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Oral-History:Karen Shipp

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About Karen Shipp

Karen Shipp has worked in Software Development for over twenty years. A graduate of Oxford University, 1974, her original career had nothing to do with computers. Using a government grant she went back to school in the mid-1980s and graduated from North London Polytechnic. Since then, she has spent the majority of her career working at Open University, Milton Keynes. Originally, she worked as a software developer for educational materials but since 2000 she has been a researcher for the OU systems group. In 2002, she began a research project with Magus Remus, which culminated in the publication by Springer in 2009 of their book: Systems Thinkers about key developers of systems thinking, and their work.

In this interview she discusses her different careers, including the years when she was not working in computers. It goes into detail for her research interests, Java, Flash, and Systems. The interview ends with a discussion of her future and where she sees the field developing.

About the Interview

KAREN SHIPP: An interview conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, September 11, 2001.

Interview #626 for the IEEE History, The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, 39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Karen Shipp: an oral history conducted in 2001 by Karen Shipp, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEW: Karen Shipp
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
DATE: September 11, 2001
PLACE: Karen Shipp’s office at the Open University, Milton Keynes

Family and Early Years

Abbate:

This is an interview with Karen Shipp on September 11, 2001.

Okay, I always start out by asking: When were you born and where did you grow up?

Shipp:

I was born in 1952, and I grew up in Bromley, which is a suburb of London.

Abbate:

What did your parents do for a living?

Shipp:

My father was a bank clerk, and he was a part-time fireman. My mother was an artist, and she still works as an artist. She’s 79! [laughs.] It’s interesting: she designs the images on the tapestries that wealthy women have made in one-off designs, and it’s actually very like pixels—the cells of the tapestry—and it sort of amuses me, because it’s a little bit like working the computer screen.

Abbate:

Does she use computers to design these?

Shipp:

No, no.

Abbate:

And she worked throughout your childhood?

Shipp:

Yes. She always worked at home.

Abbate:

I guess you had a model of a working woman and a working mother. Did you expect to work or have a career when you grew up?

Shipp:

Yes, I did. I should say, before my mother was married, she worked for Science Films, and she worked in the very early days of animation. I think Mary Field was one of the first women who worked on that; I can’t remember the names now. Science Films did the very early time-lapse photography. I guess she talked about that, and I guess in my family, my mother was the more intelligent—or at least that was the family story [laughs]—of the two. So I certainly grew up not thinking that men were more intelligent than women, which is a kind of underlying assumption a lot of people do have.

I guess—yes, I assumed that I would work, but I didn’t think very much about it.

Abbate:

Were you exposed to the science aspect of the science films? Did you ever see the films she worked on?

Shipp:

No. No, I had an older brother who was absolutely mad about electronics, and he used to mend radios and things when he was about ten. So at that age, I thought of that as boys’ stuff. I thought of physical, electrical things as boys’ stuff. I guess the reason I moved towards science was that I went to a grammar school: we had selection in those days, so I went to state school that was a good school, and luckily for me, the science and maths teacher was very good. It was an all-girls’ school, and I was sort of discovered in about the third year by the maths teacher and the chemistry teacher, and they both decided I was very bright. It wasn’t really a choice; it was just that we discovered that I could do maths very easily, and physics—mainly because of the maths. So when it came to deciding on a degree, it was just what I was good at. I was quite interested in physics, so I did a physics degree at Oxford. I was quite interested in physics, but I was also really interested in people and why people behave as they do and think as they do and feel as they do—and that’s always been a thread that’s been quite a strong thread, really.

Abbate:

Interesting. So, before you were sort of discovered by your teachers—and that was when you were about 14?

Shipp:

Yes.

Abbate:

Had you had an interest in maths and science? Did you think of yourself as being interested in that, as a child?

Shipp:

No! [laughs.] No, I thought—I mean, when I was small, I thought I was going to be a ballet dancer or an artist! [laughs.] And even at about 13, 14, I remember . . . Because my parents didn’t have a lot of family friends; we didn’t have a lot of people who visited the house. They were quite different personalities, and there weren’t family friends that I could talk to about different careers, and I didn’t know very much about different jobs and different careers, and they weren’t really able to advise. And I remember my father trying to advise me, and the only things he could think of—well, his best idea was that I should work for fire brigade, and be the woman on the end of the telephone who had a little map with the flags, and you know, decides which vehicle should go where! And I thought that I wanted to work in an office, because I knew that they had office parties. [laughs.] So I didn’t [know] at all, at that age. It was more what I happened to be good at that kind of drove the direction, in a way.

Abbate:

And did your teachers at school, who saw that you had these talents: Did they suggest any specific way you might employ them in a job after leaving school?

Shipp:

No, no. They were just—they were all quite keen toward their subject; and in fact I gave up chemistry during the sixth form, and the chemistry master was really sad! During the sixth form, I did—You could pay to go to some place in London and talk to a psychologist, and do some psychometric tests for careers advice; so I went and did that. It was very, very early days of computing, and so I don’t think that would even have been on their list of things they advise people to do.

Abbate:

Because this would be around the late ‘60s or early ‘70s.

Shipp:

Yes: It was late ‘60s. So they sort of said science, or accountancy, or—for some reason, he was quite keen that I should be a factory inspector! [laughs.]

Attending Oxford

Abbate:

But you ended up going to Oxford.

Shipp:

Yes.

Abbate:

Were your teachers thinking that you should go to college?

Shipp:

Yes. Yes. Well, I guess those of us who were doing A-levels, it was just somehow assumed that we’d apply to university. We didn’t normally send people to Oxford and Cambridge, because it was like a different system: you had to do a special exam at a different time, and usually that involved staying on an extra term after A-levels. But somebody was asking if anyone wanted to apply, and they came and asked me directly, and I thought that was hilarious, and I went home and told my mother—because I sort of thought of it as a place that only posh people went to, so I told my mother, because I thought it would amuse her. But she picked up on the idea, and she tried to attract me to the idea of going by getting books out of the library about what fun it was, what a lot of good social activities there were. I discussed it with the physics master, and he said, “You can do whatever you want,” in a sort of encouraging way. So then I thought I might as well do it. I quite enjoyed doing exams, and it wasn’t a great cost. I applied in the first year of sixth form, and I had an interview, and I really loved the place when I went there and interviewed. And in fact I didn’t get in that year; I was put on the waiting list, and I got in the following year.

