Figure 1, One of three Life@UM Header Videos (Screenshot)
Life@UM – this is the name of the webpage in which the University of Maastricht gives more information about themselves and student life in general (University Maastricht, 2020a). These kind of pages are there for a certain reason – prospective students should be able to visualize their future academic life. But as we are talking about a webpage, simply having a lot of text that provides the reader with all that information does not cut it in the web. The following text will look at the use of multimodal modes on the Life@UM page and analyzes if and how they are used. This text is also part of a corpus of texts, which focus each on different aspects of multimodality.
I want to start out by describing what the user can see when entering the page. Right away you are greeted by an oversized lettering of Life@UM, in which the @-sign further indicates that this is a webpage and not a normal brochure. Behind the lettering there is a short video embedded, which shows a different content whenever you enter the webpage.
Figure 2, Second of the three Life@UM Header Videos (Video)
There are three different sceneries, but what they all have in common is the fact, that the viewer gets to see students in different areas of the university. This is the live embodiment of what the title suggests about the content of the page. The perspective chosen herby is very immersive – the viewer feels as part of the scene as in one case elements are flying towards them through a staircase. When further scrolling down the page the visitor can choose between two videos – either follow the life of a student called Brian or follow a day in the life of an associate professor called Lisa.
Figure 3, ‘A day in the life of’ videos
When further scrolling down the page different subpages are advertised like Studying in Maastricht, Living in Maastricht or Doing sports in Maastricht. All of these pictures again share a general theme and perspective in which you feel immersed and part of the showcased activity. Towards the end of the page you can see a picture slider of “Maastricht in a bird’s eye view” (University Maastricht, 2020a).
Figure 4, Slider ‘Maastricht in a bird’s eye view
The description you just read is a showcase for the use of different multimodal elements in order to make an experience more immersive. A study made by Renata Tomaskova (2015) shows that the use of multimodal elements in order to advertise an academic experience is rather common nowadays. New communication technologies have created the potential for this specific use of multimodality (Kress, 2003). Given the context, the used modes can look very different. Kress (2003) notes that the individual appearance of a site has culture-dependent rules, which do shape the contained images or texts. University websites are generally shaped by a dual communicative purpose. As Tomaskova (2015) put it, it is “to present a multifaceted view of the institution and to promote it”. This impression of student life, which is being presented, usually consists of a broad range of activities and events in which the university showcases itself. Something, which can be found at the Maastricht University Website is the lack of teachers in the pictures, which Tomaskova describes as quite common in this setting. Of course this is being done on purpose: the goal is to present the students as the center of attention. The university website wants to show both academic and extracurricular life to the viewer through narrative structures in which students function as agents (Tomaskova, 2012). Something the University of Maastricht shares with both Harvard and Oxford University is the claim of a diverse group of students (Tomaskova, 2015). Maastricht University claims, that it is “the most international university in the Netherlands”, where around fifty percent of the students come from abroad (Maastricht University, 2020b). This claim is somewhat showcased in the picture narratives, which are offered in the Life@UM subpage. The two storyboards, which are offered, follow one person which is not form the Netherlands. In other pictures one can see as well that a multifaceted picture of the Universities students wants to be showcased.
Figure 5, Example for diversity on the page
But the claim, that around fifty percent of the students are from abroad is hard to see through the sample of pictures. On the one hand they seem to lack diversity and on the other hand it is hard to tell from a picture alone if someone is from the Netherlands or another European country.
After presenting all of the content that uses multimodal ways, the following will dive deeper into analyzing the modes in use and why they are used in this specific context. The header picture itself already uses a few different modes. At first it seems to be a picture, but after a few seconds the people showcased in it start moving before it comes to a halt again (Figure 2). This combination of moving and still image without a sound nevertheless gives the viewer an insight into a situation. This is a combination of gestural and visual modes. The second element you can see when scrolling down on the page is the use of narrative modes, where the viewer is presented with short “a day in the life” videos, where we can follow the lives of two people of Maastricht University. Then for the first time we get the classical combination of language and visual modes, as the headers for the subpages like Living in Maastricht, Relaxing in Maastricht or Doing sports in Maastricht give a small introductory text accompanied by a picture (Maastricht University, 2020a), which visualizes what is highlighted in the text and therefore confirms what is described in the text (Tomaskova, 2015). The pictures and the accompanied text serve a clear purpose: In this section of its website the university tries to position itself more as an enabler rather than a doer (Tomaskova, 2015), which perfectly fits into the philosophy of problem based learning (PBL) being taught at Maastricht University (Maastricht University, 2020c). This all serves the general goal of showcasing the University in a positive light, which can meet or even exceed the prospective students expectations when it comes to public life or academia.
What was shown throughout this small case study are the different multimodal ways that the University of Maastricht uses in order to draw attention from prospective students on its Life@UM page. Instead of providing the viewer with a lot of written text accompanied by a few nice pictures, there is a bigger concept behind this site. Beginning with the video as a header, going to the day in the life of videos to the general overview tabs. All of these use different multimodal ways, combining modes like written language, video, audio or the context of the pictures itself. The bigger goal is to promote the openness of the university, which has to match the claim of being the most international university of the Netherlands (Maastricht University, 2020b). These findings are also in line with what Renata Tomaskova (2015) found in her research, where she was looking at the websites of three different universities. In comparison the University of Maastricht took a similar approach to Oxford or Harvard University, which both lay a heavy focus on showcasing diversity throughout their integration of multimodal elements (Tomaskova, 2015). But the internet and therefore webpages are an ever evolving thing, which means that the Life@UM webpage is not all you can do using multimodal elements.
The goal of this brief case study was to show some insights into how multimodality is consciously used in so many different areas today in order to strengthen a claim or reach a goal. Therefore it will be interesting to keep monitoring this site and see how it will look like in a few years’ time, when more and new elements are included. The purpose of this text was to showcase another example of the use of multimodality in an academic context. As this text is part of a bigger corpus of blog entries it is important to show the diverse use of this concept, especially for academic purposes.
This blogpost is part of a series of different elements, which all focus on the concept of multimodality. This contains multiple blog posts discussing different aspects of it as well as a podcast tying all of this together in verbal form. Here you can find the links to access the other posts as well as the podcast:
Podcast about the concept of multimodality, Introduction to the project, Explaining the concept, The history of multimodality, Multimodality in Instagram Reels, Art & Multimodality, Teaching & Multimodality and Multimodality in academic research.
Maastricht University. (2020a). Life@UM. https://www.maastrichtuniversity.nl/lifeum
Maastricht University. (2020b). About UM. https://www.maastrichtuniversity.nl/about-um
Maastricht University. (2020c). Problem-Based-Learning. https://www.maastrichtuniversity.nl/education/why-um/problem-based-learning
Kress, Gunther (2003) Literacy in the New Media Age. Routledge.
Tomášková, R. (2012). “Writing the Prospective Student in the Text”: On the Interplay of Monoglossic and Heteroglossic Elements in University Websites. In: Hopkinson, Christopher, RenátaTomášková and Gabriela Zapletalová (eds.) The Interpersonal Language Function Across Genres and Discourse Domains. Ostrava: University of Ostrava, 154–173.
Tomaskova, R. (2015). A walk through the multimodal landscape of university websites. Brno Studies in English, 41(1), 77-100.