p. 30)

Subject Matter Expert

As the name suggests, the SME or the content expert is an authority on a particular domain of knowledge from whom the designer is attempting to elicit knowledge. The SME may be a university academic or a business or military expert. Nelson, Magliano, and Sherman (1988, p. 30) suggest that "experts' knowledge structures are more highly organized and well integrated" than those of novices.

Within the instructional design field it is generally recognized that SMEs experiences will vary from the university, business, or military settings. The author's own work with SMEs on simultaneous projects in university and industrial settings suggests that there are enormous differences between these two cultures. In general, SMEs in the post-secondary setting like to work in bursts followed by periods when other academic endeavours demand their attention. Industry projects require SMEs to be efficiency-oriented and driven by sometimes impossible deadlines.


One of the functions of the SME in the CPP is to provide accurate content to the design team. In this study SMEs have two roles: (a) providing a clear description and explanation of the content area being examined, and (b) assisting the designers conceptualization by clarifying and verifying the content.

Phase 1: Development of the Process

The CPP was developed using an eclectic approach. Figure 1 outlines the major components of the CPP. Ausubel's concept of "intellectual scaffolding" (Ausubel, 1960, 1963, 1968) forms an important part of the CPP. When instructional designers are working with SMEs their aim is to create a conceptual scaffold and then attach content elicited in the subsequent interactions with the SME. As designers create this conceptual scaffold (knowledge map) and elaborate the content they should begin to conceptualize the relationships within the content. It appeared that some form of graphic organizer might be an appropriate tool for representing successive iterations of the instructional designer's attempts to conceptualize unfamiliar content. Of the various forms available, the knowledge map was selected as it specified conceptual links that provided a framework for formulating interview questions (Breuker, 1984). In addition to helping the instructional designer conceptualize unfamiliar content (Wedman, 1987), it was p redicted that the use of the knowledge map would allow the SME to examine the instructional designer's understanding of the content area.

Phase 2: Personal Trial of the CPP

The personal trial of the CPP helped to crystallize the researcher's conceptualization of the process. Initially, it was necessary to keep pace with the SME and attempt to obtain an overview of the content area. A second phase began with the SME viewing the knowledge map and understanding the role of the instructional designer within the interaction. At this point in the interaction, the SME appeared to become more cooperative and provided more detailed explanations because a certain rapport had been developed. A third phase involved both the designer and SME collaborating to achieve the goals of the interaction. Both individuals knew their respective roles and participated without the need for prompting. The fourth phase centered on cultural, or contextual understanding, with the instructional designer feeling more effective in conceptualizing the content when the content could be viewed from the SME's point of view.

The introspective analysis associated with the personal trial of the CPP by the researcher provided a rich source of information in preparation for teaching the method to another instructional designer, an experience which might be described as "reflection-in-action" and "reflection-on-action" (Schon, 1987). Schon suggests that "knowing-in-action...attempts to put into explicit, symbolic form a kind of intelligence that begins by being tacit and spontaneous" (p. 25).

Phase 3: Training a Novice Designer to Use the CPP

A novice instructional designer (Jane) was trained for a total of 33 hours in all aspects of the CPP. Personally teaching the process to Jane provided the researcher with the opportunity to observe the process in action and document the proceedings. Jane achieved competency in all aspects of the CPP as it was conceived at that point and was ready to work with SMEs in a real setting. She had shown competence in both declarative and procedural knowledge in relation to the CPP. Declarative knowledge competence was demonstrated by Jane's understanding of the key concepts of conceptualization, unfamiliar content, knowledge map characteristics, and teachback interview concepts. This was confirmed by the researcher using verbal questions throughout the training process. Procedural knowledge competence was demonstrated by Jane's content conceptualization as portrayed in the knowledge map, knowledge map construction, interviewing procedures and the application of the CPP steps.

Phase 4: Case Stories

Case stories were used to investigate the designer-SME interaction within the real-world context of a military setting. This setting was chosen as it represented a "culture" and content area in which the designer was totally unfamiliar, thereby providing a more rigorous test of the method than would have occurred in a familiar setting. The case stories attempted to focus on discovery, insight, and understanding from the perspectives of the designer and the SMEs being studied. In this way they attempted to "illustrate conclusions to which the author...was...already committed" (Biddle & Anderson, 1986, p. 238). Such case stories are intended to provide new insights and understandings and "... not provide conclusions, however, that reflect evidence." This case focused on how one instructional designer, aided by the CPP, interacted with, elicited, and conceptualized unfamiliar content.