Abbate:

Were you surprised to get in?

Shipp:

No! I don’t know. Not by then, I guess; not by then.

Abbate:

Had you applied to other places as a backup?

Shipp:

Yes.

It was funny: By the time you get there, you’ve jumped these hurdles, and also you’ve become the brightest person—or seen as one of the brightest few—in your school; and then you’re suddenly with all these other people who are just as bright or brighter, and that’s a kind of shock, in a way! [laughs.]

First experiences with Computers

Abbate:

Did you enjoy it, though?

Shipp:

Yes. I didn’t especially enjoy the physics. While I was at school I thought, because I was good at maths, that it was theoretical physics that I would enjoy; and I didn’t realize how theoretical it could get! I actually think I would have probably been happier doing something even more practical, like engineer or architecture. [Physics] just didn’t have the sort of practical sort of footholds to make it interesting. There was absolutely no way of applying it to real life or to people. It just didn’t capture my interest. So, I did it, and I got a Second, but I actually felt when I finished my degree that I knew less. I felt that I’d known more when I’d finished my A-levels than when I finished my degree! [laughs.]

The first bit of computing I did was before I went to university. I had nine months off, and I decided that because this wasn’t my career—this was before my career—I could do anything that I wanted, and what I was really interested in was psychiatry and psychology. So I looked up in the phone book and found that the Medical Research Council had a Social Psychiatry Unit that was not that far from where I lived, so I wrote to them, and they made a post for me. It was a really exciting time, because they were just starting to use computers. The chap that was running the unit was Professor John Wing, and at the time he was exploring a computer diagnosis system. So I did, first of all, just clerical work on his data, using something called a counter-sorter—where you put punch-cards in, and it sorted them according to where the holes were punched—with his data. This project was called CATEGO. Later, when I came back and worked again on the edges of psychiatry, I discovered that the sort of diagnostic hierarchy that he developed in order to write this software had become a standard and was really well known. So that was quite a surprise!

While I was working there, an American called Bob Hirschfeld came over to do a Bayesian analysis on this data. It was a World Health Organization project, and he’d got psychiatric data from about thirteen different centers across the world: he’d got the whole hierarchy of symptoms and syndromes, and he’d also got the diagnosis that was made in that country. [John Wing] was using a sort of logical framework to arrive at a diagnosis and to compare the computer diagnosis with the medical diagnosis, but Bob Hirschfeld wanted to do a statistical analysis just based on probabilities of whether, given this set of symptoms, you’d end up having that diagnosis; and he wanted to compare that, as a diagnostic method, with this logical one. He was programming that in FORTRAN, and he didn’t manage to finish before his fees ran out and he had to go back, and so they asked me to finish off his project—which meant I had to learn FORTRAN in a few days [laughs], before he went!

Abbate:

Probably not what you expected!

Shipp:

They did have a computer at the Institute of Psychiatry, where we were based, but the main MRC computing unit was in Pentonville Road, in another part of London, and so I was based in the two places, and I had a desk at the computer unit. It was batch programming, so it was all punch cards, and you put them in an in-tray and then, if you were lucky, the next day your printout would come back—and you’d find that you’d left out a semicolon, and you’d have to go back, change that card, and put it in again; so it was very, very slow. I had his program, and I basically I had to debug it and run it on this data. Eventually, when I’d done that, because I could program then, Professor Wing just got me to do things like analyzing data in different ways: plotting this against that.

But another interesting thing is that the other things that were going on in that unit: One of them was something I was allowed to play with, just before I left. Although all of computing was batch processing, they had a sort of teletype machine, where there was this one program where you could type in things, and a response would come up on the teletype. It was a mock psychiatrist.

Abbate:

Was that like Eliza?

“Shipp:”

It was Eliza!

Abbate:

Oh, it was Eliza.

Shipp:

As far as I was concerned, it was a sort of game; it was a sort of joke that somebody was developing for fun. I thought at the time that it was a chap there who had written it, but I discovered that Eliza’s really famous, and it was one of the first examples of so-called “AI.”

Abbate:

Yes, I’ve forgotten who . . .

Shipp:

You know about this?

Abbate:

I don’t know exactly who it was, but it’s well known. There are all sorts of anecdotes about people actually telling their troubles to the computer!

Shipp:

Yes, yes.

Abbate:

Was the diagnostic application you were doing—would you consider that AI? Or an expert system, or something?

Shipp:

I guess it was trying to be. I would describe it as an expert system. But obviously that terminology didn’t exist at the time.

Abbate:

Was there a different term at the time?

Shipp:

My impression was that everything was seen as a one-off. People hadn’t started trying to classify things into those sorts of types.

Abbate:

It sounds like it was very cutting-edge for the time.

Shipp:

Yes, I think it must have been. There wasn’t this sort of macho, we’re-terribly-intelligent-and-at-the-forefront feeling about the people who were in it at all, which I think you do get now. I’ve got a friend who works in AI, and he says whenever people ask him what he does, that it’s quite predictable that people will say, “Gosh, you must be terribly intelligent!” [laughs.] There is that sort of image about it now. But then, it was much more like people rolling their sleeves up and getting their hands dirty, and playing, or trying things out, and they were just engrossed in it. Well, the Eliza thing was just fun, really; and the diagnostic thing was because he was passionately interested in psychiatry, I guess, and then maybe doing something useful. It wasn’t that the interest and focus was in computing and what you could do with a computer. That was my impression—but I was kind of quite a lowly person.

Abbate:

It sounds like you enjoyed working there.

Shipp:

Yes.

Computers and Education at Oxford

Abbate:

Did you take to the computer right away, and think “This is something I might be interested in?”

Shipp:

Well . . . I took to programming in FORTRAN because it was very—I could see the ways in which it was familiar to algebra, and that seemed logical and straightforward and made sense. But it was so slow—this having to wait a couple of days, and then, you know, there was some tiny slip that you’d made—that the actual computing was quite boring. [There was] just so much time having to wait that I didn’t really want more of that. The focus was really on the subject matter.

