Subject matter experts as a learning problem

Reda SadkiWriting

Copenhagen. I chat with two “learning consultants”, whose job it is in their respective universities to help faculty improve how they teach.

Much to my dismay, I understand that their role is perceived as being about the adoption of new tools (“Should I use Adobe Connect or Zoom?”). Yet they are a case in point that learning technologists provide a rare opportunity for university faculty to think through how they teach.

In such institutions of teaching and learning, guess who is paid more?

Cue Felder’s infamous quote: “College teaching may be the only skilled profession for which systematic training is neither required nor provided – pizza delivery jobs come with more instruction.”

Subject matter experts are a problem.

They are expensive. If they are good, they tend to be too busy to contribute.

They often confuse knowing with teaching.

Their best intention is to transmit what they know.

They tend to think a lot about what they need to do to teach (and maybe how to do so), rather than considering what learners need to do in order to learn.

Consequently, they are disappointed and stymied by the apparent passivity of learners. “I wish my students would participate more!”

This problem is compounded by peer learning. It is legitimate to yearn for validation from an established expert. However, the shining light of expertise can blind learners to the potential of what they might achieve together.

What if we flipped convention on its head? Subject matter expertise becomes one input. An important one. But it is pedagogy in the driver’s seat. How we come to know trumps what we know. (What we need to know changes so fast, the former is more important than the latter.)

Renewed relevance of subject matter experts may be in supporting implementation and progression to impact, not in teaching and learning. The expertise that matters is in knowing how to get business done, how to get to a result, how to negotiate the context.

But, then again, teaching and learning that is relevant should encompass that journey to implementation and impact.

If it does not, it is not teaching and there is no learning.

Photo: Bryggerness Plads, Copenhagen (March 2019). Personal collection.