pre-publication version, pleasedo not quote'

Promotional images of teaching and learning at university

Charles Crook and David Barrowcliff
Department of Human Sciences
Loughborough University


A random selection of undergraduate prospectuses from British universities is analysed in relation to the manner in which practices of teaching and learning are portrayed. Graphic images associated with departmental entries are classified according to themes of student activity, cultural resources, physical location and social relationships. Promotional images are dominated by themes of autonomy, practical investigation and authentic practice. These images are discussed in relation to the rise of a more consumer-oriented culture within academic life.. These images are also analysed as models of teaching and learning that we readily find convivial. As such, they are related to prospects arising from the growth of computer-based teaching technology and the emergence of both virtual universities and corporate.


In recent years, British universities have undergone considerable organisational change. The pressure for reform has prompted academics to reflect upon their established traditions of teaching and learning. The present paper is set against the contemporary debate concerning how eductional practice can best evolve and, in particular, whether any part of current practice needs to be more carefully protected form certain forms of innovation.

In this study, we seek a coherent institutional voice regarding what defines a stimulating educational environment for undergraduates. To this end, we consider how the aspirations of universities get expressed in promotional representations. Specifically, we shall examine those images that institutions use to cultivate positive public (mainly, student) relations. This exploration of what might be called the "public face" of teaching and learning turns out to be a sobering experience. In part, because the public face makes evident certain values that may be widely shared but rarely discussed. These values seem relevant to the prospects for current innovations within higher education. Of particular interest to us are prospects arising from the growing influence of information and communication technologies. In short, during times of educational innovation, we suggest that it is healthy to reveal and scrutinise certain idealised conceptions of the learning environment. When contemplating radical reform, it is useful to stand back and re-examine those designs-for-learning which we – at the present moment at least – have come to endorse as convivial.

The presently unsettled period within universities surely reflects two broad developments. First, there has been a sharp increase in student numbers. Second, while that expansion has largely recruited school-leavers, the proposed constituency for more sustained growth is clearly recognised as changing. It is less traditional and more challenging. So, extension of access to universities demands a greater flexibility in meeting the needs of this now more hetergenous student population. This will meet a certain contemporary vision: one in which individuals should be empowered to engage with higher education whenever their personal ambitions or their careers demand it. In this sense, it is argued (e.g., Raggatt, Edwards and Small, 1996), universities must move beyond their focus upon the traditional school-leaver and meet the broader demands of a "learning society"..

Realising these changes in student numbers and student profile has involved economic and political consequences that compel universities to take serious stock of their educational practice. This has been particularly urgent because the expansion of student intake was never matched by an expansion of staffing, or increase in material teaching resource. Put simply, teaching methods have had to adapt to less generous staff-student ratios. Further to this, meeting the demands of lifelong and flexible learning inevitably requires new resources and new strategies of teaching. Hague (1991) and other architects of the learning society warned that academics might resent and resist the radical changes required. Indeed, not only academics might have doubts: it was predicted that there would even be "some students clinging to the traditional ways of doing things" (1991, p. 49).

Two central features of the emerging new order provide a background for the present investigation. The first is a shift towards a more market-oriented culture of university management. The second is a vigorous appropriation of information and communication technology (ICT) into both teaching and administration.

Orienting to educational provision as a form of market-place activity entails many organisational changes: not least, a more competitive tension between institutions, greater quality management of teaching, and a more consumer-driven attitude towards students. So, new modes of educational discourse arise and are enthusiastically exercised by Vice Chancellors: "A knowledge economy connects the producers and suppliers of knowledge to the consumers of their product, and to the provider of related services such as tutorial support, assessment and certification" (MacFarlane, 1998, p. 84).

Recent expansion of ICT provision is perhaps related to this cultural shift. For new technologies are a ready response to political pressure for leaner and more competitive organisations. Moreover, orchestrating student contact with such technologies is seen as important in order to ensure "acquisition of the necessary skills for future development" (MacFarlane, p, 85). On this model, future development in the learning society depends on effectively exploiting the instructional potential of ICT. Thus, this new technology is both an instrument of immediate economies, and the key resource in developing support for lifelong learning.

