Saudi Arabian women make up more than 56 percent of the students enrolled in the Kingdom's public universities, but many of them complete their degrees without any direct contact with their male instructors.
Religious and cultural norms prohibit women from being alone with men outside of their family, so male professors sit alone in a room teaching to a video camera, instead of standing in front of the classroom to lecture to their female students.
On the other side of that transmission, connected via a closed-circuit video system, female students watch the lecture on campus in real time via a TV monitor, using an in-room phone or microphone system to ask questions and give feedback. It's a process that leaves much to be desired, say some female students.
Lecturing to a video camera, from an isolated room, often leaves instructors feeling bored, says Jamila Muffarih Ali Asiri, a first year graduate student at King Khalid University (KKU) in southwest Saudi Arabia.
"He may sometimes be irritated with female students when he doesn't get a quick response to what he says, as it is the case when he is face-to-face with students," Asiri says.
[See the rankings of the World's Best Universities.]
To cut down on the commute time for male professors—men and women study on separate campuses, and the teachers travel between the two—and to better serve its female students, KKU implemented a new approach to classrooms in 2009, combining lecture-capture software with online learning communities. This system allows professors to pre-record lectures, leaving class time for discussion, and lets KKU's female students access their course anywhere they have an Internet connection, says Mohammad Qatrawi, director of research and development for E-learning at the university.
[Read about how online education is transforming U.S. higher education.]
The new E-learning setup teaches students practical skills like building online portfolios and puts them on a level playing field with male students, Asiri says. The women can use social media and chat features built into the course site to engage in group discussions, collaborate on projects, and conduct research off campus.
The flexibility to access course lectures and class discussions from anywhere is a welcome adjustment for female students, who rely on drivers to take them to and from school because Saudi law prohibits them from driving.
"It is at my finger tips to listen to or watch the recorded lectures," Asiri says. "I could join online lectures wherever I am."
Although the system engages female students and eliminates the need to travel to campus, only 175 of the university's 2,500 instructors are using the service. The hesitation to adopt the new method means many of the university's female students are still taught via the old system of closed-circuit TVs, getting face-to-face instruction only in courses taught by female professors.
"As always, some immediately engage with this technology, and others fear it and reject it," Qatrawi, the E-learning director, says. Instead of requiring professors to use the system, the university has relied on its more tech-savvy instructors to pioneer the program, then encourage their peers to do the same, he says.
But the school's female students say they wish university officials would do more to push instructors to use the E-learning program.
"I dislike the negative attitude of some instructors towards the application of E-learning," says Wafa Abdullah Mohammed Al-Shehri, a graduate student at KKU.