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At least since MIT Open Courseware started in 2001, users around the world have been enjoying free and open digital educational resources. It’s consistently reported that around three-quarters or more of users of MOOC platforms Udacity, Coursera and edX come from outside the US, from nearly every country on the planet.

self-identified Coursera users in Iran, from Facebook
self-identified Coursera users in Iran, from Facebook

Until now.

Coursera, which has 21 million users in 190 countries, announced on its blog on January 28 that its online courses would no longer be available to students in Cuba, Iran, and Sudan. Not coincidentally, these countries are under US economic sanction, prohibiting any American business from providing goods or services. While Coursera had been operating under the assumption that its courses, which are free to users who do not select a “freemium” option such as Signature Track certification, did not violate these economic regulations, the federal government apparently found otherwise.

“We are a US-based company, we have to comply with US law. However, we’re fully committed to having access to as many countries as possible, and we’re actively working to make that happen,” Coursera founder Daphne Koller told me in an interview.

In an open letter to his students posted on the Coursera website, Iranian-born Professor Dr. Ebrahim Afsah, at the University of Copenhagen was a little more outspoken about the decision.

I leave it to you to ponder whether this course is indeed a weapon and if so against what and what possible benefit the average American citizen could possibly derive from restricting access to it.

Be this as it may, I invite those students affected to use services such as or VPN routers to circumvent these restrictions.

Let me reiterate that I am appalled at this decision. Please note that no-one at Coursera likely had a choice in this matter!

In a fourth country, Syria, Coursera initially suspended access, before discovering an existing exemption in the sanctions for educational resources. Koller says that they are working intensively with the US State Department to get a special license for the remaining three countries as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, would-be students who sign in to Coursera and whose IP addresses identify them as being from one of these blocked countries will be able to browse the courses, but not enroll or watch any of the videos.

Self-identified Coursera student from Cuba, from Facebook.
Self-identified Coursera student from Cuba, from Facebook.

So far, Coursera, a for-profit, seems to be the only MOOC platform that has been flagged for violation of these sanctions. The company has an existing relationship with the State Department to offer “Learning Hubs” combining MOOCs with face-to-face interaction at US embassies around the world.

The descent of sanctions raises an important issue in the political and economic future of digital educational resources. MOOCs are often touted as a means to overcome the vast disparity in global access to education. But dozens of US universities are investing significant resources to create and run MOOCs–by some estimates, $50,000 to $100,000 per course. Public institutions, in particular, have a taxpayer-supported mission to serve the people of their state first and foremost. This mission is challenged by the trend of universities recruiting large numbers of out-of-state and international students who are willing to pay higher tuition bills. It might be equally challenged by the phenomenon of MOOC platforms based in the US that primarily cater to the needs of millions of foreign students.

What is the proper division of resources and priorities here? One proposal is that the US government specifically support the creation and dissemination of open-licensed digital educational resources for the good of everyone on the planet. Nonprofits might have a role too.

By coincidence, Coursera yesterday announced a strategic partnership with the charitable foundation of Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire whose other investments include the New York Times, to expand educational opportunities in Latin America. The Slim foundation previously partnered with Khan Academy, and offers its own open courseware site Academica.

The Coursera partnership includes translations of courses into Spanish, focusing on professional development in areas like health, education and technology, plus the creation of a network of in-person “learning hubs” throughout the region. The Slim Foundation already operates 3600 “digital libraries” in Mexico; at some of these locations, facilitators will be hired to help students discover and succeed in Coursera courses, and the programs may involve the use of volunteer tutors as well. This initiative marks a move from an online-only MOOC model to one that recognizes the importance of face-to-face interaction. “What we’ve found is that when there is a protected space for facilitated discussion, this can lead to significant increases in retention,” Koller said.

However, these opportunities will not be available to Spanish speakers in Cuba, at least for the time being. The protection of “protected spaces” for intellectual development only goes so far.

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