Critics of the more consumer-oriented university system (e.g., Tett, 1996; Wernick. 1991) argue that its practices tend to transform knowledge itself into a commodity. Moreover, educational ICT cultivates a language of "information-delivery" that readily reinforces such commodification. So, it will be claimed, this new technology is implicated in unwelcome forms of commodity cynicism among both students and tutors. Students may approach academic assignments as bartered products ("") - an attitude that then requires their universities to invest in protective commercial services (""). Meanwhile, teaching staff increasingly deploy ICT as a mechanical form of course "delivery" - a process more typical of an industrial production line than the academy (Noble, 1998).

There are a growing number of significant voices among senior academics who appear to welcome the possibility that "the classroom itself may soon be replaced by more appropriate and efficient learning experiences" mediated by ICT (Duderstadt, 1999, p. 7). Arguably, the trajectory of such developments is towards institutions that might be termed "virtual universities" (Tiffen 1996). The prospect is one of evolving towards institutions released from bricks-and-mortar collegiality. This invites us to take stock of our current model of institutional life and how it represents the significance of such traditional structure. The present moment may be a significant one for considering how higher educational practice is currently construed and projected to its potential constituency. So, we are concerned here to look at consumer-oriented institutional projection of teaching and learning: the communicative devices currently used to represent such activity in an acceptable way. We take these representations as a crude but topical barometer of popular expectations. Moreover, the public projections to be studied here are those designed by universities themselves. These have the advantage of being versions of popular expectations that must enjoy some degree of endorsement by these very institutions. (Not that there are other sources of popular representation available for study: university life is no longer a common topic of drama or fiction and it is rarely portrayed in advertising.)

There are several promotional windows for viewing the apparent aspirations of universities in respect of teaching and learning. There is the window glimpsed by politicians and civil servants: this would require an analysis of Mission Statements and other overarching formalisms. Then there is the Quality Auditors' window: which would require studying paper trails proceduralising the cycle of course design, delivery and assessment. It is unlikely that either of these views exert very much influence on the broad public consciousness. Moreover, the academics themselves are likely to be cynical about such "reificiations" of community practice (Wenger, 1998). Our preference here, therefore, is to consider the window instituions design for intending students: the undergraduate prospectus. These are interesting annual documents which, while not qualifying as explicit advertising, certainly do exercise a gentle form of seduction. Moreover, universities have a relatively free hand in designing their rhetoric: because these books are not distributed for official bureaucratic scrutiny. In particular, they would not be used as evidence at any teaching audit (which would more likely refer to the "course handbook"). Most important, the undergraduate prospectus functions at an intriguing cusp within the social system that shapes our understanding of what universities do. For the messages they convey must be poised at a delicate point of communication. They need to represent, on the one hand. a real institutional ambition or vision (a manifesto); yet. on the other hand. they must represent an appreciation of what is convivial and attractive to potential students (a brochure). In short, they must be honest to certain ideals, but need realistically to remember that prospectuses do play a significant role in determining choices made by intending undergraduates (Kealy and Rockel, 1987; Reynolds, 1994).

We shall be selective in analysing content within these documents. Because our interest here is with institutional constructions of teaching and learning, our analysis will concentrate on the sections of prospectuses that deal with departments and with courses (rather than with social, sporting or cultural facilities). Furthermore, while we have not ignored the accompanying texts, the analysis below will concentrate instead upon those graphic images that are used to illustrate the various scholarly agendas. The texts tend to be about bread-and-butter matters: entrance qualifications, module choices, degree accreditation and so forth. While the pictures seem to tackle more vividly what is involved in studying a discipline. For this reason, they offer a richer potential for revealing just what kinds of cultural resources we currently draw upon to give everyday meaning to the notions of "education" or "study".