So when I got to Oxford, there wasn’t computer science, in those days, but there was the possibility of doing a term of computing as a sort of extra option: you didn’t get any credit for it, and it wasn’t instead of anything else; it was just extra. So I didn’t bother to do it, and I didn’t know anybody who did it, even; there wasn’t that enthusiasm or sense that “This is where the future lies, and if you know about it you’ll become rich and powerful.” It was more, “This is really rather mundane and boring to actually do, though it’s got some potential.”

Abbate:

So you didn’t use the computers for your class work.

Shipp:

No, no. No, I mean, the facilities were very, very limited, and the only way you could have got at a computer was to do this option; and I think you would have written one program and put it in and eventually got some output, and I felt I’d done that and didn’t really want any more of it.

Abbate:

I guess you were probably less likely to take the course, having actually experienced batch processing.

Shipp:

Yes, I think so.

Abbate:

So, you went ahead and got the physics degree, but it doesn’t sound like you were very enthusiastic about physics at that point.

Shipp:

That’s right! Yes.

Abbate:

So you weren’t planning to go on in physics?

Shipp:

Well, I assumed that I would, but I wanted to work—I wanted to find something interesting to do with it. I’d had a summer job, at a different Medical Research Council unit, of bioengineering, and that was really interesting. That was using Doppler ultrasound to look at aortic blood flow. The people were really, really nice and fun. It was headed by Heinz Wolfe, who in this country became quite well known as a television innovative person. So I was interested in bioengineering and medical physics, and I got a job as a medical physicist in Scotland, doing diagnostic ultrasound. It was quite early days of diagnostic ultrasound. I ran a little ultrasound unit, and I had a technician and half a secretary and an auxiliary nurse.

Years after College

Abbate:

So this was . . . When did you get the degree?

Shipp:

My degree was ‘71 to ‘74, and then ‘74 to ‘77, I worked in diagnostics ultrasound.

Abbate:

So that had nothing to do with computing.

Shipp:

That’s right; yes.

Abbate:

And that was a kind of merger of your technical and . . .

“Shipp:”

. . . and sort of people, physical stuff: yes.

Abbate:

Why did you end up leaving that job?

Shipp:

I went off to . . . I joined a contemplative farming community. [laughs.]

Abbate:

Wow!

Shipp:

In Wales. I stayed there for six years, so that was until ‘83. We had cows and hens and bees, and we grew all our vegetables, and we had quite a lot of guests. It was very odd thing to do, and I guess it was just something I needed to do, and it was a kind of a meeting point of a number of interests. It was the very early days of interest in sustainability and self-sufficiency, and communal living, but also a sort of contemplative sort of approach.

So there was no computing there! [laughs.]

Abbate:

I can imagine.

Shipp:

When I left there, we’d moved into a period of really high unemployment over that six years, and people said, “You’ll find it really, really difficult to get a job. You won’t be able to get a job. It will be dreadful.” And so I came out feeling that it was a difficult situation, and that I’d have to try really hard to get a job, and I’d be lucky if I got one—which in retrospect was a kind of silly attitude, but it seemed to me that six years away from physics was like a lifetime, and that I wouldn’t get back into it. I also didn’t want to go back and do something I’d already done. I’d developed my interest in psychoanalysis, I suppose, and interpersonal stuff, through living in the community, and I’d read a lot of Jung and that sort of thing, and I applied for every job that I thought I might get, and the first job I was offered was in psychiatric rehabilitation. There’s an organization here called “Mind”; it’s a big mental health charity.

Abbate:

Is that an acronym for something?

Shipp:

No, it’s not. Westminster Association for Mental Health was a kind of branch of it; so it was a voluntary organization funded by the local council. It was a small, quite unique psychiatric rehabilitation place, where we did printing, and the people who were being rehabilitated designed what we printed, so there was a really strong sort of art and design angle to it.

Abbate:

When you say printing . . .

Shipp:

We did hot foil embossing, which is a kind of hand-printing method.

Abbate:

So these were images, not text?

Shipp:

That’s right, yes; greetings cards, mostly. We sold them. I did the marketing for a little bit. It was very small; there were just three of us running it. We sold them in really posh and trendy places, because they were such unusual cards, and they were beautifully printed! There were about 20 mentally ill people at a time, and they stayed about a year, and we counseled them and helped them to move on to employment or education or something.

I went into analysis. Because we were counseling these clients, we were expected to be in analysis or therapy ourselves, so we could not get our stuff tangled up with their stuff; and that was quite important, because it wasn’t like a hospital or a social worker situation, where you had clear-cut boundaries; we didn’t even have an office that was for staff. We just worked together with the—we called them “workers”—all day every day, and so you were very exposed to their state, and it was quite draining, because you had to be what they needed you to be.

After I’d been there two or three years, we decided to set up a computer project there, because there wasn’t much employment. Employment was still really difficult, and we thought if we could give the people basic office computing skills, it would help them get employment; so I took that project on. At that time, the Greater London Council had a sort of arrangement with IBM that meant that voluntary organizations could get IBM desktop computers—get grants for them.

Abbate:

And this would have been 1985 or something like that?

Shipp:

Yes, That’s right.

Beginning a Career in Computers

Abbate:

So it had been maybe ten years since you’d been working with computers, and in the meantime PCs had appeared.

Shipp:

Yes. It was more than ten, because it was 1970 when I worked before, so it was fifteen years’ gap.

The Greater London Council put on a day or two’s training for voluntary organizations—people who wanted to get into desktop computing—and made it very easy to get computers and software. So I just sort of picked it up and started doing one-to-one teaching with our workers. It was spreadsheets, word processors, database; and it was amazing; it was so different from fifteen years before, and it was really quite fun! And I decided I needed some more training to be able to run this project, and so I investigated what was on offer, and the local polytechnic had a postgraduate diploma—two-year, part-time—in computing, and so I did that.

Abbate:

That was the North London Polytechnic?

