The rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has finally made the dream of online classrooms a reality. But what happens when the government steps in to decide who can be in the classroom? Earlier this week, some Coursera users found out.
Thanks to restrictions on U.S. relations with other countries, students from Cuba, Iran, Syria, and Sudan wishing to take online courses on Coursera have found themselves blocked from the wildly popular MOOC service.
As it turns out, the U.S. government considers parts of Coursera courses to be "services" and thus subject to export restrictions from countries the U.S. government has sanctioned. Despite finding a loophole to partially clear services in Syria, Coursera continues to negotiate with the State Department and the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) as criticism mounts on their Facebook page and elsewhere.
But it won’t be very constructive to criticize Coursera, said the affected course’s professor, Dr. Ebrahim Afsah. In a letter to his students, Afsah admonished the U.S. government for playing politics with education and suggested that his affected students should use hola.org or VPN routers to work around Coursera’s IP address restrictions.
Dr. Afsah cannot simply switch to another MOOC provider, since the decision to go with Coursera was made at a central level by the University of Copenhagen where he is employed. If he could, Dr. Afsah told Fast Company, he would go with a European platform to avoid the unilateral lawmaking that the U.S. imposes on the rest of the world, from copyright issues to data protection issues to sanctions and more.
"The point is rather symbolic, or actually political: Which message does the U.S. send out and we, as a European institution, unwittingly become complicit in carrying?" Dr. Afsah said.
Indeed, the restriction seems more symbolic than effective. IP address bans are notoriously easy to work around—just ask kids in other countries who use proxies to watch U.S. TV on Hulu. Whether streaming television or evading government firewalls, the Internet, uh, finds a way.
Like many things on the Internet, MOOCs are still new enough to operate without much regulation—until now. Previously, export control regulations for MOOCs had been unclear. Coursera interpreted them as allowing students in sanctioned countries to participate and receive free statements of accomplishment so long as Coursera didn’t provide Signature Track certificates, which require financial transactions to sanctioned countries. Last week, Coursera received "definitive guidance" that any access to the course experience (like peer grading and forum discussion) is considered a "service" and subject to export restrictions.
After poring over OFAC legislation, Coursera determined that OFAC Syria General License no. 11A authorizes services for NGOs—particularly those that increase educational access. Coursera opened access to Syrian users on Tuesday but must still restrict users from acquiring or using Signature Track certificates.
Other MOOC providers, like MIT and Harvard’s edX, are having similar troubles navigating the uncertain legal waters.
"This is new territory," edX general counsel Tena Herlihy told the Financial Times. "MOOCs have come up in the last year and a half, and we don’t know the regulatory scheme." EdX received licenses to operate in Iran and Cuba last year. Evidently, negotiating with OFAC on a nation-by-nation basis is the only way not to run afoul of the Treasury Department’s legal sanctions.
The State Department’s restrictions for educational access are an ironic blow to last October’s partnership between the department and Coursera. Deputy assistant secretary Meghann Curtis trumpeted the State Department and USAID’s desire to increase access to high-quality education.
"We see this as an opportunity to draw an audience and create a forum for open and spirited discussion," Curtis told Fast Company in October. "One of the classes is American foreign policy. I think that will make an extremely rich forum to debate the issues."