In choosing to analyse graphic images, the present research is evidently influenced by a long tradition of work on the semiotics and rhetoric of commercial promotion. Since McLuhan (1951), social scientists have recognised the need to study such images. Motives for doing so may be variously political or psychological. The tradition established by Barthes (1973, 1977) declares that it is the political duty of critical theorists to study and denounce the myths cultivated by advertising discourse. While Goffman's more psychological analysis of gender representation in advertising images (1979) mobilises the very successes of the advertisers' art to argue for the reality of our own social representations - upon which that art depends. Our own aim is partly a political one: it is important to recognise the manner in which the activity of "study" is constructed to reflect vested interests. However, we are less certain that this rhetoric should be perceived as "mythical discourse" in Barthes' sense. Universities do not share the advertisers' need to create, cultivate and glamorise some form of new consumer appetite. Universities are anxious to attract the interest of students. but can do so less cynically. As noted above, their representations of study are more "negotiated". They are fashioned at a significant intersection of interests: that of the institutional ideal (as perhaps authenticated by current theories of learning), and that of the ideal conceived by intending students (as derived from participation in a broader social world).

Thus the analysis that follows is only cautiously political in Barthes' sense. Similarly, it is cautious in its "psychological" content. Like Goffman we believe the promotional images discussed below are interesting for what they say about our representational currency for projecting and shaping a particular cultural activity (teaching and learning).. However, unlike Goffman, we take more seriously the task of sampling - in order, to offer a representative snapshot of promotional practice. This is because we are not concerned to demonstrate the full range of cultural resources that can serve as such representational currency for teaching and learning. Rather we wish to note the forms of representation that dominate current institutional constructions of teaching and learning in universities. That is, those representations that define the most accessible and prominent versions of such activity.

In sum, it is suggested that the more vigorous competitive and consumer-oriented culture within universities brings new significance to the undergraduate prospectuses. It becomes the principle arena in which images of educational practice are presented to a wider public. This renders such images of special interest, as they define an important site at which public understandings of university teaching and learning are negotiated. It is timely to record the state of that negotiation: because of the pressures arising from expansion and from adopting new instructional technologies. A content analysis of such promotional images is described below. The emerging representations of teaching and learning are then considered in relation to the profile of actual activities recorded in undergraduate study diaries.


Prospectus sampling. Eight British universities were selected by contacting every 12th entry from an official national listing. A total of 430 pictures associated with the entries of each academic department were examined by the two authors and their corporate codings recorded for statistical summary.

Prospectus coding. The codes employed were derived from preliminary examination of a larger, arbitrary sample of prospectuses from the preceding year. This exercise suggested five main headings under which to organise the formal analysis of content. The coders’ decisions were evaluated by giving a random sample (10% of the total images) to a graduate observer unaware of the purpose of this study. Reliability of codings within each main heading iis indicated below by values of the conservative statistic, kappa. Traditionally, values of kappa above .75 represent "excellent" agreement, values between .4 and .74 represent "fair to good" reliability (Landis and Koch, 1977). All codings were "fair to good", or better. The distinctions upon which our later discussion is based are presented below in respect of each main heading.

1. General format (kappa = 0.82). Many prospectus images portrayed teaching and learning. These were categorised uniquely according to (1) whether they merely illustrated some institutional place for such activity, or (2) whether they showed students actively engaged in some form of implicit study. The remaining sub-categories of "general format" were distinguished as follows. Three concerned some representation of the relevant academic discipline. This might involve portraying (3) a relevant disciplinary icon, artefact or material, (4) disciplinary practitioners engaged in some relevant activity, or (5) institutional structures or cultural traditions/displays associated with that discipline. Two further categories covered informal representations of students themselves; either (6) in relaxed and recreational groupings, or (7) as stylised individual profiles. Finally, (8) ongoing research associated with the relevant department might be portrayed. All further categorising described below applied only to cases (1) and (2) above: that is, those images directly concerned with the representation of teaching and learning.

2. Location (kappa = 0.55). The portrayed sites of teaching and learning were distinguished as: classroom (teaching space designed for discursive groupings), theatre (dedicated lecture space), laboratory (equipped area for support of studio or practical work), computer room (collection of ICT workstations), resource room (dedicated space furnished to support parallel self-directed study), field (off-campus, legitimate space affording relevant disciplinary activity), library (space furnished to store textual material alongside areas for personal or study), office (personal space owned/occupied by staff member), study bedroom (personal space owned by student), unspecified (insufficient background visible).

3. Social content (kappa = 0.68). Images showing people were first coded as to whether they were solitary, in a single grouping (two or more individuals), or whether there were collections of groups. The two types of groupings were then coded as to whether they were: parallel (two or more in sufficient proximity to afford conversation but working independently), or associative (two or more people interacting in relation to a common focus). Finally, where the image portrayed moments of formalised communication or exposition, they were coded as to whether this involved tutor-to-student, tutor-to-group or student-to-peers..

4. Orientation to resources (kappa = 0.85). Where portrayals of teaching and learning involved a principle focus towards certain materials. these were coded in terms of text (written material), equipment (specialised material for investigative purposes), computers (screen-and keyboard workstations), systems of disciplinary practice (using discipline-related tools in authentic settings).

5. Broad impact (kappa = 0.79). To achieve a single coarse-grained summary description, images were also allocated a unique coding from the following 11 alternatives. Didactic (formal exposition by tutor), reading (solitary student attending to text), writing (solitary student engaged in writing) exposition (student making presentation), discourse (small group conversation), guided exploration (supervised laboratory or studio work by group), guided practice (supervised field work by group) solitary exploration (single student in laboratory/studio), social exploration (autonomous student group in laboratory/studio), social practice (autonomous student group in field setting)

Results and discussion

The content of these prospectus images is examined below under four general headings. These concern learning in the following terms: as an activity, as geographically situated, as materially resourced, and as socially organised.

General image formats. 56% of the 430 images associated with departmental/course entries portrayed some aspect of teaching and learning. Yet this content theme is by no means the only way in which a departmentalentry can be made visually engaging. A popular alternative (accounting for 32% of the images) portrayed some form of disciplinary icon, location, tradition, or practice. While 16% summon up the learner’s voice through the device of an illustrated student profile or biography.

Insofar as institutions elect to represent teaching and learning, it is clear that they do so in a very selective manner. A rough sense of this is derived from considering our "broad impact" categorisation described above. The dominant feel of these representations is of students being active and creative. So, images portraying guided, social or solitary exploration in a lab or study environment account for 61.4% of the total. A further 21.5% portray some form of authentic disciplinary practice by students in a fieldwork setting.

Figure 1 illustrates some of these themes as they are commonly represented. Images A and C capture the typical circumstances of practical work either alone [C] or in a group [A]. These are the scences that suggest orchestrated "exploration" and which account for over 60% of the total. Image D is typical of the second major category of general impact in that it shows students active in a more fieldwork setting. Image B, while as visually busy aa the others, is a far less typical representation. Such images of discursive practices associated with tutorials or seminars account for only 4% of the total. Impact based on other supposedly traditional study practices (expository presentations, reading and writing) are particularly rare (accounting for less than 10% of the total coded).

One justification for mobilising images that stress active and participatory engagements might be that this serves to distinguish more clearly one departmental entry from another. Yet, in practice, it is usually difficult to infer the specific discipline that is being illustrated from the content of a prospectus image (as the four cases in Figure 1 might indicate). Indeed, a high degree of image inter-changeability could be tolerated without disorienting readers. The images, therefore, do not simply activate automated processes of disciplinary recognition : they invite an inference whereby the scene portrayed suggests a promise of what studying a given discipline could involve.

In terms of the general authenticity of activities portrayed, these images are less stylised than those of traditional advertising. With very few exceptions, the viewer will rarely doubt that the individuals portrayed are real tutors or students. However, the status of these images as posed actions is more problematic. In only a very small number of cases, is the subtlety of composition such as to imply artifice. It is likely, therefore, that legitimate participants captured in genuine institutional contexts create a more persuasive and appropriate image. Yet these pictures are not innocent snapshots of everyday life: they do conform to certain of the conventions analysts associate with advertising. For example, Goffman (1979) notes how the composition of advertising images is carefully choreographed to make meanings and purposes unambiguous. Shooting angles are chosen to optimise the view; individuals are segregated to make their actions more transparent; locations are selected to highlight important functionalities. Such matters are evident in the composition of the typical prospectus images illustrated in Figure 1. They capture from the participants a tidy segregation of position plus a convenient singularity of attention and concentration. Exotic equipment is engineered into a central position [note how modern office technology is made active and is helpfully tilted into view [B]). Our conversations with some of the photographers involved reveal that behind each shot that is used there can be a large collection of rejected images. Despite the authenticity of the participants and their settings, this underlying editorial effort reminds us of the strong promotional purpose being exercised.

