Negotiating school identities : a multimodal analysis of upper secondary school promotion on the web

Abstract: The research interests of this doctoral thesis are the mediated ways of presenting and promoting Swedish upper secondary schools on the web to attract students. The thesis studies the rationale of schools’ strategically designed attempts to reach out with their educational offers in a highly competitive school market. The aim is to study how the identities of upper secondary schools are constructed and how potential students are addressed to identify with schools as of year 2020- 2021. More specifically, the thesis is concerned with the multimodal character of school identities as situated in the interplay between different means of communication. The way visual components reinforce, complement, or contradict each other in the presentation of schools is focused. The relation between text and image is admittedly a field of research of its own. Other research interests are concerned with the way potential students are positioned along with a certain worldview as well as how they are supposed to recognize themselves in the description of four theoretical study programs.Moreover, I study the grips or gripping forces by which the audiovisual promotion of schools is designed to appeal to or encapsulate potential students on basis of a sense of purpose and belonging. The study material for the thesis is hence found in three categories of web-based information: 64 schools’ self-presentations online, program descriptions of four theoretically oriented study programs on the so-called “school webs” of the same schools and, finally, upper secondary schools’ YouTube-videos integrated in many cases on the websites. These empirical instances are studied to learn more about different school identities, the ideological significance of education as related to certain world views, and the way of addressing or gripping potential students in the promotion of schools.My method of inquiry is a combination of a logics approach with visual analysis to address the relation between different modalities. A set of discursive logics are integrated with a multimodal framework to emphasize multiple modes of communication and to make sense of the interplay between them. The multimodal analysis proceeds from the way discursive statements are situated in a field of tension. Because the descriptive means by which upper secondary schools are presented to potential students are based upon the self-interpretations of schools, they are well-suited for the study of the construction of school identities in the intersection between visual modalities of text, image, and video. It is important to point out that the thesis has no intention to analyze the meaning of images per se, but mainly the way they reinforce, add to, or contradict the textual or spoken messages found in the self-presentations on the web or in the audiovisual presentation of schools. Discursive statements are hence approached as mediated accounts. Form matters as much as content; the way messages are conveyed has a bearing on the perceived meaning of statements.This thesis is situated at the intersection between strategic communication, visual culture studies, multimodal analysis, and the critical study of education. A major finding is that a traditional identity of schools is largely appropriated for or turned into a means of competition. A competitive approach is also associated with that of caring and tradition as a way of gaining legitimacy. Tradition is not so much questioned from a market point of view as reaffirmed as necessary for schools to be recognized as such. Opposite demands are continuously negotiated and hence subject to the ideological logics of both/and, as it often appears as desirable to incorporate, embrace and balance different aspects instead of maintaining just one of them. This offers a more flexible approach to identity construction in allowing schools to incorporate opposite demands as though complementary aspects.As to the role of visual means of presentation, images form an integrated and central part of webpages as mediated presentations of schools. Because of the poignant or emotive implications of images in relation to text, they are often considered a powerful means of identification with the schools and their core values. A crucial aspect that emerges in the interplay between text, image, and video, is that of reciprocity. Schools and students are seen to be mutually dependent upon each other and so, in terms of a caring and compassionate attitude, look after each other’s interests. As the free choice educational system depends for its efficacy and perceived success on students making the “right” choice of education, ninth graders’ personal interests are what is supposed to guide their choice of school. Although admission also depends on previous school merits, it is understood as desirable for a sense of common purpose that the interests of students overlap with those of the schools. In sum, students are indeed expected not only to represent but to be the schools or incorporate all that which schools are claimed to be.