Shipp:

Yes. And that was really good; it was very practical. I could have gone and done an M.Sc. at a university, but after Oxford, I had the view that—I mean, at Oxford I did a special option in electronics, and it was my best paper in the finals—and I didn’t know anything useful about electronics! [laughs.] There was just nothing that I could have applied of it to ordinary life, or even to a sort of job that involved some electronics. So I had the view that universities didn’t teach you anything useful, and that polytechnics did; so I deliberately chose to do this course at polytechnic. But since then, all the polytechnics have been renamed as universities, which was sort of clever—but to me, that was a loss of a useful distinction.

Abbate:

Did you think that was sort of on purpose, in the sense that Oxford thought they were above practical things?

Shipp:

I think Oxford thought that they were training academics, so they were training people who would go on and do what the teachers did, which was sort of forefront research—which is fine, really. It was, I guess, a development of thinking, and a frame, but . . .

Abbate:

But the polytechnic served you well?

Shipp:

Yes, yes. It was really useful, and we had lots of assignments, and lots of hands-on work, and I would spend most of my evenings there, working on their computers. I really enjoyed using my brain in that sort of way, which I hadn’t done for at least ten years.

So that was a two-year course, and I was still working in the psychiatric rehabilitation center, and I was really beginning to get burned out with this very intense contact with [the patients], that sort of put demands on your personality. So I guess I was watching the job adverts, and there was an advert for an educational software developer here at the Open University. I hadn’t finished the postgraduate diploma, but I was quite near the end, and it was clear that I could program quite easily, and so I applied for that. They didn’t give me the post. They offered me a post in a new little group that was a sub-group of the software development group: software quality assurance; and I took that, not because I wanted to work in quality assurance, but as a sort of way into educational software. In fact, it wasn’t what most people would think of as QA; it was actually troubleshooting the start of the home computing enterprise. I came here [to the Open University] in ‘87, and a few months later, we were starting the first course where every student had to have their own computer at home. They had a sort of special offer: they had Amstrad 1512’s, I think they were called . . .

Abbate:

Is that a British computer? Amstrad?

Shipp:

Yes. Yes, it was tremendously successful. It was the first low-cost—perhaps it was an IBM clone—but it was the first low-cost desktop computer. You could get it either with one floppy drive or two—no hard disks—and there was some sort of policy as to what hardware [the students] should have; they didn’t have to have a color monitor. So it was really troubleshooting the start of that. I did that for two or three years, and then moved into software development, and did that for another ten years.

Software Developer

Abbate:

Now you had said, earlier—I guess I’d asked if you’d experienced discrimination as a woman, and you had said that you thought that perhaps, for that first job, they would have hired you for software development rather than quality assurance. Is that because all the people who ended up in QA were women and all the developers were men, or what gave you that sense?

Shipp:

Well, it was really interesting. All the software developers were men, and the person who got the job hadn’t—they wanted someone to program in C, and I’d actually been using C in my postgraduate diploma, and the guy they appointed hadn’t any experience with C—or with programming, I think. Or he’d done a bit; he was a physicist, and he’d just done his doctorate, I think. He was very bright, but he himself always said, thereafter, that he was a bad programmer! But he presented a very confident exterior, and I did feel that they . . . What I felt was that they didn’t know how to read women; they knew how to read men, and he was absolutely fine—but they didn’t know that I would also have been fine. I had to sort of come in through a back door, and I actually had to ask to be allowed to do some programming, and do a complete project to prove that I could do it, before I could apply again. So I had to apply again, for a new post; I had to prove that I could do it before they would believe that I could. And somebody in the department did say that they used to say in the corridors, “Oh, we won’t have any women here,” and they perceived women as sort of troublesome.

Abbate:

This is in the Computing Center?

Shipp:

Yes. And [they said] that, you know, they were all men, and they knew how to get on and manage things in a sort of efficient way, and they didn’t want women with their—well, values, I suppose, and emotion and relationships.

Abbate:

God forbid! [both laugh.]

But they didn’t have pinups or anything?

Shipp:

No, no! They were very nice. It was just a sort of strange male enclave—which was very interesting, because back in 1970 in the MRC Computer Unit—where, again, they were very nice people, and they must have been very bright—there were men and women, and there wasn’t, as far as I could see, a sense that it was a male thing. In fact, more of the programmers that I came across were women.

Abbate:

On the mainframe.

Shipp:

Yes.

Abbate:

So were any of the other women in QA promoted? Or was there just not any sort of upward mobility?

Shipp:

Well, in the QA there was only a manager—who had been a software developer, so he’d moved over to being called a manager—and there was me.

Abbate:

Oh, there wasn’t anyone else?

Shipp:

That’s right. Later they did. After I’d moved into software development, they got one or two more women—all the other people in QA now are women, and they have sort of clerical/technical posts. And they do have a few women—they did gradually, after me, get more women software developers.

Deveoping Educational Software for Open University

Abbate:

You spent about ten years, eleven years, developing software. What were some of your main projects?

Shipp:

Well, it was all educational software. The very first thing I did was a teaching package, a sort of tutorial package, on the phases of heat-treating steels. It was about the different phases of alloys and steels. So that was for the materials science course; I worked on several packages for that course. And then the main course I worked on over that time was the Technology Foundation course, which had a whole extensive set of numeracy teaching packages. Because it’s the Open University, we don’t have any qualifications people have to have in order to come, so there’s a massive range of ability, and in a lot of technology and science courses, maths is the problem. I tended to tutor the courses that I worked on as a Software Developer. Tutoring is a sort of part-time job; people all over the country are our tutors, and they normally have another job as well.

Abbate:

And that’s working one-on-one with the students?

Shipp:

Yes. So you’ll have a group of about fifteen or twenty students, and you do tutorials with them, and you mark their [exams].

Abbate:

Oh, so you see them as a group?

Shipp:

Yes. Yes, you get to know them really well. Open University students get much more individual attention than ordinary university students. It’s really interesting. I feel that my students had a sort of better—“better” is not the right word—well, they had much better quality tuition than I had at Oxford, because what the [OU] tutors are interested in is teaching, as opposed to research. Normally, OU tutors are quite passionate about teaching, and they’re teaching these adults, who are really interesting people and want to learn.

So normally I tutored courses that I was writing software for, so that I’d have a sense of who I was writing it for; and that was really motivating, and it made a really big difference to the software I developed.

