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An interview with Philippa Levy

Interview by: Margaret Adolphus

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Photo: Lorraine EstelleProfessor Philippa Levy is academic director of the Centre for Inquiry-based Learning in the Arts and Social Sciences (CILASS), at the University of Sheffield, and a member of the Department of Information Studies. Before her role with CILASS, she was director of teaching and head of the Educational Informatics Research Group in that department.

Philippa’s teaching and research are closely linked. Her interests lie in the facilitation of active learning in higher education – in particular, experiential and inquiry learning approaches, the role of information and communications technology in the learning experience, and learner support strategies, including information literacy education. A key research focus has been on networked learning pedagogy, and she is currently, along with other members of her department, carrying out a systematic review of the literature on information literacy and learning within higher education. She is also taking forward a number of pedagogical research projects within CILASS, focusing on questions relating to inquiry-based learning, and was director of a recent design for learning evaluation project funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

She is a contributor to Emerald journals, including the Journal of Documentation, and is on the editorial board of Teaching in Higher Education.

What does the term Library 2.0 mean to you?

To me Library 2.0 means user participation, engagement, and generation of content rather than simply accessing information. My perspective is more that of teaching and learning rather than librarianship, so I would look to a library to be a physical and virtual environment where people can not only access, but also share information. I’m particularly interested in the library as a social environment for collaboration.

Can you tell us about your role as academic director of CILASS?

CILASS is a Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL). It’s one of 74 CETLs that were set up in England and Northern Ireland about two and a half years ago by HEFCE as five-year development and research programmes. The function of a CETL is to reward teaching, as part of a strategy to increase its profile. CILASS’s particular focus is on promoting and facilitating the development of inquiry-based learning, and underpinning that with research and scholarship. We also have thematic interests in information literacy, networked learning, the development of new spaces.

So, how do you reward teaching?

In a number of ways. We offer resources and expertise to colleagues, but we also have an award scheme whereby staff can be nominated for excellence in inquiry-based learning initiatives, and a fellowship scheme whereby staff can work with us in CILASS. Both parties benefit: we from their expertise, they from resources that we can offer them. We also do research and promote scholarships for staff who want to do research around their teaching.

We work very closely with a number of professional services, including the university library. The library was involved in the conceptualization of the CETL right from the start, and we also have an "information literacy network" chaired by Sheila Corrall, head of department and professor of librarianship and information management. This network is coordinated by CILASS, but brings together staff from the Department of Information Studies, the library and the CETL to focus on where information literacy fits into the inquiry-based learning equation.

We had two million pounds’ worth of capital funding from HEFCE to spend over a two-year period: part of that we distributed across academic departments in the arts and social sciences and the library, but the bulk of it went into creating our collaboratory spaces in the "Information Commons" which, coincidentally and fortuitously, was already in the planning stages and was being built when the CETL money was then released, so we were able to put some additional money in and create further spaces.

Can you explain the concept behind the Information Commons?

The strapline for the Information Commons is "more than a library, more than an IT centre, more than a study space". The concept was to create an accessible and welcoming space for students to learn which is information-rich and technology-rich, but not dominated by technology, and which provides different types of space, furniture and ways of accessing technology, so that students can work in groups or as individuals, silently or not, on their own laptops or on PCs provided. The whole place has a very bright, airy modern feel, there’s a café, and it’s a social space as well as a learning space and an information space. It also has a couple of classrooms and CILASS has its own inquiry collaboratory spaces as well.

So it offers interesting possibilities for interconnecting and students can move back and forth between online resources and social networking environments and physical collaboration.

Picture of the Information Commons at the University of Sheffield

The Information Commons at the University of Sheffield


How did the idea start?

The original idea for it came about some time in the mid to late 1990s, and the project was taken forward jointly by the library and Corporate Information and Computing Services. To begin with the project was called a Learning Resources Centre, but during the time it took to develop the plans properly and secure funding, the idea began to crystallize and people realized that there was more to it than access to resources. The new emphasis was on collaboration, sharing, and the information environment as a social environment. So this led to the idea of the Information Commons; as I’m sure you’re aware, there are a number of these in North America and one or two in Australia, but we are the first university in the UK to have adopted the title for its new information space.

What’s very exciting for me as the director of CILASS is that ideas on where we want to go in teaching and learning have been developed concurrently with ideas about new learning and information spaces, and new technologies that we can put into those spaces. So we’ve been able to integrate our thinking, and the design of spaces has been strongly informed by the teaching and learning agenda.