Strategies for conceptualizing the content. Throughout the five interviews in the case, Jane became more adaptable and flexible in her interactions with the SMEs. As the interviews progressed, Jane's ability to react to the situation was more noticeable. She appeared more comfortable in clarifying the content when she was unsure of its meaning. In her initial interactions, Jane often allowed Steve (first SME) to complete a lengthy explanation before she sought clarification. In later interviews with Bob (second SME), Jane was able to seek more regular explanations. As Jane became more conversant and more confident with the interaction, her questioning also became more specific.

Jane's preferred approach to gaining an initial understanding of the content was to obtain an overview of the area. She needed to see the conceptual terrain of the content area before examining the area in more depth. This was consistent with the author's own application of the CPP. Jane commented that she needed to do this so that she could see the extent of the information that needed to be covered. It may represent a heuristic that designers need to use in the process of interacting with SMEs.

Jane also found that the knowledge map was a useful tool which assisted her when wrestling with unfamiliar content and subsequently displaying the content to the SME. Jane suggested that the construction of the knowledge map "forced me to think about what was said" and "focuses my thinking." The use of the knowledge map appeared to assist Jane in thinking more carefully about the content. Changing the content into a visual-spatial representation may assist the designer in the conceptualization process. Holley and Dansereau (1984, p. 8) suggested that the creation of a knowledge map may force the constructor to process the content in "greater semantic depth." Furthermore, Holley and Dansereau also suggested that reorganizing the information in the form of a knowledge map may activate both the spatial and verbal processing systems, allowing the developer to gain a deeper understanding of the information.

The knowledge map as a communication prop. The use of the knowledge map in the designer-SME interview may act as a communication prop to improve the interpersonal nature of the interview. The interaction with the SME can sometimes be a stressful experience which may be lessened by the use of a visual prop in the form of the knowledge map. The map may assist the communication process by providing a common focus of attention while at the same time demonstrating to the SME the designer's understanding of the content. The knowledge map appeared to assist Jane in handling the sometimes difficult interpersonal aspects of the interview. "And it really helps me, because when you're dealing with someone who you don't really know very well...I'm nervous...and rather than sort of concentrating and talking to him and looking at him in the eye, I could focus attention on the map."

The knowledge map may also help to focus the attention of the SME and designer on the most important parts of the content. Certain content on the map may not require further attention since the SME has verified the accuracy. Jane used the map in this sense by check-marking information on the map as it was examined and verified by the SME (Figure 2). In this sense, the map may act as a communication device that confirms the knowledge shared by the designer and SME. The focus of the interview can then be concerned with the areas that are most in need of attention. The knowledge map acts as a checklist, allowing the SME to selectively attend to concepts which are unclear, vague or incorrect and that require further scrutiny. Consequently, the map should allow the SME to comfortably scan and read it for accurate and inaccurate information.

The knowledge map may also assist in providing a structure to the interview process. The map may act as a roadmap for interaction just as a behavioural objective may inform a learner of the lesson's direction. Hawk (1986), in working with graphic organizers (a simplified spatial representation compared to the knowledge map), suggests that graphic organizers provide an overview of the material to be learned in the same way the knowledge map constructed by the designer may form a framework which provides reference points for the designer and SME.

The knowledge map appeared to assist both the SME and designer in recognizing gaps in the flow of the sequence and in the information. For example, Steve instantly recognized the absence of safety procedures in the map Jane had created on the C7 rifle. She was able to pinpoint gaps in the information that she addressed in the subsequent iteration (Figure 2). McAleese (1988, p. 7), in the context of developing expert systems, suggested that experts are able to recognize and pinpoint "inconsistencies or incompleteness" on a concept map.

Lambiotte, Dansereau, Cross, and Reynolds (1989, p. 332) suggested that knowledge maps are "computationally efficient" in that they "facilitate faster search and recognition of relevant information." Efficiency is defined in terms of how the knowledge map representation assists attention focusing, knowledge assimilation, and knowledge searching of new information. The presentation of the knowledge map to the SME may activate both the spatial and verbal systems thus increasing the processing efficiency of the information. The graphic nature of the knowledge map may allow spatial and verbal cross-cueing that in turn may assist the retrieval of appropriate content.