Abbate:

Did you get feedback on how well it was working?

Shipp:

Yes. Whenever I produced a new package, I’d go along to summer school. They have one week—in those days, most courses had a one-week summer school that all students would go to. So I used to go along and watch students using the software, and take notes and talk to them about it and get a lot of feedback. Then later, when there wasn’t that opportunity, I’d get a group of students in and watch them—when a package was near completion.

So I worked on a lot of numeracy packages. There were some other packages for that Technology Foundation course. One was to do with information.

Abbate:

Who decided the content of the packages?

Shipp:

There’d be a Course Team, made up of academics from the faculty, and editors, and graphic designers, and the software developer.

Abbate:

So were you part of that?

Shipp:

Yes—well, it depended from team to team. Some teams would see you as fully a part of the team, and others would see you as more working for them. So they would decide on the curriculum and what needed to be taught, and then there’d be huge variation in how good an idea they had of how they wanted to teach it by computer. Some would—particularly on the Technology Foundation course, because I knew the course and taught it—I would think about how we were going to teach this material by computer, and so I would design what it did. But another course I worked on was a third-level economics course, microeconomics, and there, it was somewhere between the two. The academics knew what they wanted to teach, had a really clear of the content, but they didn’t have any experience of using the computer to teach; and I didn’t have any knowledge of economics; so there was this gap. And so I developed a sort of method for dealing with it, which was that we set up video: we videoed ourselves discussing how to teach it, but then, in the process, them teaching me the subject—so we sort of explored how you might teach it, and the difficulties in understanding the subject. The video was trained on the paper that we worked on, and I wanted to record what things I needed to point to, and what things they needed to draw or point to, and I thought it would give us ideas as to what the student would need to point to, or mark, or cross on the screen. And that was absolutely wonderful; it was really effective.

Abbate:

So you came up with a methodology for producing course materials, in addition to actually doing it.

Shipp:

Yes, for sort of arriving at a design. Another thing that was interesting about that was that we spent probably half a day on each package—just me and one academic. I’d have read up the subject a bit beforehand, so we’d both come along with some ideas, and then we’d explore them. And because there were five or six topics, sometimes there was a long gap before I could implement the program; and having this video was wonderful, because when I looked at it again, it was as if my unconscious had carried on processing the ideas, and I could see really quickly what we could use and what we couldn’t use, and how to order it and put it together into a good story. With the first of those packages, I think I used Powerpoint to put together a design of the whole teaching package and how it would go, and showed it to the Course Team, and we discussed it, and then I implemented it—and after that, they just sort of left me to get on with it! [laughs.] So that was a really good set of packages.

Abbate:

Were you experimenting with different forms, in terms of, “Should this be linear or should it be nonlinear?” Were there sort of basic questions about how to implement things on a computer that you were exploring?

Shipp:

Yes.

Abbate:

I don’t know how long the university had been doing this before you came.

Shipp:

They’d been doing it since about 1971, so it was a long history.

Abbate:

On the computer?

Shipp:

Yes.

Abbate:

So they expected the students to have computers in ‘71?

Shipp:

Yes. Initially they had mainframe —you know, they’d write educational software, put it on the mainframe, and students would go to study centers, where they could use interactive—it would be teletype sort of things, wouldn’t it? It was a very, very innovative department, really; absolutely at the forefront of educational software. So there was a sort of tradition in the department of doing tutorial software, and also simulation software, for the science—physics, maths . . . They did other things, database-y sort of things, as well.

But I guess there were several things going on. There was the development of my thinking about how you teach by computer, and there was also the development of how you implement it; and my interest was in how you teach by computer. I became quite passionate about experiential learning, and that was really in discussion more with academics who were my friends, and colleagues, and at conferences that I went to; and also, we have this Institute of Educational Technology, which is the sort of research bit associated with educational computing, and I was a member of that research group. They didn’t produce software, but they wrote a lot of papers. My thinking was always, not “How can we tell the students about this subject? How can we use the computer to tell them?” But “How can we give them an experience that they can learn for themselves from? What can we actually provide that they can explore and interact with, that will engage them and change their understanding?” I’m always interested in developing understanding, as opposed to rote learning.

Over the time that I was working in that field, what you could do and provide developed a fair bit, with the introduction of windows and object-oriented programming. You could do much more graphically, as time went on. So there was that development of the ideas about teaching by computing; and then the technical implementation side of it was driven by the department, really, and so we moved from—initially it was C, and then we moved to C with a funny precursor of Windows called GEM [produced by Digital Research Inc.], and then we moved to C with windows, and then to C++, and then to more integrated . . . I can’t think of how to put it; there’s a sort of further development of—the early work with C++ was object-oriented, but not to the extent—there was another leap—I can’t think how to describe it.

Abbate:

Do you use Java now?

Shipp:

I don’t. I think some people are using Java, but I didn’t. I had to use Delphi for one project, which was interesting, because Delphi’s a PASCAL-based language, or system; and I hadn’t used that since my postgraduate diploma, so I thought of that as sort of a beginners’ language! [laughs.] But the actual change to the object-oriented methodology I found quite interesting and stimulating, and I had a couple of academic friends who were very into that. That sort of methodology of how you construct something so that you can deal with this complex thing that you’ve got to build: I found that quite stimulating and interesting, but I didn’t at all enjoy the move from language to language, and I found it quite tiresome, and time-wasting. It was like, you know, you’d just got used to using this little tool and being really skilled at it, and you’d have to throw it away and get another one, and it would slow you down; and I wanted to build things. I’m not a languages person, and I felt as if my hard disk was getting full! [laughs.] I thought my brain just didn’t have room for any more of these strings of hieroglyphics that one had to keep on relearning. And I’d had a very, very demanding project on a third-level telecommunications course, which had got into difficulties and I had to take over and work immensely hard. The whole of that—it’s probably me; partly me and partly the job—it was characterized by periods of intense overwork, of working weekends and evenings and being at work until 11 p.m., to the exclusion of any social life for those periods. The last cycle of that, on this telecommunications course: I felt quite burnt out at the end of it, and I felt the management above me had managed things very badly. Also, there were changes happening in that area of the university that meant that it looked to me as if our job role was moving more towards production: they were trying to streamline things, and . . .