Sites of teaching and learning . It follows from the above statistics that prospectus images locate students in places that cultivate exploration and disciplinary practice. This is most usually a specialised laboratory or studio (56%). It is rarely a library (3%) and rarely a resource room for independent study (1 %). Students are rarely (5.1% of images) shown engaged in private study in personal space. It is not that a prospectus will deny such personal space. Indeed it will be heavily featured in the pages that deal with social life. The activityh of study, on the other hand, is construed as situated in specialised sites: places that typically are animated, and richly furnished with pliable disciplinary resources.

Resources for learning. In most images, students are seen to have a material target for their attention or activity This is usually (in 43.4% of cases) a piece of specialised equipment or some disciplinary instrument. In a further 18.8% of cases, students are portrayed focused on computers. Earlier, we identified this technology as prominent in visions of innovative university teaching. Yet a computer was visible in less than a third of these images (29.9%). Students were rarely (8.6% of cases) portrayed in a dedicated computer room. When they were shown using this technology, they were more likely to be seen doing so in an animated social setting. Settings for study were classified as showing activity as solitary, small group or group-of-groups. Cross-classifying this with whether or not students are shown principally oriented to computers reveals a significant relationship (C (2) = 14.8, p < .001) whereby computers are more likely to be a focal resource in large group settings.

Teaching and learning relationships. The issues here are social in nature and concern, firstly, portrayal of interpersonal learning relationships and, secondly, portrayal of study as activity that is "social" in the sense of grounded in some form of community. Most prospectus images of teaching and learning are busy in a social sense. Two thirds of them (67%) show students in a single group or show groups-of-groups (as in certain practical classes for example). Yet this statistic also reveals that the image of the solitary student is quite common. Of course, given what has already been said, that image is very much one of the student-as-investigator. For, typically, the isolated learner will be tinkering with some piece of disciplinary material or equipment. One further observation is necessary regarding the portrayal of individual students: namely that images contain rather more male than female students. This does not seem to reflect any disciplinary eccentricity in the sampling of universities - as analysis of variance reveals this asymmetry (F(1,7) = 4.4, p<.05) involves no interaction with university site. As we did not set out to find such a bias, we do not wish to dwell on this observation. It may well be a consequence of the drive to present activity-centred images coupled with the possibility that departments dominated by male students (such as engineering) are likely to over-represent student activity in their promotional imagery. Nevertheless, even if the bias is innocent of any orchestration, it may create a marginally distorting impact in terms of gendered identification by the reader.

What is particularly striking about the social oraganisation portrayed in these pictures is the mysterious absence of individuals who could reasonably be identified as "tutors". In only 16% of images was there deemed to be any form of tutorial relationship implied. Goffman (1979) notes that "instruction" is a circumstance that can often be mobilised in advertising imagery; yet, when it is, it is typically represented as a relationship of subordination. Whatever the normal force of this representational convention, in the prospectus world of learning, such hierarchical relationships are generally concealed rather than mobilised. Moreover, where the tutor is made visible, the instructional exchange is usually set in a the context of small group discussion. Tutors here are catalysts: only occasionally intruding into a world of autonomous and practical exploration.

If teaching is well concealed as an activity involving individual tutors. then teaching is even less visible in the more abstract realisation of "scholarly community".. It is true that these prospectus images are socially animated. They do show learning as, often, something that is done in the company of peers. However, this hardly amounts to the representation of "community" in any very powerful sense. In particular, there is no investment in portraying the notion that the social groupings of investigative study might have a more sustained situational identity - that students might enjoy the corporate life of a "department". Study in the world of the prospectus is located in rather anonymous settings that suggest no obvious coherence of activity in temporal or spatial terms - no obvious sense of a learning "community".

