Using Announcements to Give Narrative Shape to your Online Course

Megaphone drawn on chalkboard reflects announcements that students will pay attention to

Instructors, and instructional designers, spend a lot of time thinking about the flow of a classroom and how to create an intuitive sensibility that paves the progression a student might take through their course work. But there’s value in calling attention to the workflow. In order to ensure that students know where to center their attention when they “click” into the classroom, we need to tell them. We need to craft a narrative for our classes, one that hinges on content but connects with our students. And while instructors may feel as if they need to overload every interaction with course content, the online classroom requires instructors to develop and implement a comprehensive communication strategy—something separate from content and grounded in pedagogy. The announcement feature is one tool that many learning management systems allow the instructor to operationalize for this purpose.

In any online course, the announcements you post form an essential first point of contact, a touchstone for students every time they log into the classroom. And because these announcements are so visible, in such a high traffic area of the course, it’s important to use this real estate for more than just a weekly greeting or rundown of course policies. Having a robust slate of announcements in your course is one way to enhance instructor presence in the classroom, which leads to heightened student engagement and builds rapport as well.  Additionally, your “presence” will implicitly communicate high expectations for student work! You can leverage your online platform by using announcements to deliver just-in-time logistical broadcasts, concentrated bursts of instructional content, and to expand on underlying themes to enrich a sense of the educational journey students are on.

Thoughts on Frequency and Function

While it may be useful to think about the different categories of announcements you may post in the online classroom, there are some general best practices to keep in mind as well. In most learning management systems, announcements are placed front and center for students to see when they “enter” the classroom. But this very advantage can lead to a logjam, as important information might get cluttered or pushed down to the bottom of the list—especially in the early weeks of your class when you’re more likely to be posting a stream of essential start up and support options. Ultimately, consider if the information you’re posting makes more sense as an email rather than taking up Announcement space.

Generally, think of a number of announcements you’ll post during each class week and stick with that throughout the course so students can start to expect the cadence you’ve established. For example, you might always post an announcement on the first day of each week to provide some kick-off orientation and lecture content. Most learning management systems support robust tools that can be used in creating announcements. Consider using enriched media as a way to engage students more dynamically, and try to integrate a variety of media options, like hyperlinks, source existing audio/video clips, or create your own in your weekly Announcements.  And don’t just tell students to click into your lecture, or to proceed to the discussion board. Make sure you create a narrative for the week or unit and build some context by explaining how a student might benefit.

A Road Map to Follow

Setting expectations is an important part of managing the delivery of instruction in your classroom. We do it when we provide scaffolded prompts for written assignments and other deliverables, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do the same in other areas of the classroom. Students need to sort through course policies and instructional content, stay aware of deadlines, and work hard to be part of a diverse community of learners! It’s a tall order unless we establish parameters.

That’s why I provide students with a road map. Of course, first you have to develop a sense of that map for yourself! But here’s what works for me, and what I tell students to expect. First, I let them know that they can expect around three announcements from me during each class week. Then I explain when I will post these—always on the first day of the week (to kick things off), then again about three days later (positioned to help motivate and encourage forward progress), and finally, right at the end of the week (to provide some closure and open a channel for any last questions).

I go a step further, though, and share with students the types of announcements they can expect from me. In fact, I label the announcements when I post them so students can process and sort at a glance.  I create announcements labeled Course Policies as a way to deliver just-in-time logistical broadcasts, items relating to upkeep, and general information about classroom requirements. I might talk about discussion board expectations, separate from the actual prompt or outcomes being tested, or how to best utilize tutoring and library services, in an effort to keep these ideas present to refer back to as students move through the class, anchoring their learning and performance.

Instructional Content is the heading I use to indicate that I’m posting ideas and resources directly related to the learning outcomes and assignments that week. Since this is typically the first announcement of the week, the kick-off, I also preview some of the important things coming up that week and provide additional information and motivation to keep students on track. These concentrated bursts of instructional content also encourage students to Dig Deeper—another label I use. Posts labeled this way provide extra information on weekly course topics to provide students with the advanced tools they need to broaden their understanding. Typically, these pop up at the midpoint of a week, which is when students are likely starting to get serious about their pending deadlines. That way, they’ve got the intellectual vitamins needed to strengthen their work!

But announcements also provide an opportunity to foreground a success mindset, ensuring that students recognize the educational journey they are on and take ownership over it. Since I predominantly teach general education classes, which students take in the first year of their educational journey, I like to parallel process an ongoing conversation centered on the overarching knowledge a student is building through the course work—those durable skills and translatable abilities that will serve them in their education. I’ve been labeling these announcements differently from course to course (as I do a little A/B testing to see if the impact varies), but they always have aspirational tags like The Road You’re On or Lighting the Path. These are the types of announcements I like to open up for student interaction—so, if your LMS supports the ability for students to comment on announcements, this is the place to try it! Ask some questions to generate discussion, or prompt some deeper thinking. By opening up a channel for students to talk about the other courses they’ve taken, their study habits, as well as their anxieties and stumbling blocks, you’ll tap into what really motivates them, and you’ll acknowledge them as the whole learner they are.

It’s important to realize that the announcement functionality in your online class can be more than just a greeting, or a way to wrangle a list of due dates. Students need to understand the narrative of your course and announcements are one of the most important tools instructors have to craft that story. By creating a roadmap—not only to your course but to a larger idea of academic and personal success—announcements in your online classes can support students in their day-to-day work while preparing them for a brighter and more fulfilling tomorrow.

Dr. Nathan Pritts is a professor and lead faculty in the Center for the Enhancement of the First Year Experience at Ashford University. He brings expertise in business communication, advertising & marketing, and online user experience to the General Education classroom, infusing curriculum with foundational outcomes bolstered by clear ties to a student’s academic and career path. He’s building a handbook of the strategies and best practices essential for designing and delivering meaningful learning experiences to students online one chapter at a time at