Abbate:

You were going to be a software factory?

Shipp:

Yes! Yes, that’s right. In my view, it was based on a false assumption, which was that there was someone else who could provide the educational design—because in my experience, there generally wasn’t. Because the academics usually didn’t have experience in how you can use a computer to teach, and in my view, there was a lot to it: you know, it took had taken me a lot of years to develop a skill for teaching in that way. I experienced my job as sort of bridging that gap between the academics’ knowledge and the. . . . Most of my colleagues didn’t do as much educational design work as I did, and there was this gap that nobody much was bridging or knew how to bridge. I thought that was going to become much more problematic as we moved to more of a sort of factory mentality.

So that was when I moved to the academic side of the fence. My theory now is that because the development side is getting much more into a production mentality, that the academics themselves have to develop their—it has to become normal that they think of teaching by computer and that they develop an expertise in how you do it well.

Current Projects

Abbate:

So the work has sort of shifted from the computing people to the academics?

Shipp:

Yes. So I’m doing fairly similar work, except I’m just not doing the programming. But because we’re moving more to the Web, it’s more feasible for a programmer to make a content system that we can put teaching material into. I’ve become very keen on Flash, which is a Web technology.

Abbate:

It’s graphics, or video?

Shipp:

Yes. Well, most Web sites use it just for graphical things, but it’s actually superb for the sort of teaching that we do in this academic field—which is systems, which is all about diagrams, and using diagrams to explore things. So it’s a really good tool for doing diagrammatic teaching, with speech and . . .

Abbate:

I’m not sure what you mean by “with speech”.

Shipp:

Well, little tutorials where there’s some speech: you know, you have a picture and some speech, and then you move on and there’s some more speech.

Abbate:

So there’s audio while you’re looking at it?

Shipp:

There’s audio, yes.

Working as a Systems Researcher and Teacher

Abbate:

Now, tell me: Your area is now Information Systems. Can you tell me a little more about what the content of that is?

Shipp:

Okay, well: I don’t actually know what information systems is! [laughs.] But this department is called “Systems.”

Abbate:

Oh, it’s just called “Systems.”

Shipp:

The department is. I guess I think of myself as an academic in Systems; but it has three application areas. I’ll come back to what “systems” is.

Abbate:

So is that your official title?

Shipp:

No, my official title is “Lecturer in Information Systems.” But “systems” is about—well, it’s about working with complexity, so it’s about enabling people to handle complex situations. The approach is different from most scientific approaches, which are all about honing in on finer and finer details in trying to understand something; systems is about stepping back and finding ways of seeing the whole picture, and when you study something, not losing the sense of the connections and influences that are in the wider picture. So it’s very relevant to ecology, and it’s relevant to management and organizations, and it’s relevant to information; so it has these three application areas. It is also used a lot in family therapy, and so there’s a sort of interpersonal aspect to it as well.

Because I’m coming from a background in computing, my way in is with the focus on information systems. But I tell them that I think they’ve got the wrong word! [laughs.] Because to me, “information systems” means something slightly different. To me, it’s a branch of computer science, and here, I don’t see it as that; I see it as much more at the people-organizational end.

Abbate:

So the courses you teach are actually called “Information Systems”? Or they’re categorized in that way from the students’ perspective?

Shipp:

Well, the course that I’ve been involved in in the year that I’ve been in this role is a systems course. I can’t remember what it’s called! [laughs.] It’s about systems thinking. It’s a second-level course about systems thinking, and there’s a third-level course about systems practice. The course covers environment and sustainability; it covers systems and yourself and your relationships; management in organizations; globalization and information. But I actually wrote two blocks of it: the one on “Systems, You and Your Relationships” and the final block, where students do a project of their own and they apply all the systems thinking to it. And I did that because there were gaps; people were needed to do that.

Abbate:

Okay, so you were talking about the systems course.

Shipp:

So I think, in a way, I’m redefining at the moment what I am, and I’ve got this name, which is Lecturer in Information Systems, and I’ve got this thing, which is Systems, that is an approach that I want to use; but I haven’t quite put the two together. And my role in this course, which has just completed its first year, has really been getting it to work on the Web—getting the Web bit of the teaching to happen, because it had been decided that we would do a lot of the teaching on the Web, and it wasn’t really happening. Bits hadn’t come together, and partly because of my background, I guess, I could see what needed to be done, and how it would work, and how to put people together in such a way that they could actually function and produce this stuff.

Abbate:

So it’s still evolving?

Shipp:

Yes. And I’m about to—I’m going to do a doctorate! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Oh, really?

Shipp:

Yes! At the moment, I’m on what we call “study leave”—which we have two months a year, because we don’t have vacations like ordinary universities—to decide exactly what I’m going to do the doctorate on. Because I feel I need to have a clear research area —I feel I need to know about something in order to have something to teach, really.

Abbate:

You seem to reinvent yourself every decade or so.

Shipp:

Yes. Well, I guess it’s more—I don’t know. It’s finding different ways of putting the bits together that sort of work, and I feel I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to put them together in different ways in different situations, and have these different experiences, and I do feel that they feed into each other. For example, a lot of what I use in my current role I learnt when I was working in mental health, through working so closely one-to-one with people, trying to teach people who find it quite difficult to communicate and understand, and to teach them to use software. You had to really get inside their heads. And even—this is quite extreme, but even contemplation and prayer is actually about getting inside someone else’s head; to me, it’s about feeling something, experiencing something from someone else’s perspective. And that’s very similar to some of the systems approaches, which are about understanding a complex situation by seeing it from different perspectives. So part of the teaching in the block on “Systems, You, and Your Relationships” is teaching students how to learn to see things from other people’s perspectives, and giving them little exercises to explore that. And when I worked in mental health, we used role-play a lot in understanding our clients, and to help us do our counseling work with them. And again, role-play is something that people use in systems, and management in organizations.

Abbate:

Do you think the systems approach to information is more appealing to female students than if it were presented as a branch of computer science?

