State Department Bans Coursera From Educating Underprivileged Foreigners

Coursera, which provides massive open online
courses (MOOC), has the noble mission of “connecting people
to a great education so that anyone around the world can learn
without limits.” Unfortunately, the State Department and the
Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC)
disagree. They recently decided that the company cannot extend such
opportunities to a few academically underprivileged countries.

The organization posted a
notice to its website on Tuesday explaining that the U.S.
government now requires it to block IP addresses in certain
sanctioned countries.

Who will miss out on hundreds of free classes, offered in 12
languages, and covering a broad range of fields, including
economics, the humanities, and medicine? Cuba, which ranks outside
the top 50 education systems in the world, Iran, which is less well
off than 40 percent of the world, and Sudan, which is worse than 90

These three aren’t the only ones who will be impacted, though.
The announcement notes that, “In rare instances, students with IP
addresses bordering on but not geopolitically within the bounds of
these countries will be affected.”

What’s behind this academic censorship? Federal regulations.
“United States export control regulations prohibit U.S. businesses,
such as MOOC providers like Coursera, from offering services to
users in sanctioned countries,” Coursera explains. The website
itself is still be viewable, because it falls under “public
information,” whereas the departments consider the educational
materials to be “services.”

Coursera has operated since April 2012, and although the company
has been talking with the State Department and OFAC “for quite some
time… only very recently were we advised… that the course
experience was determined to be a service offering and we have
since been working closely with [federal officials] to ensure that
Coursera remains in compliance with U.S. law,” co-founder Daphne
the Wall Street Journal.

Yet, whether services are allowed in sanctioned countries is not
always clear-cut. The OFAC initially included Syria on the list of
prohibited nations, but later clarified that educational services
are permissible there. Other exceptions have been made for other
organizations. According to
Inside Higher Ed
, “edX, the MOOC provider founded in
partnership between Harvard University and the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology… has since last May worked with the U.S.
State Department and the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign
Assets Control, and has so far applied for and received
company-specific licenses for its MOOCs to enroll
students in Cuba and Iran.”

Although it may stop some, the government-ordered IP address
block cannot prevent all Cubans, Iranians, and Sudanese from
educating themselves, thanks to easily accessible proxy servers
that disguise one’s location.

from Hit & Run

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