General discussion

Analysing a random sample of prospectus images reveals that public representations of teaching and learning stress activities that are autonomously managed, practical, authentic and socially performed. Study is exploratory, active and likely to be resourced by access to specialised facilities or equipment. Such a vision surely does not resonate with our intuitions about the experience. Indeed in an independent study at just one traditional campus university (Crook and Light, 1999), diary studies revealed that in a cross section of students, 66% of learning time was given over to private study. Of the remaining time, it was more likely to involve a lecture room (19% of time) and rather unlikely to be in a laboratory or studio (8.8% of time). Such surveys of actual time allocation suggest an experience of learning that is more didactic, private and text-based.

Evidently, this tension between image and actual experience may be less a cynical distortion than an inherent consequence of design demands arising from the promotional media under examination (consequences to be acknowledged below). Yet we wish to stress two issues asoociated with this tension; neither are effected by the motives behind these prospectuses images. First, however innocently conceived, their content does contribute to a romanitc vision of teaching and learning that may lead to disappoitment. There are few authentic guides on what the intending student should expect and often those expectations are inappropriate (Silver and Silver, 1997). Second, whatever their authority, these images are acceptable to the community. They are endorsed by the departments they represent; they can be taken as a blend of what academics aspire towards and what students might hope to encounter. Confronting such ideaised settings is helpful at a time when they may be de-stabilised by developments in new teaching technologies.

First, it might be argued that no editor promises that these handbooks will furnish properly sampled accounts of academic life. Images are merely meant to be engaging: the text can carry the bread-and-butter detail. (Certainly, the texts rarely comment on the quality of learning experiences; rather, they concentrate on summaries of course structure.). Yet, it is quite appropriate to ask why these particular images "work" – why are they engaging? It is not clear that images such as those illustrated in Figure 1 are perceptually more vivid or cognitively more stimulating than images portraying those aspects of teaching and learning that we note the prospectuses tend to neglect.. It must be supposed that readers (potential students) are agreeably engaged by the opportunity to imagine themselves as participants in the typical scenes portrayed: in short, these are the images that are convivial..

Second, it might be argued that editors are merely projecting their vision of how an ideal university learning environment ought to look. After all, there are good theoretical grounds for cultivating, for example, autonomy (Boud, 1988) and authenticity (Brown, Collins and Duguid, 1989). In which case, we are bound to reinforce the observation that students are being unhelpfully misled..

Third, it might be argued that editors have an obligation to select images that sensibly discriminate between different departmental entries - if they are to make the images usefully illustrative of something. However, we have claimed above that, in practice, the images selected do not do this very convincingly. Many pictures are sufficiently vague that they could be interchanged without apparent distortion of their illustrative function. They seem to work because readers tolerate certain ambiguous images which, for any given discipline, are simply plausible rather than uniquely illustrative. Moreover, as many departmental entries reveal, the job of discriminating one discipline from another can be quite effectively managed with other forms of imagery - such as the portrayal of various disciplinary icons settings or traditions.

Whatever issues of intent there may be, these images remain telling for what they reveal about contemporary idealisations of teaching and learning. It was argued earlier that these prospectuses have a special status in respect of shaping such popular understandings. For they are a quite distinctive form of promotional literature. Arguably, they are the main vehicle for fashioning an accessible public image for university teaching and learning. Moreover, the pictures within them are a particularly potent form of illustration, as those pictures are vivid, direct and unmoderated by any form of official auditing. It is true that the prospectus is not unique as a promotional device. Universities are now exploring additional media for public representation: websites are a clear example of such development. In addition, university departments now invest in displaying promotional material within their own premises. Our own department, for example, boasts a collection of 2-metre high photographs greeting visitors in its entry foyer. However, these pictures are merely enlargements of prospectus images - as are the pictures used on its website. In short, there is every reason to expect that emerging alternative avenues for promotional activities will rely upon the same imagery we have chosen to study in the printed prospectus.

It was noted in our Introduction that universities have moved towards being more competitive and more preoccupied with issues of corporate identity and style. They have embraced the "promotional culture" (Wernick, 1991). This suggests that material such as that studied here will increasingly influence the public construal of what it is to participate in academic life. It therefore becomes important to assess whether the conventions of still photography or the design conventions of promotional literature create a distorted form of institutional message and, thus, whether the public gets misled in its interpretation of higher educational practice.