Shipp:

Maybe . . . I just don’t have a clear sense of what they mean here by “information systems,” because when I did my post-graduate diploma (that was before object-oriented programming and—what did they call it?—”top-down design”), there were those systems—SADM [Systems Analysis and Design Methods]—and so there was systems analysis. It was a job, actually, wasn’t it? You had Systems Analysts.

Abbate:

It was much more of a sort of engineering / math / computer thing—not as holistic as what you seem to be describing.

Shipp:

Yes. I mean, I think of information systems—to me, it means whatever that has become. It means sort of analyzing a system, rather than, as you say, something more holistic.

Abbate:

Well, do you get a lot of women enrolled for it? Maybe you’ve only taught it this once, but do you have a sense of gender ratios from the enrollment?

Shipp:

Well, we haven’t got—we’ve got systems courses; we actually don’t have an “information systems” course. We have courses that are produced that sort of involve it. The Senior Lecturer in Information Systems, John Naughton, set up this massively successful course, “You, Your Computer, and the Net,” which is about the history of the Internet, and also develops students’ ability to use it and to write simple Web pages. So it’s sort of there in other courses that we’ve been involved in, and there is a plan now to have a Master’s in Information Systems. But I’m not really interested in it as a subject in itself; I’m interested in using systems to explore problems, and some of those will be problems to do with information.

Abbate:

More concrete problems?

Shipp:

Yes.

Abbate:

I’m thinking back: You had mentioned, a little while ago, something about going to conferences, and I wondered if you were active in professional societies, and if so, which ones you had found most congenial.

Shipp:

I’m some kind of member of the British Computer Society, which I don’t find of any interest at all! [laughs.] The conferences I used to go to were to do with computer-assisted learning, and there were two groups in the U.K. that have conferences: one has one a year and the other has one every other year. Oh, and I went to one conference in the States, on experiential learning, and that was the most interesting. So I haven’t really found particular professional bodies that I’ve been involved with. But there’s a sort of research community around educational software that I’m loosely part of.

General Experience with Computers

Abbate:

I have some more general questions. You’ve had some pretty varied experiences with computers. What have you found to be the most satisfying part of working with them?

Shipp:

The most satisfying, I think, is when something is nearly complete, and you’ve had this enormous slog . . . I think that the beginning and the end of a project are both . . . There’s the bit at the end where it’s nearly complete, and you’ve got this thing you’ve created, and it’s on-screen, and you’re just doing the last polishing how effective it is: that’s very satisfying. But there’s an early stage, where you’re constructing this thing out of nothing: first of all, you have to imagine it out of nothing, and that was partly where I found the object-oriented methodology really interesting and helpful. One of the early object-oriented people said that you should personify your objects; you should talk about them as if they’re people! So when I was trying to learn to work in an object-oriented way, I sort of consciously made myself work in that way. At the beginning of each object I’d say, “I am the exercise guru; I know about blah blah blah,” and I’d sort of personify them. [laughs.] And it seemed absurd, but I just did it, because I wanted to see if this would help; and what I found was that—I guess it’s like the cast of a play. You invent these objects and you decide what role they’re going to have, and then it’s as if you get to know them, as you begin to work on the project; it’s as if they’re people that you get to know. So to start with, you’ve invented them; but as you go along, new tasks need to be done, and you know who to give it to! [laughs.] So there’s this sense of getting to know them—and I’m sure that’s how it is with the author of a book or play, this sense of getting to know the characters and knowing how they would behave. So there’s something about that. It’s almost like creating a team that works well together, and all the roles are clear, and everyone knows what everyone else is doing and who to give this task to.

But the middle bit in between, of actually getting out this code: it’s all right, but there were a lot of tedious bits to it. The actual logic and algorithms of it I enjoyed, but it’s all the glitches and little tweaks that you have to know because this system or this language doesn’t cope with this, and so you have to put in that line of code there—all that I found a bit tedious and trying.

Abbate:

I’m wondering: I guess you started in computing in ‘69 or something . . .

Shipp:

‘70, Yes.

Abbate:

1970; and now it’s 2001; How do you think the field has changed over that time?

Shipp:

Wow! That’s a big question! [laughs.] How do I think . . . ? Can you say what in particular has changed?

Abbate:

Either the technology or the culture, how people work with them. Whatever seems most—I mean, obviously there have been huge changes; you don’t have to be comprehensive; but I’m just curious what stands out to you as the most significant.

Shipp:

Well, I thought one . . . Sort of standing back, there was one thing I noticed: that it seems to me there’s a sort of tussle between a movement to make computing accessible and easy and usable, and a movement to keep it obscure and for the experts. I felt that was happening in the languages: that FORTRAN was like doing algebra, and that was fine if you’re a mathematical person; and then PASCAL—and that movement around it—seemed to be really strong on making code that’s very easy to maintain, and that one person can pick up something another person’s written, because it’s all transparent; what you’re doing is transparent, and you can even make it read like English. And when PASCAL became the major—I don’t know if it ever became the major language, because COBOL was still existing, but it seemed that was a sort of peak of trying to open it out, so that it was something ordinary people could see into. And then C —and C++, and probably Java, too—seemed to be a sort of moving back again, grabbing back that territory and saying “No, no, no! We don’t want anyone to be able to read what we’ve done, because then they’ll think they can do it too; and we must show them that we are mentally clever by writing things that they can’t understand!” So that desire to make it look obscure and difficult and technical seemed to pull it back. And then . . .

[Break in the Recording]

Abbate:

Okay, we’re back.

Shipp:

Yes. I don’t know if I’ve got enough distance on what’s happening now to see whether that fits in that pattern, but I think it’s happening over the Web. To me, Flash was a really interesting technology, and also some of the Web development tools: again, they seemed to open things out, to make it easier for ordinary people to be involved and participate. Flash is really interesting, because compared with what I call the more “professional” tools for developing imagery for the Web, it’s very limited: it just has a limited set of things that you can do, and that makes it quick and easy to learn, and everything about its design is to make it easy to use. It almost seems to be coming from a different philosophy from other technologies, which are about allowing you to do every possible thing you might ever want to do with it, but you’ve got to go on a two-week course to learn how to do it, and that’ll be very expensive. So it’s a democratization sort of thing. So I’m quite excited about Flash, and I’ve used it a lot, and I’ve been running courses for other people in the university, to encourage them to learn to use it and to use it in their teaching. So maybe there’s another wave of allowing people in—and probably there’ll be a backlash! [laughs.]

