Coursera blocked in Iran due to human grading and discussion forums?

Update: I just received confirmation from a Coursera spokesperson that the description of facts about Coursera’s block of student access in this and my previous blog post is accurate. They cannot comment on the rest of the professor’s statement nor on Udacity and edX.

Yesterday I wrote about Coursera having to block access to its courses from students in Iran, Syria, Cuba and Sudan. Kris Olds covered this subject in more detail this morning as did Carl Straumsheim at Inside Higher Ed. The nub of the issue is that the US government (the State Department I believe) has declared MOOCs as educational services rather than information or informational materials, and thus the courses are subject to US embargoes of the four countries in question.

According to IHE, Udacity “has not received official word about enrolling students in countries subject to economic sanctions”, and EdX has a license to operate in Iran, Syria and Cuba. So the issue is mostly with Coursera, although not by their decision.

If a recent post from a Coursera instructor is accurate, we may now know what triggered the classification of MOOCs as a a service subject to sanctions. I was notified by a trusted reader that Ebrahim Afsah from the University of Copenhagen (yes, the same one from the story about abusive discussion forum posts) send a message this afternoon to all students in his MOOC “Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World” (registration required). He quotes a message from Coursera to MOOC instructors that includes the new information [emphasis added].

As some of you already know, certain U.S. export control regulations prohibit U.S. businesses, such as Coursera, from offering services to users in sanctioned countries (Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria). The interpretation of the export control regulations in the context of MOOCs has been ambiguous up until now, and we had been operating under one interpretation of the law. Last week, Coursera received definitive guidance indicating that access to the course experience is considered a service, and all services are highly restricted by export controls.

In particular, the notion of “services” includes offering access to human grading of quizzes and assessments, peer-graded homework, and discussion forums. Regrettably, Coursera must therefore cease offering MOOC access to users in certain sanctioned countries in order to ensure compliance with these U.S. laws and to avoid serious legal ramifications.

Some notes (assuming the authenticity of this message):

  • Whatever you think about the wisdom of sanctions on the four countries in question, we have reached a level of bureaucratic irrationality with this ruling (“I swear officer, I only got machine grading of my essays”  ”OK, carry on”).
  • Given this definition, especially access to discussion forums, it’s hard to see how Udacity will be treated differently than Coursera.
  • It appears that edX has been more successful in getting around the sanctions, either due to a better legal approach or due to their non-profit status. As Carl noted in his article:

The only option for students in the sanctioned countries may be edX, the MOOC provider founded in partnership between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Tena Herlihy, edX’s general counsel, said the company 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 (a third license, for Sudan, is still in the works).

“We want to provide education to anyone with an internet connection,” Herlihy said. “We do not want to withhold education from someone just because of the country they live in.”

In addition to applying for licenses, the office also issues general licenses that don’t apply to a specific person or organization. Herlihy said edX is operating under such a license in Syria, but declined to elaborate. One such license, however, exempts “services incident to the exchange of personal communications over the Internet” from the sanctions.

Update: Nina Curley, author of the original story at Wamda, was notified by Coursera that it has reinstated access in Syria. She also confirmed that it was the State Department specifically making the ruling and that it was based on the services, not Coursera’s for-profit status. See full update at Nina’s original story.

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Although this is somewhat of a different subject (my primary interest is in the ruling and what it means for online education providers), I will also note that the professor is not a fan of the US or its sanctions. From the class email:

I write this email under protest and with a considerable degree of anger and sadness. Few things illustrate the bone-headedness, short-sightedness, and sheer chauvinism of the political structure of the United States better than the extent to which its ideologues are willing to go to score cheap domestic political points with narrow interests in the pursuit of a sanctions regime that has clearly run its course. [snip]

But you will now be interested to hear that also my course (and anything else Coursera offers) has been classified, if not a weapon that could be misused, then at least a “service” and as such must not fall into the hands of anybody happening to live in the countries that the United States government doesn’t like. I have thus been informed that my students in Cuba, Syria, Sudan and my homeland will no longer be able to access this course. 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 hola.org 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!

At any rate, rest assured that these are not the values of the University of Copenhagen, of its Faculty of Law, and most assuredly not mine!

This makes me question the professor’s previous admonition to students from December 10, 2013:

I will not tolerate abusive language, self-righteous posturing, baseless assertions just for the sake of being ‘right’ and anything likely to damage the enjoyment of this course for all.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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3 Responses to Coursera blocked in Iran due to human grading and discussion forums?

  1. Raphael says:

    Prof. Afsah is not a reliable source for anything. After all, he is the one who stated that Iran is not a religious state, but that Israel and Pakistan are. He also said that information flows in and out of Iran freely, and I’m skeptical of that as well. I have personally complained to the American Association of University Professors about Prof. Afsah’s ethical lapses (IMO, anyway). All I received was a sympathetic response saying that Coursera is a company, not an academic institution, so I should take my complaint elsewhere. It seems others have . . . and got nowhere.

  2. Phil Hill says:

    Raphael, thanks for the commentary. For what it’s worth, that’s part of the reason I asked Coursera to confirm the information that Prfo Afsah said they distributed (as seen in the update, that information is accurate). For the rest of his note and the affect on students, I’ll defer to those taking the course such as yourself.

  3. Raphael says:

    I can’t speak for all students, but the effect of this course on me has been nothing short of toxic. The prof is temperamentally unsuited for this job. He selectively lashes out at people whose opinions he doesn’t like while allowing others to run wild, no matter how outrageous or unsubstantiated their statements. He personalizes everything and picks winners and losers, IMO. For example: India, Iran, good; Pakistan, Israel, (US), bad. He filters everything through a narrow Marxist lens. But the most depressing thing of all to me is that this course is being offered by the law faculty of a well-known European university, from whom I expected much higher standards.

    Either way, I am just a student and don’t know everything. I would like to see Dr. Afsah evaluated by his peers, but i doubt anything will be ever done about this.

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