The teachback Function and the knowledge map. In the initial conception of the CPP, it was envisaged that the designer would stop at certain points throughout the interaction and teach the material back to the SME. This proved far too ambitious for a designer who is totally unfamiliar with a content area. It was not possible for the designer to gain sufficient familiarity with the content to teach back the material to the SME. Jane also felt uncomfortable with this practice--"I still think the toughest nut to crack for me is the teachback, I could just go over it and kind of lecture him, but I really felt uncomfortable doing that."

Therefore it seems more reasonable to assume that the designer must concentrate on obtaining the big picture and must postpone paraphrasing and asking in-depth questions until a later point in the interaction. A great deal of reflection and problem-solving, both of which require a great deal of time, was required to develop a conceptualization of the SME's content area. Throughout the study, it was felt that interviews should not exceed one hour given the time required by the instructional designer to grapple with and organize a visual logic to the material. Limiting the interview time meant that more frequent interviews were needed, but they were also more effective.

In spite of the original prediction, interspersing the teachback procedure (Gregory, 1986; Pask, 1975) in the interviews may actually interrupt the SME in the midst of an explanation and prove counterproductive to the overall goal of the elicitation process. If the instructional designer interrupts the SME, the SME may lose the train of thought and be prevented from explaining crucial information. The SME may also simply become irritated at being interrupted, thus negatively affecting the rapport between the designer and the SME.

It would appear that the teachback procedure is more appropriately used at the beginning of a subsequent interview. With the aid of the knowledge map, Jane found this a powerful means of checking her understanding of the content against the expertise of the SME. Jane gathered the information in the interview, reflected on the content, constructed the map and then taught the material back to the SME at the beginning of each interview. This proved an effective adaptation of the CPP over what was originally conceived.

After testing and observing the process in action by another instructional designer, the use of other SMEs to assist the validation of the content appears to be a useful principle to investigate. Instead of relying on one leading expert, a number of experts can be used to ensure depth and accuracy of the content. The knowledge map may provide a useful scaffold for elaboration with subsequent SMEs and provide a means of triangulating the accuracy of content. It may also provide an effective representation medium for conversing with multiple SMEs.


The CPP focuses on the interaction with the SME and the knowledge map representation. When completing design on multimedia projects, the author uses the knowledge map or concept map as a scaffold for planning the micro-design of a multimedia module. After developing the knowledge map, the instructional designer will have developed a conceptualization of the content that can be used in subsequent phases of the design and development cycle. When this conceptualization is dovetailed with the needs assessment for the specific project, the storyboard can then be developed. A specific form of storyboard or "planning grid" has been developed to provide a communication tool for interfacing between the instructional designer, SME, and graphic designer! programmer (Keppell & Buschgens, 1995). Figure 3 illustrates a graphic organizer! concept map for a project on Congenital Heart Disease whereas Table 1 provides an example of one page of a completed planning grid for the project.

Just as the CPP optimizes the instructional designer-SME interaction, the planning grid provides a communication tool for interfacing between the instructional designer and graphic designer! programmer. This is important, as harnessing the energy and expertise of team members (subject matter experts, instructional designers, graphic designers, programmers, audio-visual specialists, and evaluators) into a common goal is often a juggling act for the project manager as the team members often approach the project from different perspectives. Instructional designers tend to focus on pedagogical issues whereas graphic designers and computer programmers tend to focus on the technical aspects of the media. It is not uncommon for a communication bottleneck to occur between the instructional designer and technical staff due to their different background knowledge. Collaborative input, although essential for the multimedia project, is also problematic. The planning grid is useful in streamlining this communication and p roviding a common ground for discussing the design and development of the multimedia project. The planning grid is analogous to an architectural blueprint that can be applied or engineered by the graphic designer! programmer. The planning grid was successfully used on over 30 multimedia projects and was specifically formulated as a communication tool that would facilitate interaction and discussion between the multimedia team (SME, instructional designer, graphic designer, programmer, evaluator) when designing and developing the multimedia module.


This study explored the development, trial, and implementation of a process to elicit and conceptualize unfamiliar content. In particular the study examined the personal strategies used by an instructional designer in handling unfamiliar content. A secondary purpose was to examine the effectiveness of the process to train designers in elicitation and conceptualization processes.

The work has carefully documented the interactions of a novice designer with SMEs in a real context. The process appears promising in assisting the conceptualization of unfamiliar content and improving the designer-SME interaction. This article also discussed how the knowledge map created with the CPP is used to produce the planning grid which is the blueprint used by the graphic designer! programmer in developing the multimedia project.

The researcher suggested that the CPP heuristic, which accounts for a degree of uncertainty, and the fluidity of the situation may be an appropriate and realistic model for the field of instructional design. The concept of an elicitation and conceptualization script allows individual instructional designers to use this strategy along with their design script to handle the many facets of instructional problems that they may face.

Epilogue--A Personal Note

The author employed the CPP in the Canadian oil and gas industry (July, 1993 to July, 1994) to interact with 46 SMEs. Content areas included cementing, acidizing, fracturing, coil tubing, pipeline pigging, hydrostatic testing, vehicle inspections, nitrogen, and [CO.sub.2]. Comments by the SMEs in relation to this process were very favourable. SMEs were often puzzled by the accuracy of the information documented in the training manuals by an individual who was totally unfamiliar with the content. The operational procedures for 12 oil and gas operations relied exclusively on the input of SMEs. During 1994, the author also worked with seven content experts in therapeutic massage. His role was to assist in the formulation of the curriculum. From July, 1994 to December, 1996 in Australia, he worked with over 30 SMEs in the design and development of multimedia training materials for industry and university-based clients. Some of these content areas included open cut coal mining, underground coal mining, automotive practices, alumina processing, and engineering. Since February, 1998 he has been working with medical SMEs at a Faculty of Medicine in Melbourne, Australia. He used principles from the CPP to interact with over 40 medical experts in developing multimedia modules for use by medical students. Clients actively engaged in the process once they realize that their expertise drives the project. The role of the instructional designer was to filter and shape the content for the audience. The author's experience in working with SMEs was favourable. In the project-driven environment in which he worked, the identification and interaction with the SME was a major factor that determined the success or failure of the project. For him, the CPP continued to be successful and effective. It provided a valuable contribution to the design and development of multimedia modules.


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Table 1
An Example of a Planning Grid Developed for a Project on Congenital
Heart Disease
Screen Objective Text Attributes
8 provide Condition Types General layout: Text
 visual Acyanotic Lesions on left, heart diagram
 location of with Shunts on right of screen.
 lesions Acyanotic defects Atrial Septal Defect
 with shunts with shunts involve (ASD)
 initial left-to-right A septal defect often
 shunting of blood. located near the
 This group of foramen ovale.
 conditions is (Text appears below
 characterized by a heart diagram).
 connection between
 systemic and Ventricular Septal
 pulmonary Defect (VSD)
 circulations. Septat defect in the
 Shunts are from left ventricular wall.
 to right. Such
 anomalies present Patent Ductus
 as murmurs and, if Arteriosus (PDA)
 large, cardiac Failure of closure of
 enlargement, the ductus
 congestive heart connecting the
 failure and failure to pulmonary artery with
 thrive can result. the aorta (normally
 closes soon after
 Rollover, then click birth).
 on the following titles
 for further Anomalous
 information. Pulmonary-Venous
 Atrial Septal Defect Failure of
 (ASD) development of
 Ventricular Septal common pulmonary
 Defect (VSD) veins to left atrium.
 Patent Ductus
 Arteriosus (PDA) Atrioventricular Canal
 Anomalous Defect in which the
 Pulmonary-Venous upper part of the
 Return ventricular septum
 Atrioventricular and lower atrial
 Canal septum are absent.
Screen Interactivity Links Glossary
8 User rolls the cursor Cyanotic Cyanosis:
 over the title and lesions a bluish
 highlights the discoloration of
 anatomical area on Acyanotic the skin and
 he heart diagram defects mucous
 with membranes
 User clicks on title obstruction due to
 and displays excessive
 specific text about concentration
 the defect of reduced
 hemoglobin in
 User needs to the blood
 distinguish features
 of each defect and Acyanotic:
 compare to other characterized
 lesions (see links) by an absence
 of cyanosis.
 Questions follow
 this activity
COPYRIGHT 2001 Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Journal of Interactive Learning Research
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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A Case Study of the Development and Project Management of a Web/CD Hybrid Application.
An authoring model and tools for knowledge engineering in Intelligent Tutoring Systems.
An interaction-centric learning model.

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