General Thoughts on Gender and Technology

Abbate:

Do you think as far as women are concerned, that computing has become more or less open over time?

Shipp:

Well, as I said—and this is really well documented, isn’t it?—in the early days, the women were programmers and the men were hardware people, because the hardware bits were seen as the high prestige bit. And then as that changed, women didn’t move into looking after the hardware so much, but men took over the software side of things. I feel that where I’m working is abnormal, in that there was this bunch of men who set up the software department, and they’re still all there.

Abbate:

That’s here?

Shipp:

Here at the OU, the Educational Software Group. They’re still all here, and the people who are managers came from that group; and so here it’s still quite a male emphasis in the software area. And certainly in the computing department of the Maths computing faculty as well. But I suspect it’s different out in the commercial world.

Abbate:

That it’s more even?

Shipp:

I suspect it is; but I don’t know, to be honest.

Abbate:

Did you ever feel that as a woman, you didn’t have equal access to training or promotions or other kinds of job perks?

Shipp:

“I’m not sure” is the answer. I think that in my department, the male gifts tended to be looked up to more, so that success in doing a complete package that actually worked and taught really well was of less interest than doing something really difficult, technically, that was to do with programming. But somehow I’ve been quite good at being visible enough. I feel my career’s been all right because I’ve looked after it. Someone less aware, politically, of what’s going on, I think might have had more difficulty as a woman in that group.

Abbate:

Did you have any mentors or role models who have encouraged you in computing?

Shipp:

Let me think. Well, the chap who was my software manager, I guess, in the early projects I did in that department; a chap called Phil Butcher. He was very encouraging, and I learnt quite a lot from him in terms of quality of teaching that you can deliver by computer. I learned quite a lot from Diana Laurillard, who’s one of our Pro-Vice-Chancellors now.

Abbate:

What was her last name?

Shipp:

Diana Laurillard. She’s very well known as a researcher in educational computing. And she worked on a couple of the early projects that I worked on, and I argued with her fiercely quite a lot—and because of that, I learned a lot from her! [laughs.]

Abbate:

I saw a poster at the entrance about a woman Vice Chancellor. Is that her?

Shipp:

She’s a Pro-Vice-Chancellor here. No, we’re having a new Vice Chancellor from South Africa who’s a woman; maybe that was it.

Abbate:

That’s probably it.

Shipp:

Yes. So, I learned a lot from her. She probably doesn’t realize that, but it was from working from her; and that was to do with providing experiences, and interactive experiences.

Another mentor probably was a friend, Benedict Heal, who’s an object-oriented expert. He was an academic in the Maths and Computing faculty; he works free-lance now. We spent long, long times talking about objects and design and things, and he was very encouraging.

And just friends, and course teams around the university that I’ve discussed teaching with. I’ve got a friend, Tony Nixon, who . . . In fact, two of my greatest friends: When I was in my more early days of software development—particularly when I was working these horrendous hours—I had two very, very close electronic friendships. One of them was this Tony Nixon, who lived in York at the time, and we both were teaching the Technology Foundation course, and we were quite passionate about what you could do with students, what fun things you could do that worked in terms of teaching. He’s now a Lecturer here as well. He was a quite a key person. And I have another very close electronic friend: he was an object-oriented guru at Essex University, and he works for IBM now; and he was passionate about experiential learning and peer-centered learning, and experiential learning in a lecture context. So those were both relationships where somehow—well, because it was writing what we thought—they were very creative, and a great deal of thinking and development of ideas went on.

Abbate:

So you hadn’t met them in person?

Shipp:

Yes. [Tony I worked with]. We were both working at summer school for a week, and so I worked with him for a week; and then I saw him occasionally, and made friends with his family.

Abbate: So that kept up the interaction?

Shipp:

Yes. But it was a daily—both of those were sort of daily email friendships.

And the other one, Bruce Anderson: I think he’d given a seminar here, which I’d missed, so that the initial contact was email; and then we met up, but that relationship was almost entirely by email.

And then that . . . I don’t know why, but somehow things change, don’t they; and I don’t have any intense email friendships now.

Abbate:

Well, it sounds like you have quite a network here, anyway.

Shipp:

Yes.

Final Thoughts

Abbate:

Have you found it difficult to balance your work and family or personal responsibilities?

Shipp:

Yes; yes. I tend to have had these cycles of maybe three to six months of really intense overwork, and then six months of normal work; and that’s quite a strain on whoever is my partner at the time. I don’t know whether that has—it may have limited what sort of relationships I’ve been able to have. My current partner, who I’ve been with about five years: he worked in the same software development group as me, and he’s a free-lance Web developer now, and he’s just really tolerant of that.

Abbate:

Because he knows what it’s like.

Shipp:

Yes; yes.

Abbate:

Is that sort of inherent in that job, then, that . . .

Shipp:

I think so. I think it’s partly me—but I wasn’t like that in previous jobs, so I do have three previous careers [laughs] where I wasn’t like that! So I think it is something to do with [the culture of software development].

Abbate:

Do you think that’s a deterrent to women to do that kind of work?

Shipp:

Yes, I do. I think I wouldn’t have—if I had had children, I wouldn’t have wanted to carry on working in that way.

Abbate:

Do you have any advice for young women considering going into computing?

Shipp:

Oh! I suppose it’s to keep sight of your own values, so that those can be part of the whole picture. Those insights and interests that a person has, which may not seem to be at the core of what their colleagues are interested in: to keep ahold of them, and to have confidence that they are important and have value, and perhaps to try and find other people [with whom] they can develop these bits of themselves. It can be such a narrowing field of work. I used to have the feeling, when I was in an intense programming stage, it was like going down a mental tunnel—that the concentration you had to sustain, and the stuff you had to keep in your head, meant you had to block everything else out, for weeks on end; and that can be really disabling. So it’s important to keep a breadth of interest.

Abbate:

All right. Thank you very much for doing the interview!

Shipp:

Okay!