Is it true that currently the librarianship profession is no longer just about guiding students to resources, but looking at the way in which they use information to learn?

I guess my view is that the learning agenda, the students’ learning experience and achievement, needs to be absolutely at the forefront of librarians’ thinking. If you accept this, then it radically changes the understanding of what it is to be a librarian.

Being a librarian is still about the management and provision of access to information, but it’s also about so much more than that. It’s about creating learning and information environments which could be physical as in an Information Commons, but could also be virtual in the sense of online communities connecting with offline communities. I think it’s about creating an environment for and conditions for learning: for accessing, sharing and increasingly, generating information. Users as producers of content, that’s a real challenge for librarians; more and more students, as part of their learning experience, are generating knowledge that is shareable, resources that can be used by other students. There are issues around the best way of disseminating and storing this information, and a possible role for librarians.

We tend to think of information literacy in terms of accessing information and using it effectively and ethically. However, more and more with Web 2.0 we need to think in terms of content creation and sharing, which gives a new dimension to information literacy.

Let’s return to the main focus of CILASS, inquiry-based learning. How would you define inquiry-based learning?

It’s any form of learning which is driven forward by student-led research, investigation, or exploration. That could be different sorts of research projects, individual or collaborative, or problem-based learning which is of course a methodology in and of itself, or case-based learning.

In Sheffield we tend to talk about inquiry-based learning as students using the same processes and practices as scholars and researchers or practitioners in their discipline, as a way of inviting students to learn through the practices of more experienced peers. At more introductory or novice levels it might take the form of quite small-scale research investigations or case scenarios, which are designed in such a way that students use some of the scholarly techniques of more advanced researchers.

So information literacy is absolutely critical in inquiry-based learning because students must identify what they need to learn, what information they need and how they need to use it to answer a question, solve a problem or explore a particular issue or area.

So information literacy is not just finding out about information, it’s about research techniques.

The connection between information literacy and research skills is an interesting area. We tend to use the seven pillars of the SCONUL framework for information literacy: the ability to recognize a need for information, to distinguish ways in which the information "gap" may be addressed, to construct strategies for locating information, to locate and access information, to compare and evaluate information obtained from different sources, to organize, apply and communicate information to others in ways appropriate, to synthesise and build on existing information, and finally contribute to the creation of new knowledge.

We would identify a number of skills along these lines: foundation type skills relating to awareness that you have an information need, ability to identify the sources of information you need, conduct a search, retrieve information; but also higher level capabilities related much more to evaluation and synthesis of information, the ability to reflect on it critically, and communicate it to different audiences and in different formats. These higher level skills are very close to the sorts of research skills used by staff and graduate students. So, at the level of critical analysis, there is an overlap between research skills and information literacy.

What are the best ways of teaching information literacy?

What’s often suggested it that it’s important to embed the information literacy development activities into a meaningful context. That might mean embedding information literacy activities into discipline-based module so that for example in literary criticism, you also undertake activities which will develop your information literacy in that area. For a standalone information literacy module there needs to be some meaningful context related to students’ experiences of learning or other life experiences; it’s fairly well accepted that generic forms of training are less successful than forms of development which are contextualized in students’ engagement.

In the old days, a tutor would merely send off a reading list to the library to make sure that they had the necessary resources in stock. How would a tutor work with the librarian now?

You might for example think together about the kinds of capabilities and skills that students need to successfully complete the module. Then, what is the information literacy dimension? And what activities would you devise if you were adopting an active learning approach or inquiry learning? It could be as simple as searching a particular database, or it might be students creating their own information resources via blogs or wikis. Such information literacy skills can be taught alongside the content of the module, which can involve tutor and librarian working very closely together.

Opportunity for reflection on learning, including on how information is accessed and handled, also needs to be built into the module; students do not pick up these skills by osmosis!

Some subject or academic librarians have changed their job titles so that they become learning advisers or consultants. This underlines the shift in philosophy and practice: increasingly librarians are advising on students’ interaction with information in the context of the design and outcomes of specific courses. And in a Web 2.0 context it’s about students creating as well as accessing information – shareable content. There’s almost a kind of information design role here that can sit alongside learning design. Librarians have a lot to offer in terms of the design of the information component of learning activities, which does mean working closely with academic staff. There has been a lot of development over the past decade, and it’s very exciting!

Editorial note

For a full account of the SCONUL information literacy model, see: