Elhussein, Düştegör, Nagy and Alghamdi, (2018), report on student reactions to Partition-Rooms used in Saudi-Arabian universities. These rooms have a partition with a one-way mirror, so that the female students can see the male instructor, but not the reverse. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that students thought they learned better in a regular classroom (with a female instructor).
What is surprising is that this analog room design also limits the student's use of digital technology. The one-way mirror requires the student's part of the room to be dimly lit. As a result, the light from a student's digital device will be very visible, literally highlighting that student. As a result students are reluctant to use their smart phones for personal, or educational, purposes in class.
Why not use Video Conferencing?
Given the obvious limitations of this room format, it seems odd that the universities do not simply use video conferencing. In place of the mirrored partition, there could be a video screen, showing the instructor's image. This would eliminate the need for a specially designed room, with any electronically equipped classroom being be suitable (after any cameras in the room were switched off, or covered). This would also eliminate the complexity of providing separate entrance to the teaching building for male staff, as they could conduct the class remotely, from another electronic classroom, or their office, in another building, campus, or city.
A high-tech digital partition-room might provide the instructor with some indication as to the disposition of the students. This could use "clickers" to allow the students to indicate if they are following the presentation, if it is too fast, or slow. A high-tech version could use a camera to read the expressions of the students, and present these in cartoon form to the instructor, without a realistic representation of individual students.
Also the researchers appear to have only been investigating conventional lecture format classes. If these are replaced by flipped classroom instruction, the limitations of the Partition-Room will be reduced. With the flipped format, the instructor's presentation is pre-recorded, to be watched by the students individually, before class. This eliminates the need for the partition room for this part of the instruction.
Use the Flipped Classroom?
A common format used for large scale flipped classes is to have tutors in the room to assist the instructor, or one tutor at each remote video-linked location. These could be female tutors in the room with female students, with a remote male instructor. The flipped format usually starts with Q&A, which could be facilitated by the tutors, coordinating with the remote instructor. After Q&A the tutors could facilitate the individual or group activities of the students, and report back to the remote instructor.
Experiment with the Partition Room
The Partition-Room is, in effect a form of distance education, with the partition increasing the effective distance between students and instructor. This presents the possibility of interesting experiments. One class could be told that the instructor is on the other side of the wall, and this compared with a class told the instructor is in another building, or a distant country. The instructor could similarly be told the students are nearby, or far away. The effect of the perception of distance could then be examined, separate from the particular technology.
Is the Partition-Room Legal and Ethical?
Also worth considering is the legality, and ethics, of the use of Partition-Rooms for female students. While the researchers point out these are required by Saudi-Arabian culture, the provision of an inferior form of education on the basis of gender may infringe the student's human rights, under international law. Instructors may need to consider if it is a breach of their professional ethics to teach under these restrictions.
However, other instructors having to teach under far more stringent conditions. As an example, distance education (DE) places severe limitations on the form of education which can be provided. Instructors could decide not to provide any DE, believing it offers an inferior education. But this would exclude a section of the population, for example those in remote locations in Australia, for whom DE is the only form of education possible.
Will Blended Learning Make Partition-Rooms Obsolete?
Research shows that blended learning, is superior to both pure DE, and classroom based instruction. Also conventional live lectures have been shown to not be an effective form of instruction. With blended learning replacing conventional classes, the need for Partition-Rooms may be eliminated within a few years. This would also reduce the legal, and ethical dilemmas for instructors.
Elhussein, M. A., Düştegör, D., Nagy, N., & Alghamdi, A. K. H. (2018). The Impact of Digital Technology on Female Students' Learning Experience in Partition-Rooms: Conditioned by Social Context. IEEE Transactions on Education, (99), 1-9. URL https://doi.org/10.1109/TE.2018.2840501