Are the biases found in these representations in tune with fashionable theories as to how educational practice ought to be organised. Are the predominant promotional images educationally wholesome and are the omissions those themes that we should indeed want to be less conspicuous? As Featherstone and Hepworth (1995) note for advertising representations of ageing, it is quite possible for promotional imagery to be socially radical and affirmative, at the same time that it serves commercial interests. In the case of the present images, the conveyed message could be theoretically radical at the same time that it is culturally appealing. Indeed, we have already noted that the emphasis on authentic forms of disciplinary practice is in keeping with current theories regarding the participatory nature of effective learning (Lave and Wenger, 1991), as well as in keeping with the need for learning to be properly "situated" (Brown, Collins and Duguid, 1989) and to be collaborative (Crook, 1994). On the other hand, there are surely dangers associated with representations of learning that stress these themes to the exclusion of all else. Thus, effective scholarship can not be exclusively mediated by hands-on, practical experiences. It must be supported by theoretical research, by discursive explorations, and through private reflection. None of these traditions are well represented in our data. Accordingly, it is misleading to pander to versions of educational practice that are comfortably "jaunty" in the sense of many of the images that we have studied.

Contemporary theories of effective learning stress other themes that, in the present sets of images, are notable for their under-representation. For instance, there is no sense of tutorial scaffolding, or guided instruction of the kind that arises in theories influenced by Vygotsky (e.g., Rogoff, 1990). Indeed, tutors are eerily absent from these prospectus photographs. Instead, learners are portrayed with striking autonomy as they go about their exploratory and investigative business. Finally, there is no acknowledgement of the contemporary view that learning is best organised around the concept of community (Goodchild, 1999; Lave, 1991). The collegiate nature of teaching and learning is not addressed. Instead, prospectus images have students populating anonymous facilities. These spaces lack features that suggest they have been fashioned for academic exploration that is both shared and sustained across time. In discussing the hyper-ritualisation of advertising imagery, Goffman notes that in real life we are "stuck with a considerable amount of dull footage" (1979, p. 84). Yet the notions of community and guided are surely more than the "dull footage" of scholarly life: they are features that need rescue and, beyond that, active celebration.

The dominant images of autonomously-manged practical exploration may well be out of step with some of the theoretical themes identified above. Arguably, the typical delivery of those themes has depended on the culturalcoherence of a traditional bricks-and-mortar university setting. Yet this traditional setting is no longer taken for granted. Even where the dimension of community is regarded as precious, modern commentators now imply that it need not depend upon that bricks-and-mortar tradition for its viability (Finnegan, 1994). New technology promises to disassemble the familiar temporal and spatial order of institutional life in higher education. The "virtual university" is celebrated as a paradigm shift (Tiffin, 1996) requiring from learners new forms of flexibility. As claimed earlier, a modern expectation of higher education is that it should equip students with the capabilities and motivation for lifelong learning (MacFarlane, 1998). However, if promotional images of learning are any sort of mirror on students' aspirations, then the virtualisation agenda may be not be simple to realise. For what is cultivated in prospectuses as an attractive vision of learning is activity that is strongly practical and authentic. There has been no temptation to appeal to the attraction of learning as something "flexible" and relatively self-organising: such as a computer-mediated, de-schooled form of experience.

On the other hand, representations of learning as authentic practice do resonate with an alternative radical scenario for future higher education: namely that of the emerging "corporate university" (Meister, 1998). From this source we are offered an experience of study that is much more fashioned in communities of practice - much more located "on the job". Arguably this fits well with the representations we have revealed in the present paper. So, the present institutions of university life remain vulnerable. What is celebrated in promotional images may not be easily reproduced in the de-school version of the virtual university. But those images do find a match in the blending of study with authentic workplace employment – as might be offered within certain models of corporate university study. In which case such models of influence within this sector of public education need to be examined seriously.


The research reported here was supported by a grant from the UK Economic and Social Research Council under its "Virtual Society?" programme.


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